by Edward Jayne
Almost everybody agrees that education has deteriorated in the United States over the past couple of decades. From kindergarten through the Ph.D., the ability and preparation of students has been steadily declining, and, in response, our educational establishment has reduced academic standards to accommodate their more basic needs. At primary and secondary levels, teaching has been program-packaged to accommodate the lowest common denominator, and at secondary and college levels, core-curriculum courses have been de-emphasized in favor of electives posing little intellectual challenge. College tuition costs have become a major financial burden, but student-faculty ratios have increased, and overall real wages of the faculty per student credit hour (if part-time instructors are included) have substantially diminished. Today, approximately one-third of our college faculty are part-time instructors, and among permanent faculty the current emphasis on research no longer bears much relationship to the education of students. Often, in fact, the most eminent scholars teach few, if any, classes.
To a certain extent we can trace reduced academic standards to social trends beyond the control of teachers and administrators. These include the breakup of families, the victory of television over the print media, and reduced government allocations to education (for example, a 30 percent drop in federal aid since 1980). Also important, however, have been innovations for which the educational establishment is primarily responsible, including misguided textbook reform, a widespread effort to cultivate self-esteem at the expense of knowledge, and an indiscriminate use of “diversity” quotas. White females have been arbitrarily granted diversity status, and their appointments have been disproportionate in the humanities to help offset low minority recruitment in such fields as physics and mathematics. Needless to say, the academic performance of faculty hired to meet diversity guidelines can be outstanding, but its evaluation is necessarily based on lower standards than if all relevant awards, appointments, and administrative decisions were truly both color and gender-blind.
As is perhaps to be expected, the emphasis on diversity has encouraged major changes in the choice of texts taught in the humanities, especially in the field of English, which seems at the cutting edge of the diversity revolution. The relatively flexible selection of texts taught at the college level has been labeled a traditionalist “canon,” and, as John Searle has recently argued, the very idea of excellence has been perceived as a threat. Major texts have been jettisoned to make room for sentimental and often barely literate “discourse” whose study and appreciation depend on the wholesale neglect of qualitative norms. A third-world perspective has encouraged the neglect of “patriarchal” and “Eurocentric” authors such as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Faulkner in favor of minority authors entirely unknown just a couple of years ago. For many this development offers exciting opportunities, but for others it seems a retrogressive commitment to mediocrity.
The campaign to impose an alternative canon has been reinforced by current trends in critical theory. The intrinsic value of literature has been challenged by a theory of textual indeterminacy rooted in the assumption that “anything goes” in both the experience of fiction and the use of theory to explain this experience. Eclectic faddishness accordingly substitutes for explicative adequacy, and a new pride of buzzwords (voice, diversity, hegemony, textuality, valorization, etc.) justifies verbal pyrotechnics with no particular relevance to the task of interpreting literature.
When texts are actually taught, Marxist borrowings too often boil down to victimology, Freudian borrowings to shared feelings, and formalist and archetypal borrowings to voices telling stories. According to Frank Kermode in his recent book, An Appetite for Poetry, the pervasive rejection of quality entails a denial of literature itself. The issue of aesthetic adequacy is neglected, as are style, genre, and historic trends. The most extravagant flights of critical theory justify teaching the most plain and tendentious stories of human tribulation, “good guys” with adequate diversity status pitted against the “bad.”
As perhaps to be expected, a backlash has been mounting among members of the teaching profession who blame current academic priorities for having been more a cause than any solution to the decline of our educational standards. William J. Bennett’s 1984 monograph, To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, probably marks the inception, followed by his Harvard address at its 350th anniversary in October 1986. Three books surfaced in 1987: The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom; Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch; and The Last Intellectuals, by Russell Jacoby. These respectively emphasized the absence of a core curriculum based on the study of traditional texts, the failed skills orientation in primary and secondary schools, and the misguided careerism of academicians from the Vietnam generation.
In 1988, a monograph was authored by Lynne Cheney confirming Bennett’s conclusions, Humanities in America: A Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People. The same year, two particularly aggressive books were added to the budding genre: Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson (an Englishman); and Profscam, by Charles Sykes – the first dealing with the moral deficiency of intellectuals, and the second with the professional irresponsibility of college faculty.
In 1989, three more books were added – The War Against the Intellect, by Peter Shaw; The Culture We Deserve, by Jacques Barzun; and Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It, by John Silber. Silber provided a random selection of prescriptions – some wise, some otherwise – while Shaw’s collection of essays focused on academic misconceptions, and Barzun’s on the malaise that besets our culture as a whole.
