Down with DWEMs

John Sutherland

  • ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles Sykes
    St Martin’s, 304 pp, $9.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 312 03916 6
  • Tenured Redicals: How politics has corrupted our Higher Education by Roger Kimball
    HarperCollins, 222 pp, $9.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 06 092049 1

The American press is waging a campaign against American universities, assisted by a barrage of muckraking books. It would be naive or dishonest to claim that there are no follies or crying abuses in the country’s higher education. Few institutions can have given their enemies more ammunition than American universities have over the last few years. Nevertheless the critics propose drastic remedies that go beyond any rational scheme of reform into political vendetta and witch-hunt. In the worst of worlds, the result could be a repeat of the Fifties purge which emasculated the higher education system for a generation.

The basic problem is much the same as it was in the Eisenhower years. America has for a decade had a confident conservative administration which sees the academy (with certain exceptions like business schools and religious colleges) as a stronghold of liberalism, out of step with the average voter and taxpayer. The ideologues who frame the party’s program and its election issues are provoked by the fact that universities are perceived to have moved faster than the centre of American society in implementing title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enjoining equal opportunity and affirmative action to achieve it. Three successive Republican administrations have studiously neglected this ordinance. It comes down to gut feelings. At its simplest, liberals like ‘diversity’ while conservatives hate ‘quotas’. At its most abstract, the debate touches on the degree to which American culture is unitary – a blanket or a quilt. At its most complex, the issue is how to adjust the traditional curriculum, particularly the Humanities curriculum, to the needs of a changing stock of American humanity (the latest census reveals that ethnic minorities, particularly in young age groups, are growing explosively).

The recent attack on universities was triggered by freshman requirements at an élite West Coast university. Allegations that the Western Culture course at Stanford was ‘racist’ began to surface in 1986. Like other institutions on the Pacific Rim, Stanford had so many ‘minority’ students as to make the term meaningless: this year, the college’s entering class of a thousand or so breaks down as 25 per cent Asian, 17 per cent Hispanic, 10 per cent African American, 1 per cent Native American. Should not the foundation course reflect – or at least gesture towards – the diverse cultural origins and gender mix of the students obliged to take it? Whose foundation is it? Objectively, the argument raised issues which were in themselves useful for the students to debate. Why are Great Books courses dominated by male writers? Where is the centre and where the margins of American culture? Why is the canon mainly a Humanities problem? (Scientists don’t agonise about their great texts being predominantly Anglo-European.) Can an African-American read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a ‘great book’ and nothing more?

There was much agitation. Banners were unfurled (mainly for the benefit of the press) proclaiming ‘Get your racist education at Stanford.’ The acronym DWEM (dead white European male) and the neologism ‘freshpeople’ were giggled over at dinner parties. Jesse Jackson visited the campus and was greeted by five hundred students chanting ‘Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Western Culture’s got to go’ (the course, they meant – but it sounded more ominous than that). William Bennett, Secretary for Education, also came to visit the campus. He is the author of To reclaim a heritage: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education (1984). Bennett thought that Western Culture had to stay and said so, face to face with Stanford’s President on public television.

It was all worked out rather amicably. Western Culture was replaced by ‘Culture Ideas Values’. Essentially, incoming students now have to take three terms of one of eight tracks, most of which are recognisably versions of the old monolith, with some mixture of non-canonical, non-Eurocentric material. The main difference is that the tracks now have a narrower focus on history, philosophy or literature. Only one track, ‘Europe and the Americas’, has the reputation of being dominantly radical. The Stanford faculty voted overwhelmingly (39 to 4) in favour of the revised course in March 1988. The students were apparently as satisfied as freshmen ever are. There had been some robust but essentially civilised debate on an important topic, followed by an honourable compromise. But many conservatives (Bennett among them) thought that Stanford’s President, Donald Kennedy, had caved in too readily to radical ‘intimidation’, and a number of journalists were excited by images of blacks lynching Western Culture. The lay public had also been made aware at around the same time that something sinister called Deconstruction was happening in American universities. Deconstruction contrived to be ridiculously incomprehensible yet at the same time a deadly threat to Western civilisation. In 1987, readers of the New York Times were further baffled to learn that during the war Paul de Man, a leading exponent of Deconstruction, had written almost two hundred all-too-comprehensible articles for a Nazi newspaper, at least one of which was grossly anti-semitic.

