Features January 1990
The collapse of the center: the humanities at Williams
On the symposium “Crisis in the Humanities?” at Williams College.
Live with your century, but do not be its creature; render to your contemporaries what they need, not what they praise.
Anyone acquainted with recent developments in the academy will have noticed that a subtle but disturbing change has taken place in those protected purlieus. Trends that only a few years ago would have been considered radical challenges to the established order are now pursued as a matter of course—by the established order itself. Increasingly, the political and educational ambitions of yesterday’s academic renegades appear as items on the agenda of today’s powers that be. From the assault on the traditional curriculum to the institutionalization of radical feminism and other overtly politicized movements, the radical menu of left-wing educational transformation is now regularly served up as if it were simply the conventional fare—which, alas, is precisely what it is coming to be at many institutions.
It would be difficult to imagine a more revealing illustration of this new academic establishment at work than the one Williams College offered at its two-day fall convocation ceremonies in September of last year. The festivities at the venerable liberal-arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, were held not only to mark the beginning of term and confer various academic prizes and honors but also to inaugurate the college’s new Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The highlight of the event was an evening panel discussion devoted to the question, “Crisis in the Humanities?” Members of the panel included Houston A. Baker, Jr., professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania; the renowned deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who has appointments at several institutions; Werner Gundersheimer, a specialist in Renaissance European history who was recently appointed director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.; Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., of Cultural Literacy fame, who is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. These five—who were awarded honorary degrees at the convocation ceremonies the following day—were joined by two members of the Williams faculty: Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion and director of the Williams Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, who acted as moderator for the panel, and Lynda Bundtzen, professor of English and chair of Williams’s women’s studies program.
What made this event noteworthy was not its novelty; similar panels have been convened at major universities for years now.
What made this event noteworthy was not its novelty; similar panels have been convened at major universities for years now. Nor was the opening of a new humanities center much news; there are already some three hundred such institutions at colleges and universities across the country. If Williams has only now acquired a humanities center, it is because only recently has the interdisciplinary humanities center entrenched itself securely enough in the academy to be an attractive ornament for a small, mainstream liberal-arts college. No, the inauguration of a humanities center and a debate over the state of the humanities at Williams College are important not so much for their own sake as for what they tell us about the progress that academic radicalism has made in transforming itself into the new academic establishment.
Nearly a thousand people—most of them students—crowded into Williams’s elegant Chapin Hall to listen to the panel debate. Professor Taylor introduced the discussion by recalling the question mark that formed part of the title: Yes, he said, we’ve all heard a great deal about the humanities lately, but is there really a crisis? And if so, what is it? Professor Taylor said he doubted that the popular perception that the humanities are in trouble was at all accurate. But he had no doubt about where to place the blame for that mistaken perception. In his view, the widespread sense that the humanities are in a state of crisis has largely “grown out of an extraordinary attack on recent tendencies in humanistic studies that had been carried out during the Reagan years and is continuing in the Bush Administration.”
Whether Professor Taylor actually believed that the Reagan and Bush administrations themselves had undertaken or otherwise abetted this alleged attack, or whether he thought they merely provided a climate conducive to attacking the humanities, was never made terribly clear. What was clear, however, was his deep antipathy to the voices that “are calling us back to what they regard as the traditional values of the Western humanistic tradition.” Professor Taylor did not mention any names, but it was not long before the specters of William Bennett (the former Secretary of Education), Lynne Cheney (the current director of the National Endowment for the Humanities), and Allan Bloom (the author of The Closing of the American Mind) loomed large and threatening in the wings. For Professor Taylor, if there is a crisis in the humanities today, it has arisen not from the way the humanities are pursued at our colleges and universities—where, we were given to understand, things couldn’t be better—but precisely from efforts by people like Bennett, Cheney, and Bloom to resuscitate those “traditional values of the Western humanistic tradition.”