Published in 1990, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals offers a close examination of current excesses in critical discourse, and Charles Sykes’ The Hollow Men rehashes his earlier arguments before launching, in the final three-quarters of his text, into a treatment of current trends at Dartmouth University as a case study. Also published in 1990, Bruce Wilshire’s The Moral Collapse of the University seems a pedagogical mea culpa whose primary excuse for its inclusion is its hard-hitting title, while Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit more or less covers the same ground as Sykes’ two books, but with soft focus and a better-grounded historical perspective.
Not to be overlooked has been a steady stream of articles, such as Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry?” published in The American Scholar, and David Bromwich’s “The Future of Tradition,” published in Dissent. Epstein, for example, blames creative writing programs for the “death” of American poetry, while Bromwich eloquently defends Western tradition as the unique source of intellectual freedom. Of particular importance has been the journal Academic Questions, sponsored by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a professional group opposed to current innovations, which was incorporated in 1985 by Stephen Balch, Peter Shaw, and others. The group established its office in 1987, and today its national membership, almost entirely consisting of college faculty, includes 1,400 members and 25 chapters nationwide.
Beginning with its publication in the winter of 1988, Academic Questions has featured articles representing the conservative backlash on a variety of topics related to the crisis in our universities. Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol have been included on its masthead, but its coverage is more balanced than their imprimatur might suggest. Featured in the first issue was perhaps its most strident article, “”Diversity” and “Breaking the Disciplines”: Two New Assaults on the Curriculum,” by Thomas Short. This has been reprinted and widely circulated to solicit membership in the NAS.
All of the above authors express strong opinions, and one finds it difficult to read them without both agreeing and disagreeing from one page to the next. Bloom, Johnson, and Silber tend to shoot from the hip, but the others are more careful of their arguments, and in the end they make a more forceful presentation of their cases. Hirsch and Jacoby might object to being categorized with the rest, but their books reinforce the shared notion that the problem with American schools and universities must be traced to misguided educational objectives. If these authors may be tentatively grouped as a movement, probably their best and most accurate designation would be as academic neoconservatives. They disagree on many issues but seem dedicated to four basic assumptions that may be stated, more or less, in the following rhetorical sequence:
(1) That American education has dramatically worsened over the last two or three decades.
(2) That this decline mostly results from warped curriculum reform and distorted performance standards that began with the ideological confusion of the ’60s.
(3) That current educational policies can only lead to further decline if allowed to persist.
(4) That college professors serious about their profession must now come to the defense of valid scholarship and high educational standards.
None of the books entirely locks into this sequence, but the total perspective seems implicit in all of them. Even Intellectuals, by Johnson, is to be identified with the group, if only marginally. Johnson’s concluding remarks on Noam Chomsky’s politics would be gratuitous except that they link Johnson’s biographical emphasis to his assessment of the American academic scene based on these four assumptions.
The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, may be treated as a genuine best-seller that first provided this neoconservative perspective with broad public recognition. The book’s subtitle, How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, conveys Bloom’s basic concern that our obsession with openmindedness has paradoxically led to the closing of the American mind because we have deprived ourselves of the ability to think critically. Bloom shamelessly advocates maintaining the university as an ivory tower and insists that a core curriculum of great books must be restored to emphasize the history of literature and philosophy.
He also defends certitude, ethnocentricism, narrowness of taste, and even the capacity for prejudice as important intellectual predispositions. His discussion of student alienation, rock music, the sexual revolution, and its feminist backlash seems insightful. However, his use of non-sequiturs and bizarre categorical generalizations (e.g., “the philosopher always thinks and acts as though he were immortal, while always being fully aware that he is mortal” italics added) exposes a basic flaw in his thinking that has been amply discussed by hostile reviewers. In The New York Review of Books, for example, Martha Nussbaum takes him to task for criticizing students’ unqualified generalizations not much worse than his own. Bloom, Nussbaum argues, unfavorably compares the empty “truths” accepted by our students with Socratic speculation, yet his own authoritarian appeal to the classics hardly rises to the standards of speculative inquiry encouraged by Socrates himself. As Nussbaum explains, “Bloom knows that he knows; Socrates knew that he didn’t.” Bloom advocates elitism in the university, yet Socrates promoted the cultivation of reason in all individuals – men and women, the poor and the wealthy.
As Robert Pattison mentions in his Nation review, Bloom’s emphasis on cultivating a keen sense of tradition also seems belied by his own idiosyncratic patchwork of knowledge. Nowhere in his book does his explanation of theory exhibit an adequate sense of its historic context. Instead, he isolates texts from their circumstances, confident that the dialogue he generates is all that matters. He leapfrogs with gusto from one “great book” to another without directly quoting them and without exploring their ideas with adequate thoroughness. History seems implicit in his approach, but in fact his “presentism” is radically anti-historical because of its omissions,excluding from consideration the political viewpoint of authors, the impact of their contemporaries, and, not least, their revisions and modifications that took place over the duration of their careers.