Public alarm on the subject was signalled less by the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) than by that ponderous pro-German tract’s making the New York Times best-seller list for 31 weeks. There are always jeremiads on the theme of ‘why Johnny can’t read’ or squibs like Frederick Crews’s The Pooh Perplex, mocking the absurdities of scholarship. But Bloom raised the stakes by suggesting that higher education was doing on the campuses what crack was doing in the city streets – wiping out whole generations of American youth and threatening the survival of the nation.

A tidal wave of cover stories about the crisis in higher education hit around new year, 1991. All painted the same lurid picture. American universities had overnight, it seemed, become totalitarian statelets ruled by the ferocious ideology of ‘political correctness’ – a McCarthyism of the Left. According to Newsweek, ‘PC patrols’ were on constant duty up and down the corridors of Stanford dorms to snuff out any hint of ableism (‘oppression of the differently abled’), ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, lookism, racism or sexism. Using the word ‘women’ instead of ‘womyn’ (or ‘wombyn’) might be suspect; using ‘colored people’ instead of ‘persons of color’ would definitely be culpable; ‘queer’ or ‘nigger’ would be capital. According to New York, honest-to-God history could no longer be taught at Harvard, if it introduced – even in historical quotations – such prohibited words as ‘Oriental’ or ‘Indian’ (i.e. native American). The canon of great literary texts had been thrown overboard. BDWMs (boring dead white males) like Chaucer and Dickens had given way to Batman, Louis L’Amour and Maxine Hong Kingston. Literature and history now worked exclusively ‘from below’. Stanley Hauerwas’s pronouncement that ‘the canon of great literature was created by high-Anglican assholes to underwrite their social class’ was paraded as a commandment of the PC movement. Hauerwas is a professor of theological ethics at Duke. Also cited as symptomatic of the times was Houston Baker’s cryptic remark that choosing between authors like Virginia Woolf and Pearl Buck ‘is like choosing between a hoagy and a pizza. I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.’ Baker is black, and his career is in great shape. A chaired professor at Penn, he is the next president of the Modern Language Association. Even where canonical authors were retained as objects of study, they were desecrated by the new professoriate. Emblematic significance was attached to Eve Sedgwick’s wretched 1989 MLA Paper, ‘The Masturbating Girl in Jane Austen’. The curriculum had been hijacked by theorists, by multi-culturalists, by feminist-Marxists, by Afro-centrists, all exploiting education and the susceptible young for their political agendas. Oportunists like Stanley Fish presided over the whole mess with Nero-like insouciance, declaring that ‘there is no such thing as literal meaning ... there is no such thing as intrinsic merit’ while collecting a huge salary. Humanities – particularly literature and history departments – was the sore from which this pus principally emanated.

Journalism is by its hurried nature prone to jump to conclusions and to eye-catching exaggeration. But the recent books denouncing higher education are as apocalyptic and sensational as anything in the prints.

ProfScam is the shallowest and the most dismissible attack. The book’s thesis is contained in its unpleasant title: university professors are crooks, con-artists, bullshit merchants. Not some, but all. As a class they are overpaid, underworked, unaccountable to their customers, and producers of worthless ‘junkthink’ which they exchange among themselves as research. Worse than this, professors are wholly cynical in their wickedness – like Mexican cops or Chicago judges, corruption goes with the turf. They cheat their students of an education, the Government of its grant money, and parents of their children’s tuition fees. After a survey of the university scene drawn mainly from newspaper clippings and his own fantasies, Sykes offers what he terms ‘the last option available to break the tyranny of the academic culture – and the professors – over the nation’s universities, intellectual life, and, ultimately, its future’. As it happens, America’s salvation turns out to be as simple as just say no. Cut research money, abolish tenure, promote on teaching merit not publication, restore the canon. In short – whack the professors.

