The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.3 (Summer 2015)
Academe in Decay
Angels Unchained: Toward the Liberation of Literature from the Professorial Plantation (Part Two)
John R. Harris
I. Egotism’s Double Helix: The Spiral of Applause and Put-Down That Sustains the Ivory Tower
a) the magnetism of schoolroom praise
What suits a person to become a “scholar”? Intelligence is but the least of it. Only a “scholar”, at any rate, would be so arrogant as to suppose that intelligent architects, criminologists, farmers, dry-wallers, carpet-cleaners, ministers, and physical therapists do not also exist. The scholar, however, is “bookish”: that is, he or she is comfortable in a sedentary life of absorbing information from sources in a fairly (and most often extremely) passive manner. This is not one of your “hands-on” specimens of the human race: not, at least, in the area of literary study. And what, then, inclines a child to grow into a being so averse to running and playing in the sun? To the extent that we may justly attribute this retreat from the active life to environment rather than to essential inclination, it would seem likely that one or more of several forces may be driving the young person to pull up the drawbridge and cultivate a life of introversion. Here are a few such influences that I have observed.
- Family Problems: The dictatorial dogma of political correctness notwithstanding, children fare best in stable two-parent households. As the traditional family draws closer to extinction, more children create their own “safe zones” where harsh realities will not reach them. Our society’s impressive panoply of escapist technology has opened up “virtual realities” for such withdrawal that did not exist just two decades ago; in my generation, and especially among children of a certain demographic, the book offered the favored means of retreat. Even today, a child can develop a formidable reading habit when everything that happens outside of two covers is frightening or humiliating.
- Physical Oddity: Of course, children also withdraw because their appearance brings derision upon them. Braces and thick glasses used to nudge young teenagers into the margin: those particular stigmata seem to have turned benign, thankfully. Some severe physical deformities, congenital in nature, are indeed immobilizing in themselves and force the afflicted to stay indoors; but children of this sort can emerge quite well socialized, since their extreme oddity excites compassion and a kind of protectiveness among their peers. More often, scholarly material is to be found among the very short (male) and the severely overweight (female). Social interaction can be so painful for children in such a condition that they flee to a world conjured up by their mind.
- Social Awkwardness: Naturally, both of the preceding situations can create social awkwardness—but the category should include a great many other circumstances. For instance, a child may move to a region far from his place of origin and carry an accent with him that inspires mockery; or a child from humble socio-economic circumstances may be thrust into a “rich kid’s school” through the receipt of a scholarship. In this latter setting (as I can attest to myself), the child may find that retreat into books produces more success in schoolwork, which bestows a vital shot of self-esteem—and, at the same time, draws more resentment than ever from contemptuous classmates. Books and fantasy then become both the means of escape and the reason for exile: a vicious cycle is launched.
- Parental Expectation: The parental dynamic can be especially tragic. Usually one dominant parent makes his or her expectations known early and often to the child (typically the eldest or only child), so the young mind matures warped under an insistent magnetism whose influence has never been absent. It was always assumed that Johnny would be a doctor; it was always taken for granted that Marie would be a great pianist like her mother; Walter’s whole reason for being was to inherit the family business; Sonya had only one course open to her, since both of her parents were Olympic gymnasts. This kind of “predestination”, obviously, can bully children into career paths far more numerous than the scholarly life. In fact, most literary scholars who have fulfilled some parental expectation via the Ivory Tower have done so merely by acquiring a Ph.D. (in my experience).
- Isolation within a Social Minority: This seems a relatively rare motive in our culture, but it surely exists. The person whose group senses itself beleaguered has cause to be less outgoing in a communal sense, though he or she may be very much so within a small, safe sub-culture. The perception, correct or not, may be transmitted that doors will not open for “people like us” and that “we must therefore stick together.” Such a mentality could describe the aristocrat in an increasingly proletarian society as well as, say, the Orthodox Jew in New England society. The world of ideas can appear not only a safe, but also a very rewarding, place to dwell, since mastery in that world renders one’s color or class irrelevant.
