How well I remember, 40 years ago, prowling in the stacks of a college library and reading the books, observing museum pieces in the halls of that library, and attending concerts in the auditorium next door. Glenn Gould showed up to play the Goldberg Variations, Jerome Hines to sing, and Wolfgang Schneiderhan to play Vivaldi on his violin. In those days, a college campus seemed the place to be.
I have never left the campus, though the locale has changed more than once. But nowadays, when I want to hear Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations (his first recording of 1955 of course, not his later, latest, and last), I listen at home, and not only because Glenn Gould quit touring and left us. The college campus is less often the place to be.
In the old days, of course, college professors were deemed to be men and women worthy of respect. But if I ever subconsciously assumed by professing anything myself that I might earn any respect, I have long since been disabused of any such notion. For one thing, the social function of the professor has been radically altered with the redefinition of knowledge. For another, I have known too many college professors to respect them automatically myself. And for yet another, as America’s materialism has exploded, we now live in a world in which value is calculated solely by money, and a college president can seriously refer to himself as a C.E.O.
Now I hasten to say that there are today a number of professors whom I do indeed respect, and who are respected by others. I could easily name those I know. But as the curriculum has collapsed into stratified anarchy, so too has the attitude of the professoriate. In the arts and humanities, knowledge itself has been trivialized and even inverted. Today an English professor may declare that she is “an agent of social change,” a “philosopher” can be nothing more than a feminist, and a sociologist may be an apologist for, rather than an analyst of, criminality. We would be hard-pressed to deny that part of the problem is the personnel, or that the “tenured radicals,” as Roger Kimball has called them, have profoundly altered the academy by occupying it.
I first sniffed the winds of change in New York City when I was 16 years old, and two psychologists whom I met socially grilled me about my suspicious lack of belief in the Soviet system. I thought then that it was curious that academic psychologists should be so lacking in reason, or even information. I think now that they were New Yorkers.
By the time I was at college two years later, I saw that I was in for it. My first discussion on campus was with a belligerent female who, though but a freshman herself, demanded that I explain to her the doubtful notion of a “communist dupe.” I did fully explain that concept to her, after which she lectured me for an hour on the virtues of Fidel Castro. I then began to wonder whether I should not have pursued the study of refrigerator repair, rather than Dostoyevsky, whose work began to speak to me more fully than ever before. As for the girl, she later married an African and went on to God knows what.
I began to discover among my classmates a host of “red diaper babies”—the children of the old Popular Front. Their fervor, their arrogance, and their ignorance were all of a piece, essentially religious though secular, and not to be questioned. My reaction was to turn again to the library, where I easily found the substance and the dialogue they could not give me. There is nothing arcane about the reading list I pursued, but it was not assigned in any class.
There was in those days a clear convergence between one kind of reform movement and another. The civil rights movement, whatever the legitimacy of its claims, attracted the ideological left which used it as a pretext, a move subsequently coopted by the federal government. That movement splintered in violence in the 1960’s, with the more extreme elements moving on to a remarkable radicalism. It was not long, to move from sit-ins and folk songs to bombs in basements, and it was not far. The same people were involved, and I knew some of them in college, who later wound up on the front page of the newspaper as fugitives from justice.
As I went on to graduate school, I soon found myself confronted by another aggrieved female. At the time, I was attempting to walk into the Graduate Student Union at Columbia University for a cup of tea. I was informed by an aroused female that no, I was not. The building was occupied. Looking back at the situation, I realize now that I should have hammered her, instead of meekly returning to my room.
Soon the consequences of licensing passion and fanaticism were made clear. The students at Columbia were punished by the police. But the kicker was to receive in the mail a congratulatory note from my erstwhile college professor of Russian literature, who wanted to congratulate me for the great job we students were doing during the riots. I replied to him that Swift, Pope, and Johnson would have rooted for the police, and so did I. Weren’t Swift, Pope, and Johnson deemed worthy of study? The professor, a Soviet apologist and a superb lecturer, had to break off his communications with me. I should not have been surprised, after all. For I had long known that the campus was something less than a font of wisdom, however much it flaunts the prestigious totems of culture.
Not long after, I became a “professor” myself. That meant dealing with students and professors who soon refused to finish the semester in recognition of the shootings at Kent State. But the students got their credits, and the professors got their salary.
So much for the professoriate in its explicit political mode, and the only thing new about the story is that it is even worse than imagined. But having jumped from the 60’s to the 90’s, I want to go back a bit to remark on other forms of radicalism. Bombs in basements seemed a bit counterproductive, so subtler forms of mind-control and more insidious means of power had to be devised.