Roger Kimball’s book is more thoughtful and more artfully spiteful. The subtitle ‘How politics has corrupted our Higher Education’ locates the rot in evil ideology rather than professors on the take. ‘Has corrupted’ is a significant use of tense. In Kimball’s analysis, the enemy is within the gates; the damage has been done and undoing it will be a bloody business. ‘It is no secret,’ he tells us, ‘that the academic study of the humanities in this country is in a state of crisis. Proponents of deconstruction, feminist studies, and other politically-motivated challenges to the traditional tenets of humanistic study have by now become the dominant voice in the humanities departments of many of our best colleges and universities.’ As someone who, unlike Kimball, actually works in an American university, I must say that this dire state of affairs is not apparent to me. Certainly the factions he mentions exist, they have their followings, they make themselves heard loudly at conferences, and they are always good for an outrageous statement to the press. But the idea that they are incontestably in charge of universities, or that they ‘show a remarkable unity of purpose’ in their campaign to ‘subvert the tradition of high culture embodied in the classics of Western art and thought’, is extremely dubious. Rather melodramatically, Kimball calls the research for his book a ‘report from the front’, as if he had risked his skin to write it. He asserts that ‘the very idea that the works of Shakespeare might be indisputably greater than the collected cartoons of Bugs Bunny is often rejected as anti-democratic and an imposition on the freedom and political interests of various groups.’ All professions have their lunatic fringe, but the idea that this ludicrous proposition is often given academic respectability at ‘our best colleges and universities’ is nonsense.

Kimball’s points usually have a kernel of truth and, more often than one would like, genuine substance. But he seems unable to restrain himself from hyperbolic flourishes that make him and his book look ridiculous. He claims, for instance, that ‘with a few notable exceptions, our most prestigious liberal arts colleges and universities have installed the entire radical menu at the centre of their humanities curriculum.’ This means, does it, that the works of Lenin and Mao Tse Tung are mandatory for all incoming students at Yale, Harvard, Chicago and hundreds of other colleges in America? Kimball might be able to find a handful of examples (Frantz Fanon being on the ‘Culture Ideas Values’ syllabus at Stanford is something he mentions repeatedly), and he could well make a thin-end-of-the-wedge case. But the notion that the ‘entire’ leftist program is everywhere centrally installed is false. Tenured Radicals rests on another dubious thesis, which was prominently used in George Bush’s election campaign: namely, that 1990s liberalism is 1968 radicalism with blow-waved hair and a three-piece suit. ‘The truth,’ Kimball informs us, ‘is that when the children of the Sixties received their professorships and deanships they did not abandon the dream of radical cultural transformation; they set out to implement it. Now, instead of disrupting classes, they are teaching them; instead of trying to destroy our educational institutions physically, they are subverting them from within.’ There are certainly continuities between the student body twenty years ago and senior faculty today. Given normal professional turnover, it could hardly be otherwise. But the idea that a generation of campus radicals has laboured for decades to acquire power with the sole aim of destroying ‘our’ universities is body-snatcher paranoia.

