The Razor’s Edge
As of this writing, Yale University Press is sticking with its decision to publish in bowdlerized form The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen. As has been widely reported, Yale UP decided not to include images of the twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad—the direct subject of Klausen’s book—and also removed several other images that were deemed possibly offensive to Muslims, including a children’s book illustration and an Ottoman print. Yale UP defended its action by citing a “unanimous” recommendation of “two dozen authorities.” That story soon developed holes. One of the authorities, Sheila Blair, a professor of Islamic and Asian art, urged just the opposite. Blair wrote to the New York Times (and was quoted in the August 14 Guardian) saying: “To deny that such images were made is to distort the historical record and to bow to the biased view of some modern zealots who would deny that others at other times and places perceived and illustrated Muhammad in different ways” (www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/aug/14/publisher-bans-images-muhammad).
Roger Kimball presented some of the best commentary and analysis on the affair in a series of blog posts at Roger’s Rules (www.pajamasmedia.com) that published the extraordinary intervention of Yale’s president Richard C. Levin in strong-arming the press, which had already agreed to publish Klausen’s book intact, to cut the pictures. Kimball and others speculated that Levin was moved to act by his interest in Saudi oil money. Martin Kramer, blogging on Sandbox on August 21 (http://sandbox.blog-city.com/some_day_yales_prince_will_come.htm), followed the oil drops to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world’s fifth richest man and benefactor to Harvard and Georgetown in 2005 of $20 million each. Kramer notices that in April 2009, Yale awarded the title “Yale World Fellow” to the executive director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, one Muna AbuSulayman.
Kramer can’t prove anything (at least as of this writing), but he conjures the possibility that the AbuSulayman appointment was prelude to an Alwaleed gift, and in forcing Yale University Press to jettison the Danish cartoons, President Levin was just clearing an obstacle to those longed-for petrodollars.
This is a dreary note on which to begin. Scholarly publication, unfortunately, hasn’t been immune from the academic ills of our age. Chief among those ills is ideology. In 2000, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher had their book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, unexpectedly rejected by Harvard University Press.1 Unexpectedly, because the book had passed internal review and had been accepted for publication pending the formality of final approval by the Board of Syndics. That board, however, took the highly unusual step of saying no. (Harvard UP’s own spokesman acknowledged, “It is rare for a book to be rejected at [this] level.”) What happened?
As typically happens in these cases, the people who actually know are mum. All that Harvard UP would say was that this book about the benefits of marriage was “too strong” in tone and “too meager” in evidence. Coming from the press that publishes books by Catharine MacKinnon, Leo Bersani, and Carol Gilligan, that’s a bit rich. We can be pretty safe in drawing the conclusion that Harvard dumped the book because it ran against feminist orthodoxy, not because its scholarship was deficient.
How often do academic publishers traduce the traditions of honest scholarly inquiry to curry favor with Arabian billionaires or feminist censors? What other pages get clipped, manuscripts get rejected on spurious grounds, or favors get extended to meretricious work? Who can say? Well, we can scan the lists of recently published scholarly books in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That may not tell us much about the skullduggery, but it certainly stands as evidence that something is amiss.
This leaves me with a pile of books for this issue’s column, but not much heart for the task. Therese Huston’s new how-to for college teachers comes under the disarming title, Teaching What You Don’t Know (Harvard University Press). Almost every faculty member sooner or later gets assigned to teach something outside his specialization. Huston’s advice is anodyne. (“It is worth doing a little research to find out if there are any threshold concepts in the new course that you’re teaching.”)2 But Huston’s title inadvertently points to a darker reality: the growing number of faculty members whose knowledge of history, culture, science, civilization, and the university is so fragmented that they are always teaching what they don’t know. Perhaps part of the appeal of ideology on campus is that it fills the gaps and gives certitude in the absence of actual knowledge.