Probably the most damaging force for divisive nonsense in the last 30 years has been the major offshoot of the civil rights movement, feminism. Its major base has been the academy. Its effort has been to destroy the image of the American family, and therefore the constituent unit of society as we know it. The power of feminism was early recognized by the federal government and by big business, and it has succeeded in rooting itself in law and above all in thought, logic, and language. Though contemporary feminism can be compared to Maoism and to Scientology as a gnostic scam, its efforts have been devastating at the grassroots level. The cliches of feminism have polluted the intellectual environment to a remarkable degree. The other day, an otherwise intelligent professor told me that her unsatisfactory salary made her a victim of “sex discrimination,” when in truth she had been treated straightforwardly by a blind system. She could not be confused by facts, and is presently seeking an unearned, undeserved raise which I am sure she will obtain. She will obtain it for two reasons. First, her sexual correspondent will help her politically to obtain it, and second, the system would be glad to institute yet another divisive wedge of favoritism. Well, campus feminists are not so corny now as they were back in the early 1970’s, when they actually smoked Virginia Slims and flaunted copies of Ms. magazine on their desks. Such radical courage and creativity came prepackaged and showed that radicalism and consumerism had quickly become identical in our vaunted marketplace. The woman I have in mind is, I am told, a broadminded and active heterosexual, but more than passé. Open lesbianism has long been the thing.
When I used to read and hear a great deal of feminist blather about “sexism,” I knew that there was something true even about that self-serving propaganda. For I had known something personally about the sexual exploitation—the willing exploitation, of course—of female students by male professors. The boys used to be quite open about it, joked about it at faculty meetings, and so on. In effect, to some degree, the feminists were right. Of course, they were not right enough. The aggressive professors were far from rapists. The college girls were asking for it, and they got it, sometimes in the professors’ offices. One such incident involved an ex-Luftwaffe instructor whose knowledge of his scientific subject was 100 years out of date. He smoked marijuana on campus, wore an earring, needed a haircut, popped off about mysticism, and was indulged by all. A bit too strange to represent anything but himself, he was nevertheless sustained by an institution of higher learning.
As boring as it is nasty, feminist agitprop is in fact the culture of the campus, a functional substitute for thought and knowledge. It serves a purpose. The fragmentation of knowledge has left the professoriate with little to hold it together except the political shibboleths we know as “political correctness,” which is a phenomenon by no means restricted to the campus, for such a powerful political weapon and language is shared by the press and the government. The revolving doors of government—the Clinton cabinet, for example—speak to the identity of America’s ruling class with the worst elements of the academy.
Not far behind “racism” and “sexism” comes “homophobia”—the “gay” rights movement being also a direct product of the late 1960’s that is now the establishment. Homosexuality is now a sufficient qualification for employment and even for tenure, and may soon be a necessary one. The continued breakdown of the citizenry into alienated and coddled subgroups serves well the strategies of management. Government, big business, and various churches are in accord with the academy on this principle, so that “queer theory” has long been recognized as a legitimate arena of criticism and speculative philosophy. Surely we have all been edified to learn that by extraordinary coincidence the African-American, feminist, and “gay” movements in that order have all discovered extensive literary traditions for themselves, which mandates substantial curricular recognition and therefore the subtraction of previously recognized categories of achievement in writing.
The result is a Babel of discordance, itself contrived to promote manipulation. Reason is the first thing to be dispensed with by the professors of it. When, for example, a religious proselytizer walked onto a campus to distribute tracts, there was strenuous objection from an educationist who claimed that such an intrusion was a violation of “the separation of church and state.” He did not care that a private school is not the state, still less that Christianity is a missionary religion. Nor did he acknowledge that he himself was ordained in a faith that denies Christ’s divinity. In the contemporary academy, such a progression of fallacies is routine.
Attending a reading by a professor of literature of his own poems, I was rather struck by his announcement, “My subject is American iniquity.” This lost him no points with his audience. His poems seemed to be versified editorials on historical outrages such as social phenomena and wars, about which he got quite exercised. He clearly thought that his rage at dead people gained him moral credit, and his audience agreed with him. His views of the world had been fixed in the 1930’s and for him the Popular Front still lived, reified in his rhapsodies. For this professor, poetry was an announcement of a lonely superiority which itself ignited an impotent tantrum. For him, there was no tragedy, only the rhetoric of personal feeling and cheap virtue. Finally, his poetry was no more than whining. So much for poetry and for culture and history and the profession thereof.
