Cheerleading for a Crumbling Academy

John M. Ellis

This slim volume has been prominently reviewed, and that is not surprising: it touches on contentious issues in the campus culture wars, and is by a writer who is fairly well known, though more as journalist than academician. And the book’s ambitious title seems to promise much, though it contains rather less. It has four essays: the first on general education curricula, the second on the recent changes in the content of college humanities courses, the third on “interdisciplinarity,” the fourth on the political uniformity of college professors.

These topics have been much discussed in the last twenty years. What is Menand’s contribution to that discussion? Most of the time he keeps the issues at arm’s length with a discussion so generalized that it had me wondering when he was going to stop clearing his throat and get to the heart of the matter. For example, when dealing with general education Menand largely goes over the historical ground covered better and more fully by others, without ever confronting squarely the problem that worries so many observers: that we are graduating young people who know little of the history and institutions of their country and of the civilization of which it is a part.

Only in the second essay, “The Humanities Revolution,” does Menand give us something more specific and thus a real position that we can set out and evaluate. He begins by dividing the time since World War II into two periods: 1945–1975, and 1975 to the present. He then contrasts the two, finding fault with the first and praising the second. According to Menand, the formative influence on the first period was the rapid expansion of the academy, and plentiful research funding as a result of the Cold War. Lots of money and new jobs made this the “golden age” of the academy, but the period was intellectually limited by its excessive respect for disciplinarity, and by its wooden and unquestioning adherence to notions like disinterestedness, objectivity, reason, and knowledge.

Menand gets specific with the example of English departments. In the fifties and sixties, “teaching and writing in literary studies relied on the notion that texts can be interpreted non-contextually, as stand-alone verbal artifacts” and it was thought that “these interpretations have hard-and-fast degrees of validity…whose results are verifiable” (82). This blinkered period was followed by a genuine intellectual revolution which swept aside its less sophisticated antecedent. In the later period, “The humanities helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation…” (91).

Does the expression “loading the dice” come to mind? Menand’s method is a very simple one: first, take a caricatured version of the earlier period; next, take a sanitized version of the later one that stays well away from the groupthink conformity, the cultural studies incoherence and fraudulence that Alan Sokal so famously exposed,1 the triviality and monotony of its obsession with identity politics and oppression, the intellectually irresponsible radical politics of its Ward Churchills,2 and much besides; and finally, compare these unrealistic accounts to achieve an easy victory for the second.

Menand makes much of the fact that he approaches the issue with the superior insight of the historian, but that is just where he is weakest. For him, money and expansion determine the character of the golden age, but a real historian would begin with the unique historical circumstance that dominates the period: students and faculty alike were returning from the greatest conflict in human history. Today, most college professors spend their entire lives in the classrooms of the ivory tower, only changing the place they occupy in those classrooms from back to front at some time in their twenties. The most important fact about the golden age was that, for once, an entire generation of academics had a great deal of experience of the wider world.

And what experience! They had faced mortal dangers, learned what it is to be willing to die for a just cause, and had come to understand and live by ideas such as loyalty, bravery, friendship, and patriotism in a way that others without their experience can never do. This was a special generation of academics who came back more serious and mature than their successors were ever likely to be. But for Menand, these are just people who unthinkingly ride the gravy train of university expansion; it never occurs to him that there is something different about them.

We can add to this another major historical factor that Menand ignores: the rise in prestige of the natural sciences during the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the humanities were still able to compete for the brightest students, who were then as likely to major in English or history as in the sciences. But during the next fifty years competition for the brightest students went decisively in favor of the sciences.

These two factors alone make Menand’s account of an intellectually superior recent period in the humanities highly unlikely. The historical record suggests the reverse: a decline in the field both in raw ability and in life experience, and that is entirely consistent with a recent sharp decline in humanities enrollments and in public confidence in humanities courses. If Menand’s account were true, lower humanities enrollments would remain a complete mystery. When Menand makes the recent discovery of doubts about objectivity the basis of today’s alleged intellectual superiority, he only makes his case even more silly. Skepticism has a very long history in the Western tradition, one that continues throughout the golden age, and when campus ideologues now claim to have discovered it they merely betray their ignorance of that history.

