New department shows splintering of education

Saturday, November 3, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 6:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
John Merrill

It doesn’t really surprise me, but I now learn that MU is getting a new, full-fledged department in the College of Arts and Science. It is called the women’s and gender studies department. The director of undergraduate advising for the new department, Jessica Jennrich, said that they can “now offer new classes and more classes, and it gives us more visibility.”

A whole department, mind you, just like philosophy and English. The director of advising for the new department says it will affect the curriculum but nothing on the diploma. In other words, it will be an interdisciplinary program permitting the student to design his or her own degree in several discipline areas. “Hopefully, one day, it will be a free-standing degree,” Jennrich said.

Just what all this means is not clear. Maybe it means that more courses will be added and required, more women faculty members will be hired, and the student’s diploma will not mention the name of the department. I hope not.

What about a department of male studies or homosexual studies? Or black studies or white studies or brown studies or yellow studies? Pardon my lack of political correctness here, but it seems that education is becoming exceedingly entropic. But, as was said, it is a way to get “more visibility.” Another way might be for the university to start a department of social injustice and Machiavellianism. That would definitely get MU visibility.

Women are complex, but does it take an entire department to investigate them? A whole department seems a little extreme. And “gender studies”— what in the world does that mean? If they are going to name a new department, it would seem that a reasonable name could be chosen. I would think it would be embarrassing to try to explain “gender studies” to someone.

Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science, thinks that such a department is needed.

For him it is “an academic discipline in its own right.” (Then why not a stand-alone major?). He said that there had already been a program in women’s studies and “that if you’re going to do it right, make it a department” so as to bring “academic diversity.” The department will offer African-American women’s and “gender-related” courses. Undoubtedly, other racial types (e.g., Chinese women) will have their separate courses, too. And there will be a course on gender and the environment. Maybe a course on Allen Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” would also be a good idea.

Just what “gender” means in the context of this new department is problematic. Will the department deal with males also, though they are generally “under-genderated” these days? The new program will most likely give attention to gays and lesbians and possibly transsexuals. But anyway, the College of Arts and Science has received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to support women and women faculty. This has had a positive effect on the new department.

Big plans are being made. Such research and studies as these are planned: sexuality and the politics of apartheid in South Africa, Hurricane Katrina and gender, and religion and churches in preventing domestic violence. Surely there will be a course or two on women politicians and on those who have ruled a government with a tight grip, people such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

And soon they will research and study Hillary Clinton and other women political leaders who have made a scratch on history.

It may all be very well, this constant splintering of the basic divisions of human learning. But one wonders just where it will stop. When names such as Herodotus, Hannibal, Walpole, Bacon, Keats, Freud, Augustine, Frederick the Great and even more recent ones like Madison, Thoreau, Dewey, F.D.R. and Eisenhower, are fading from the coursework at universities — from the minds of today’s students — it seems strange to dilute basic “arts and sciences” further by having departments in our universities with such titles as “women and gender studies.”

Although I have taught “journalism” for a half century, I guess I’m just an old fuddy-duddy in this respect for I have never felt comfortable with its separate and increased morphing into “communications” and further splintering into innumerable major areas such as “strategic communication” and “convergence.”

Oh well, “c’est la vie,” as the Germans said to the French during the Napoleonic wars.

John Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, has written and taught around the world and here in Columbia for more than 50 years.

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Catherine Holland November 5, 2007 | 4:01 a.m.

In a recent column in The Missourian (“New Department Shows Splintering of Education,” 11/3/07), John Merrill asks why MU needs a department of Women’s and Gender Studies, then suggests that the department’s existence calls for the development of a course dedicated to that manifesto of the academic culture wars, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s book attacked women’s and ethnic studies programs, particularly African American studies, and identified their emergence as the death blow dealt to a classical curriculum that emphasized a more or less established canon of Great Books – works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Filmer, Locke, Hegel, and Marx, among others.

Bloom may have been right in noting a shift away from “Great Books” curricula, even though he both overstated his case and misdirected the blame for such a turn. In my own political theory courses offered through the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at MU, students read Aeschylus and Sophocles, Machiavelli, Filmer, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Freud, and other classics, as well as both historical and contemporary feminist engagements with these important thinkers. No course offered by a tenured or tenure track member of the Political Science department requires that students read as wide a range of canonical political thinkers, classic or contemporary.

Why does MU need a department of Women’s and Gender Studies? Why, indeed. But perhaps Merrill would be better advised to direct his question to the chairs of departments whose curricula he implicitly endorses without having really examined.

– Catherine A. Holland, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies
The views expressed here are Holland’s own. They do not necessarily represent those of her department, her colleagues, or the College of Arts and Science.

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