I confided above that my own experience produced a self-sustaining enthrallment to lonely introversion, and I think this may be generally true in a less rigorous sense of most scholarly types. For whatever reasons, their childhood has often inured them to being on the outside looking in, socially speaking. They fled at a formative age to reading, drawing, music, writing, and—more often nowadays, it seems—“geek” retreats like composing programs for computer games. Most of these safe havens can have favorable repercussions somewhere on the report card. The child thereupon not only has secured a private space where he or she belongs and is in control, but has also—by happy accident—garnered a degree of public, formal approval from sources greatly respected in the adult world. To have such applause, naturally, will further isolate the child from the “cool” crowd among his or her peers; but that isolation has already long been a fact of the young life in question, so the loner embraces the benefits of a situation that can’t be avoided. Our “nerdy” adolescent collects ribbons and takes bows at school-wide ceremonies where the scornful are forced to applaud along with everyone else. Making A’s on tests and essays has become the generator of the only kind of revenge the sad oddball can know.
And, quite without perceiving it, he or she is making the situation sadder. The affirmation of adults so gratefully accepted feeds a defensive counter-contempt for contemptuous peers. The views, tastes, habits, and practices of other people—especially those of the student’s own generation—become vulgar and stupid (“cretins” was the word that a brilliant but outcast high-school student once shared with me in describing her classmates). As this besieged mentality advances into college and thence, perhaps, through graduate school, the world falls ever more rigidly into a dualism of worthies and unworthies. The tense dichotomy, “adult authority figure and adolescent peer,” broadens into “the chosen, the high-minded, the gifted, the elite” on one side and “the scum, the rabble, the mob, the idiot demos” on the other. Curiously, though, the moral fissure that begins to run deep into this troubled soul, dividing its view of humanity into demigods and apes, almost never assumes—not overtly—the aristocratic character that my derivation imposes upon it. On the contrary, in college our budding scholar appears to become quite the socialist crusader. The downtrodden—the people who perhaps never finished high school, and who certainly never attended an exclusive preparatory school, and who most certainly were never in the running to be valedictorian—are now claimed by the young scholar as brothers and sisters. What has happened?
I will say further of my own case, in a brief aside, that I took neither the Bourbonist nor the Revolutionary path. I was able to resist the former direction, however, only by cultivating a faith in human brotherhood which my experience did little to justify. For a very short while, charismatic religion was a sort of humbling sackcloth that I forced my intellect to wear, and I think the overall effect was probably a useful corrective. When I later read of Immanuel Kant’s enthusiasm for the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—which seems a very odd intellectual marriage on its surface—I imagined that I could discern something of the same motive. The intellectual absolutely must find his way back to common humanity, or else risk an almost certain putrefaction of all his moral concepts. The poet Leopardi appears to have wrestled mightily with the same angel. In his case, a rare intellect was further isolated in a body that was mildly deformed and tragically frail.
So the young scholar-in-becoming need not be viewed as deterministically bound for the cult of socialist fantasy (though one could say that Rousseau’s draw upon Kant demonstrates precisely that evolutionary doom: Rousseau’s schizophrenic opus, all the same, has some very spiritual moments). Why, then, are the youth of our time almost a lead-pipe cinch to turn Marxist in college? Because of their professors, say right-wing commentators; but I believe that this answer begs the question. If Marxist professors did not exist, then undergraduate “scholars” would have to invent them. As water always runs to the lowest point, so the kind of young person I have portrayed almost always embraces a narrative that presents his or her alienation in the most flattering and comforting light. Marxism is that distorted, distorting radiance.
