Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals

Tenured RadicalsStrange things have been happening at universities of late. Actually, strange things have been happening at universities – and, in particular, their humanities departments – for some time, but the general public seems to show only periodic concern. There was, for example, this op-ed in the Harvard Crimson from earlier last year, arguing against academic freedom and in favor of “academic justice.” Or this piece in the Columbia Spectator, unironically titled “Our identities matter in Core classrooms,” arguing, among other things, in favor of so-called “Trigger warnings,” designed to give readers advanced notice of any potentially harmful or traumatizing material. Alas, poor Ovid: his Metamorphoses “is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” Things get even stranger when you peer behind the curtain, at what the general public is not meant to see. Consider, for example, the University of California’s faculty training guide, which aims for “inclusive excellence” by discouraging such bigoted statements as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” or “America is a melting pot.” The curious can find dozens of similar examples, from the past year alone, of an academia gone mad, contorting itself to conform to the latest in progressive posturing with far less regard for their traditional goal of educating students.

This turn towards politics over pedagogy has prompted numerous thoughtful criticisms, among which was Allan Bloom’s runaway bestseller The Closing Of The American Mind, a book that anticipated many of the aforementioned developments in the academy. One of Bloom’s chief targets in that book is what has come to be known as Deconstructionism, a school of thought that puts forward a radical relativism:

Comparative literature has now fallen largely into the hands of a group of professors who are influenced by the post-Sartrean generation of Parisian Heideggerians, in particular Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. The school is called Deconstructionism, and it is the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of possibility of truth in the name of philosophy. The interpreter’s creative activity is more important than the text; there is no text, only interpretation. Thus the one thing most necessary for us, the knowledge of what these texts have to tell us, is turned over to the subjective, creative selves of these interpreters, who say that there is both no text and no reality to which the texts refer. A cheapened interpretation of Nietzsche liberates us from the objective imperatives of the texts that might have liberated us from our increasingly low and narrow horizon. Everything thus far has tended to soften the demands made on us by the tradition; this simply dissolves it.

For those unfamiliar with Derrida, Foucault and Barthes, this passage can be difficult to parse, but Bloom’s central point is nonetheless intelligible: the latest vogue academic theories place the subjective reading of the interpreter above the objective meaning of the work; in fact, they deny that there is such a thing as objective meaning. If this sounds all very abstract, it nonetheless has a pernicious practical consequence: great works of literature are no longer viewed as great for what they have to say, for their ability to convey some important aspect of the human experience; instead, they are looked upon with suspicion, viewed as symptomatic of the white, male, Eurocentric civilization that produced and promoted them. It is from such a perspective that the study of Ovid can be termed “triggering and offensive,” and be said to “marginalize” student identities: Ovid, after all, was white and male, and to expect anyone not white and male to relate to him, to treat him as a source of wisdom, may itself be an act of imperialism! The philosopher Roger Scruton put it more succinctly:

…behind the many pseudo-sciences that have recently dominated literary criticism… you will find the same suspicion of literature, a desire to sever our relation to it by denuding it of meaning. The “methods” proposed are laughable caricatures of science; and the results delivered are useful to no one. But that was not the point. The methods of the new literary theorists are really weapons of subversion: an attempt to destroy humane education from within, to rupture the chain of sympathy that binds us to our culture. That is why the new schools of criticism have acquired a following: they promise to release us from the burden of study by showing that there is nothing after all to learn.

This reflexive distrust of the past and our very culture would be terribly funny if it wasn’t so sad; it constitutes nothing less than a betrayal of our heritage and of the very mission of higher education. So it was with great pleasure and expectation that I turned to Roger Kimball’s twice-updated Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education.

Kimball is the founding & managing editor of The New Criterion, and a renowned art critic in his own right, and Tenured Radicals is the kind of incisive, no-holds-barred polemic that these academic frauds deserve. This is not merely a parochial concern, something only relevant to squabbling professors and theorists. As Kimball makes clear, this is a battle for the very soul of Western culture, and, by virtue of the fact that universities are heavily subsidized by the public, it involves every tax-paying citizen.

Basic questions, the answers to which one could once have assumed were taken for granted, must be asked anew. To whom is the faculty accountable? To the extent that it holds itself accountable to its pedagogic duties, it is accountable to itself. To the extent that it repudiates those duties, it is accountable to the society in which it functions and from which it enjoys its freedoms.

