Postmodernism and the Decline of Men in Higher Education
How the Departure from Classical Literature and Education is Shattering Our Future
What now feels like a lifetime ago, in 2011, I, like my high school peers, prepared to embark on a college journey. Every teacher, advisor, and authority figure in my life had made one thing clear: without a university education, my future prospects would be significantly limited. So, following their counsel, I ventured hundreds of miles away from friends, family, and everything familiar. My destination? A small liberal arts college in Ohio named Wittenberg University. Despite its modest size—less than 2,000 students during my time there—it maintained exceptionally high standards and demanded rigorous coursework. The norm? Thirty to forty-page papers and an expectation to read a dozen books for a single course.
I cherish the memories of my professors and the courses I took during my first two years at this remarkable institution. Literature and historical narratives always stirred my passion, so I was naturally drawn to majoring in history. I had aspirations of attending law school upon completion. Initially, I fared well, as I had an innate ability to digest text. Thus, history proved to be more engaging and enjoyable for me than a chore: I would read captivating books about the ancient world (stories I already relished) and write about them. On the surface, it seemed I was sailing smoothly.
However, as I began my junior year, something shifted. About halfway through the first semester, my history professors, almost as if choreographed, introduced a new concept to the history majors.
The introduction of Postmodernism marked a turning point in my educational journey. I can still vividly recall the first lecture when a professor began unpacking the concept. She asserted that all history must be viewed and interpreted “through the lens of the writer’s bias.” Furthermore, she insisted that we must “re-examine” the lives of great historical figures using this method. As she spoke, I found myself grappling with a sense of bewilderment. The implication of her words was that all history was essentially meaningless—that everything we believed to have occurred needed to be rewritten and examined “properly.” At first, I kept silent, primarily out of confusion. However, when the professor claimed that even events from a mere century ago required reassessment, and that ancient history was so riddled with bias and inaccuracies that most ancient historians weren’t worth reading, I could no longer hold my tongue.
I interrupted the lecture with a question—a blunt one that, in hindsight, might not have cast me in the best light. However, I believed it was crucial to voice my concern. I asked, “If I understand you correctly, professor, are you suggesting that, according to this concept, anyone can revisit and reinterpret historical events as long as they account for source bias? Furthermore, could they write their own interpretation if they strive to approach it ‘unbiasedly’?”
She responded, her enthusiasm evident in her voice, “That’s exactly it! We need to ‘unbiasedly’ examine historical events and writings.” Her smile suggested she was pleased someone had grasped the concept so swiftly.
However, her mood took a sharp turn when I pressed on without allowing her to resume the lecture.
“Alright, then,” I challenged, “What if I deny the Holocaust occurred, attributing it to the bias of Jews and anti-German sentiment?”
A palpable silence swept across the classroom. The professor’s face turned a deep shade of red. My single question had seemingly derailed what must have been a meticulously planned lecture. She demanded that I leave, sidestepping my question. I insisted on an answer, pushing her to defend her stance. Yet, when she began to shout, urging me to leave, I recognized the futility of the situation. I was no stranger to conflict or fiery exchanges, but I discerned no value in remaining there.
What shocked me even more was the reaction of my classmates. The room, filled with history majors, some of whom had been my friends for years, remained stunned at my audacious question. Over the next few days, many confided in me, expressing gratitude for my outspokenness. They admitted that they had harbored similar doubts. The profound implications of their silence—it wasn’t until years later that it struck me. The widespread reluctance to engage in debate with professors, not just in this instance, but across the board, was a startling revelation in hindsight.
Though from that very lecture onward, every class that I took at this University was filled with more of this same concept. Especially the high level history classes. There was even a mandatory history 300 class titled “How The West Fucked Africa”. The coursework I was forced to take part in turned from something I loved to a slog through ideological waste. Eventually culminating in my senior seminar with one of the worst “history” professors I had ever encountered. The “Modern History” professor was in change of my senior seminar. A terrible result for a terrible outcome was inevitable though I believe the story is worth telling.
My senior seminar topic was an exploration of the striking parallels between Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, as depicted in original source material. I intended to delve into how these two figures, through their similar stories, made comparable profound impacts on the world. Notably, the “Modern History” professor in charge of grading and guiding my dissertation specialized in the historical period from the 1970s to the present—something I found rather amusing considering the recency of this era and the fact that many who lived through it were still very much alive.
This professor’s single reaction led me to question my entire college career and rethink my perception of a liberal arts education. During the research phase of the seminar, we were assigned to gather our primary sources for the papers. For Alexander the Great, only a handful of primary sources were available to choose from. However, for Julius Caesar, I was in a uniquely fortunate position. That year, my father had gifted me an extraordinary primary source.
I had in my possession an original Latin-to-English copy of William Duncan’s translation of Caesar’s Commentaries, a gift that stirred an indescribable excitement within me. On the day we were to unveil our primary source selections—a day set at the semester’s start—I carried this monumental tome into the classroom, placing it on a rare book pillow for all to see. My classmates gathered around, marveling at its impressive stature. Yet, when the professor came over to discuss the source, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “You do know that Latin isn’t translated like that anymore, don’t you? This source is outdated.”