Consider this first. As the scholar advances in academe, he or she is increasingly thrown together with others of the same ilk. Merely to be admitted into a selective college already filters out one layer of “cretins”. Then, having completed the core courses, our student likely favors a major where that reading-and-writing habit which was a survival skill in Middle School is now the basis of continued success: English rather than Nursing, History rather than Business, Sociology rather than Pharmacy. Second filter applied: now a layer is removed, not so much of the dim-witted, but of the socially rather well adjusted. By the time our scholar sits down in the Senior Seminar, he or she is surrounded by other oddballs and misfits who love the stroking they receive for good essays and loathe the memory of their K-through-Twelve snubs. Should graduate school ensue, the distillation is carried yet a step further.
And the narrative that accounts for these wounded survivors in their bizarre academic lifeboat? The message I received was, “Get out and swim. Try to find your way back to the island—and take some of the responsibility for being cast away upon yourself, even if very little of it truly belongs to you. Accept crucifixion, for he who was literally and epochally crucified deserved it infinitely less than you.” Well, few will need convincing that this is never the most popular course. People prefer to admit no wrongdoing whatever, and revenge seems sweeter than forgiveness upon first taste. As our survivors survey each other’s rags and count each other’s bones, their ears hearken far more readily to a message that indicts the core perpetrator of all those crimes against them. How did they get here, alone (though alone together now), despised (though now celebrated in their little group), and forgotten (though now determined, among themselves, to hold the key to the future)? It was society that cast them adrift, obviously: the others, the mainstream, the normal, the popular. Those are the ones who must bear the blame.
But who, exactly, are “the others”? In literary-critical parlance, it is our scholars who are “other”—who have been “marginalized” by the mainstream and its norm-determining propaganda. In an irony which few of them will ever mature enough to recognize, however, they “other” their persecutors into existence. It is they, I mean, who characterize the inimical mainstream by conferring upon it everything not-them. They are oddball: therefore, the mainstream is obsessed with conformity. They are sensitive: therefore, the mainstream is blunt and soulless. They are creative: therefore, the mainstream is robotic. They are intelligent: therefore, the mainstream is imbecilic. They are tasteful: therefore, the mainstream is crude.
At some point—probably very early, and perhaps even before they consciously reckon their own interests into the calculation—our young scholars look around for additional victims of the mainstream. This makes the self-indulgence of their evolving ideology far less evident. Whom else did the popular crowd back home disparage? People of non-Caucasian origin? Manual laborers? The poor, or lower-middle class? Single parents and their children? Atheists and agnostics? Herein can we find, I am convinced, the source of that passionate attachment to a Marxian ideology which our Humanities programs seem to stamp upon their products like a brand name. These alienated youths make common cause with others whom they suppose to be alienated. They conjure up the specter of an elaborate. heartless socio-political machine running on money and sustained by brainwashing. Our society, it turns out, is a vast conspiracy. It has enslaved or exterminated minority races, ostracized questioners and whistle-blowers, and bribed or bullied timid spirits and weak minds into submission. And, by the way, its force field of tyrannical power caused them, the young scholars, to be left off the invitation list for birthday parties all through grade school.
Naturally, the evil mainstream cannot simply be a human mainstream: we must not conclude in neo-Darwinist fashion, in other words, that so goes the world, inevitably. Then there would be no victimhood, no wrong that cried out for righting (for, as the immortal Russell Kirk once observed, where there is no solution, there is no problem). The system that has cast our battered survivors adrift must be aberrant; and since most of its victims have in common a shortage of cash, the dynamic capitalist system of generating huge amounts of wealth very unevenly seems an ideal Satan to place at the head of the devilish troops.
