Given the priors, Bard College, a pricey and exclusive liberal-arts college in Annandale-on-the-Hudson, would almost certainly be ridden with wokeness: the priors are its location in the Northeast U.S., it’s tuition (see below), and the fact that it’s a liberal arts school. And indeed, Bard is right up there with Reed College (on the West cost), Middlebury College (Vermont), and all the New England Ivies and “sister schools” (Wellesley, Williams, Smith, etc.) at the top of the wokeness scale. It’s thus not surprising that Bard has started an initiative to “decolonize the library”. This report came in my newsletter from Bari Weiss’s site, but isn’t on that site–at least yet. It was part of a news summary by Nellie Bowles.
Pecksniffery has reached a new high!
(Note that Bard is the college featured in Steely Dan’s son “My old school,” along with William and Mary.)
Here’s Nellie’s exposition (indented), but see below as well. Her tip came from a writer I admire, Emily Yoffe, who actually went to Wellesley.
“To Begin the Process of Decanonization”
It’s always fun to check up on what’s going on in academia. Here’s an announcement that showed up in the Bard College library newsletter (Bard tuition, $57,498 a year):
In keeping with campus-wide initiatives to ensure that Bard is a place of inclusion, equity, and diversity, the Stevenson Library is conducting a diversity audit of the entire print collection in an effort to begin the process of decanonizing the stacks. Three students, who are funded through the Office of Inclusive Excellence, have begun the process which we expect will take at least a year to complete. The students will be evaluating each book for representations of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and ability.
So, to paraphrase this library announcement: three Bard students, chosen and paid for by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, are tasked with reviewing every book in the Bard library to evaluate how well it adheres to their moral standards. Facing outrage from library-fans, Bard quickly retracted and rewrote this announcement and clarified that the audit was more high-level analysis of each book and author.
Still I like to imagine these students marching through the stacks, pulling every spine, reading every page to examine for “representations of race, gender, religion, and ability.” Does Charles Dickens dehumanize someone with a limp somewhere? I bet he does. There’s some nasty ableism in Beowulf. Was Aristotle a feminist? This could take a while. Also, I think I kind of want to be on this committee.
The term decanonize means exclusion of a person’s name from a list or catalog. It’s a term most commonly associated with the church, who decanonizes to demote a saint who’s on the outs.
“Our library collections, because they are written mostly by straight white men, are a physical manifestation of white men ideas taking up all the space in our library stacks,” she writes, asking her readers to pause and think about that in her essay, Whiteness as Collections. Or watch her talk with the University of Michigan on the “‘Ordinary’ Existence of White Supremacy in Libraries.”
The announcement about decanonization came in a cheery library update. It wasn’t the top item. It’s just there between an alumna to be honored and a local cleanup effort. Decanonization is a casual, business-as-usual sort of activity, hardly anything to pay attention to or ask about.
When I wrote to ask about the announcement, Bard officials explained that this was all a big misunderstanding. Nothing the library newsletter had about this effort should be taken literally, they told me.
[JAC: When you’re found out saying an unpalatable truth, just claim it was a metaphor]. Bowles continues:
“It will help us understand and answer questions about representation in our collections and build a more inclusive collection going forward,” wrote Betsy Cawley, the director of Bard libraries. “Nothing is being removed, recategorized, or replaced.”
Decanonization is not decanonization at all. Judging each book does not mean judging each book (“an earlier brochure entry suggesting that has been revised”). It is just a fact-finding mission to learn more, not to remove anything.
In some cold upstate New York panic, they retracted and rewrote the whole thing. “The erroneous entry has been removed,” the school tells me now.
Regardless, if any Common Sense-readers would like to read books that three Bard students deem offensive, please turn yourself in to the local police station.
(We got word of this thanks to the great Emily Yoffe, who’s in touch with several library-loving whistleblowers. Thank you. TGIF is always open to tips: email@example.com.)
Bard’s denial is hilarious: if this is not about censorship, what is it about? How can you “build a more inclusive collection going forward” if you don’t pick and choose books for the library based on how “inclusive” they are? I don’t believe their denial at all. After all, there are 400,000 books to sniff through!
And what bothers me most of all is that, traditionally, librarians have opposed this kind of Pecksniffery, pushing back against people’s wish to keep this and that book out of the library. In the past librarians were the most vigorous and treasured defenders of free speech, blocking the doorway between the censors and the books. That doesn’t hold any more.
By the way, Sofia Leung is not listed as a librarian at Bard College at all, nor does her c.v. does mention that position (perhaps Bowles didn’t mean to imply that). The head librarian at Bard and her email address is here. Bard’s president has an email address here, and I’ll be writing to both of them.
The Wall Street Journal also has a new article about the “diversity audit“, which is also dubious about the motivations of Bard:
The point of the audit at Bard originally appeared to be picking books to remove. The announcement in Notes, the library’s newsletter, described the project as a first step in “the process of decanonizing the stacks”—academic jargon for breaking the connection to the past. A follow-up from the staff seemed to suggest that the eventual aim is a major deaccessioning (to use a librarians’ term: litotes for getting rid of books).
A representative of the library, however, later said in an email that was forwarded to me that the project was designed “to increase our understanding of our collection, not to remove books.”
This leaves unspecified the reason the information is being gathered in the first place, but the librarian waved away the students funded by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, stating that actual librarians will decide about the library’s collections, not student workers.
And perhaps this audit is merely a sop to activist students and diversity administrators. But it does seem at least a surrender to the idea that content is determined by the extraliterary characteristics of the author. And if the audit does include content, the result could be a straightforward Index of Prohibited Books—even if, as seems unlikely, the librarians aren’t pressured eventually to act on the information that the students catalog.
If anything should anger people, even if they’re woke, it’s this kind of implied censorship. Removing books from libraries is just as bad as burning them: it removes access to the WRONG IDEAS.
Let Bard hear from you if you see this as an especially egregious violation of free speech and academic freedom.