I'm afraid, dear lady, you're whistling in the wind. The imbecile
approach taken in humanities departments across North America
that you (and I) so deplore is so deeply embedded in academia
today it would require a virtual armed revolution to excise.Sad.
Up until you brought in Horowitz and smearing the Left, I
supported your thesis. "Horrorwitz" is a monster.
He seeks to have academic witch hunts against anyone who does
not follow his ideology.
Up until you brought in Horowitz and smearing the Left, I
supported your thesis. Horrorwitz is a monster. He seeks to
have academic witch hunts against anyone who does not follow
"As traditional content is removed from courses, it is
often replaced by non-academic material, specifically a devotion
to “social justice” that masquerades as critical
analysis despite the fact that the impartial weighing of evidence
so necessary to such analysis is largely absent from its championing
of victims. In books such as The Professors, David
Horowitz has shown . . . ."
And here is where we go off the rails. There is no linkage
between so-called "radical" politics and grade inflation.
Ever hear of the "Gentleman's C"?
I was right with Prof. Fiamengo until she turned the piece
into a political argument lamenting the influence of "Leftist"
David Horowitz is a right wing idealogue and is ill suited
to analyze problems with our system of education, but he seems
to be her sole source of information regarding the cause of
the problem she describes.
I agree the job of educators is to teach their students,
not worry about whether their students feel good about themselves.
But this is not dependent on one's political convictions.
Tying politics into this discussion without stronger supporting
evidence completely undermines Prof. Fiamengo's point.
Standard English spelling is based on the root languages of
its words and not only almost always logical, but also a fascinating
glimpse into the modern language's habit of cheerfully rampant
acquisition over centuries.
Janice, I am largely in agreement with you. I left academia
when I couldn't stand marking any more stacks of papers filled
with buzzwords, but devoid of original thought and sometimes
also of meaning.
Foolishly, I moved into editing. What many young writers
lack in argument, they also lack in narrative. At least there
is an explanation for why films are so often awful these days.
On a more positive note, the young writers who are engaged
with the language in a deeper and more rigorous sense are
putting out wonderful work and the future of the novel seems
secure. Interestingly, several of the very best (in my opinion)
are women writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres,
who attract little in the way of critical reviews (Frances
Hardinge being a prime example). It will be interesting to
see if they have an easier path to the canon than Jane Austen
did, or if things really have changed very little in two centuries.
"Standard English spelling is arbitrary, wildly irrational
and wastefully difficult to learn."
Try reading English literature in its original forms written
before Standardized English and you will understand why there
are rules and why they need to be learned. In no other discipline
is it okay to say "it's too hard to use standard notation,
I'll just use shortcuts." In math, physics, chemistry,
you have to learn the standardization because otherwise you're
not speaking the same language and in some cases you're speaking
In short, "waa it's too hard" is not an acceptable
response. The solution is not to change the rules but to change
the attitude of the students not trying hard enough to learn.
I don't know if Canada is different, but in my experience
at American universities it was precisely the Leftist scholars
whose scholarship was the most analytical and robust.
The classes that most improved my writing were classes on
gender studies, radical government, economics as historic
narrative, history as a roleplaying game and deconstruction
of racialized stereotypes in American cinema. In those classes
I was held to a higher standard, both linguistically and analytically.
The point of what I was doing was clear. Critical thinking
was expected. For the first time in my life I found people
who provided concrete, actionable feedback on both my ideas
and how well I communicated them, with explanations provided
for why those changes would improve my product. I was both
allowed to hold opinions and required to defend any opinion
It was instead my conservative Economics classes where I
didn't even have to show up to class to get an A, since all
I was expected to say was what was in the book. In my English
classes I read a narrow selection of books I'd already read
in high school and was expected to regurgitate what the professor
wanted me to say about them. Research was unnecessary, and
usually got me in trouble. In advanced classes what the teacher
wanted me to say was to be determined through telepathy, as
far as I could tell, but otherwise the classes remained about
the same. Despite the fact that we were looking at a repetitive
historical cannon through a soda straw I was supposed to be
excited by being judged on my handwriting and spelling. I
wrote pointless essay after pointless essay with little guidance
and even less useful feedback. My English classes did finally
lead to an official diagnosis of dislexia. It was not an excuse,
though it did explain my performance. All the accommodations
you decry let me do was possibly engage with the subject.