Obviously unhappy at the prospect of such “traditional values” being reinstated, Professor Taylor went on to confide that the humanities are “inextricably bound up with philosophical and political traditions that many in today’s world find problematic.” While he did not bother to elaborate on this statement, it is worth asking what it might mean that a professor of religion and director of a center for the study of the humanities and social sciences should think that the humanities are inextricably linked to traditions that “many” find “problematic.” Which philosophical and political traditions, exactly, does he have in mind? Just who are the “many” taking issue with these traditions? And what does the euphemistic word “problematic” imply? Again, Professor Taylor did not offer specifics. But his invocation of the legacy of Greece and Rome as the ultimate source of the humanistic tradition made it clear that he meant the philosophical and political traditions of the West—traditions that, in philosophy, developed the ideals of truth, objectivity, and scholarly disinterestedness, and that, in politics, are responsible for the rise of liberal democratic society. The “many” who dispute this legacy are of course Professor Taylor and his colleagues—that is, precisely those academics charged with teaching and preserving the humanities and the traditions upon which they are based.
In brief, then, this was Professor Taylor’s message: Recent attacks on the humanities have been misplaced; indeed, the humanities today are thriving, but there remains the unfortunate detail that the philosophical and political ideas that have traditionally supported the humanities are essentially racist, sexist, and elitist, and so they must be scrapped for a more enlightened set of ideas. The institutional corollary of all this was unexpressed but also fairly obvious: More “research” is needed to discern and foster such enlightened alternatives, so please, all you anti-intellectual, unenlightened people who continue to labor under the prejudices of an outmoded tradition, please keep sending your children to college to be disabused of such prejudices, and keep supporting us post-humanist humanists with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other governmental institutions. Given such an understanding of the humanities, it was little wonder that Professor Taylor should conclude his remarks by reminding his audience that he considers the “stakes” in the controversy over the humanities to be primarily “social and political.” Who could doubt it?
Instead of offering prepared remarks on the large issues that Professor Taylor had broached in his introduction, members of the panel were asked to respond individually to questions that had been previously formulated by individuals from the Williams community and that Professor Taylor addressed to each of the panelists in turn. Some of the questions, and certainly some of the responses, tended to wander off the announced topic of the evening’s discussion; but, taken together, some half dozen of the exchanges provided a veritable catalogue of the chief issues that define the controversy over the humanities today.
The first question, addressed to Professor Bundtzen, concerned the issue of the canon.
The first question, addressed to Professor Bundtzen, concerned the issue of the canon: How should it be defined and what is its importance for contemporary debate? Professor Bundtzen began conventionally enough by alluding to Matthew Arnold. Arnold has been widely invoked in recent discussions of the canon, she noted, and indeed the traditional idea of the canon could be summed up in Arnoldian terms as “masterpieces, the great works, those works deemed as of lasting value and significance, important for critics to return to again and again.” But it soon became clear that Professor Bundtzen had little patience with this whole idea of the canon, at least as it has been traditionally defined. For who occupies its ranks? People like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton—those whom Professor Bundtzen repeatedly and contemptuously referred to as “the big guys” and “the big names”: the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Rembrandt in painting, Nietzsche and Kant in philosophy. “It’s like having a big list of names,” Professor Bundtzen complained, working up to her main point: “The names, I hope you all noticed, are . . . men. They’re white men; they’re Western European . . . . [The canon is] the list of the white men who have created Western culture.” One wasn’t sure which she thought was worse, the creators or their creations. Professor Bundtzen went on to support the “feminist contention” that “surely there must be some women somewhere who did something that might be deemed of interpretive significance.”
Echoing many other academic feminists, Professor Bundtzen went on to make a more radical point. “There is a way in which there is a canonization of unique genius,” she told us, “and genius as it’s attached to the male imagination: Their problems, their desires, what they love and they think is important, and their narratives and their stories, their events, their history, the way in which they paint their often female subjects.” In other words, it’s not only the predominance of men in the canon that Professor Bundtzen objected to, but also the very criteria for inclusion in the canon. The whole idea of “unique genius,” for example, seemed specifically “male” to her, as did the problems and aspirations that were expressed in works created by men. The possibility that there might be something human in these aspirations and achievements, something that transcended the contingency of gender, was rejected out of hand.