Of course, young twenty-somethings squirreled away in graduate school after four years at an elite college are unlikely to know much about living in poverty. A shabby off-campus apartment (the shabbier the better) may convince them otherwise… but the hard fact is that few of the proletariat will ever ascend to such poverty-in-waiting-for-a-Ph.D. For that matter, the genuine proletariat genuinely resembles the sort of “vulgar mass” so abhorred and disdained by the scholar far, far more than did the jocks and beautiful people back at the prom. Many of the underclass actually retain a strong religious faith; many disapprove of abortion and homosexual marriage; many will testify that gambling, drinking, and drugs can eviscerate families and ruin lives; many will spank a child rather than shrug and say anemically, “Be thyself.” In fact, the underclass in many matters relating to essential values is precisely that “other” which the young scholars have foisted upon the folks back home, who indeed practice a distinctly relativistic lifestyle in all too many regards. It is that relativism—that cult of the new and different, that willingness to assign value according to popular demand—which is the most destructive aspect of capitalism, morally and culturally. Yet don’t look for our scholars to decry it as they harp on the minimum wage and public health care—for they are not so “other” as they suppose when it comes to the bourgeois addiction to “change, change, change”.
I have no doubt, besides, that a certain vengefulness abides in the chic of campus Marxism. It’s as simple as the spoiled child who tracks mud into the house because his mother warns him not to. Marxism is shocking to the bourgeois mindset. Its system would collect the products of anguishing individual labor and distribute them equally to all, allowing the lazy and the uninspired to parasitize the industrious and the inventive. It’s a thumb in the eye of money-makers everywhere. At that level, its privileged position in campus orthodoxy seems very childish; but then, the young scholar that I have described is precisely a spoiled child, notwithstanding his or her genuine suffering.
I hope I have not demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the scholar’s suffering, or anyone else’s… but everybody suffers somehow, sooner or later (nulli accidit immune nasci, in Seneca’s phrase). The great fault I lay at the scholar’s door is the insistence upon “ideologizing” a difficult childhood so as to render him- or herself a victim owed restitution. This sort of thing, in the long run, creates more suffering. We can see how by looking at the headlines for almost any day over the past thirty or forty years. Truly good minds should hold themselves to a higher standard.
b) the humiliation of hierarchical put-down
By graduate school, however—if not before—something quite new and disorienting happens to the young scholar. Having pledged himself to this elite orthodoxy (which masquerades as the subversive opponent of an elitist power structure), he fancies that he has found a home for the first time in his brief, unhappy life. He is hooked. Graduate school, especially, seals the deal. It is costly and requires a commitment of several years, so resources must be carefully marshaled and apportioned to see the journey through. Others among family and old acquaintance—The Others—are also watching. “Daniel was always such a loser in high school–valedictorian but a complete nothing! Now they say that he’s working on a doctorate!” Revenge is indeed sweet (though the folks back home, quite frankly, are no doubt far less smitten with envy—and far less interested—than our scholar imagines). To turn back suddenly after having progressed but a few paces upon the epic adventure would be unthinkable. Our scholar is not only hooked: he has a noose around his neck and a gun at his head.
Enter the professors of graduate school. Now wearing their true colors, and not making nice to the undergraduate lecture classes that the Dean has forced them to teach, they sniff and scoff at everything their raw recruits do. Students who have never received below an A in their lives for any essay now routinely receive C’s. They don’t understand the sparse comments scrawled almost indecipherably in their paper’s margins, but they are afraid to request elucidation. His Excellency already suspects them of being dull: a question would only confirm that impression. And so they grind away miserably, terrified of having to return home in failure, utterly in despair that the one reliable source of confirmation in their lives has turned Judas. Perhaps they had even chosen a favorite author as a semester project—one of those few to whom they always fled when things went wrong in ninth grade; and now, with a C- on the first draft and a snide, terse observation appended that they understand nothing about their holy text, they wish that they had never heard the writer’s name.