The Donut Hole of Excellence
Another sort of testimony to the intellectual entropy of the contemporary university is Michéle Lamont’s How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press). Lamont is mainly concerned with peer review and emphasizes the differences in the “evaluative cultures” of various disciplines. History and economics, she says, allow evaluators the best chance “to form a consensus about definitions of excellence.” In history this comes from “a shared definition of good craftsmanship;” in economics “from cognitive consolidation around mathematical tools.” English, by contrast, is “the discipline where the very concept of academic excellence has come under the greatest attack.” Anthropology, “threatened by the popularity of cultural analysis in other fields,” has become “inward looking” and preoccupied with “epistemological positions, politics, and method.”3 Peer review panels among philosophers are the most conflict riven. The members see themselves as upholding high standards, but can’t agree on what they are. Political science would like to be like economics, but is internally divided between quantitative and qualitative research.
These are portraits that most academics would recognize without effort, but Lamont has diligently turned peer review into an object of formal study. The six disciplines mentioned are tracked through proposals considered by panels at five programs that sponsor research. She had data (eighty-one interviews with forty-nine panel members) to back those portraits. Lamont aims to show how these representatives of academic disciplines “create a sense of justice” by figuring out paths between conflicting norms and “following customary rules.” That seems right as far as it goes, but it leaves the larger enterprise unmoored. Is there an overall excellence that encompasses the particular forms of excellence that the several disciplines recognize? Or is the university, at some point, all English department, swimming in its indeterminate impulses? That’s a question not just for the conflict-prone philosophers, but for all of us. If the answer is “swim,” there really is no bulwark against President Levin selling out scholarship to toady to Alwaleed bin Talal or preemptively appease Muslim demagogues, or the Board of Syndics at Harvard University Press snidely dismissing a book that irks feminists, or any other instance where the university purports to act a whole.
The August 27 Washington Post reports that the entering classes at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Thomas Aquinas College in California, and Shimer College in Chicago—all of which have Great Books programs—are significantly smaller this year than last.4 Other small liberal arts colleges are hurting as well, and it seems an unprecedented number may be on the verge of insolvency. The Summer 2009 Academic Questions focused on “the dead, the dying, and the not feeling too well.” It seems appropriate in the circumstances that Northwestern University Press has chosen the moment to reissue Martin Duberman’s 1972 retrospective, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, about the life and death of Black Mountain College (1933–1956) in the foothills of North Carolina. Black Mountain survives in the popular imagination because of numerous avant-garde figures who populated it. Duberman gives the roll call of “shaping talents of our time” on the opening page: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Charles Olson, Josef Albers, Paul Goodman, Robert Rauschenberg.
I’d add Robert Creeley, not because I get much from his poetry, but because his one-eyed squint from the cover of a Charles Scribner’s Sons paperback mesmerized me once, and made me think of Black Mountain College as a kind of revelation. It was a college animated by the idea that, as founder John Rice put it, “we are all artists” and are “free to create the kind of world in which we choose to live, and we’re equal in that freedom.” This alluring conceit became embodied in a college described by Duberman as having “no fixed regulations…no required courses, no system of frequent examinations [and] no formal grading.”5 Eventually it had no students and no money either.
Out item of academic interest this issue is political buttons aimed at making statements about education. One popular buttons advises, “Educate Agitate Organize.” It is pearly white with a purple stripe across the middle. “Educate” is in type font. “Agitate” in the middle of the purple stripe, is in aggressively agitated all-caps, which makes sense. “Organize,” however, is composed of what look at first like a jumble of fonts. On very close examination, the “O” turns out to be a sprocketed gear, the “R” a bent pair of pliers, the “G” a C-clamp, the “A” a drafting compass, the “N” three crossed penny nails, the “I” a drill head, the “Z” an open pocket knife, and the “E” a looped electrical cord.
The same company, DonnellyColt.com, produces another admonitory button, “Don’t Mourn—Organize,” which isn’t necessarily advice to educators, but is marketed in company with “Why Is There Always Money for War and Not for Education?” and the classic “If You Think Education is Expensive Try Ignorance.” Be grateful when you see it; the wearer has obviously volunteered for the experiment.