Professor Bundtzen’s comments were nothing more than a commonplace expression of commonplace feminist sentiments; but of course they are disturbing precisely because they have become commonplace. It is a measure of the triumph of radical feminism in the academy that ideas that were considered extremely idiosyncratic only a few years ago are these days taken for granted and repeated as gospel by professors everywhere. Thus, even at an elite liberal-arts college like Williams, once considered an epitome of the small but rigorous traditional college, we find faculty members propagating the notion that the “value” placed on “unique genius” in our culture is somehow distinctively “male” and therefore subject to feminist dismantling.
Later in the evening, when the discussion returned to the question of the canon, Professor Bundtzen provided additional evidence of the extent to which she has absorbed conventional feminist ideology. Elaborating on her point about the essentially masculine nature of traditional aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual criteria, she spoke of a “counter-canon” of women authors and questioned the high esteem that has been accorded to certain sorts of creative endeavor but has been withheld from others. “When the Western male tradition was canonized,” she informed us,
certain values about individual genius were canonized, and mastery, and transcendence; and in other words the canonization of women authors [might be read] as a counter-canonization of different values. . . . [It would be] an enrichment of the canon overall to have a discordant woman’s voice saying “I’m not creating this poem for eternity,” “I don’t want to celebrate transcendent truths, I want to celebrate the little things in women’s lives . . . the small nurturing things that women do.”
In the feminist reconstruction of the canon that Professor Bundtzen envisioned, then, allegedly “male” values like individual genius, transcendence, mastery, and truth must be put aside to make room for allegedly “female” values and the “discordant woman’s voice” undertaking to champion “the small nurturing things that women do.”
We shall return to Professor Bundtzen and her discordant woman’s voice. But let us first consider the responses of some of the other panelists. The first question that was put to Professor Hirsch concerned the relationship between his book Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Cultural Literacy had been widely associated with the spirit of The Closing of the American Mind; how, if at all, would Professor Hirsch distinguish his position from Bloom’s? And what does the enthusiastic response to their books tell us about the educated public’s attitude toward the educational mission of our colleges today?
These questions were tailor-made for Professor Hirsch. Ever since the raging success of Cultural Literacy brought him not only fame but also the uncomfortable label of “conservative,” he has taken every opportunity to shake off the label and to attempt to ingratiate himself with the academic Left. It was hardly surprising, then, that he should have responded gratefully that, “thank heavens,” the question of his relation to Allan Bloom had finally become “obsolete.” Though his name had unfortunately been linked with Bloom’s when their books were first published, people now understood that they were up to fundamentally different things. Whereas Bloom really was a conservative critic of new trends in the academy, Professor Hirsch declared, he himself considered the new trends splendid; he just wanted more people to be able to participate in them, and so wanted young students to know enough to squeeze into college. The names that are now—and more appropriately—paired as being antagonistic to recent changes in the humanities, Professor Hirsch explained, are those of Allan Bloom and William Bennett— who, he told an amused audience, are known in some quarters as “the killer Bs.” Moreover, he continued, “I presume that, on the simplest level, Bloom votes or least talks to Republicans and emotionally that has not been my own history.” This, too, greatly entertained the audience—though Professor Himmelfarb later had the bad taste to point out that, in fact, Professor Bloom is a Democrat and talks to whichever groups invite him.
The important thing was not what was taught but that the knowledge be shared.