The conflict between New Critics and literary historians has been endlessly discussed in literary studies, but never more crudely than by Menand. His three major assertions about that conflict are all wrong. First, the New Critics never defeated their opponents, who were always more strongly represented in the average English department than they were. Second, while the New Critics shifted the balance from heavy reliance on historical context to a more systematic study of the text, few were willing to commit themselves to the caricatured notion of a stand-alone artifact. Nobody ever forgot that poems dealt with human life. And third, while the New Critics thought that they could bring a more disciplined approach to literary studies than the impressionistic criticism that had prevailed hitherto, few if any would have said that their results were scientifically verifiable.

By this series of fictions Menand attempts to reduce the work of many groundbreaking contributors to literary studies to a wretched simple-mindedness. But this is only one of many indications that Menand seems to understand very little of the history of his field. The most disturbing of them is his attempt to use the concept “objective correlative,” which T.S. Eliot made famous in literary studies. Speaking of the recent controversy over what is going on in the humanities, Menand says that: “There was something slightly disproportionate about the reaction of humanists to questions about the value of the humanities. In literary terms, their response lacked an objective correlative.” Any knowledgeable literary scholar will easily see that Menand has completely misunderstood T.S. Eliot’s idea. Eliot is talking about the symbolic embodiment of a writer’s ideas in the particular events and characters of a literary work. This had nothing whatever to do with the quite different notion of beliefs that lack any factual basis in the real world. What makes this gaffe so startling is that Menand has actually written a book about T.S. Eliot. But alas, this is not the first time, nor the second or even the third that Menand has startled reviewers with his failure to grasp even the most basic ideas of the figures he has written about.

Reviewing his Pragmatism: A Reader, Susan Haack found Menand’s misunderstanding of Pragmatism’s major figure (Charles Saunders Peirce) so extreme that it was at two removes from what Peirce actually said.3 Richard Rorty had garbled Peirce, and then Menand had garbled even Rorty’s misunderstood version. While Rorty was vulgar Peirce, Menand’s Peirce was vulgar Rorty. Another instance was documented by Thomas Short, who in reviewing Menand’s The Metaphysical Club again found that Menand was unable to grasp Peirce’s seminal ideas, even though Peirce is also the central figure of that book.4 Short further noted that Menand’s expositions of the ideas of Kant and James Clerk Maxwell produced more howlers that called into question whether Menand had the vaguest idea what these thinkers were saying. And still another reviewer of The Metaphysical Club—Paul Boghossian—found that: “All of this book’s problems can be traced to its author’s weak command of the philosophical ideas whose history he wishes to recount.”5

All of these judgments of prior reviewers are confirmed again when in The Marketplace of Ideas Menand discusses Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions without realizing what any student of Peirce should have known: that Kuhn’s book is a popularized version of Peirce’s ideas. But had he known that, Menand would have had to face the fact that his thesis of the recently discovered questioning of objectivity was nonsense, because Kuhn’s now fashionable ideas were actually formulated by Peirce in the nineteenth century.

At least Menand gives us something specific in his second essay, while the others only ramble disjointedly. But that raises the question: why did he write a book about matters where he has so little to contribute, and where his one real attempt to take a position is so incompetent? Why, in particular, would he take up the question of general education only to avoid the most central issue that it raises? I fear that the answer to this question lies in the strange relationship that currently obtains between the academic humanities establishment and the general public. There is an enormous gulf between the two, one so great that even (or rather, especially) campus humanities superstars are unable to communicate with the general public. Fundamentally different reactions to the following sentence written by Judith Butler tell the story:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.6

This sentence earned its author an award for abysmally bad writing, and it was justly ridiculed as foolish nonsense when news of the award reached beyond the campus to the wider world. Now that fact by itself might be of no consequence. In every sphere a wide range of quality always includes a few cases of excellence at one extreme and nonsense at the other. But that is not what we are dealing with here. The magnitude of the campus humanities establishment’s PR problem only becomes clear when we grasp the fact that it would never protest the unfairness of taking this unfortunate case as typical of the whole. Quite the reverse. On campus, this sentence is judged not as atypically poor, but as atypically brilliant. Judith Butler has a chair at the great Berkeley campus of the University of California, and she counts as one of the luminaries of her field not in spite of, but precisely because she says things like this. That is how far apart the campus and the public are.