My enthusiasm plummeted, morphing into a confusing mix of deflation, disillusionment, and anger. It wasn’t until after she suggested seeking a more modern translation of Commentaries that her words truly hit me—”This source is outdated.”
In a senior-level history course at a reputable college, the head of the history department had just declared a primary source “outdated.” In that instant, my pursuit of historical education within the university setting crumbled. As a result, my motivation waned. My final paper lacked conviction, and I instead opted to enjoy the more social benefits of college life—partying. The profound disappointment I felt, spurred on by what I now recognize as a misguided emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), led to my failing the semester. When they proposed an additional semester to make up for it, I declined in no uncertain terms.
Despite completing four years of college and being a mere semester away from my degree, I decided to depart. I opted instead to pursue my passion in the world of automobiles. I enrolled in a trade school, attended introductory classes, and soon found myself immersed in a universe of oil and gears. As the years rolled by, the memories of late nights spent writing papers and perusing ancient texts seemed to belong to another lifetime. In my new world, they seemed to have no place—until recently.
One afternoon, while looking at my bookshelf, I felt a pull towards history again. However, instead of turning to academic texts—a decision likely borne out of residual resentment—I reached for classic novels, many of which I hadn’t read since high school. One day, during a reading session, I asked my father for his favorite authors. Without hesitation, he recommended William Faulkner. I recognized the name but had never read any of his work.
Accepting his recommendation, I opened his favorite short story, “The Bear”. I was barely a few sentences in when I came across a line that deftly summarized the essence of the author:
“the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant;—the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered childless and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons.” - William Faulkner, “The Bear”
This sentence from “Go Down, Moses” by William Faulkner was, to me, an instance of literary brilliance. It was eloquently composed, seamlessly weaving in references from a work almost 3,000 years old in a way that was accessible to all. The entire narrative was shaped with equal mastery—a genuine literary tour de force. However, in my nearly 16 years of formal education, I had never even encountered a single one of Faulkner’s books or stories. He was merely a name I’d heard in passing, perhaps from my father during my early years. So, who was Faulkner?
A quick search revealed that William Faulkner was an American writer, a Nobel laureate in Literature, and considered one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century.
This discovery stunned me and led to an overwhelming sense of confusion. How could it be that no one had introduced me to his work during my academic journey? Were there other authors I was oblivious to? And, perhaps most crucially, why had this work been concealed from me?
At this juncture in my life, an unexpected event granted me an unusual opportunity to delve into this query. My father had recently been appointed to the Virginia State Council of Higher Education. In one of our frequent conversations, he mentioned that he was investigating a rather overlooked phenomenon in higher education: a considerable number of men choosing not to pursue college or further education, turning instead to trades or ceasing further education altogether. This discussion made me reflect on my own experiences with higher education. While I understood that my account was personal and unique, it sparked a theory I couldn’t resist exploring.
Just over a decade ago, during my time at Wittenberg University in Ohio, a significant shift had already begun in American higher education. We were moving away from the solid ground of American classical literature and history, and diving headfirst into the turbulent waters of postmodernist approaches. It felt as if the voices of Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Hemingway, once resounding through our classrooms and late-night discussions, had been reduced to a mere whisper. Their profound wisdom was becoming faint, their influence diminishing, and I feared we were severing our bonds to our historical narratives and cultural identity.
There’s an undeniable magic inherent in classical literature, a kind of universal wisdom that links us across generations and geographical divides. These works create a shared space of cultural references and values. They demand we confront the human condition, provide historical context, and wrestle with complex moral and ethical dilemmas. With each page turned, the wisdom of these shared understandings slowly infiltrates your perspective. Yet, this enchanting magic is gradually fading from our classrooms, and I fear what we might lose as it vanishes.
Indeed, studying classical literature goes beyond an academic exercise; it’s a nurturing field that cultivates critical thinking, empathy, and a profound understanding of language and narrative. However, postmodernist approaches, the rising stars of academia, seem determined to dismantle these grand narratives, favoring subjective interpretations over universally shared truths. This shift risks creating a void in our understanding and our capacity to extract meaning from complexity.
This turn in educational focus isn’t limited to literature—it also reshapes our perceptions of history. An emerging trend presents history as nothing more than a power struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. While this perspective holds a grain of truth, its unidimensional approach is concerning. This portrayal encourages division and fuels societal polarization. Rather than nurturing a multifaceted understanding of historical events and figures, it reduces them to singular, contentious roles—a gross oversimplification of our shared past.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I’m concerned by the growing trend of examining history and literature through a postmodernist lens. It feels as though we risk simplifying the rich tapestry of our cultural heritage with broad, uniform strokes of interpretation. Having navigated these shifts firsthand, I believe these concerns merit serious consideration.