When Bloom discusses the American intellectual tradition – presumably the topic of his book – this anti-historical bias seems especially vulnerable to error. Bloom insists that the knowledge of philosophy, history, and literature was “never a native [American] plant,” and he accordingly ignores most American intellectuals, including Henry Adams, William James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and just about everybody else of importance in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those he does mention are treated offhandedly and often in a manner that exposes his ignorance.
For example, he makes this bald statement: “The side of Rousseau’s thought that arouses nostalgia for nature came to the United States early on, in the life and writings of Thoreau.” However, Thoreau made no reference to Rousseau in his published books, while Nature, by Emerson, published in 1836, seems far more likely to have been influenced by Rousseau than Walden, published two decades later. Bloom’s total ignorance of Emerson (which he candidly acknowledged in my presence at his 1988 Munich lecture) helps to explain this error as well as his neglect of both Nietzsche’s substantial debt to Emerson and Emerson’s importance as one of the early progenitors of the ’60s protest movement.
Bloom claims that Nietzsche’s skepticism was a major influence on the ’60s (and thus the ’80s) through the intermediate influence of such figures as Weber, Heidegger, Lukacs, and Kojeve. However, except for Lukacs and Heidegger – the latter because of his influence on Sartre – the impact of these figures was minimal during the ’60s, and Nietzsche’s influence on Lukacs was relatively inconsequential. Of the two celebrities revered by the protest movement – Bertrand Russell and Sartre – Russell had little respect for Nietzsche (erroneously, I think), while Sartre was admired for his politics, not for any aspect of his phenomenology that might be traced to Nietzsche.
Among the remarkable assortment of speakers included in the Berkeley teachin of May, 1964 including Isaac Deutscher, M. S. Arnoni, Robert Scheer, and Benjamin Spock – none, as far as I can recall, spoke of Nietzsche or betrayed any indebtedness to his influence. As Nietzsche’s intrepid advocate, Walter Kaufman played a lonely role at Princeton and bore no visible impact on the peace movement. Twenty-five years later, Bloom can only suggest Nietzsche’s influence because people’s memories are fuzzy. In 1964, or 1968, or 1972, his thesis would have been laughed out of bookstores.
In contrast, Emerson’s influence, totally ignored by Bloom, may be traced through Thoreau to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, through Whitman to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, through Margaret Fuller to the feminist movement, and through William James to the pragmatism rampant since the turn of the century. Even the educational permissiveness that Bloom decries may be traced to Emerson through Dewey, Alcott, and Elizabeth Peabody. Contrary to Bloom’s assumption, the ’60s protest movement was far more beholden to an American intellectual tradition, Emerson included, than to modern European authors influenced by Nietzsche.
In Profscam, published in 1988, Charles Sykes makes a better case for academic neoconservatism by focusing on the hypocrisy and venality of American universities. Unlike Bloom, he blames the college faculty itself, and most of the time he draws blood. He shows how professors can be overpaid and underworked, how they have neglected their teaching responsibilities, how they have depended on the service of instructors as an ill-trained and ill-paid underclass, how they have distorted the university curriculum to accommodate their own needs, and how they have penalized the effective teaching of their more talented colleagues.
Sykes demonstrates that professors too often use pseudo-research to justify their flight from the classroom, that they substitute empty jargon for original ideas, that they have almost totally perverted the system of academic publishing, that they have used the shibboleths of academic freedom to defend their own rigid thought-control, and that they have indulged bizarre trendiness in the humanities, pseudo-scientific projects in the social sciences, and profit-motivated product research in the physical sciences. Their schools of education, he claims, have turned universities “into the home office of educational mediocrity,” and their faculty administrative apparatus “has frustrated or sabotaged every effort at meaningful reform that might interfere with their boondoggle.” “Junk-think” predominates in all spheres of higher education – to such an extent that the survival of our culture is at stake. This is merely Sykes’ initial bill of particulars. Every page of his book bristles with further accusations.
The two principal difficulties with Sykes’ approach are that he draws his data almost exclusively from major universities, and that his conclusions are too often based on flagrant examples. His information is probably accurate, but the impression it supports is exaggerated – sometimes to an extreme degree. His pervasive assumption, for example, that university faculty are lazy and unwilling to meet their responsibilities as teachers is belied by the experience of almost anyone employed in college teaching outside our major universities.
