Skip to main content

For university students, September is not just about leafy campuses, varsity sweats and drinking games - it's about indecision. In the next few weeks, Canada's young scholars will determine their course load for the rest of the year. Classes will be signed up for, sampled and dropped, tutorials wandered into and lectures walked out of. For some classes, waiting lists will grow. For others, attendance will dwindle.

When I was in university in the late 1990s, the coolest, most sought-after arts courses were all in women's studies. The revered professors tended to be women with double-barrelled European names (the more difficult to pronounce the better). One prof, a famously hard-marking Frenchwoman, was rumoured to have had an affair with literary critic Jacques Derrida while studying in Paris. For this reason alone, she was considered an academic rock star.

Given what a product it was of its time, one might assume that, more than a decade later, women's studies (plus all the literature, criticism and ideas that have sprung from it, some of which is very good) would have gone the way of the dental dam. But the discipline is alive and well - in fact, it has expanded and morphed. In the morally relativistic world of cultural theory, in which there is no such thing as "feminism" but "feminism(s)," every gender identity and sexual preference deserves a department or course named after it. First, there was women's studies, then there was queer and transgender studies and now we are seeing the rise of men's studies, a discipline that focuses on the study of masculinity and male identity. Yes, the group that precipitated minority studies in the first place, the controllers of the world, are the latest special-interest group to receive the doting intellectual attention of critical thinkers everywhere.

Story continues below advertisement

Over the past few years, many Canadian universities, including Winnipeg, York, Alberta, Guelph and Laval, have included studies in men and masculinity to their curricula. A number of respected schools - most notably Queen's University - have gone so far as to change the name of their women's studies departments to gender studies to make room for the new discipline. And in the United States, Kansas City will this year host the annual Men and Masculinity Conference of the American Men's Studies Association, which is devoted to bringing the hundreds of men's scholars (can we call them "meninists"?) together.

To be clear, men's studies should not be confused with the blatantly misogynistic men's-rights movement, which is alive and well and bitterly divorced on the Web. Instead, explains Mark Justad, director of communications for the American Men's Association and an instructor at Guilford College in North Carolina, "men's studies grew up out of the pro-feminist realization that the unpacking of men's gender and masculinity was also important. It really was driven by the notion that gender equality was a social good."

It's a nice idea, no? We gals had our time on the examination table and now it's the lads' turn. But there's a problem: The rationale behind men's studies doesn't entirely add up.

The whole point of women's studies, so we were taught in Feminist and Critical Thinking 101, is to bring academic focus to women's perspective in history and literature. As a result, female literary figures from Jane Austen to Zora Neale Hurston to Doris Lessing were rescued from the ghetto of "women's literature" and rightly canonized as literary geniuses. Now that the bulk of that ideological work is largely done, however, academia remains bogged down in identity politics. (In the real world, by contrast, feminism still has far to go - just look at the recent finding that Canadian women make 63 per cent of what men do.)

As an extension of women's studies, the study of masculinity is illogical. After all, couldn't most academic inquiry throughout history be classified as men's studies? By viewing everything through the lens of gender, universities risk losing sight of one of their basic purposes, which is to connect young minds with great literature and big ideas.

During my own time as an undergrad, I spent countless hours wading through critical theory written by thinkers who wrote jargon-laden essays posing such questions as: "Does gender even exist or is it just a figment of our cultural imagination?"

This chicken-and-egg-type inquiry is at the centre of all gender studies. And while it may be worth mulling over a bong pipe in your dorm room, brighter students will ultimately find that it isn't half as interesting as, say, reading the collected works of Chekhov.

Story continues below advertisement

While I enjoyed my time at university, I sorely regret the precious hours, days, weeks and semesters I spent poring over trendy postmodern theory and agonizing about what it meant to be a woefully oppressed female. What a waste! Ironically enough, the courses that I thought were the least exciting at the time - Modern Poetry 101, Enlightenment Philosophy, Classical Mythology - turned out to be the most memorable and useful, whereas the ideas of Judith "Gender-is-a-Drag-Show" Butler and Catherine "Sex-is-Rape" McKinnon, which seemed so compelling to me back then, have proved, with time, to be facile and irrelevant.

In other words, encountering great works of literature and philosophy should be at the centre of an education in the humanities, not on the nerdy periphery. I am not saying that gender doesn't bear thinking about, but it doesn't bear as much analysis as the collected works of Freud, Marx, Plato, Nietzsche, Proust, Milton and Shakespeare, all of whom, you will notice, were men.

So take my advice, undecided students: Steer clear of trendy men's studies courses and stick with the classics. You'll learn more about men and women in one Shakespearean sonnet than you will in a whole feminist-theory program put together.

I'll stake my misspent university education on it.

Report an error
About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.