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Politics as Usual: Decoding the Attacks on a Liberal Education

12/27/2011 10:55 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012
  • Mark Anthony Neal Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University
  • James Peterson Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University

by David J. Leonard, Mark Anthony Neal and James Braxton Peterson

Few university courses generate much attention from mainstream media, but Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson's course "The Sociology of Hip-Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z" has drawn national attention from NBC's Today Show, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, USA Today, and Forbes among many others. To be sure such attention is not unusual for Dyson, who is one of the most visible academics in the United States and has offered courses dealing with hip-hop culture, sociology, and Black religious and vernacular expression for more than twenty-years. Yet, such attention seems odd; hundreds of university courses containing a significant amount of content related to hip-hop culture and Black youth are taught every year -- and have been so, for more than a decade. In addition, there are dozens of scholarly studies of hip-hop published each year -- Julius Bailey's edited volume Jay-Z: Essays of Hip-Hop's Philosopher King, among those published just this year -- and two Ivy League universities, Harvard and Cornell, boast scholarly archives devoted to the subject of hip-hop.

Any course focused on a figure like Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter), given his contemporary Horatio Alger narrative, and his reputation as an urban tastemaker, was bound to generate considerable attention, but the nature of the attention that Dyson's class has received and some of the attendant criticism, suggest that much more is at play.

In early November, The Washington Post offered some of the first national coverage of the class, largely to coincide with the arrival of Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne tour to Washington DC's Verizon Center. Jay-Z dutifully complied with the attention by giving Professor Dyson a shout-out from the stage. The largely favorable article about the class, did make note, as have many subsequent stories, about the cost of tuition at Georgetown; as if somehow the cost of that tuition is devalued by kids taking classes about hip-hop culture.

Other profiles of the course and Dyson have gone out of their way to make the point that the course had mid-term and final exams, as if that wouldn't be standard procedure for any nationally recognized senior scholar at a top-tier research university in this country. Such narrative slippages speak volumes about the widespread belief that courses that focus on some racial and cultural groups, are created in slipshod fashion and lack rigor; it is a critique that is well worn, and that various academic disciplines, such as women's studies, ethnic studies and even sociology have long had to confront.

As ethnomusicologist Joe Schoss, author of Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, recently suggested on Facebook, courses constructed around the mythology of "great men" are often the vehicle in which outlier disciplines are made legible within traditional academic settings. Indeed Dyson's career has been marked by such studies, where he's examined figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, hip-hop artists Tupac Shakur and Nas (Nasir Jones). He is also teaching a class on the legacy of Jesse Jackson this semester, to commemorate the Civil Rights leader's 70th birthday.

Figures like Dyson, and Brown University Professor Tricia Rose, who authored the landmark Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America in 1994, were at the forefront of establishing Hip-Hop studies as a viable -- and yes popular -- academic discipline for nearly two decades.

The reality of the presence of hip-hop studies at virtually every major college and University, unveils the "oh my, golly gee" discovery mode of so much of the reporting and controversy surrounding the Jay-Z class, as more manufactured, than anything else. More to the point, the attack on the validity of a class focused on a prominent and highly influential cultural figure, who happens to be a young black man who has trafficked in outlier sub-cultures, seems more emblematic of an assault on the value of a liberal education. This assault comes at a historical moment when the products of a liberal education, are literally raising critical questions about the nature of inequality in American society.

There are other critics, some of whom throw darts from within the realm of Hip Hop Studies. They disparage Jay-Z as merely a misogynist, a hustler who promotes consumerism and other poisonous messages to young minds that mindlessly follow him. Some of these same critics have also questioned Dyson's knowledge of Hip Hop culture, his cultural bona fides on the discourses of the subject matter and his ability to choose the appropriate subjects. So at the same time that conservative critics question the validity of hip-hop studies vis a vis Shakespeare or *yawn* classical music, other critics (the one's we'd assume might appreciate the value of such a course in the broader context of africana, popular culture, and hip-hop studies) are quick to cast Dyson as an outsider; to proffer Dead Prez or Mos Def as more appropriate subject matter for this kind of course.

