A year or so ago, Clive Barker published a book with the ingenious premise that it was not really a book at all, but a demon named Jakabok Botch, who had been transformed into a book. Botch spends his time trying to persuade his reader to incinerate his paper prison—“Burn this book!”—presumably as a way of getting back into more worldly circulation.
Barker’s novel, Mister B. Gone, of course, is not the first use of the idea of a haunted book. But is a nice turn on an old conceit. Since the book is interactive, I wondered if Mr. Botch might have some advice for us at NAS as we prepare for our national meeting in Washington, D.C., January 9-11. I tried out some questions.
Mr. Botch, I have a set of matches here. Little wooden ones with red beads of phosphorus on the ends and white tips. Just mentioning. By the way, have you heard about the NAS conference in January?
I am a prisoner between the covers of this squalid little volume. But of course all Demonation knows of the NAS meeting. The AAUP’s Cary Nelson will be there. We keep track of these things.
That’s interesting. Look at this match. See how the phosphorus tapers down to the wood? So what does Hell find so intriguing about the NAS meeting?
We have to protect our investments. American universities are one of the glorious accomplishments of our kind. When you start speaking about ‘The Changing Landscape of Higher Education’ naturally we take notice. We like the torn and ruined places of the world, like the contemporary liberal arts curriculum and we’re very fond of those who ‘liberate’ students into lives of sullen dismay. So any attempt to turn things around bears our attention.
I think these are the kind of matches that you ignite by scratching them on almost any surface. What are they called? Strike Anywhere. What in particular about the NAS conference worries you?
Are you ready to light one, or you just going to tease me?
We’ll see. Now answer the question. What exactly are you so worried about?
I didn’t say ‘worried,’ I said we take notice. Naturally we have the upper hand. But to hold our ground, we need to keep a close watch on organizations like NAS. This meeting you keep bringing up – like I said, we know all about it. We intercepted the schedule and right away noted several red flags. For instance, Victor Davis Hanson is slated to be the keynote speaker. You have no idea how his annoyingly persuasive writings on Western civilization, war, and culture have set us back. His discourses and the Saturday panel on military and academe will only make things worse.
Yes, and it must be especially difficult for you, being helpless to do much about it.
I’m not finished. On the first day of the NAS conference, Cary Nelson will debate you on “the meaning of academic freedom.” Our intelligence is working on a way to sabotage this exchange before it happens and ruins everything. We’ve made it so that no one really knows what academic freedom means, yet everyone invokes it anyway when they think they will benefit from it. It’s a wonderful term for a vague and evolving right, and so far, we’ve been successful in preventing serious thought on what academic freedom really means. I wouldn’t have told you this, except that I’m your friend. Now how about that match? It’s chilly here.
Is anything else a threat to your infernal friends?
Two more things. First, one panel will concentrate on whether the dorms are being politicized. Residence life is one of our strongholds; few have penetrated it in recent years. But NAS and some of its friends are on to us in that department and it’s making Our Father Below nervous. “Educating the whole person” you have to admit is a brilliant conceit. It’s such a lofty way of saying obey your appetites, follow your lust, enjoy the satisfactions of ideology, and don’t get yourself too worked up over mere knowledge. I swear by the Fall itself that you people are meddling where you shouldn’t when you draw skeptical attention to work in student affairs.
Second, there’s a panel on a topic I didn’t expect from NAS: technical changes in higher education. As you know, we demons are fond of inventions. My mishap with Gutenberg’s toy didn’t change that. I used to think—only too happily—that NAS did not care to engage in the technical side of America’s colleges and universities.
Then, you people came out with a new website and commentary on innovations like iTunes U and Kindle. Kindle—there’s a nice name. Now, here you are, ready to talk about how technology will affect education. It’s another instance of your meddling. Why don’t you stick to inkwells and quill pens? This conference will be a challenge for us. We intend to plant spies. Beware. Now don’t you think it is time for some fireworks?
My goodness! Think of what Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed would say, or Cary Nelson, if word got out that I had burned a book. No, can’t do that. Besides, you’ve given me so much to think about. For the time being, it’s best you go back on the shelf. I may have some more questions for you later.
Mr. Botch is not the most truthful creature. But I double-checked our conference page, and he seems to be right about the basic details. Victor Davis Hanson is the keynote speaker. And I am debating Cary Nelson about academic freedom. (How did that happen?) It sounds like all hell could break loose in Washington—a week before the inauguration. Go figure.