In recalling my college days, I’m struck by a sense of nostalgia for the allure classical literature once held for me and my male peers. The heroic battles, the tragic downfalls, the transformative journeys — these narratives were more than stories. They were life lessons, providing mirrors for our own youthful trials. Yet as education pivots away from these narratives, I question if today’s young men are adrift, disconnected, and struggling to find relevance amidst a cacophony of fragmented postmodernist discourse.
As it turns out, my observations were echoed by scholarly reports. Renowned publications like “Education Week” and the “American Educational Research Journal” were sounding the alarm. The reality was stark: male enrollment in U.S. colleges was on the decline, a bitter reality that higher education needed to confront. The emerging pattern was even more alarming – a clear negative correlation between the ascendance of postmodernist approaches in liberal arts and the dwindling engagement of male students.
So, what’s the remedy? Drawing from my experience in academia, I believe it lies in striking a balanced approach. We must weave diverse and contemporary perspectives into our literary curriculum, but not at the cost of discarding our classical heritage. The invaluable insights and cultural reference points from authors like Faulkner, Twain, and Hemingway remain crucial. Achieving this would require thoughtful curriculum reforms and a rigorous reevaluation of educational policies, all aiming to ensure a comprehensive literary education for the generations to come.
The shift from American classical literature towards postmodernist approaches is not a mere ripple in a pond, but a veritable earthquake shaking the very foundations of our cultural, educational, and societal edifice. Its tremors are palpable in our classrooms, our conversations, and in the collective consciousness. This seismic shift calls for an earnest exploration and candid dialogue. The need of the hour is to pool our collective intellect to brainstorm potential solutions and navigate this evolving educational landscape with thoughtful prudence.
We must bear in mind that American classical literature is not just a compendium of inked pages – it is a rich repository of cultural and historical narratives that have played an instrumental role in shaping our society. These literary works are not just mere reflections of their times, but timeless mirrors reflecting the beliefs, values, and zeitgeist that have intricately woven our national tapestry. Losing sight of this is akin to erasing part of our collective memory, and I shudder at the thought of such cultural amnesia. With every work of Faulkner, Twain, or Hemingway left unexplored, we risk shutting a window into our shared past, a window that offers priceless lessons for both our present and future.
The advancement of postmodernism in literature, despite its inherent ability to offer fresh perspectives and challenge established narratives, could potentially lead to a splintering of our shared cultural consciousness. This approach, focusing on individual narratives and personal truths, might engender a pluralistic society lacking a common, connective thread of historical or cultural understanding. The ramifications of this are evident in the escalating societal polarization we are currently witnessing.
From an educational lens, classical literature acts as a rich soil, nurturing both critical thinking and emotional intelligence. As students engage with the trials and tribulations experienced by characters in these stories, they are provided with a unique platform for introspection, questioning, and the development of empathy. The complex language, narrative frameworks, and character growth inherent in these classical works offer a deeply enriching learning experience, one that is more challenging to encounter in postmodern literature.
Now, let’s be clear – the shift towards postmodernist approaches in liberal arts has its merits, acting as a powerful catalyst that prompts students to question entrenched norms, challenge prevailing narratives, and craft their unique interpretations. However, we must tread carefully to ensure that our students are not left floating in an ocean of subjectivity, bereft of the robust context and shared comprehension that classical literature offers.
Reflecting on my collegiate years and the noticeable retreat from classical narratives, I’m compelled to consider this as a potential factor in the declining male college attendance. There’s a certain appeal to classical literature – its heroic, tragic, and transformative narratives – that presented young men like me with characters and stories we could identify with. As these narratives fade into the background of our education, it may instigate feelings of disconnection. While it’s paramount to diversify the perspectives presented in our education, we need to ensure that we’re not unintentionally marginalizing any students in the process.
Bear in mind, this transition in literature education doesn’t stand alone – it’s interconnected with the broader social matrix. It both impacts and is impacted by societal trends. Therefore, any endeavour to address this issue must take into account societal attitudes, educational policies, and the evolving needs of students.
In conclusion, the transformation of literature education in American higher education is a deeply troubling issue. The declining focus on classical education threatens to fray the social fabric of our society, and I firmly believe that urgent action must be undertaken before our connection to our history, and consequently our culture, is irrevocably lost.
As young men increasingly become a rarity in our colleges, the repercussions for society as a whole are ominous. The closure of many venerable private universities is a portentous sign, a silent alarm ringing out for those willing to heed its warning. Despite these cautionary signals, we persist on the path of postmodernism with seemingly unchecked momentum.
This issue demands immediate attention and candid conversation. Unless we instigate a serious discourse around this matter, the likelihood of reversing the trend seems grim. It’s imperative that we act now – before it’s too late, before the last echoes of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Twain fade away into the silence of forgotten history.
- This Editorial is a Republishing from Walter Curt’s personal page, The Editor of The W.C. Dispatch
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