Glimpses of universes where the sky is a very different color

My parents, both born in 1940 and having grown up in the California Bay Area, were in their mid-20s during the so-called countercultural revolution which occurred in Berkeley, San Francisco and other locales during the 1960s. As a not-too-astute teenager, I recall once asking my dad if he or my mom had ever taken part in any “hippie” activities. The response was short and swift: “Heck no; we had to earn a living.”

For most young Americans, the 1960s wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, it was about working, getting an education and raising families. It’s only because the media has chosen to portray the period as one in which all young adults participated in the Summer of Love that the former image exists.

I reminded of this type of myopia when I come across odd concepts that seem to sweep academia and other insular professions with regularity. While the rest of the world goes about working and trying to make do, these sorts, who seem to have a good bit of time on their hands, are hell bent on stirring the pot in trying to convince outsiders that their eccentric ideas are cutting edge, rather than on the fringe.

Consider a recent post in the blog of the American Mathematical Society by Piper Harron, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawaii. Titled “Get Out of the Way,” the first three paragraphs read thus:

Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.

Remember that you live in a world where people don’t succeed in a vacuum; most success happens on the backs of others who did not consent. You have no idea how successful you would have been if you were still you, but with an additional marginalization (not white, or not male, or not cis gender, or with a disability, etc).

Right now, I want to talk about gender equality because the fact that women aren’t actually a demographic minority makes certain arguments easier, but please know that actual solutions require women of color and trans people. Remember having white cis women run the world is no kind of solution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harron is a black female. What’s more unusual is that this appears on a blog for a math society, rather than one of academia’s more “activist” areas, such as gender studies, law or political science.

I can’t say whether Harron is a competent mathematician or a competent professor, but I do know that she would not be my first choice to teach my children were they to attend the University of Hawaii. I’m leery of those who wholeheartedly engage in identity politics.

Here’s another tempest that’s apparently been swirling about for the past year or two: the question among literary sorts whether they should take a year-long sabbatical from reading “white, straight, cisgender male authors.”

No, really.

The goal is to focus on “marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons.”

Heina Dadabhob, in a 2015 story about the movement for The Daily Dot, was aghast to realize that she was “reading fewer than 50 percent non-male authors.”

“Despite being an outspoken feminist, I was not reading or supporting many female authors,” she wrote.

I confess to not understanding this line of thinking. It seems incredibly narrow-minded, not to mention condescending, particularly the part about the need to “broaden readers’ horizons.”

And is it not a method of banning books – if only for a year – of authors who do not fit certain racial and gender categories.

I don’t need holier-than-thou sorts to tell me of the pleasures of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Annie Proulx, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Lise Funderburg, David Sedaris or Pearl Buck, all of whom I’ve read recently. I also am not going to listen to some busybody tell me that I shouldn’t pick up Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom I’ve also enjoyed recently.

Anyone who chooses not to read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors is as foolish as someone who chooses to only read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors.

Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it.

Dadabhob finishes her piece in The Daily Dot with the following: “… almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors.”

I would amend her statement to simply say that almost everyone, regardless of gender or race could stand to enjoy more literature – period.

(Top: the Bonfire of the Vanities, Feb. 7, 1497. Supporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collect and burn thousands of objects, including art and books, in Florence, Italy.)

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6 thoughts on “Glimpses of universes where the sky is a very different color

  1. Having just heard on the BBC that there is an academic conference currently running on the life and work of Prince I feel that a pruning of certain academic budgets would be in order.

    I was studying in London during what were known – to others, not to us – as the Swinging Sixties. Dull elves that we were we missed the lot. I might have attended the LSE but LSD was unknown to me.
    Demonstrations, yes..drugs, no.

    Those examples you quote make me wonder where the academic and literary worlds have gone…the impolite conclusion would be up their own backsides, but why and how has this happened?

    I suspect it has happened as both worlds have turned to attention seeking rather than the production of solid work: a friend who is happy that he will soon be retiring from his faculty tells me that meetings are taken up with consideration of transgender loos and – seriously – appropriate non-offensive-to minorities dress codes for the end of year ball. Pity the poor research student who would like to know whether or not he/she/it/they will get a continuation of their studies…which is increasingly unlikely unless they concern minority community issues.

    Why the attention seeking? Because universities are not properly funded by government and publishing houses have turned to titillation, to formulae which seduce a reading public without a grounding in literature, who rely on the critics to be told what to read.

    A failure of education is at the base of all.

    I will admit to having written an essay on the influence of ducks – theft of, sex with (known to the vulgar as duck fuddling) – on the development of the Common Law but it was a spoof: these days I might be writing it in order to achieve tenure.

    • Interesting that on some of today’s campuses yesterday’s duck fuddler is today’s protected group.

      I think this is what comes of having groups operate in their own echo chamber. I don’t know that it would be any different is higher ed were better funded; these sorts aren’t going anywhere, they’re keeping out those that don’t think like themselves or making life so miserable that others retire or leave, and are indoctrinating up-and-coming young professors.

      No doubt the publishing world bears much of the blame. Emphasis on printing works on gay themes in Shakespeare, intolerance in Milton and innumerable other books that look at anything but the genius of the authors themselves. Who, in their right mind, wants to be a part of that?

      • I take your point on funding….but I do feel that government funding would avoid some of the playing to the crowd which so many faculties appear to be doing.

        It is a sad day when a writer is acclaimed for what he/she/it is or does rather than the quality of the work…sad for those who are taught that the is or does is more important than quality.

      • I was talking about this with my high school age daughter today. Her reading list next summer is one book: The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. I read parts of The Color Purple years ago and found it, uh, less than outstanding. But I’m willing to chalk that up to my taste. But to give students just one book as their summer reading, who happens to be a minority woman, that sets off bells.

        I agree that pushing artists for who they are rather than for what they’ve done only cheapens art, and turns off readers, viewers, etc.

  2. Ivory tower elitists know nothing about how the real world works. That’s why kids graduate from college and can’t get jobs, despite enormous debt. I’ve never believed in tenure and don’t believe in government funding for higher education, either. It makes a business of producing conformists to the current politically correct fad.

    I am, however, a big fan of literature and as wide a range of it as possible. I’ve always been an avid reader of all sorts of things, fiction and non-fiction, newspapers, periodicals, science, metaphysics, and on and on. That has educated me far beyond my academic degrees. I claim anyone who can read and write can become as educated as any university PhD and probably more well rounded, too.

    • I, like you, read as much as can on just about anything I can find. In our pop culture-centered world of today, reading three books on any single topic effectively makes you pretty knowledable. I fail to understand why people who have to devote seven or more years to higher education to become professors than want to spend it restricting intellectual freedom. Insecurity, I suppose.

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