Anyone familiar with the ongoing debate on humanistic education sparked by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Cultural Literacy, and two successive reports by the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued under William J. Bennett and Lynne V. Cheney, will recognize many of the charges leveled in this book. Seldom, however, has the case been made so eloquently, or with such keen awareness of the underlying issues at stake.
For Roger Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion, the debate on “opening” the literary “canon” has been accompanied by a trivialization of the humanities curriculum and the obliteration of any distinction between high culture and pop entertainment. Under the name of “theory,” criticism has usurped the role of the work of art it supposedly illuminates. More generally, American higher education is under assault by a number of movements such as radical feminism, deconstruction, and ethnic studies, which seek to subordinate traditional scholarly inquiry to left-wing politics, and thereby threaten the very basis of academic disciplines.
At interdisciplinary symposiums held on campuses across the nation, and in the pages of scholarly books and journals, many of the leading critics at our best universities seem intent on attacking the cultural tradition that nourished them. Their indictment rests on the familiar charges that Western culture is “ethnocentric,” “sexist,” “racist,” “elitist,” and so forth, but whatever the label, the purpose is to downgrade the notion of a common cultural heritage to be preserved and transmitted to a new generation.
As Kimball observes, the radical skepticism espoused by these critics verges on a kind of nihilism. In the hands of deconstructionists it leads to the denial that communication itself is possible, or that texts can ever have determinate meanings. Reading is thus reduced to a game, as all distinctions between art and non-art disappear.
In debunking the notion of objectivity, such academics deny the possibility of unbiased judgment or the disinterested pursuit of truth. Their contempt for empiricism, Kimball points out, betrays a misunderstanding of the first principles of science. As for their related claim that “all reading is ideological,” this, Kimball writes, tends to subvert the very basis of liberal democracy, for “if one can no longer cogently distinguish between impartial judgment and parti pris lobbying, between dispassionate description and partisan propaganda, one can no longer make sense of the moral and intellectual ideals on which our society is based.” Indeed, it is a sign of our cultural decadence that such terms as “humanism,” “liberalism,” “objectivity,” “disinterestedness,” and “truth” have, in Kimball’s words, “been drained of meaning and are now regarded, precisely, as ‘moribund’ by men and women whose lives were once devoted to the ideals these words named.”
Moreover, for all their anarchic or nihilistic opposition to the idea that texts have determinable meanings, and for all their talk of “challenging authority,” “demystification,” and “questioning assumptions,” the tenured radicals of academe betray a strong authoritarian streak. They may repudiate as “undemocratic” the belief that some books may be more valuable than others, but they are quick to impose their own political agenda on students and colleagues. As a result, those opposed to the new orthodoxy on campus are apt to be cowed into silence by the general climate of intolerance, typified by the new “anti-harassment” statutes abridging free speech in the name of “sensitivity.”
Kimball limits his analysis to the arts and humanities, and within them to particular representative events, publications, and figures. Those unacquainted with recent developments in art and architecture will find enlightening his dissection of October, a journal which combines Marxist posturing and avant-garde chic; or the absurdities of “deconstructive” architecture as promulgated in the writings of Peter Eisenman and Charles Jencks.
An entire chapter is devoted to Stanley Fish, a literary theorist whose facile philosophical skepticism has always kept him one step ahead of his critics; another, to the apologists for the late Paul de Man who have attempted to portray that critic’s early writings for a collaborationist Belgian newspaper as a linguistic rather than a moral lapse. In reports on various symposiums and colloquiums he attended around the country, Kimball gives us a veritable gallery of knaves and fools condemning themselves with their own words.
On the whole, it is hard to fault Kimball’s analysis. If anything, the situation is worse than he describes, since his book says nothing about the condition of the social sciences, where political indoctrination often constitutes a major part of the curriculum; or the baleful effects of affirmative action in college admissions and faculty hiring—the ultimate triumph, one might say, of political considerations over scholarship. Then, too, Kimball refers only briefly to the vast inroads made by the legal system into educational matters, with the threat of litigation, often government-supported, used to intimidate and control members of the campus community in the conduct of their business-a subject treated, for example, in John Silber’s Straight Shooting.
How did we arrive at this state of affairs? According to Kimball, the fault lies with erstwhile student radicals of the 60’s who now occupy positions of power in the academy as senior faculty and administrators; it is they, rather than today’s students, who are acting to subvert the traditional idea of the liberal arts and to politicize the curriculum.
Well, yes and no: as I write in Berkeley, campus protesters have marched on the chancellor’s office to demand the establishment of a gay/lesbian/bisexual studies department, enlargement of the already-existing affirmative-action quotas for admission of minority students, and immediate tenure for two minority faculty members, one of whom was let go by her department some years ago. So much for the death of student radicalism—at least in that time warp known as the University of California at Berkeley.
What, then, can be done? Is the simple act of exposure and ridicule enough? In the case of an applied discipline like architecture, the danger may be self-limiting, since the need for habitable buildings will probably always keep deconstructionists in the academy and on the fringes of the field; buildings that overthrow our “anthropocentric” preconceptions are likely to find as limited a market as there is in the fashion industry for, say, three-legged trousers. But the liberal arts are another matter, and it is quite possible that they will not survive the threat from within. The National Association of Scholars, founded a couple of years ago, aims to counteract the politicizing tendencies noted by Kimball, but what the organization can actually accomplish remains to be seen. That leaves parents and taxpayers, who may tire in time of subsidizing the more outrageous antics of the radicals; so far, however, their patience has seemed inexhaustible.
Most of Kimball’s book appeared previously over the past few years as separate essays in the New Criterion, and although these have been revised and updated with new material, the volume is still essentially a collection, a fact about which Kimball is curiously unforthcoming. Then, too, the book stops cold with an account of a conference on the humanities at Williams College last September; no attempt is made to sum up the general case or to offer any solution.
Still, despite minor defects, Tenured Radicals remains a formidable polemic against the enemies of culture entrenched in our universities, and it deserves to be widely read.