Professor Hirsch then went on to suggest that, while Allan Bloom’s book was an embittered response to the student unrest of the late Sixties, his own work grew out of his study of reading and writing. Cultural Literacy, he said, was aimed primarily at “disadvantaged” children and sought to make the elementary point that some degree of shared knowledge was essential to academic success. What that shared knowledge should be, Professor Hirsch insisted, was another question entirely: he himself would certainly not wish to make invidious distinctions among various curricula. The important thing was not what was taught but that the knowledge be shared. Continuing his effort at self-exoneration, he claimed to be “appalled” that his book had been read as a conservative tract. What he really wanted, Professor Hirsch confided in his closing expostulation, was to give everybody an opportunity to go to college.
Since questions are often more revealing than the answers they elicit, we may quote the next question, which was addressed to Professor Derrida, as much for what it tells us about the person who framed it as for the answer it received. “To what extent does the very notion of crisis,” Professor Taylor asked Jacques Derrida, “serve to reaffirm the institutional structures it apparently threatens, and, for those of us who feel that the Humanities are hardly threatened enough, how optimistic should we be about the possibility of establishing a discourse which moves beyond the agonistic [i.e., contested], and apparently endlessly recuperable, language of ‘crisis?’” This is a classic “Derridean” question; whoever wrote it—and one cannot help suspecting Professor Taylor himself—is obviously well steeped in deconstructivist argot. Not only does it begin with a facile inversion of common sense (the prospect of a crisis “reaffirming” what it seems to threaten) and express a marked current of subversion (“those of us who feel the Humanities are hardly threatened enough”), it also uses an appropriately forbidding jargon (“discourse,” “agonistic,” “endlessly recuperable”), and, above all, it is at pains to place the emphasis on language, not on the reality language describes.
Not to be outdone at his own game, however, Professor Derrida’s response was itself a consummate exhibition of deconstructivist gamesmanship. Instead of addressing himself to the question, he began by posing questions of his own. He asked Professor Bundtzen whether she thought it was possible to stop the process of canonization once it had started. He himself, he said, did not believe that it could be stopped, for every attempt to do so would simply lead to an alternative process of canonization, producing a “counter-canon” like the one Professor Bundtzen and so many others had proposed. One might wish to change what was “canonized,” dropping, for example, the notion of the masterpiece. But this would not bring the process of canonization itself to a halt; it would merely channel it into a different route.
Before proceeding with Professor Derrida’s response, we may pause to note how far from the notion of an academic canon this talk of “canonization” is. Whatever the ecclesiastical roots of the term “canon,” the process by which specific works are included in the literary canon is radically different from the process whereby an individual is canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet “canonization” has become a vogue word in the academy. No doubt this is partly because, poaching on the aura of religious canonization, it suggests something supernatural, authoritarian—even, for many secular observers, inherently fraudulent. But it is always useful to track such misuses of language, and one cannot help pointing out that Professor Derrida’s suggestion about “dropping” the notion of the masterpiece from discussions of the literary canon would be more or less like dropping the notion of the saint from the religious canon—in other words, it would make a travesty of the whole idea. Professor Derrida is hardly one to be detained by such details, however, and he quickly went on to ask Professor Hirsch what his—Professor Hirsch’s—earlier theories of interpretation revealed about his relation to Allan Bloom, and whether there was any essential connection between his current proposals for promoting cultural literacy and his theories of interpretation.
Now, these were particularly naughty questions to put to E. D. Hirsch. Before Professor Hirsch burst upon the scene as the apostle of cultural literacy, he had acquired a certain reputation in the world of literary criticism as the author of Validity in Interpretation (1967). This book was a polemic against “radical historicism” and theories of linguistic indeterminacy—then still mostly of German, not French, extraction—as well as a plea for the idea that texts possess a literal meaning that provides a criterion for valid interpretation. “[T]here is clearly a sense in which we can neither evaluate a text nor determine what it means ‘to us, today’ until we have correctly apprehended what it means,” he wrote in one characteristic passage.
