The Perils of Criticizing Black Studies

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A week ago at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a post titled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” As it happens, though, Riley didn’t read any of the dissertations she mocked. She just read the titles and unilaterally declared them useless. “What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” she grumbled, “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”

A firestorm ensued, and yesterday the Chronicle fired Riley. Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie acknowledges that Riley’s post was ill-considered on a number of grounds, not the least of which is that it’s dumb to judge an entire field just by reading the titles of a few dissertations:

But I do find the Chronicle’s response absolutely breath-taking and craven in its censoriousness….It strikes me as disingenuous to sack someone for a single blog post that did not meet the Chronicle’s “basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.” There’s no question of ethics or professionalism raised by Schaefer Riley’s posts than those that are raised by an ongoing series of articles about what a waste of time and money and resources it is to get a degree in English, or art history, or sociology, or whatever.

This is plainly a politically correct response to a thug’s veto and should be owned up to as such. Schaefer Riley contributed huge numbers of posts on a wide variety of topics at Brainstorm and she was clearly game to debate what she wrote. If her opinion is too much to bear — and it plainly is — academic discourse is in far worse shape than even the most anti-intellectual yahoo might think. Her Brainstorm colleagues felt free to take shots at her opinions, writing dissents and even poems about what they considered her faulty logic. Which is just how it should be, at a university-type setting of all places: Argue about stuff, don’t just shut down viewpoints you disagree with!

I find myself agreeing with Gillespie, even though virtually every blogger I know and respect seems to have come down on the Chronicle’s side and everyone I know and don’t respect so much has come down on Riley’s side.

What Riley wrote was certainly juvenile and almost certainly ignorant. You don’t judge dissertations by their titles, and you don’t judge a field by a few dissertations. And yet: it was a blog post. There should be a lot of room for ill-considered opinions in blog posts. What’s more, I think Gillespie is right: if Riley had written the exact same blog post about, say, Classics or Film & Media Studies, she’d still be working at the Chronicle. Classicists and film buffs would be outraged, but it would be the usual kind of outrage that blog posts and opinion columns provoke all the time.

There are excellent historical and political reasons for us to be sensitive, even oversensitive sometimes, toward broadbrush cultural criticisms with obvious racial overtones. But arguing — even badly — about the value of Black Studies shouldn’t be on the list of topics with a glass jaw. It’s an academic discipline, and like any academic discipline it should be fair game even for brutal criticism. Treating it like a delicate hothouse flower does it no favors.

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