Tell Me No Lies?

Carol Iannone

In one sense it might be said that the whole academic enterprise became something of a fraud the moment postmodern relativism began to reign within its hallowed halls. To declare that there is no truth, the better to enforce leftist indoctrination in diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, political correctness, and the like is certainly a gross and dishonorable violation of what the transmission and impartation of knowledge is meant to be. And our special section in this issue, “Frauds, Fallacies, Fads, and Fictions,” zeroes in on instances of how preordained political goals corrupt the scholarly enterprise. What the perpetrators of these fictions have in common is a slippery relationship to truth and the very idea of truth, and a tendency to resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks when challenged. We can take comfort in that all of these frauds and fictions have been exposed by careful scholarly work, but can only be dismayed at the extent to which they continue to be purveyed.

As readers probably know, parts of I, Rigoberta Menchú (English edition, 1984), an autobiographical account by Guatemalan activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, were exposed as fictional by anthropologist David Stoll in 1999. In “We, Rigoberta’s Excuse-Makers,” Daphne Patai gives a satisfying account of the whole and ongoing episode, in which she played a part, showing how Stoll’s conscientious research in bringing the truth to light was and continues to be vilified by the academic establishment. (When the facts won’t cooperate, there is always postmodernism: “Authenticity and ‘truth’—if they exist at all,” sniffs one of Rigoberta’s defenders, “resist comprehension, expression, and definition.”) Meanwhile, and unfortunately, Rigoberta Menchú’s partly fabricated and sensationalized story became a widely assigned classroom text and even emerged in books for children.

Perhaps more unfortunately, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is, according to Gilbert T. Sewall in “The Howard Zinn Show,” the nation’s best-known work of American history, and its bestselling American history to boot—two million copies since its publication in 1980. It is widely used in history, economics, sociology, political science, and women’s studies courses and is a favorite Advanced Placement selection as well. Sewall shows how this one-dimensional, one-sided work by Zinn, who originated the “99 percent” idea, makes a travesty of the American story.

Annette Gordon-Reid wants very much to weave a liaison between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings into the American story, but, once again, the facts resist yielding easy answers, as Herman Belz details in “The Legend of Sally Hemings.” Gordon-Reid and those who have followed her in arguing that the forty-six-year-old widower Jefferson began an affair with his sixteen-year-old slave, Sally (his wife’s half-sister), and fathered six children with her, are motivated more by a desire to promote their vision of race relations in America than by strict scholarly scrutiny. (“It is not my goal to prove that the story is true or that it is false,” Gordon-Reid readily admits.)

Richard R. Phelps exposes a fallacy of a nonpolitical color in “Dismissive Reviews: Academe’s Memory Hole,” namely, how scholars in the social sciences, especially, fail to consult the research that has been done on their chosen topic and blandly claim themselves to be pioneers in the area. This might be funny if it weren’t also pernicious in some instances, as when reams of significant research were ignored in constructing the strictures of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

And to round out our special section, David Solway renders a satirical gallery of “Pedagogical Portraits” for our readers’ amusement, recognizable teacher-types who can be found expounding in many classrooms today.

In “Leaving the Land of Digital Natives,” journalist and editor Camilo Jiménez’s reasons for resigning his teaching post at a prestigious Colombian university will sound very familiar to some academics in North America. Jimenéz found that the vast majority of his privileged, private school-educated students could not compose a single paragraph properly summarizing a longer text and doing so without errors. Will H. Corral, who with Daphne Patai translated Jiménez’s piece from Spanish, provides an introduction.

A lot of handwringing takes place over academic dishonesty and student cheating but Stephen Rombouts, “On the Genealogy of Student Morals,” has a simple explanation: it is impossible to convey the importance of honesty and to combat the pernicious effects of relativism without a belief in God and a transcendent moral order. Nicholas Capaldi offers a humanist’s response. And George Yancey, “Recalibrating Academic Bias,” has some new ideas on how to assess the extent of bias against conservatives and traditionalists in today’s academy.

We have an ample poetry section this issue, with a perhaps surprising entry from anthropologist and Renaissance man Robin Fox, accompanied by an affecting illustration; a quirky tribute by David Yezzi to the steady man who perseveres and carries on without highs and lows, or, as Hamlet says, does not wear his heart on his sleeve; and two poems by Susan Delaney Spear, one prompted by love and one initiated by revenge.

A review essay by Russell K. Nieli, “Preach What You Practice: Charles Murray on Our New Class Divide,” highlights the importance of Murray’s much talked about new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, which documents a serious decline among whites of the lower middle class, and an increasing gap between them and whites in the upper middle class.

Although he presided over one of the most successful liberal arts colleges in the country, St. John’s Santa Fe, John Agresto cannot gainsay Victor E. Ferrall, Jr.’s ominous assessment of the state of such colleges in Liberal Arts at the Brink. And Stephen H. Balch and Ibn Warraq continue their defense of the West—Balch as reviewer and Warraq as author of A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy.

“‘Really Existing Socialism’ and the Archival Revolution” is our Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest feature for this issue. Guest columnist Daniel J. Mahoney gives an account of the scholarship on Communism and the Soviet Union that has emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and thereby intimates the chilling, devastating reality this work uncovers.

It is fitting that our Spring 2012 issue featured “The Wealth of Nations and the Poverty of Analysts,” one of the last published articles by eminent sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz, who died this March, especially since it was a call for greater academic integrity. Years ago, Horowitz outlined in our pages the deleterious effects of contemporary academic theorizing on the social sciences (“The Decomposition of Sociology,” Spring 1992). Thanks to his work and the work of many others, a cogent challenge to postmodernism has been mounted and sustained through the years, exposing its inadequacies for all who still care about the truth.

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