In my English classes the professors cared more about nitpicking
"it's" versus "its" than what I actually
had to say; since it is physically impossible for me to spell
correctly while writing by hand without the diagnosis I wouldn't
have been able to take the classes at all. In retrospect I
should have taken that as a sign, but at the time I was still
enamoured with English from my high school classes. It would
take another year and a half for me to accept that the English
department was not the place to wrestle with difficult, culturally-embedded
texts as I had done in my high school years.
I have since become a programmer. In the real world I have
never been expected to write anything by hand. My use of a
notebook for personal scribblings is considered quaint. Spellcheck
is ever at the ready. The major challenges for my modern writing
are tiny comment boxes that make flow and organization difficult.
My dyslexia has never again been a major hurdle.
Additionally, of course, in the real world the villains
are usually in positions of unearned power, while only some
of the heroes are. Being able to identify and deconstruct
the social dynamics I'm immersed in has kept me sane in my
male-dominated, racially-homologous industry. Walt Whitman,
while beautiful, certainly does not come up on a daily basis.
Ernest Hemingway may have admirable style, but reading his
writings had always made me want to go take a shower and it
was not English that gave me the tools to articulate why.
Questioning perspectives was welcome in my radical classes,
and in fact required if one wished to get above the C available
for doing the work adequately. It sounds like you do not so
much oppose the debate of such positions as that they are
entertained in an academic setting. This seems to me hypocritical.
It used to be that the college population resembled the authors
traditional English scholarship focused on and the history
employed to examine it. As the student population has changed
and the exclusive focus on self-analysis has faded so too
has that narrow lens. It is disappointing that you would resist
making your field relevant to your students.
Though I am only guessing at your preferred alternative,
since you have failed to define "genuine scholarship"
and have not offered any substantive critique of the positions
you oppose. Why do you believe it better scholarship to be
unquestioning of a nation's claims? Jane Austin's work, for
example, can not be understood without such a framework. Why
do you believe it superior to remain in ignorance of a nation's
record of oppression? The Heart of Darkness is only
shallowly engaged without confronting the benevolent racism
Conrad deploys in protest of malevolent racism.
I believe it would behoove you to stop blaming your students'
failures on the radicalization of humanities. Grammar and
clear writing should be taught from grade school on. Fundamental
failures of education can not be legitimately blamed on Leftist
ideologies at a college level. Perhaps the students who perform
to your standards are going into those other fields because
they are better scholarship, rather than because the students
have been brainwashed. While you may define your field however
you wish, students are then welcome to study elsewhere. It
is unfair to claim the right to define your own field's scholarship
while denying that right to others; I would assert that those
fields are simply scholarship you do not wish to have to do.
Mostly, you sound like a sore loser.
While she is right to lament the lack of critical scholarship
and academic integrity in American and Canadian post-secondary
educational institutions generally, her resort to nostalgia
for "traditional" course content confounds her analysis
that a lack of historical knowledge and illiteracy plague
students. The implications of her earlier argument are, in
fact, a call to a more critical educational system and curriculum,
yet by displacing this lack of genuine scholarship and decline
of academic integrity onto the rise of critical area programs
is itself an exercise in a "near-complete absence of
historical knowledge". The arts and social sciences (in
this case, literature and politics), are not mutually exclusive
areas - aesthetics and literary theory have always been informed
by the same logic and debates in political theory. Perhaps
because she is an English professor and that is her particular
area of expertise, her own lack of knowledge of other disciplines
has allowed her to romanticize and react against the rise
of the third-wave (and post- postmodern) area studies, which
echoes a Burke-ian lament for a nonexistent Golden Age of
academic perfection. It would behoove more departments and
institutions to try to incorporate and synthesize an approach
that has the two in dialogue (arts, humanities and social
sciences) rather than trying to pretend they don't have coterminous
Moreover, it is irresponsible, ignorant, and disingenuous
to claim that these "other" fields - which may or
may not be devoted to social justice - are non-academic, for
they offer the very resolution her analysis calls for - a
more involved, knowledgeable, and historically accurate approach
to education and academic subjects. By looking at history
and nuance and our global social context, our institutions
allow their students to become more aware and educated on
topics they had no idea existed or were part of the "social
fabric" of our nations' histories. More to the point,
there is no necessary conflict between "social justice"
(which includes empathy and political notions of 'ethics')
and the arts/humanities proper. It is hardly a novel idea
to advocate for a critical academic methodology that also
implicitly precipitates a nuanced understanding of ethics
and history. Again, these are not in conflict; there is a
difference between morality and ethics. She largely confuses
and conflates the two by decrying morality-driven ideologies
under an umbrella of everything from Leftist radicals to anti-Western
ideologies and "social justice" itself-- when perhaps
she just means to say: demagoguery has no place in academia.
