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Phallus 101

January 07, 2007|Charlotte Allen | Charlotte Allen is an editor at Beliefnet and the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

THE "DIRTY DOZEN" list of "America's Most Bizarre and Politically Correct College Courses" is out -- and Los Angeles-area institutions of higher learning have walked away with one-fourth of the ranked honors (or dishonors). Occidental College, an 1,800-student liberal arts school in Eagle Rock, is the only college on the list to collect not one but two citations for excellence at offering trendy theories of gender, skin color and white-male oppression at the expense of actual academic content.

UCLA didn't fare badly either, with one citation. And believe me, the competition was stiff. The Southern California colleges were competing against such nationally recognized PC heavyweights as Cornell, Amherst, the University of Michigan and, of course, Duke.

The list comes from the Young America's Foundation, a 40-year-old nonprofit funded by conservative individuals and foundations. Its No. 1 slot this year for bizarre class offerings went to Occidental, for a course called "The Phallus."

No, it's not a biology course. It's a survey, offered by Oxy's department of critical theory and social justice, of "feminist and queer takings-on of the phallus." Topics include "the relation between the phallus and the penis, the meaning of the phallus, phallologocentrism, the lesbian phallus, the Jewish phallus, the Latino phallus, and the relation of the phallus and fetishism."

You might wonder how a lesbian can have a phallus, or whether it's possible to say "phallologocentrism" three times without tripping on your tongue, but if so, it's likely that you won't be getting an "A" from Occidental professor Jeffrey Tobin, who is teaching the course this spring semester. Also this semester, Occidental will offer the course that the Young America's Foundation rated No. 5 in bizarreness: "Blackness." This class will explore "new blackness," "critical blackness," "post-blackness," "unforgivable blackness" and "queer blackness."

A perfect companion course to Oxy's "Blackness" would be "Whiteness," which is offered at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and was ranked No. 7 by the foundation. But not to worry. Occidental has its own "Whiteness" course (which will "examine the construction of whiteness in the historic, legal and economic contexts which have allowed it to function as an enabling condition for privilege and race-based prejudice," says the Oxy online catalog). Passing "Whiteness" is a prerequisite for signing up for "Blackness."

Annual tuition at Occidental, a private college, is $32,800. That means if you take "The Phallus" and "Blackness" (plus its prerequisite "Whiteness") this year on a four-course-per-semester schedule, you will have set your parents back $12,300.

UCLA won the coveted No. 2 slot on the list, with "Queer Musicology." Queer musicology is a new field dating from the 1990s based in part on the idea that if you're gay, then music by gay composers such as Benjamin Britten will sound different to you than it would if you were straight. Nipping at UCLA's heels was Amherst, with "Taking Marx Seriously." The first sentence of the course description is: "Should Marx be given another chance?" With 100 million dead in various gulags and related charnel houses, I don't think so.

At Michigan, "Native American Feminisms" (No. 8) hunts for the Iroquois Betty Friedan.

At Cornell, "Cyberfeminism" (No. 10) explores someone's discovery that -- surprise, surprise -- women use computers!

At Duke, you can take "American Dreams/American Realities" (No. 11), a history course on American myths such as "a city on a hill."

So much for Ronald Reagan.

The problem that the Young America's Foundation list, first issued in 1995, highlights isn't simply the hollowing-out of the traditional humanities and social sciences disciplines at colleges and their replacement by crude indoctrination sessions in whatever is ideologically fashionable -- although that's a serious issue. At Occidental, for instance, it seems nearly impossible to study any field, save for the hard sciences, that doesn't include "race, class and gender" among its topics. Even the Shakespeare course at Occidental this semester focuses on "cultural anxieties over authority, race, colonialism and religion" during the age of the Bard.

The bigger problem is that too much of American higher education has lost any notion of what its students ought to know about the ideas and people and movements that created the civilization in which they live: Who Plato was or what happened at Appomattox.

Instead of the carefully crafted core programs that once guided students through the basics of literature, philosophy, history and the social sciences, most colleges now offer smorgasbords of unrelated classes for their students to sample in order to fulfill requirements. And the professors stock the smorgasbords with whatever the theorists they idolize tells them is the new new thing.

Why not take a course in "The Phallus"?

You can get the same credit for it as for a course in Greek tragedy.

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