Not that Validity in Interpretation won a particularly enthusiastic following: Proponents of literary hermeneutics and, later, of deconstruction dismissed it as hopelessly reactionary, while many of those who might have been sympathetically inclined toward the book’s overall spirit regarded it as simple-minded. It became widely known not because it was admired but because it was among the most straightforward expositions of the minority view in the academy that there might be such a thing as literal meaning or, indeed, validity in interpretation. Thus, for someone as desperate as Professor Hirsch to disencumber himself of the label “conservative,” it must have been galling to be reminded of his former sins— especially by Derrida, an enormously celebrated writer whose entire oeuvre stands in the most glaring contradiction to Professor Hirsch’s own earlier ideas. Poor Professor Hirsch! Declaring that people had once again been wrong to see him as “conservative,” he then favored us with a little self-exposition according to which the argument of Validity in Interpretation was scarcely to be distinguished from extreme relativism.
For his own part, Professor Derrida proceeded to launch into a typical deconstructive gambit.
For his own part, Professor Derrida proceeded to launch into a typical deconstructive gambit. We should not worry about the humanities being in a state of crisis, he said, because it is in the nature of the academy to be always in crisis. Noting that the etymology of “crisis” suggests choice or decision, he assured us that “the rhetoric of crisis” is “fundamentally optimistic” since it looks forward to a solution, a choice, a decision. In fact, the problem today is that the academy is no longer in crisis and hence “there is no choice, no decision to be made.” But while Professor Derrida is obviously expert at the interpretive shenanigans that make things seem the opposite of the way they really are, his subsequent comments showed that—about certain subjects, anyway—he is as interested as the next person in preserving the ordinary meanings of words. For he admitted that even if there is, alas, no crisis in the humanities today, there are some serious problems. One of the most important, he said, comes from outside the academy and concerns money. A great deal of money is being given to the sciences, while the humanities, having to make do with far more meager amounts, are in danger of being “marginalized.” At least when it came to talking about money, Professor Derrida abandoned his customary intellectual hijinks and was perfectly straightforward. There was no attempt to make a lack of money seem like an abundance, or to show that the “margins” of this kind of “discourse” were really the center.
He was not quite so straightforward about what he identified as an “internal” problem that the humanities face today—namely, the problem of conservatives who want to preserve the traditional canon and the fundamental values of the humanities. Recognizing the threat that these conservatives pose to the agenda of the new academic establishment, Professor Derrida resorted to paradox: The desire to preserve the traditional role of the humanities, he said, threatens to destroy the humanities “from within.” Indeed, according to Professor Derrida, the real way to save the humanities is to shoulder the “dangerous responsibility” of subjecting them to radical criticism, “to transform the canon, to enlarge the field.” But lest it seem that he wanted simply to . . . well, to deconstruct the humanities—which after all would risk further “marginalizing” the humanities from sources of financial support—he hastened to assure us that “we all share the same respect for Shakespeare, for Milton, for others.”
But do we? Does Professor Bundtzen, for example? Wasn’t Professor Derrida ignoring the fact that on many American campuses, and indeed in many cases largely under the influence of his writings, “respect” is about the last word one would choose to describe the prevailing attitude toward Shakespeare, Milton, or—to employ a phrase one sees a lot these days—other “Dead White European Males”? In fact, he wants to have it both ways: to indulge in an all-out critical assault on the traditional idea of the humanities and everything they stand for and yet, when the occasion calls for it, to be able to mouth a few pious phrases about respect for Shakespeare, Milton, and those unnamed “others.”
Such questions returned with renewed force when the next panelist, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, took the floor. Before answering the first question that was addressed to her, however, she made a few observations about the proceedings thus far. It was unfortunate, Professor Himmelfarb said, that the word “conservative” should have been introduced so blithely into the discussion as a term of censure. For by intimating at the outset that “conservative” means “bad,” an overtly politicized framework for the entire discussion had been established. Professor Himmelfarb acknowledged that most of the panelists would insist that anyone wanting to preserve the traditional canon was already pursuing a political agenda of his own. But it would be far more productive, she continued, if questions about politics came in at the end of the discussion rather than at the beginning. Professor Himmelfarb also noted that she had many friends who, though they were very much on the Left politically, nonetheless considered themselves conservatives in educational and cultural matters. Consequently, she suggested, a more neutral term—something like “traditional” or “conventional”—would have been preferable to “conservative” as a descriptive term.