Kimball’s first step is to name his enemies, and these constitute whole departments: Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, African American Studies – those, in short, with an axe to grind and little objective basis to their curriculums. What, for example, do these programs study? Why, the oppression of their respective groups, of course – as understood in a political paradigm they’ve established, where outside criticism is unwelcome and unheeded. The result is what Kimball calls “the Sovietization of intellectual life, where the value of a work is determined not by its intrinsic qualities but by the degree to which it supports a given political line,” with the result that courses on literature are transformed into “amateur exercises in sociological or anthropological sermonizing.” When an author’s reputation prevents these tenured radicals from dropping their study altogether, the corrosive ethic of Deconstructionism is applied, resulting in monstrosities like “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” authored by Duke University English professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Be assured that whatever students “learn” from such a paper (and such a teacher!), it bears little resemblance to the study of literature as practiced for centuries prior to professor Sedgwick.

For nearly three hundred pages, Kimball castigates these academic frauds, mining their pretentious and bloated prose – as well as academic conferences he attended – for examples of their indifference to evidence and eagerness to affirm the political status quo. A particularly witty subchapter entitled “Are you now or have you ever been conservative?” (alluding, of course, to Joe McCarthy) mocks the unthinking disdain for conservatism regnant on campuses, exemplified by this professor’s attempt to distance himself from Allan Bloom: “I presume that, on the simplest level, Bloom votes or at least talks to Republicans and emotionally that has not been my own history.” Bloom was a registered Democrat, but heaven forbid he vote or even talk to Republicans! And like it or not, some element of conservatism is essential to education. Kimball quotes approvingly from Hannah Arendt, who wrote that “conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something.” How well have the professors we have entrusted with this duty upheld their end? Kimball informs us that “since 1970 the number of students majoring in the humanities has declined by about half, by nearly two-thirds in the case of history, that fewer than half of all colleges and universities require foreign language study for the bachelor’s degree – down from ninety percent in 1966 – and that a student can now be graduated from seventy-five percent of our colleges and universities without having studied European history.” And who can blame them? If, as we are told, our history and culture, and the literary works that are its products, are rife with sexism, racism and other hideous oppressing forces, well, good riddance to all that! 

The victims in this are the students, who are cheated of an education and systematically severed from their cultural legacy. The difference between high and low culture is eroded until to even contend that there is a difference marks one off like a leper; to engage in debate, however benign, on any of the points most sacred to progressives is a heresy worthy of excommunication, and many an aspiring professor has found themselves passed over for tenure because of a political disagreement (see, for example, the treatment of Jonathan Gottschall). In such a climate, it’s nice to have a Roger Kimball to remind us that, “Pace the partisans of radical multiculturalism, Western civilization, far from being a narrow ideology, is a capacious register of human achievement, embracing everything from the lyrics of Sappho and the philosophy of Aristotle to the works of Dante, Bach, Newton, Jane Austen, and T.S. Eliot.” Worse still, we are beginning to feel the impact of these cultural orphans as they, in turn, take on positions of influence in the media and in academia; you may recognize them by their histrionic prose and unflinching self-righteousness. They are the fruit of a fifty-year experiment that should long ago have been put to rest. Here, one final time, is Kimball, summing up the whole misguided philosophy:

We are told that by concentrating on questions of gender, class, and ethnicity, multiculturalism provides new ways of looking at literature; in fact, literature per se never really comes into focus at all. The freedom that belongs to the exercise and experience of art is delivered over to a preordained set of political scenarios. The effect is to impoverish, not to enlarge, our experience. Furthermore, the notion that criticism is a free-floating activity, equally valuable whether applied to comic books or to the poems of Dante, underscores the deep cynicism that characterizes so much academic criticism today. It is as if what is actually said, believed, or advocated in our critical judgments is somehow incidental to the character of the humanistic enterprise – as if the value of a particular interpretation were independent of its truth!

None of this is by accident; this undermining of our culture and our literature was a deliberate endeavour, perpetrated by a mixture of savvy radicals and useful idiots. The real shame belongs to us, as a society, that for the better part of half a century we have allowed this subversion to take place unchallenged – even underwritten its costs with public money! Then again, the canon our society has largely turned its back on can never lose its power to console. Here, for example, is John Milton: “Truth, in some age or other, will find her witness, and shall be justified at last by her own children.”