Kimball devotes a section of Tenured Radicals to the de Man affair, as an academic cover-up of Watergate dimensions. David Lehman’s Signs of the Times – reviewed here not long ago by Claude Rawson – is a narrative and meditation on the same subject. The tone is less enjoyably sarcastic than Kimball’s, but Lehman too is convinced that the de Man case is symptomatic of a higher education which has gone to hell. The familiar quotations are trotted out. Baker’s hoagies and pizzas make their inevitable appearance topped off with some fresh anecdotes:

It is commonplace wisdom among job-seekers at the MLA convention that – as one told me at a recent gathering – ‘if you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or Marxist or a feminist. Otherwise you don’t stand a chance. You’re not taken seriously. You’re on the fringe. It doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know. What counts is your theoretical approach. And that means knowing the jargon and who’s in and who’s out.’ His companion agreed adding ominously that ‘to be a white male in academia today is like being a leper in the Middle Ages.’ Then the two of them went off to attend a session on ‘The Muse of Masturbation’.

One could as legitimately review this book by recounting an imaginary conversation at the American Booksellers’ Association in which one author tells another that the only way to get a book on higher education into the best seller list is to attach it to a Spenglerian prediction of the end of civilisation as we know it. Signs of the Times finally skewers itself on its own alarmist rhetoric. Deconstruction has corrupted the academy. But now that it has fallen with the disgrace of Paul de Man, surely the outlook must be brighter? No, it isn’t. Like the monster in some Gothic pulp, Deconstruction is the nightmare that won’t die. It is ‘not quite the growth industry that it was a few years ago’, Lehman concedes:

But though the local reputations of the ‘boa-deconstructors’ may show some slippage, the larger problem has not fundamentally changed. Pure deconstruction is no longer the height of fashion, but the impulse continues in alloyed form, and it is as ubiquitous as ever ... The edicts of deconstruction – merged, to whatever extent, with the ideologies of Marxism, psychoanalytic theory and feminism – remain the prevailing suppositions of the lit-crit establishment. One can discern a fundamental deconstructive procedure at work in the meteoric rise of ‘gender’ and ‘ethnic’ studies, at present the hottest areas in the lit-crit profession.

This is a familiar paranoid construction. Communism is proscribed – so it organises itself in front organisations like the Hampstead Women’s Institute. It becomes invisible and ubiquitous. Only a Matthew Hopkins, a Cotton Mather, or a Joe McCarthy are vigilant and subtle enough to root the infection out.

The objection to these diatribes is that they call for a witch-hunt when what higher education really needs is more in the nature of a strenuous overhaul. If one can separate the diagnosis from the excesses of the prescription, a lot of these authors’ criticism is on target and should be looked at carefully by academics, even those who find the politics of their critics obnoxious. Teaching itself has been disgracefully degraded as a professional asset. The content of ‘Culture Ideas Values’ at Stanford is less worrying to me than the fact that tenured or tenure-track professors do not take classroom responsibility for it: the section-teaching is farmed out to short-contract instructors. (Excellent instructors, apparently – but not teachers with a future at Stanford.) The faculty vote on the course; the President of Stanford and Secretary for Education debate it; hired help teaches it. It is a situation typical of a profession where, too often, status is reflected by how little undergraduate classroom work one can get away with. The MLA has sponsored too many panels as deliberately provocative as ‘The Masturbating Girl in Jane Austen’ and deserves all the satire it gets. And the Association seems to choose its presidents for their reckless willingness to lead with the chin. Last year’s leader, Catharine Stimpson, answers conservative critics with the retort that ‘under the guise of defending objectivity and intellectual rigour, which is a lot of mishmash, they are trying to preserve the cultural and political supremacy of white heterosexual males.’ This may be giving as good as you get, but not everyone who pays the bills for universities thinks that objectivity and intellectual rigour are mishmash. Next year the MLA has to carry the cross of a president who has publicly dedicated his career to the abolition of standards. A lot of theoretical writing is mumbo-jumbo, even to academics. And so is a lot of what now passes as cultural studies (‘Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Human Body’, for instance). There is much amiss, then. But not as much as the authors of these books claim. If reassurance is needed, look at the latest edition of the Norton Anthology, the annual bibliography of the MLA, the course listings in the catalogues of the large state colleges. Most of what goes on in American higher education is boringly the same as it ever was. But try getting a book on the bestseller list saying that.