Our priorities might be haywire, but we do work hard. Granted, we stand in front of classes not more than from 9 to 12 hours per week, but the time spent preparing for classes, correcting papers, holding student conferences, attending committee meetings, and writing books, articles, monographs, and committee reports consumes most of our careers. Many of us also try to keep up with our fields and current trends in general on the assumption that the more we know, the better off we are. There is much to do – for a salary disproportionately smaller than the income of lawyers and doctors, especially as compared to equivalent income differentials in other countries.
Sykes also ignores the rapidly expanding role of college administrations over recent decades. Most institutions of higher learning are dominated by their administrators, and administrative costs have rapidly expanded disproportionate to total university budgets. As a result, programs, projects, and administrative positions have proliferated at the expense of teaching. If the ratio between administrative costs and the total university budget could be restored to earlier levels, more permanent faculty could be hired and our nation’s college-level student-faculty ratios (now actually rated 19th worldwide) could be somewhat reduced.
In The Culture We Deserve, published in 1989, Jacques Barzun treats educational decline with almost aristocratic detachment. He obviously speaks from another generation, when he himself worked in close association with Lionel Trilling, and when academic standards were demonstrably higher. His earlier classic, The House of Intellect, published in 1959, has already documented the initial stages of academic deterioration, and so his present book, really a collection of essays, seems intended as a broad jeremiad against this trend rather than a new bill of particulars. “Civilizations do perish,” he warns, explaining that such an outcome becomes inevitable once there is widespread skepticism about the “intangibles” and daily habits that had earlier guaranteed their existence. Today, he argues, crime, civil disobedience, negativism, distrust of government, knee-jerk identification with minorities, the abandonment of religion, and an emphasis on primitivism and extravagant originality are in effect “deschooling society.”
In his opinion, we are in “the last phase of the great emancipation promoted in the 18th century,” a two-century period of liberation that turns out to be nothing more than “the close of a brilliant half-millenium.” He suggests that “what is dying out is the individualism and high art of the Renaissance, the fervor of the Reformation, the hopes of liberalism, the zest of the free and patriotic nation-state.” The failure of our universities contributes to this trend, Barzun claims, but in a role as much victim as victimizer: “One can ask whether all over the world the idea of a university has not been battered without hope of recovery for a long time.” Symptomatic of this effect, he proposes, is the emphasis on analysis at the expense of synthesis. He deplores the specialism, obscurity, and relentless abstraction now taken for granted in most academic disciplines. We can only hope, he suggests, that “the overexpansion of the present scheme will bring it to collapse from its own weight,” as apparently happened to both the Alexandrian textualists and the scholastics of the Middle Ages.
In The War Against the Intellect, also published in 1989, Peter Shaw complements Barzun’s global perspective by scrupulously documenting the ideological extravagance in vogue today. However, instead of decrying excessive analysis, as does Barzun, Shaw targets the rampant irrationality that he claims began with the ’60s campaign to redress the grievances of minorities:
“A virtually automatic suspension of the rules of proof, reason, and logic was now accorded a certain privileged kind of discourse: the championing of artistic works by those newly designated as minorities or the oppressed.”
Soon enough, Shaw claims, the tendency was universalized:
“…Afterward, the latitude vouchsafed these special subjects was extended wherever ideas claimed a hearing on the basis of their author’s generous concern for humanity. Eventually it became accepted that a writer’s speculations and prejudices, rather than being subject to skepticism on account of their subjectivity, should be honored for their intentions. The war against the intellect had brought about the decline of discourse – a slackening in the process of critical evaluation.”
To police this achievement, Shaw argues, “an atmosphere of intimidation came to prevail,” and “those who continued to uphold the standards of objectivity were regarded as insensitive and reactionary.”
As Shaw explains, his strategy for combatting this trend consists of laying bare the most preposterous arguments of its most dedicated proponents, almost all of whom depend on extravagant misreadings to let them pursue their ideas, confident that nobody else is invading their turf. What results, he argues, is an “uncoerced embrace of absurdity” that has led them to “surrender their [legitimate] role in the transmission of culture before a shot was fired.” In separate papers, Shaw uses this approach to challenge, among other fads and trends, deconstruction, the cult of primitivism, and the evolution of feminism from its early emphasis on gender resemblances to its later emphasis on gender differences.
According to Shaw, feminism’s dramatic reversal over the span of two decades has culminated in a standoff between the “clitoral hermeneutics” of Naomi Schor and Luce Irigaray’s theory of vaginal jouissance from “two lips which embrace each other continuously.” With mock seriousness, Shaw contrasts the perceived difficulties of these two antithetical theories, that the clitoral approach might deprive third-world women with clitoridectomies of a literary role, but that the concept of vaginal jouissance might suggest undesirable patriarchal affinities because of comparable experience among uncircumcised men. Shaw concedes the allusive punning style used by Irigaray and others to give ironic effect to these bizarre considerations, but concludes by asking “whether traditional society ever really went so far in denigrating women as feminist criticism itself has gone.” The question seems so obviously called for that he asks it twice.
