English students at the University of Pennsylvania made news last week by removing a portrait of Shakespeare from a position of honor in Fisher-Bennett Hall and replacing it with a photo of black feminist lesbian writer Audre Lorde.
Before mocking the students for this gesture of identity symbolism, know that the Penn English professors themselves voted a couple of years ago to remove Shakespeare and insert an author who better represents the “inclusive” mission of the department.
And that’s the problem. It is encapsulated by the word representation. When a humanities department selects its materials because they reflect identity groups, it no longer functions as a humanities department. It becomes a project of social group affirmation. The proper criteria of selection—beauty and sublimity, wit and insight—fall behind a work’s representative value. Audre Lorde supplants Shakespeare.
Why Audre Lorde? Because she is an African American lesbian, and that makes some students feel more welcome in the department. It’s a therapeutic act.
This is to forget the proper goal of a humanistic education: to form minds and sensibilities through the study of great works of art, music, literature, philosophy, history, and criticism. This is what sustains the humanities—greatness, not identity. True, some students will gravitate to the humanities because they discover there affirmation of the demographic to which they belong.
But they won’t be enough to keep the majors vibrant. As has been widely reported, majors and enrollments and jobs have slipped considerably in humanities fields. One reason is, precisely, the turn to social representation. If you were a freshman in college, which proclamation would draw you:
In our courses, you will read the greatest works of the last one thousand years, and their beauty and sublimity will stay with you forever …
In our courses, we prize inclusivity and will expose you to a rich diversity of cultures … ?
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.