Professor Himmelfarb went on to remind the audience that the moderator, Professor Taylor, had opened the discussion in a highly charged political manner by accusing the Reagan and Bush administrations of mounting “an extraordinary attack on recent tendencies in humanistic studies.” What, she wondered, could this mean? After all, the very center for the humanities whose inauguration they were gathered together to celebrate was being supported by a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Bush Administration. Is that the sort of “extraordinary attack” Professor Taylor had in mind?
And in response to Professor Derrida’s call for more rigorous questioning in the humanities, Professor Himmelfarb noted that questions were being asked on more than one side of the issue. Professor Derrida claimed to champion the questioning of authority, of the legitimacy of tradition, and of the nature and composition of the humanities. But were not others—including William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and Lynne Cheney—also asking hard questions about the humanities? Were they not questioning the authority of the dominant voices in the academy, the legitimacy of the attempt to delegitimate the tradition, the right of entrenched powers to determine and composition of the curriculum on political grounds? Of course they were. Why then, she asked, should such questions be dismissed at the outset as an “attack” on the humanities? Are not critics like Bennett, Bloom, Cheney, and others doing precisely what Professor Derrida and his like-minded colleagues would have their own students do: scrutinizing the unacknowledged assumptions of “contemporary modes of discourse”?
Professor Himmelfarb then turned to the question that had been addressed to her: How would she distinguish between traditional intellectual and political history, on the one hand, and the new social history that has taken the academy by storm, on the other? She explained that the rise of social history, which concentrates on the texture of everyday life and the mundane activities of ordinary people, has tended to undermine the practice of traditional history, which was essentially “elite history,” concerned with what she called high politics and great ideas. Indeed, she said, traditional intellectual and political history was precisely the history that had been enacted mostly by those whom Professor Bundtzen contemptuously referred to as “the big guys”: great statesmen and military leaders in politics, great thinkers and artists in intellectual and cultural matters.
Speaking of “the big guys,” Professor Himmelfarb asked Professor Bundtzen whether she was not worried about fostering a new stereotype of women, one that might be “limiting, restrictive, even possibly demeaning.” For why shouldn’t women as well as men be concerned with large questions? “What about the woman who does want to celebrate transcendence and uniqueness and genius and large things,” Professor Himmelfarb asked, “and doesn’t want to be confined to ‘a nurturing role.’ Is she to be illegitimized as a woman?”
This question elicited a great round of applause from the audience but considerable confusion from the podium.
This question elicited a great round of applause from the audience but considerable confusion from the podium. An obviously stunned Professor Bundtzen replied that what she had said did not preclude the possibility of genius, though she did admit that she was “very reluctant” to use the phrase “transcendent truths”—after all, why should transcendent truths be “better or of greater value to us than the kind of truths we need to live our lives, which are not usually terribly transcendent from moment to moment or hour to hour?"
Professor Bundtzen then responded to Professor Himmelfarb’s criticism of the way politics had intruded into the discussion. The problem, she said, is that if as an educator in the humanities you read that you should be teaching “transcendent truths,” and you have difficulty with the very notion of transcendent truths, then you feel under attack—especially if the definition of the humanities as having to do with transcendent truths is tied to purse strings. What if, she asked, the humanities center at Williams decided that this year “we’re not going to deal with transcendence, we’re not going to deal with truths this year, we’re going to deal with . . . I don’t know, I can imagine another agenda which would not be outside the realm of humane studies.” In that case, the faculty of the humanities center would no doubt find that its requests for money from the government would be denied—and, she concluded, she would regard that as a “truly political” act.