The nomination of Lani Guinier to serve in the Clinton administration illustrated the gulf in a different way. Guinier was a prominent member of the Critical Legal Studies movement, which sees the law not as the neutral guarantor of the rights of individuals, but as the means by which white privilege is perpetuated. When she had to face a confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Guinier knew that it was hopeless even to try to defend the writings that had earned her star status on campus. She preemptively dismissed them as mere “academic musings,” but even so, their obvious foolishness caused President Clinton to quickly withdraw her nomination. Critical legal studies may have been the hottest thing on campus, but it could not survive exposure to the public.

Because of this strange gulf between campus and public, the campus humanities establishment is always on the lookout for ambassadors who can speak persuasively for them to the general public. Menand has chosen to be one such, and his book exemplifies the contradiction at the core of this role. If they are to do the job successfully, apologists for the new campus regime can’t use campus-speak, because that would meet the same response from the public that Judith Butler gets. And so they must be articulate in the way that the public expects, and yet speak in praise of people who are not, and who actually glory in the fact that they are not.

How can these apologists for the humanities establishment believe in its idiom enough to praise it to the public, yet not value it enough to use it themselves? The conundrum is all too easily explained. Menand is evidently trying to ingratiate himself with the campus humanities establishment while remaining respectable in the eyes of the public. There is a kind of bargain: Menand gives the campus establishment some much needed cover, while it gives him a seat at the table—a seat (at Harvard) which neither the academy’s old rigorous scholarly standards nor even its new Judith Butler-style ones could have justified. And, of course, this bargain has a distinctly Faustian edge to it.

That is why Menand’s book is so strangely rambling and half-hearted, and why his one attempt to get specific is a disaster. If you want to do a credible job, it helps to believe in what you are doing. The balancing act that is involved makes this a tough assignment, and I’m bound to say that when I compare Menand with the few others who have been morally lax enough to take it on (for example, Stanley Fish, Martha Nussbaum, Gerald Graff) it’s rather obvious that he’s nowhere near their standard. Fish is a bright but cynical man who obviously delights in his virtuosic ability to spin out ingenious arguments in defense of the indefensible; Nussbaum’s preening as public intellectual is certainly a great deal smoother and more effective than Menand’s; and Graff does his best to make an honest argument, so that even his disappointed former friends (of which I am one) can still see a little of the integrity he used to have. Measured against these hardly laudable examples, Menand just looks incompetent.

But that is not the worst of it. Menand is a relentless self-promoter, and uses even this ignoble mission to promote an image of himself as sage. Throughout the book there is a constant reaching for profundity which always turns out badly. Here is an example:

Eclecticism seems to be the fate of the academic humanities. But there is no reason why that cannot in itself constitute a claim to legitimacy. If one part of the university is (along with its many other projects) continually enacting a “crisis of institutional legitimation,” it is performing a service for the rest of the university. It is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge. (92)

Menand gives this passage pride of place: he makes it the resplendent conclusion of the essay that is the book’s centerpiece, and he obviously thinks that it demonstrates intellectual brilliance. But all that it really shows is Menand trying so hard to seem deep that he falls into vacuous nonsense.

This is a time of crisis in our universities, large areas of which have been reduced to intellectual triviality by conformity to an incoherent campus political radicalism. This wretched state of the academy compels everyone to make a choice as to how they will deal with it. Some, unable to forget what a magnificent institution the university can be, never stop trying to return it to its proper condition. Many more adjust to its present state to make life tolerable for themselves, or just hide from the issue to avoid conflict. Menand’s choice has been to exploit the weaknesses of this degraded academy and grasp the opportunity it presents for self-aggrandizement by becoming the multicultural academy’s cheerleader. I wonder what place Dante would have found in his Inferno for a sin like that.

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