Can Shaw’s deconstruction of feminist criticism itself be deconstructed? The most obvious rejoinder to his arguments is that the feminist movement as a whole has not advanced with such linear inevitability that the Lacanian speculation of a very tiny minority represents the movement or validly brings it to a close. Shaw’s eagerness to reduce complex arguments to a parade of self-inflicted caricatures seems almost sadistic. His eye for the intellectually grotesque is excellent, but he should pay more attention to the ideas that might be salvageable. These can and should be his principal concern.
In his last essay, “The Dark Ages of the Humanities,” Shaw quotes Culler, Foucault, Poirier, Steiner, and others to demonstrate the extent to which the traditional humanities have fallen into disrepute among exactly the professors entrusted with teaching them. Shaw describes these individuals as “traducer-guardians” of our culture and argues that we must work to expose the “inflated rhetoric” they use to denigrate it. He warns that we are lapsing into a “period of antihumanism that deserves to be called a Dark Age of the Humanities.” All we can do, he suggests, is to serve as “curators of values” while awaiting another renaissance. “In the final analysis,” he ominously predicts, “the tradition will judge us, and not we it.” Most of the dross that now occupies our attention will sooner or later be consigned to oblivion.
In Tenured Radicals, published this year, Roger Kimball maintains essentially the same vantage as Shaw, arguing that feminists, deconstructionists, neo-historicists, “left-over Marxists,” and specialists in gender, ethnic, and media studies share a remarkable unity of purpose – “nothing less than the destruction of the values, methods, and goals of traditional humanistic studies.” Like both Shaw and Bloom, Kimball claims these academic malcontents are using universities as “staging areas for political action” and are guilty of “Left Eclecticism” in their effort to justify their strategy.
What distinguishes Kimball’s approach is his willingness to immerse himself in debate by dissecting the verbal interaction at colloquiums and public meetings on critical theory. Instead of selectively quoting from their arguments, he seeks to disentangle the misconceptions that emerge as debate advances from one speaker to the next. Sentence for sentence, he dismembers the pronouncements of such figures as Houston Baker, Elaine Showalter, Fredric Jameson, Robert Scholes, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Peter Brooks, J. Hillis Miller, Barbara Johnson, Michael Riffaterre, Margaret Fergusson, Neil Hertz, and even E. D. Hirsch, to mention some of those treated in Chapter One alone. Kimball’s tone is ironic, often verging on contempt, and he obviously takes pleasure in drawing upon speakers’ sources to demonstrate their failure to understand the full implications of their arguments.
Kimball also devotes single chapters to Paul de Man’s early susceptibility to Nazi ideology, to the current use and abuse of deconstruction in architecture, and to Stanley Fish as the most cogent, and therefore, presumably, the most he deplores. In his chapter on Fish, really the climax of his book, Kimball forsakes irony to respond to Fish’s latest collection of essays, Doing What Comes Naturally, with arguments apparently addressed to Fish himself – as if Fish, unlike his friends and epigones, possesses enough reason to be convinced of the error of his ways. The implication seems to be that Fish alone among his peers can be brought to recognize the fallacy of a post-structuralist emphasis on indeterminacy rooted in radical skepticism.
As explained by Kimball, Fish embraces rhetoric instead of science, logic, or common sense, since rhetoric justifies an intellectual nihilism dependent on the axiom emphasized by Fish: “All preferences are principled.” Obviously, however, if all are “principled,” as Fish claims, none is entirely meretricious, and criticism enjoys extraordinary latitude as it shifts from one to another. Fish’s assumption here is that no concept or theory may be demonstrated to supercede others, and, thus, by implication, that no qualitative norm establishes the superiority of one text to another, one explication to another, or one canon or critical approach to another. However, Kimball maintains (as did David Hume in his essay, “Of the Standard of Taste”), normative truths do exist, so intellectual and aesthetic standards based on these truths oblige a genuine effort to sort out the valid from the invalid, the impressive from the banal. Once these truths are established, they can be used as the basis for treating critical theory on a rational basis.
Among published articles that express the academic neoconservative perspective, David Bromwich’s “The Future of Tradition” seems exceptional in its appeal to tradition as a bulwark against both oligarchy and intellectual authoritarianism. Bromwich maintains that a fuller acquaintance with our Western heritage paradoxically affords the best defense against the totalitarian appeal to authority, whatever righteous principles might be invoked. Viewed superficially, this heritage might seem authoritarian, but its unique emphasis upon personal freedom provides our only basis for “always for one “good” cause or another” that otherwise besets us wherever we look.
