“If you look at the list of (New College majors), there’s one outlier, and it’s gender studies. … It’s not within the liberal arts, and it’s more of an ideological movement than an academic discipline.” This is how Matthew Spalding, a member of the New College board of trustees, justified his vote earlier this month to begin the process of eliminating the gender studies area of concentration, the equivalent to majors at other colleges.
But how do these and further statements made by Spalding and Christopher Rufo — another recently appointed board member — stand up to a critical examination, of the sort conducted by the original proponents of the “liberal arts”?
From the 13th century, a “liberally” or “freely” educated student was expected to master seven specific fields of study, with a fundamental grounding in the “trivium” — grammar, logic and rhetoric — extended to further development in the “quadrivium” — arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Training in the trivium would render a student proficient in words and the language arts, before he could move on to investigate nature through numbers, since each of the elements of the quadrivium, including music, were expressed through numerals.
Therefore, when someone describes an area of concentration as an “outlier,” he should be prepared to back up that assertion by using logical reasoning and comparative data. On its webpages, New College currently lists 51 areas of concentration, and it also invites a prospective student to “pursue a joint concentration in two fields, minor in a secondary concentration or design your own area of concentration.”
The website of Hillsdale College — where Spalding is also Kirby Professor in Constitutional Government and dean of the graduate school of government, among other titles — lists 47 majors and minors. Among the majors that are available in this “traditional or classical” liberal arts college are accounting, entrepreneurship, exercise science, financial management, general business, marketing, physical education, sport management and sport psychology. None of these majors, worthy as they certainly are, is listed on the New College page.
A modern liberal arts curriculum should not, of course, be restricted to the original “artes liberales,” but my own discipline (history) did not become a professionalized academic subject until the 1880s and even the term “major” did not appear in university catalogs before 1877. However, if one wishes to determine what does, and does not, constitute today’s “liberal arts,” I believe that the ideal organization to study is Phi Beta Kappa.
Founded by five students at the College of William & Mary in December 1776, the “nation’s most prestigious honor society” is, according to its website, “grounded in liberal — as in the Latin word for ‘free’ — arts and sciences learning and freedom of inquiry.” As a proud initiate in Phi Beta Kappa (Ohio University, 1991), donor to the organization and attendee at the last triennial meeting in 2021, I am delighted that Phi Beta Kappa has not only established a chapter at my university (the University of South Florida) but has also taken strong stances to protect academic freedom, specifically in Florida and especially in this year.
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While New College has not yet been invited to establish a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, it is striking that neither has Spalding’s Hillsdale College — an explicitly liberal arts institution that was founded in 1844. According to Phi Beta Kappa’s online chapter directory, the state of Michigan, where Hillsdale is based, presently contains eight chapters at four private colleges and four public universities.
A quick search of the four private colleges’ websites reveals that each one offers a major, a minor, or both in gender studies. In alphabetical order, these are Albion College (founded in 1835), with a major in women’s, gender and sexuality studies; Alma College (founded in 1886), with a minor in women’s and gender studies; Hope College (a “private Christian liberal arts college” chartered in 1866), with a major in women’s and gender studies; and Kalamazoo College (founded by Baptists, like Hillsdale, in 1833), with its women, gender and sexuality major.
If the vaunted plan for New College’s future is to turn it into the “Hillsdale of the South,” in part by stripping it of its gender studies major, the prospect of achieving recognition by Phi Beta Kappa would seem to be receding further into the distance.
In addition to abusing logical and comparative reasoning, Spalding has also made a mockery of the arts of grammar and rhetoric. In the board meeting, he asserted that the gender studies program at New College is “a mishmosh of things — if you read the website, I have no idea what it’s about, it’s very confused.” (For what it’s worth, the word, from Middle English, is more often pronounced “mishmash.”) I would invite everyone to read this website, https://www.ncf.edu/programs/gender-studies/, which I find a model of clarity, especially in its lists of helpful online resources (including a dedicated Twitter page), “potential career pathways,” “recent courses” and “recent theses.”
The recounting of recent thesis titles also refutes Spalding’s claim that “gender studies does not grow out of the humanities … or of the sciences.” Of the nine thesis titles listed, six are clearly outgrowths of humanities or fine art disciplines, including history, music, art, dance, theater, and Spanish language and literature, and the other three derive from medicine, sociology and psychology.
And, if one wishes to see a true “mishmosh” of “confused” language, look no further than the essay Christopher Rufo published to his Substack, on the evening after the board vote, entitled “The Arc of Reform.” In the penultimate paragraph, Rufo writes, “The mission of New College of Florida is to restore classical liberal education and to revive the pursuit of transcendent truth — a mission ultimately incompatible with the disciplines of gender studies and queer theory, which are explicitly opposed to the classical conceptions of the true, the good and the beautiful. These postmodern, anti-normative lines of thought may be welcome at other universities, but they are not a requirement for a university as such.”
As a trained classicist, I think I recognize some glimmer of the ancient Greek “kalokagathos,” “the good and the beautiful,” but one would have to be a regular reader of Rufo’s words to strain out the kernels of “truth” he is pouring out here. It is ironic that the person who has accused gender studies of being “ideological activism” is a self-avowed activist obviously motivated by ideology. The source of this ideology? Perhaps it is Viktor Orbán, whose Danube Institute hosted Rufo in Budapest as a visiting fellow this March and April. Orbán, who has been in power since 2010, regularly employs antisemitic, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and is widely considered one of the most serious global threats to democracy. Should someone who has studied Orbán’s techniques so recently in his capital city be entrusted with overseeing the curriculum of any institution, especially one devoted to the public good?
Jonathan S. Perry is an associate professor of history at the Sarasota-Manatee Campus of the University of South Florida, and he also appeared as a contestant on the television program “Jeopardy!” in February 2023.