The campus has become all too often the place where the maintenance of distinctions is repudiated rather than affirmed, where the hierarchies of cultural achievement are flattened by those who supposedly uphold them, and where the professed subject is itself dismissed by the professor of it. This is more than a matter of ideology, and more than a matter of the replacement of one generation by another. It is a matter of the replacement of ladies and gentlemen by trash. The result is gangsta rap replacing Glenn Gould, but that is not the only one.
Were we to look for a Lionel Trilling today, a professor with something of his sense of irony and his knowledge could indeed be identified. But we would first have to go through many a mug shot of incompetents and frauds. The spectacle, for example, of persons of no dignity or gravitas at all occupying the professor’s chair is a curious one, and amounts to a revolution in itself. The image of such a person would not suggest the elegant and sober presence of Lionel Trilling, but rather of a tennis-shoed and bulbous female in tights, such as the one called disaffectionately, “Flab Blob.” Her subsidized right to present the grossness of her person in questionable sports clothes, as well as to express in a babble of unarticulated words the grossness of her mind, is a mark of redoubled degradation. Thou last conquered, O bloated Andrea Dworkin.
I keep away from Flab Blob, myself. In particular, I do not get in an elevator with her or any of the others of her configuration. Above all, I try to avoid the damage that might accrue from actually listening to her run her mouth. But it is a dangerous world, and you have to take it as it comes.
For my own part, though I have noticed in the young people I have encountered an increasing lack of general knowledge, this same lack encountered in credentialed adults has been a cause of frustration and embarrassment. One particular form of this lack is the curious case of the English professor who cannot write. Such an individual must prove the wisdom of the adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” The lack I am referring to has several dimensions: the lack of information or substance, the lack of discretion or common sense, the lack of grammatical (not to mention rhetorical) command, and so on. The result is a virtual illiteracy which we might expect from a befuddled freshman, but not from a professor. Yet there it is. What to do about it? The answer is, give such an individual tenure, in the best spirit of democracy. When a “challenged” professor realizes that he or she has a “problem,” that individual is ever more likely to embrace progressive politics as a substitute profession. Thus, students are taught that thought is patellar, that resentment is both argument and proof, and that grammar is tyranny. Writing becomes fingerprinting, the personal is the political, and, after tenure, how about a male hairdo for the she, and a couple of studs in the earlobe of the he? Thus are faculties formed, and our nation’s youth led to enlightenment.
So much for standards in a multicultural academy. “Multiculturalism,” a deceptive name, means little of what it denotes. It refers rather to a monolithic relativism that is subscribed to as a common denominator of the resentful and aggrieved, many of whom “profess” traditional subjects for a position of security and even wealth. Our local postmodernist adept of Gramsci has a sports car and a sail boat to complement his neo-Marxism.
What has essentially happened since the 1960’s in the academy (and in the nation) is the adoption, by the liberal establishment of America, of radial assumptions and language. The definition of education has gone by the board. The students were recognized as prophets and sages. How could they “learn” or be “taught” when they already knew everything? The “black experience,” the “female experience,” and homosexual gnosis have been the base of theory, the formulation of careers, and the source of knowledge. The Wizard of Oz memorably dispensed a diploma, among other goodies. Today, he is handing out grants and endowed chairs. The Wordsworthian mighty prophet and seer blessed already knows that his or her personal shortcomings or ethnic truculence is more than sufficient claim to authority, and has been sanctioned by all our social and educational mechanisms. The “red diaper” babies imposed an alien vision on America, rewrote the history, and achieved that “cultural hegemony” about which we hear so much these days. Egalitarianism applied to education must have a grotesque result. Democracy means today (not to Jefferson) the decentering of knowledge itself. No wonder that Oprah Winfrey has established a reading list. The Internet will further subvert the meaning of study, so that finally education will occur on campus, as I think it chiefly does now, by accident.
The children of the Old Left now have gray hair to go along with tenure, as the vultures come home to roost. Of course, I have had the experiences, thank God, for which I remained on campus—access to individuals of accomplishment and knowledge and talent, and exposure to culture itself—and for this, I have been grateful. But I cannot forget that too often the gifted were dismissed in favor of “safe” radicals and submediocre minds. A knowledgeable but incoherent lady, only the other day, in trying to explicate the latest imported fraud, could only sputter, “There’s nothing.” How right she was, not about reality, but about the smug nihilism of multicultural impostures and deconstructionist rant which have turned the Ivory Tower into a Formica Sump.
And how wrong she was, as well. The academy still has its reasons for existence. There are still fine students, worthy professors, and noble topics. The problem is to find them. And there is still the Goldberg Variations. That’s not so hard to find.