To illustrate the lure of authoritarianism, Bromwich, like Kimball, quotes Barbara Johnson’s thoughtless pronouncement that “professors should have less freedom of expression than writers and artists, because professors are supposed to be creating a better community.” Quite the opposite, Bromwich argues; what is needed is totally free access to a full and varied tradition, for this alone “strengthens a kind of social coherence we believe to be valuable.” History, philosophy, and both the natural and social sciences have long since dispensed with their classic texts, and now, as to be expected, literature departments are under attack to do the same. The culprit is warped academic professionalism, and genuine education is “just one more casualty of an ethic of market rationalization that controls our society today as never before.”
Bromwich warns that we are presently beset with “supervised culture,” and that “literature owes what prestige it still commands to the idea that it is a sphere where influence cannot be bought.” Once the “lobbying for representation in culture” becomes obvious to the public, he predicts, “all the advantages of iconoclasm would have been played out, for culture would have been emptied of its prestige.”
The final text to be discussed here is “”Diversity” and “Breaking the Disciplines”: Two New Assaults on the Curriculum,” by Thomas Short, who, like Shaw, has been connected with the National Association of Scholars. Short challenges three of the arguments commonly used to justify the present emphasis on cultural diversity in universities: a) the need to combat racism; b) the injustice of imposing alien cultural norms on minority students; and c) the educational benefit to all students of being exposed to diverse perspectives. In each instance, he claims, results are produced exactly the opposite to what has been intended.
In response to the first argument, the need to combat racism, he argues that intractable diversification standards have led not to better integration of black and white students but to increased “self-ghettoization” among black students both in campus housing and their selection of courses. As for the promotion of black culture, he argues that diversity standards have led to the “celebration of inferior works chosen simply on the basis of the race or sex of their authors.” He also argues that the best literature, regardless of its authorship, bears the most useful benefits to all readers, and that “Eurocentric” culture includes the entire scientific revolution, the presumably antithetical concepts of Marxism and parliamentary democracy, and even the institution of the university itself. It is imperative, he maintains, that minority students, no less than the majority, come to grips with this tradition in order to gain acceptance into society at large.
He concedes that jazz, major black authors (for example, Wright and Ellison), and the polemics of the Civil Rights Movement may be included in the traditional canon as legitimate black contributions to Western civilization. But he insists that it is perverse to throw out our entire tradition for a scattered selection of relatively talentless minority authors. For example, it is disgraceful, he argues, that Alice Walker’s novels are now assigned in classes more often than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined. Finally, Short responds to arguments that majority students benefit from being exposed to minority texts by declaring that any campaign with this goal in mind necessarily features advocacy at the expense of quality, and that the intellectual coercion it obliges reinforces stereotypes rather than abolishing them.
Short warns that radical feminists are trying to dismantle the established disciplines, and that virtually every course they teach ends up consisting of “oppression studies.” He also warns of the “extent to which radical feminists have taken over many of the best campuses” through their conscious effort “to plot strategies intended to deceive their colleagues.” They have been successful, he claims, because of their skill in taking “small, seemingly uncontroversial steps in order to prepare the way for larger steps later on.” In a postscript appended to his article, he accuses feminists of acknowledging their subversive intentions among themselves (as may be confirmed, he claims, by scrutinizing the Proceedings of the Great Lakes College Association) while maintaining a more conciliatory posture in their communications intended for the profession as a whole.
Short likewise warns of a self-perpetuating cycle whereby a stepped-up minority curriculum encourages the increased recruitment of minority faculty and students, leading to even further curriculum distortions, followed, of course, by the need for more students and faculty willing to give credence to these distortions. The university curriculum is already in a “perilously weakened condition,” Short maintains, so it is imperative for concerned faculty to favor “disciplinary-based education” instead of diversity-inspired self-indulgence. He argues that we must emphasize “how Western civilization, rather than being racist, sexist, classist, and ethnocentric, is actually the [sole] source of those principles and ideals by which diversity of opinion is sought, diversity of cultures honored, and individuals of all types respected.” As earlier indicated, the National Association of Scholars uses Short’s essay to recruit new membership, and its rapid growth at least partly results from his intense persuasiveness verging on true belief.
