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The Rise & Fall of Deconstruction

- Abstract

The intellectual and moral disaster that overtook the academic world in the 1970′s and 1980′s is hardly a secret. Yet so complete, and so unforeseen, has been the transformation of the universities from places of learning to arenas of political confrontation that a satisfactory explanation of what happened is still not available. Somehow, the countercultural ethos of the 1960′s came to be embraced by the guardians of culture themselves, in the very institution dedicated to its guardianship. In the end, even the standards of argument on which values rest were discarded along with the values themselves.

Nowhere is the current situation better articulated than in the story of the rise and decline of deconstruction. This arcane intellectual fad, originating in France, seized hold of the American university over the same 20-year period that ended with the domination of radical activism and the “politically correct.” But then in 1988 it suddenly became known that the leading American practitioner of deconstruction, the Belgian-born and recently deceased Paul de Man, long a professor at Yale, had been a Nazi collaborator in 1941 and 1942. That de Man’s Nazi past had anything to do with deconstruction was hotly denied by many of his colleagues. That it could have anything to do with the present condition of American universities might seem even less likely. But academic reactions to the de Man revelation brought the present and the past into vivid alignment.

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