In The Hollow Men Charles J. Sykes resumes the brief against American higher education that he began in his widely publicized Profscam, published in 1988. Sykes argues in both books that our best universities, most conspicuously in their humanities faculties, have betrayed their true educational mission: instead of challenging students to think, professors parrot prescribed slogans about minorities and try to impose their views on the rest of society. Sykes illustrates the extremes to which politically correct speech and gestures have been carried on American campuses, and he examines the coded languages about “diversity” through which the thought processes of control operate.

The Hollow Men focuses on President James O. Freedman of Dartmouth College to show how this unprincipled administration has capitulated to the self-appointed “spokespersons” for designated “minority victims.” Sykes makes much of the opportunistic groveling and righteous posturing of the Dartmouth administration, but he could easily have multiplied his cases by citing the equally cowardly and arrogant behavior of other university presidents past and present, like Kingman Brewster of Yale, who fell opportunely in love with the Black Panthers. What is particularly striking about Sykes’ eloquent indictment is the unexceptional nature of his story. What Sykes describes is unimpeachably true and inexpressibly odious, but also unremarkable: reading him is like being told that concentration camp guards bullied their starving victims. To which the response must be, that disgusting people behave disgustingly.

More interesting is trying to figure how the sociopaths described in The Hollow Men advance in our universities. The people whom Sykes depicts often express violent hatred toward a world that they imagine represses homosexuals, lesbians, and blacks; yet Sykes never explains how American society could bestow on such human beings the supremely important task of transmitting culture to its young. Part of the answer may be the cynicism of those who perceive growing cultural and political similarities between universities and other sections of American society. When I asked why my neighbors were sending their son to Yale in view of its policy of recruiting homosexuals, they looked at me in surprise before explaining: “It’s no worse than Montgomery County, Maryland!” To which my own involuntary response was: “Yale still isn’t that bad!”

Despite his compelling account of the attack on the humanities and Western civilization course at Dartmouth and the “startling triumph of unreason” in America’s elite universities, there are two weaknesses in Sykes’ analysis that should in all fairness be mentioned. The first is the tendency to raise up Martin Luther King as the idealized opposite of whatever Sykes is castigating. In contrast to America’s culturally illiterate youth. East German students are shown in Christian churches reading “the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in turn had drawn his own inspiration from the philosophical tradition he traced from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and Locke, as well as the eloquent poetry of the Old Testament.” The point of this quotation is not to demonstrate that Sykes provides an inaccurate picture of Martin Luther King. Nor is it to scold him for misrepresenting an indifferently educated plagiarist, whose speeches were full of pop liberation theology and demands for reparations to blacks and other minorities.

Although Sykes claims to be defending the Western Great Books, the witnesses he calls in their defense are King and those who might make it into the first edition of the neocon Who’s Who. The editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Sykes seems most comfortable when quoting other journalists and political celebrities, particularly those who share his own Cold War liberal sympathies; his strengths and weaknesses both reflect his own background. He writes gracefully, but exhibits little understanding of those forces that his own heroes, Robert Hutchins and Mark Van Doren, were instrumental in supplanting; he treats scornfully “the rigid hegemony” of classical studies at Columbia University, which President Nicholas Murray Butler worked against in doing his part for America’s Crusade for Democracy. The Columbia curriculum got overhauled in 1917 when it was given a “War Issues” focus, and the humanities curriculum that emerged from the war went on to stress “peace issues,” being “personified in the figure of Mark Van Doren who combined brilliant scholarship with inspired teaching.” Sykes is quick to point out that though Van Doren worked to instill democratic values, he assigned in his classes the “criticism of liberal capitalism” produced by Marx and Lenin.

He fails to note, however, that Van Doren was a notorious apologist for Stalin, and fairly attacked by Sidney Hook (whom Sykes venerates) for that reason. More importantly, Sykes seems not to realize that the humanities curricula—which he identifies with everything noble and civilized—was from the beginning a political football. It placed emphasis on teaching values, not on a close study of classical texts; and it placed at the heart of the curriculum the kind of civics lessons that inspired advocates of “Democratic Civilization” (Van Doren’s perennial course) are the most eager to provide. Because of his narrowly partisan interest, Sykes repeats the standard but often contradictory defenses for the humanities curriculum now under assault from the radical left. The “essence” of that curriculum can be traced to the Great Books program, which was organized at Columbia and Chicago earlier in the century and which furnishes access to an “ongoing, often raucous and contentious debate.” This debate, which is supposed to emerge from reading thinkers who (Sykes never tells us) were, in most cases, unmistakably nondemocratic, allows students nevertheless to grasp the roots of “the democratic philosophy of the West.” Democratic indoctrination, ongoing debate, and the study of past thinkers, most of whom held no brief for modern democracy, are supposed to produce an appreciation for our democratic way of life. The means of doing this is to make sure that the right sorts of people teach the curriculum, lest the resulting discussion leave open questions that true democrats should wish to close. If politics and corruption have indeed beset higher education, as Sykes demonstrates, perhaps we can discover their causes only by looking further back in time.


[The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education, by Charles J. Sykes (Washington: Regnery Gateway) 356 pp., $19.95]