The debacle can be utter. Some of our scholar-apprentices take advantage of the recreational drugs to which they are infallibly introduced: these make the pressure a little less crushing (if only through an artificial postponement). Virtually all of them “let off steam”, as well, through one of several sexual outlets which have almost been combined into Freshman Orientation on our campuses. After all, the sort of person under discussion here has retreated and sought shelter all of his or her life, and has hence not known circumstances that favor the development of courage or pugnacious resistance. Our poor student is easily browbeaten into submission and–yes–that most detested of states, conformity. The only congenial kinds of escape that he or she now finds available are the very opposite of cerebral. “Cerebral” has laid a trap: down with the cerebral! These new amusements, rather, smack of the debauchery de la canaille—the sailor’s boozing and whoring, the frat boy’s Spring Break, the business exec’s Las Vegas conference—that our young loner had once found so squalid.
Not that such a grim revelation (in what would be a true triumph of intelligence) comes breaking through. Rather, the desertion of the high road for the most plodding and ordinary of escapes is parsed as rebellion–and, indeed, as a purely intellectual rebellion. “Wouldn’t the others back home be shocked if they could see how I trash and spit on their prim and proper values!” For now, of course, “the others” are not adulterous, alcoholic hypocrites, but Puritans of the first water. Every page of this evolving “rules for radicals” manual is self-serving.
Inured to psychological bullying and indoctrinated to group-think by much the same methods as Charles Manson used on his “girls”, these young people, I should imagine, finally receive a Ph.D. trimmed in the ruins of their soul. They have had to parrot opinions with which they perhaps disagreed or which (more often) they found incoherent for year after year in order to pass to the next step. Their only solace has come from their cohort—a source of partners in wassail rather than benign adversaries in intellectual fencing matches; for the intellect, once their exclusive claim to worth, has treacherously become their fiercest tormenter. Relativism and even nonsense seem the order of the day to them; for life makes no more sense, and what saved them from mockery before has lately delivered them to mockery on a daily basis. Far from developing a heightened awareness of individuality during their ordeal, they have been driven into the ranks of an easily, steadily hazed herd—an elite herd, but no less vile than any other. Worst of all, their future now depends upon their entering the ranks for the next thirty years of a professoriate that has shown no respect for them as human beings, but has instead treated them like the rabble they supposed themselves to have climbed over long ago. They must become one of these to be granted re-ascension–a higher, a true ascension over the inferior race of dull minds. In shutting and locking the door upon the “others” back home, they have no alternative for community–for “us”–but an association of oddballs elevated to arrogant hypocrites.
I can discern more than a little of Stockholm Syndrome in the process (which implies, of course, that my mention of Manson above was not whimsical). A group of impressionable young people with a rather lower-than-average tendency to independence is surrendered for years into the hands of a dominant clique possessing a strident ideology. The clique, figuratively speaking, determines whether the initiates breathe or suffocate; and in their turn, the initiatives relieve the situation’s strain with bouts of somewhat bestial self-indulgence, thus unwittingly vacating the province of the intellect to their “betters”, who rule there uncontested. Of course, the denouement of Stockholm Syndrome has the “prey” or “victim” adopting the mentality of the tormenter. This would lead one to the conclusion, in our case, that “freshly minted Ph.D.’s” (as a cliché image presents them with an aptitude far exceeding its intent) themselves become the torturers of future graduate students. And that’s exactly what happens.
But before I proceed to explain how it happens, I should devote a few words to resolving an apparent contradiction. I claimed earlier that our graduate students would have to invent the firebrand-socialist professor is he didn’t exist—that their own nagging need of vindication against a society that has offered them little respect primes them to embrace vilifications of major social forces and fixtures. Now, however, I have proposed what seems to be a competing portrait of the young scholar as a pitiful, passive recruit in the hands of a charismatic cultist. How are these two claims to be reconciled?
The two clashing images are two successive moments of the same process. The winnowing stage detailed step by step above involves a series of deliberate choices: the choice to attend college, to attend a certain college, to major in literary or cultural studies, and to continue on to graduate school. As most or all of these choices are being made, students display an active interest in the “conspiracy theory” approach which defines such fields. (I personally, for instance, refused to enroll in graduate school as an English major, having realized from upper-division courses that I would not have been studying literature as an art. My attempt to do so in a Comparative Literature program succeeded only because I largely decided my own course of study in a field so ill defined that it could exert little pressure on recruits.)