Agreed, yet, what is this opinion piece?
Her grievance with radicalization is fair, though in this
article she entirely oversimplifies and generalizes the debate,
resorting to the very uncritical, unacademic literary devices
her paper explicitly denounces. I think she raises a good
point about the capitalization of education - and society
generally - but is too busy displacing her frustration of
this phenomenon with the rise of marginalized fields, which
are actually critically and scholarly congruous with the philosophy
she advocates -- no not de-radicalization of the "academic
enterprise", but de-capitalization and de-institutionalization
of education, and genuine love and appreciation of literature
Massively overstated critique. Sounds like little more than
a whiny and frustrated teacher lamenting her lack of success
in the classroom.
Isn't this essay a marker of a basic shift away from the "learning
of basic information"? Students may benefit from stern
pedagogy, but it is they who will occupy the future.
". . . dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed,
beleaguered, and under threat."
Notice in her home page a mention of Christian, and all the
butthurt falls into place. "Leftist oppression"
of blind Christian faith has a very likely place in the narrative
here, and while the esteemed professor doesn't cop to it,
I'd be surprised if her faith hasn't been beleaguered by colleagues'
Never have I seen such a jostling of swords as each of you
seek to defend your position. It is what I would expect of
academia today and you have not failed me. As a father, and
grandfather, I have seen the devolving of education at every
level. I have done homework, helped with projects and spent
a great deal of time with all of my children. In doing this
I have seen the shift away from education into the guilt of
the prevailing social tripe. The phrase, "it is not fair,"
raises the hackles on back of my neck. Never is life fair.
It is what you make of it by your effort. Never is there equality
in business. As an employer of your students I am apalled
by the depth of lack of general information, history and basic
education. This professor has correctly recognized the problem
and has cast down the gauntlet. Now, I suggest you pick it
David Horowitz is a right wing ideologue. Like so many ultra-conservatives,
his view is nostalgic. But do we want to go back to the good
old days when a college education was for a tiny minority?
The problem is to teach in such a way that students will understand
that mastery of proper English lays the basis for real creativity
and self-expression. This can be a subversive undertaking,
ultimately an attack on the corporatized university which,
save for a few elite institutions, turns out semi-literates
who are good at taking orders and filling middle management
positions, but are incapable of using writing to analyze or
develop a deeper understanding of themselves and their situation.
I am an American teacher, not at a university level, but one
who works with those at a considerably lower level of academic
I agree with Prof. Fiamengo but 'don't' find that she has
"thrown down the gauntlet." She merely expresses
her view of the sorry state of things and then stands safely
back for others to take up the cause. I find that only marginally
less depressing than the cynically weary apologist-for-the-status-quo
comments which follow her commentary.
Two things of which I'm confidant: my own country is falling
farther and farther behind in practically every endeavor.
Prof. Fiamengo and others have identified a growing preoccupation
with self-esteem and "happy feelings" at the expense
of mental disciple. Regardless of what you think about 'it's'
vs. 'its', I can see a correlation there, can't you?
Secondly, I know this to be nothing new. My father fought
against complacency and the cynical "why bother"
attitude back in the '50s. Where he differed from Prof. Fiamengo
is that he focused his time and skills on doing what he could
'immediately' in the classroom to give his students a taste
of the extraordinary right then and there. He gained the reputation
of getting more from his students than almost any other faculty
It can be done. But it needs to happen in the classroom and
not by writing online commentaries.
" . . . dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed,
beleaguered, and under threat." YES.
I'm sorry but your thesis that the failings of today's students
can be laid at the feet of the liberal left lacked supporting
materials, or indeed a coherent argument. I am therefore giving
you a failing grade on this assignment.
A very interesting - and courageous - blog statement. I am
sure it will make you no friends in academia.
I haven't read Horowitz's book, but based on the horrified
comments from other readers, I imagine it promulgates a "FOX
vs. MSNBC" style viewpoint. Sad that this mentality -
regardless of which viewpoint one might have - has spread
to books now.
Having studied in a number of various countries besides the
U.S. and in a field that combines humanities with business,
I can't really say I've experienced the extremes during my
student days that you describe.
Let me say that I worked my derriere off to get good grades
and gain useful knowledge while obtaining two masters degrees.
I generally didn't feel that professors pandered to the students,
and I got some comments along the way that left me feeling
a bit depressed. But it was generally fair, constructive criticism,
and I used those comments to improve my following assignments.