Obviously, the authors discussed here are a varied lot. Barzun, Bloom, and Silber speak as patriarchs frustrated by the younger generation, Hirsch and Jacoby as disappointed liberals, and Sykes and Kimball as angry young academics who are relatively confident that the teaching profession can be brought to its senses. Bloom, Barzun, and Silber tend to be discursive, while Jacoby, Sykes, Shaw, and Short are more organized. Bloom generalizes, Shaw excerpts, and Kimball sequentially dismantles. Bloom and Barzun deviate from their basic argument at times, while Silber’s book is more rambling, with chapters that include, far example, a marvelous expose of the legal profession (worth the price of the book), but also a misguided defense of American policy in Central America that is actually based on a single footnote reference citing The Readers Digest. Both chapters are perhaps relevant to his larger thesis, “What’s Wrong in America,” but not to his discussion of the academic crisis that otherwise dominates two-thirds of his book.
The feminist movement obviously disturbs most of the authors, and, among them, Bloom, Shaw, Kimball, Short, Smith, and Sykes (in The Hollow Men) specifically target feminism. The loss of religion is deplored by five of the authors – Barzun, Silber, Johnson, Smith, and Bloom – the latter, for example, by unfavorably comparing current literary scholarship to the labored study of the Bible by his uneducated grandparents. Amusingly, two of the most unreconstructed among the group, Bloom and Johnson, draw opposite conclusions about Rousseau’s contribution in the decay of Western civilization: Bloom praises Rousseau; Johnson vigorously attacks him. Also with obvious contradictory implications, Bloom and Shaw challenge the irrationality of current academic trends, while Barzun and Jacoby deplore its excessive pedantry.
Other idiosyncrasies abound among the texts – for example, Johnson’s voyeuristic obsession with the sex lives of intellectuals, and E. D. Hirsch’s sober recommendation that the focus of primary and secondary education must shift from its present skills orientation to the “chunking” of information so knowledge can later accumulate based on memorized fragments. It seems obvious, however, that students with skills deficiencies would likewise find it difficult to acquire a useful general knowledge based on what seems an academic institutionalization of Trivial Pursuit. Better than programmatically teaching either basic skills or chunks of knowledge, one suspects, would be the timely exposure to challenging books relative to the student’s level of development.
As earlier indicated, Barzun traces the “final cause” of our academic decline to the overall decline of Western civilization, but most of the others blame it on the postponed radical influence of the ’60s. Their shared assumption, and perhaps the sine qua non of academic neoconservatism, seems to be the notion that student protestors first tried to take over campuses by means of a coup d’etat, and later succeeded as tenured professors through what has amounted to intellectual infiltration.
Here, neoconservatives ignore the moral validity of the civil rights movement and the anti-war campaign against an illegal invasion (since our government had refused to sign the 1954 Geneva Accords) that ultimately cost two million Vietnamese lives, one million Cambodian lives, and 47,000 American lives, not to forget the numberless thousands of Vietnamese peasants who were murdered or tortured to death under the Phoenix Program. Bloom and Shaw might decry the vulgar excesses of the demonstrators (and vulgar they sometimes were), but they fail to recognize that the ultimate responsibility for what happened primarily lay with Washington policymakers.
Moreover, academic neoconservatives ignore the pervasiveness of the conservative evolution that has taken place since the ’60s. The protest movement quickly fragmented into a variety of ad hoc causes that culminated in the “me” commitment of the Reagan decade. However, this 25-year trend has been a departure from radicalism, not its perpetuation. The style and perhaps some of the objectives of the ’60s might have been perpetuated, but these soon became mixed with greed, hustling, and bureaucratic infighting entirely at odds with the temper of the ’60s.
Different issues came to the fore, as well as different strategies for dealing with them and a different leadership able to implement these strategies. Some individuals were able to ride the crest as priorities shifted from social engagement to careerist profiteering, but many who had been at the center of events during the ’60s found themselves “marginalized” by the mid-’80s, and many others, whose contribution was peripheral at best during the ’60s, were better able to make the necessary adjustment for reaping their share of benefits during the ’80s.
Even current academic discourse may be identified as a conservative achievement whose occasional use of radical nomenclature is no less opportunistic than its phraseology borrowed from Freud, Nietzsche, Husserl, or anybody else. Careerism predominates, not radical subversiveness. Faculty whose poststructural successes have justified disproportionate salaries, travel stipends, lecture fees, and an extraordinary variety of perks should be recognized, if anything, as academic yuppies, not as jaded ’60s activists unswerving in their dedication to social upheaval.
They might be slightly older than ordinary yuppies and earn slightly less, but their prudent versatility, as Kimball describes Fish, in “knowing just how far to go in going too far,” categorizes them as yuppies, not as radical malcontents. Moreover, their incomes put them, if only barely, in the top quintile among American wage earners. They necessarily thrive, as do ordinary yuppies, in a system dependent upon the labor of a proletariat, in their case, as described by Sykes and Smith, an “academic underclass” consisting of graduate assistants and part-time instructors who teach lower-division classes.