Graduate school, however, “gets serious.” The degree of dismay I represented as overtaking young graduate students, granted, is bound to be greater or less in the case of certain students and certain institutions. That the funnel generally begins to narrow at the graduate level, however, is proved by the number of novices who are “chased off” for being white-European or male-heterosexual or capitalist-sympathetic. This number is not zero in most programs; and in some where it is so, the “banned” people in question simply know better than to apply for entry, the program’s reputation having spread far and wide.
As eager as the remaining castaways in the lifeboat may be to embrace the “evil conspiracy” behind their now highly romanticized exile, I think one must still credit the brighter ones with enough intellectual honesty to recognize the contradiction in a prescriptive orthodoxy. Those social, political, cultural, and even “gendered” groups that they are now required to blacklist, one after another, have no hearing. None at all… ever. A “lynch” mentality is directed at them—and also at anyone who would defend them. Instant, mandatory banishment for hesitation in reciting the catechism is hardly a position appropriate for the unjustly banished who once dared to question. A few of our scholar-apprentices are bound to see this, surely.
What these students imbibe by way of brainwash, then, is really not so much a plangent narrative of devils oppressing angels as a manner, a style: an irrational intransigence on all doctrinal matters justified by a maniacal faith in superior righteousness. Graduate-school gurus whip their charges into a fanaticism. Through example, they demonstrate that roughing up pro-life protesters and stealing their placards is acceptable, that writing monologues delivered by talking vaginas is tasteful, that dismissing reasoned challenges with ad hominem vitriol is conscionable, and that replacing text-based study with “act out” assignments around the campus is responsible. Students learn, in short, that boorish, arrogant, petulant, and sometimes almost insane behavior is professionally approved. They learn how to discard whatever breeding they may have received and whatever innate sense of fairness and decency they may have clung to.
Now we exchange a seeming contradiction for a true conundrum. Our young scholars chose to magnify and melodramatize their alienation as undergraduates, and then the grad-school elite juiced them up to become intellectual suicide-bombers of literature, refinement, morality, and culture… but whence came the grad-school elite, the radicalized professoriate? For its members were themselves once callow, “newly minted” Ph.D.’s: what professors had turned them into antinomian kamikazes? The sinister figure of the brain-tampering Bolshevik propagandist in teacher’s clothing is a favorite bogeyman of the Right, just as the baby-devouring robber-baron is a mainstay of leftist mythology. Was there really a phalanx of Stalin-planted moles in the upper echelon of American education at some point?
Maybe. I have to believe, though, that any such influence was negligible. Otherwise, we end up playing the same self-serving game as our intellectualized brat children: we create an Other who is responsible for all our problems. I take resistance to so easy an exit as a mark of maturity, and so I shall try to resist in these closing comments.
For the full answer, I think, must lead to a new section, an entirely new range of subject matter; yet some of that matter must be allowed to seep in here lest we leave the present question dangling. Where did the radical professor, already dreamed in the outcast bookworm’s fantasies, come from with his Scourge of Vengeance and Torch of Annihilation so alien even to adolescent extravagance?
He or she—especially she (as I shall explain in the next section)–came from the “publish or perish” protocol. To present only the essentials for the moment: the American academy became increasingly infatuated with science after World War II. Science made progress, while the Humanities seemed to be making none. Teachers of literature, history, and philosophy were also notoriously hard to evaluate in an objective fashion. Requiring empirical-style publication of such “academic freeloaders” would weed out the tired and the shiftless while creating a quantifiable standard to rate the remainder. You can count articles: three is more than two.