In some classes, my papers sometimes came back with grammatical/stylistic
corrections, though there were fortunately very few of those.
I feel quite comfortable with English even though it is my
3rd language, and one I didn't start learning until I was
8. A few times I had to bring in literary samples to prove
that the red circle was unwarranted based on traditional and
accepted English usage, even if somewhat antiquated or obscure.
Again, if the corrections were warranted, I took note and
did not repeat the same mistake.
I think I only experienced one professor where I picked up
the need for a correct PC phraseology to follow in class.
Had I bothered to break the rules, I doubt it would have detracted
greatly from my grade, as anything less than B was never given.
But at that time, I didn't feel like causing a ruckus. This
was about 20 years ago at a top US university.
Where I sense that your blog makes a lot of sense is mainly
in the public and political discourse of the U.S. I don't
purport to know what has happened with the collective American
intelligence over the last 20 years, but the level at which
journalism and political debate in the U.S. is currently conducted,
I am left feeling appalled. And afraid...very afraid.
Pundits and politicians are incapable of having an intelligent
debate; they merely repeat tried and approved party lines.
Journalists are no better, the only exception being that they
get to repeat both political parties' standard lines.
This is a truly frightening development in any democracy,
but especially one with the military and economic power of
the U.S. Having studied my history, I am reminded of the demagoguery
of the late Roman republic period, which resulted in Julius
Caesar coming to power. And the East Block countries during
communism, too, though there people were forced to repeat
the party lines and generally didn't believe a word of them
- even many of the communists. That American educational institutions,
news outlets and individuals repeat party lines ad nauseam
VOLUNTARILY - while seemingly believing them too - is mind-boggling.
Nowhere is your description of the degradation of language
standards and applied intelligence in North America more apparent
than in the comment sections of newspaper articles and blogs.
I realize that commentators represent a broad cross-section
of the general population, and that they therefore have differing
levels of education. Nonetheless, the sheer amount of atrocious
spelling, incorrect usage of words and lack of ability to
argue a point of view with logic rather than four letter words
I read and write comments in newspapers and blogs in several
languages, and I can honestly say that the level of correct
usage of grammar and language, as well as ability to reason
(the latter showing a declining trend there too, alas) is
infinitely higher - when taken as an average of what I see
- than in the U.S.
America needs to get a grip on its standards, from top down
and bottom up, otherwise I foresee a stark future for what
I constantly hear trumpeted as "the greatest country
on earth," "the world's greatest democracy"
and "the land of freedom" on TV.
By the way - I am an independent with leanings towards the
right. Though these days civil discourse and politics have
become so debased and focused on special interests that I
don't really feel an individual's political views matter unless
they can afford a $40,000 dinner with the president or presidential
I have an European nationality as well, but I can't relax
and think that I'll just move back there if things get too
bad in the U.S., because they're on their way over the cliff
Maybe a deserted island in the Pacific is the best future
option for getting away from the insanity.
Thank you for an interesting read.
Grade inflation became most apparent when the no child left
behind program was instituted. Studies show that 48% of the
population has an IQ of 100 or less. They also show that to
succeed in college necssitates an IQ of 115 plus. If everyone
can go to college, albeit many for only one year, then the
standards must be lowered for them to get in. Since much of
this was funded by government money, and the schools needed
money, it became important for these 100 or less students,
to succeed. At about the same time the classes offered began
to change into a form of neo-political/enviromental/feel good/politically
correct mental basket making. I grant you this was just a
continuation of the same thing offered in the lower grades.
It is about self-esteem. It is about feelings. it is about
no competition. Remember everyone gets a trophy? What has
happened to academic excellence? What happens when the student
does not know to push the walls? It destroys analytical reasoning.
We have seen what happens when people have been told if making
a decision makes you "uncomfortable" then walk the
middle ground. This allows a small determined group to make
the choice for you. It is not all academia's problem because
it has occured over years but it needs to stop, or as the
poster above me says, I am very concerned for my country and
Anyone who uses phrases like 'actionable feedback' is a quasi-literate
ideologue in love with the buzzwords of the feminist left,
and no doubt looking for government employment.
But hey, as long as it sounds good.
I first heard of Professor Janice Fiamengo on a SunNewsMedia
program about suppression of free speech on a Canadian University
campus in Ontario. How refreshing it was to hear the truth
spoken on TV. May other Canadian professors please speak up
to save our Canadian values for freedom of speech.