To extend the analogy, those few academics with genuine celebrity status for their role in deconstructing the canon and ideology of Western tradition likewise bear a closer comparison, if anything, to Wall Street’s leveraged buyout specialists than to the ’60s radical leadership. Such critics as Derrida, Fish, Culler, and Jameson are no less the beneficiaries of the Reagan decade than anybody else, and they very likely share more affinities with Ivan Boesky and Mike Milken than with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Like junk bond artists, they dismantle otherwise viable structures (the ordinary meaning of texts) in order to reap benefits that can be parlayed into new investment elsewhere. They, too, thrive via dismemberment, and their primary talent has consisted of tailoring their breakdown skills so as to be better published, more frequently sought as lecturers, and promoted to chairs at schools with better perks and opportunities.
Bloom acknowledges how the feminist movement of the ’70s constituted a reaction against the sexual revolution of the ’60s, but he overlooks how most of the other supposedly progressive causes and movements of the ’70s played a similar role, funneling our collective priorities into the rampant careerism of the ’80s. The original campaign to challenge, if not overthrow, the system was first revised as the pursuit of attainable modifications, then as the use of power or status to gain these modifications, and finally as the exclusive emphasis on status and career opportunities. Excesses associated with the latest stage in this development cannot be blamed on vintage radicalism, any more than the excesses of Reconstruction following the Civil War could be blamed on the abolitionist movement preceding it. Careerists with a flashy activistic rhetoric should not be identified with the genuine activists who preceded them by a full generation.
Nor do academic neoconservatives seem willing to acknowledge the possibility that current academic trends reflect general economic stagnation resulting from our nation’s geopolitical and socio-economic adjustments as explained, for example, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published by Paul Kennedy in 1987, and in The Politics of Rich and Poor, published by Kevin Phillips in 1990. If Kennedy and Phillips are correct, as I suspect they are, our problem in the field of education – our excesses as well as deficiencies – must primarily be traced to a pattern of diminishing resources in our culture as a whole. Despite the bizarre rhetoric of a “new world order,” everything about us seems to be deteriorating. Educational failure is merely one facet of overall national decline, as exemplified by the steady drop in real wages since the mid-’60s, necessitating double- and even triple-income households.
As in the third world, our middle class barely holds its own while the very poor and very rich become more numerous and more obviously caught up in their respective destinies. Our savings-and-loan institutions, and even many of our banks, are sinking into insolvency; our corporations have been dismantled for their marketable components; and much of our economy has been bought up by foreign investors. Our national government is awash with corruption, our cities are crumbling, our families are disintegrating, drugs are out of control, and a large underclass is rapidly expanding in both our cities and countryside. More than ever, our popular culture appeals to the lowest standards of taste, and, more than ever, our sources of information are dominated by extraordinary wealth and the spin-control artists of big government.
Even contemporary trends in literature and “high” art emphasize a minimalist reduction of experience to its lowest common denominator – as if the most serious issues bearing upon our national destiny elude articulation in the context of expressive form. If this pattern of deterioration is as severe as many claim, we cannot expect our educational establishment to stand entirely aloof from its effects. We must learn to adjust to its direct and indirect impact on our colleges and universities.
All in all, it is easy to agree with the diagnosis of neoconservatives that much is very wrong in academia, but it is more difficult to agree with either their explanation of its cause or most of the remedies they propose. Too often their arguments seem colored by the paranoid quest for scapegoats from the political left. However, they can hardly be faulted for their effort, since a comparable disorientation has long been evident in the simplistic victimology promoted by those they attack.
At last, it seems, liberal righteousness has produced a comparable response from the political right. Both have exaggerated valid concerns to such an extent that any final choice by the American academic community will necessarily depend on seeking out a middle ground. Indeed, it does remain important to recruit minority faculty and students and to teach minority authors in addition to the standard canon.
But it also seems important to salvage as many as possible of the books taught earlier, to continue trying to maintain the highest possible academic standards, and now and again to hire at least a few of the most competent white male candidates who seek academic positions, even in such fields as English, anthropology, and foreign languages. Our standard assortment of texts considered worthy of study is not so big that it cannot be expanded; on the other hand, there are not so many neglected major third-world voices that most of the traditional canon needs to be junked.
Instead of accepting the zero-sum assumption that the pursuit of one alternative must necessarily be at the expense of the other, we must strive for a balanced and healthy integration of the two. To this extent, at least, we can rejoice that a lively dialectic is now taking place upon the diversity revolution.
This article was first published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, May/June 1991.