Now, the Humanities have probably been somewhat prone to draw the bookworm and the wallflower as long as the university system has existed, so the tenor of these “empirical” publications was destined to be pettifogging. (Richard Heinze’s Virgils Epische Technik, for instance, published in the bloodlessly clinical style already the norm in the German academy of 1908, reaches one tendentious conclusion after another, but does so by arguing pseudo-objectively from assumed textual influences and “statistically relevant” recurrences within Virgil’s verses.) The “survivalist scholar” in literary studies had every motive to make the standard of proof in his discipline as conditional and arcane as possible. He certainly didn’t want to appeal to taste or common sense: that would allow virtually anyone into the game. He didn’t even want to rely heavily on structural relationships or sustained semantic play within the literary text, as did the noble but short-lived venture of New Criticism; for that would also allow any experienced reader who thought deeply and fruitfully about artful words to have a respected opinion. The “highest standards” must exact constant reference to documents and jargon known only to an elite few. The former, I should perhaps stress—the documents—were indeed physically available only to an elite few in the days before the Internet: to those who worked at institutions with vast libraries or whose institutions would support travel to such libraries. Money was talking, even among the “down with money-makers” crowd. It always talks.
I would digress if I did not take great care here; but I can perhaps offer by way of very brief illustration my own experience of reading a lot of Scottish Gaelic bardic poetry before entering a Ph.D. program and realizing that oral epics in general probably began in such formal, versified praises of a clan chieftain or benefactor. It must have been two decades later when I noticed that a classicist had rather mincingly advanced this very theory of Homeric and other ancient Greek verse. I had entertained the same idea much earlier—but my version would never have been “publishable”, because I had no access to libraries that would have supplied a stock of logically otiose but formally indispensable footnotes. By then I had learned, as well, that the classical establishment comes down hard upon Celticists and other interlopers who seek to trespass upon their territory through something decadently nouveau like “comparative studies”.
It is not just the radical, you see, who demands credentials at the door before allowing visitors into the club. In fact, in this the radical was always as straight-laced as any country-clubbing blue-blood on Knob Hill. Radicalism, from the perspective of “academic survivalism”, has always primarily been about keeping people out—keeping competitors off the playing field. One becomes a radical, professionally, to be on the cutting edge: to use the jargon that few yet know, to ignore the vast wealth of literary tradition with impunity, and to claim a moral right to cut in line at the most respected publications. As a radical, one speaks for those who have been beaten down, held back, and robbed of a voice. In an age of “democracy”, no one dare question the self-appointed mouthpiece’s privilege of being heard first. If one can also tie one’s radicalism to purely circumstantial requirements, such as race or gender, then the field becomes effectively mined against competitors of the wrong race and gender… and the path to career advancement is a proverbial cakewalk.
An unhappy conspiracy of factors, then, reached critical mass a some point in the seventies (as I recall) which rewarded academics with promotion and higher salary if only they could compromise all the learning that had preceded them and legitimize newfangled jargonal contortions as “research”. The past was always and ever being tarred as “propaganda”, and the wave of the future seemed to consist of dissecting the ugly bigotry that had led us to consider nonsense nonsensical. The emperor’s new clothes looked more elegant all the time.
This career-enhancement strategy, I would argue—and not some profound ideological commitment to liberating “the people”—explains why our English and history profs teach, think, and intimidate like bombs on short fuses. I do not allege that they have worked out their modus operandi with anything like lucidity of my exposition; I should guess, rather, that most of them believe their own claptrap. After all, today’s professors are the second—and sometimes even the third—generation of recruits to have been processed into this cult of pushing the envelope farther and farther into manic irrationalism. Yet, one and all, they have brought with them the robber-baron’s instinctive sense that you have to beat the other guy to the sale. You have to publish more, and your pubs have to be more “legitimate”. You have to possess the “swag” that good PR generates.
Enemies of the bourgeoisie… this lot? Well, of course! The capitalist’s biggest enemy is always a rival with a better pitch. The apples, as they say, really don’t fall far from the tree.
John R. Harris is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he teaches writing, world literature, and the classical languages.