Well, "we don't believe you/You need more people." "Do you dudes listen to music?/Or do you just skim through it?" Yes Jay-Z's music has many limitations, faults, and critical flaws -- some of which he is poignantly aware. But that is exactly why his life and lyrics make substantive subject matter for sociological inquiry. His influence and impact -- or what some may deem popularity or sell-out-status -- are more grist for the sociological mill. In the end, the critique of the course that suggests that Hip Hop Studies has no place in the academy is eerily connected to those critiques that question Dyson's authenticity as either an elite scholar or a 'real' Hip Hop Head. And we love Dead Prez, but the "mainstream" media ain't checking for a Dead Prez class and in order to stave off the onslaught against area studies, interdisciplinary studies, hip-hop studies, and more broadly but directly, the Humanities, we are going to need some of that mainstream attention. Folks hate to hear this, but part of the reason why we have access to so much of the 'underground' hip-hop that we know and love is because there exists a healthy amount of popular attention (and dollars) directed at the drivel we (love to) hate.

In a recent article that was less than optimistic about the future of the humanities within American higher education, Dr. Frank Donoghue wrote, "When we claim to wonder whether the humanities will survive the twenty first century, we're really asking, 'Will the humanities have a place in the standard higher-education curriculum in the United States?' (2010). The answer appears to be no from a myriad of places. "But there's no denying that the fight between the cerebral B.A. vs. the practical B.S. is heating up," writes Nancy Cook in "The Death of Liberal Arts." "For now, practicality is the frontrunner, especially as the recession continues to hack into the budgets of both students and the schools they attend." Peddling the often-cited binaries between "cerebral" and "the practical," the intellectual and the useful, Cook highlights the ubiquitous attack on academic enterprises that seemingly don't produce tangible results or profits.

While commentators tend to focus on the declining interest and place of a liberal arts education that has resulted from the increased costs of higher education, the focus on securing a good job upon graduation, and the professionalization of higher education, the waning place of liberal arts and humanities is not simply an organic process. It reflects a direct assault from conservative factions within the American political landscape. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Public Policy Foundation called for substantial changes in the delivery of higher education, proposing greater emphasis on teaching and research that benefits the state and its economic needs. Defending the call for reform, Ronald L. Trowbridge, "The Case for Higher Ed Accountability" described his views on educational reform in the following way:

What is the value of any research endeavor to students or to wider societal needs? Some process of evaluation must be established. If researchers wish to pursue matters that do not serve students or wider societal needs, they are certainly free to do so, but such should be so without release time from the classroom.

Texas is not alone. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott recently announced his desire to remake public universities with greater emphasis on programs that stimulate the economy and produce future workers in key industries. "If I'm going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I'm going to take that money to create jobs," Scott noted "So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state." The divestment of public investment in the arts, human inquiry, and humanistic endeavors has been central to the conservative movement. Opposition to intellectual pursuits and the neoliberal emphasis on professionalism has had profound influence on contemporary culture.

Describing a friend who wanted to study comparative literature, Andrew Bast notes his initial reaction as one of "bewilderment" and "fascination," asking himself, "What in the world would be the value in that?" Capturing the hegemonic of the assault and systemic devaluing of the humanities within contemporary culture, he makes "The Case for a Useless Degree:"

I later learned that there's actually a huge value in it. Computer science, accounting, marketing -- the purpose of many majors is self-evident. They lead to well-paid jobs and clear-cut career paths. (One hopes, at least.) But comparative literature, classics, and philosophy -- according to the new conventional wisdom -- offer no clear trajectory.

The recent spectacle and media frenzy surrounding Michael Eric Dyson's "Sociology of Hip-Hop" course points to the powerful ways that "useless degrees" and "useless" knowledge are under attack. It also exposes the critical discourses that exist within hip-hop studies -- who can teach it/who is authentic enough to teach it. The media frenzy and the debate about this class reflect a well-organized attack on the humanities, liberal arts education and individual academic freedom.

Strangely enough, the internecine squabbles about whether or not Jay-Z is fit to be taught or if Dyson is fit to teach similarly swirl in the discursive diatribes against certain "less practical" disciplines. What reflects back at us is an ideology that demonizes critical thought, demonizes intellectual inquiry, and silences conversations about race, gender, inequality and other issues of social injustice. A focus here on Jay-Z or Michael Eric Dyson misses the point because the class is becoming a stand-in for a larger assault on education, intellectualism, and critical thinking. The media coverage and the ensuing debates about it -- on social media -- reflect an overall effort to demonize those who teach, those who educate, and those who articulate "freedom dreams." The culture wars are back and it's us against them and us against us.

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David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press). Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan and blogs @ No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @DR_DJL.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.

James Braxton Peterson is Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and the author of the forthcoming Major Figures: Critical Essays on Hip Hop Music (Mississippi University Press). Follow him at @DrJamesPeterson.