It must be said that Professor Himmelfarb responded with great restraint. Did Williams’s application to the National Endowment, she wondered, say something to the effect that “this year we plan to deal with transcendent truths”? Did it not rather represent quite faithfully the program the humanities center has in fact been carrying out? One might ask, in addition, what the alternative to dealing with “truths” might be: dealing with untruths, perhaps? Is this an alternative within the realm of “humane studies” that we would want humanities centers to pursue with public funds? Is it not ironical that this so-called center for the study of the humanities should in fact be dedicated to an attack on the idea of “the center” in just about every sense of the word? Professor Bundtzen did not exactly reply to Professor Himmelfarb’s question, although—no doubt searching for a safe way to re-introduce a note of political virtue into the discussion—she did offer the stunning non sequitur that “I do think a lot of people feel threatened by the Helms amendment recently.”
What a gift to the cultural Left the proposed Helms amendment has been! Formulated in the wake of the controversy over Federal funding for Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of homosexual sadomasochistic acts, the proposed amendment would have imposed a ban on giving Federal money to art that could be construed as offensive to a wide range of groups. It had already been defeated by the time Professor Bundtzen spoke out against it, but that didn’t matter. To declare oneself against the amendment was still to show that one was on the side of virtue. Indeed, Professor Bundtzen’s comment showed that the Helms amendment, even though it never had a prayer of being passed in its original form, has continued to provide a wonderfully convenient icon for politically correct academics, artists, and other cultural figures to attack: Where else these days can one bask in the aura of outraged virtue by risking so little?
Professor Bundtzen doubtless provided the evening’s most notable caricature. But the most histrionic moments came when Professor Baker decided to weigh in against Professor Himmelfarb. If he was short on coherence and consecutive reasoning, he nonetheless succeeded in making himself abundantly clear. He was troubled, he told the Williams audience, by the ease with which Professor Himmelfarb had seemed to score points against Professor Bundtzen, using “what I call the Strom Thurmond strategy.” He went on to explain what he meant with an anecdote. Once, after having heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, Professor Baker turned on his television only to find Senator Thurmond exclaiming that “Negroes here have more refrigerators, more shoes, more appliances, than colored people anywhere in the world. Why are they out here marching? I just do not understand it.” According to Professor Baker, Professor Himmelfarb’s observation that the Williams Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities betrayed a similarly patronizing attitude, which he summed up as follows: “We’ve given you, even you . . . a grant, so how can we conservatives be politically motivated?”
Professor Baker then wandered on to consider Professor Himmelfarb’s remark that she had many friends who were politically very liberal but who were conservative on cultural issues. These were the sort of people, Professor Baker said contemptuously, “who speak Marxist and send their kids to elite prep schools.” They might talk a good line, he explained, but when it came time for “Buffy or Cokie” to go to school, it was off to some elite institution like Choate. Of course, the idea that Professor Himmelfarb, the very embodiment of the modern Jewish intellectual, had such vacuous WASP caricatures in mind when she spoke of her liberal friends who happened to be cultural conservatives is almost as amusing as it is absurd: she later responded with some pique that she knew no one who answered to Professor Baker’s description of Buffy or Cokie.
By now Professor Baker was really warmed up. He more or less gave up trying to frame an argument, letting himself be carried along by a gush of increasingly strident rhetoric. There were several notable elements in the oratorical collage he constructed. First, we were informed that “the fact is, the institutional site of authority is constituted by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.” “Authority” is always a term of reproach in the academy these days, of course, as is “institutional.” So identifying the Endowments as the site of institutional authority is to suggest something particularly malevolent. Exacdy what it portended was not clear, except that the phrase provided a kind of transition to Professor Baker’s observation that “it is a fact that the people who run these institutions are not elected by voters in this room. President Reagan doesn’t call you up and say, ‘Hey, Houston, what do you think?’”
Professor Baker next told us that he saw no evidence that people like William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and Professor Himmelfarb had “immersed themselves in the very topics of inquiry that constitute our consensus,” and charged that such people dismissed out of hand recent curricular innovations “precisely on the basis of gender, class, race, and sex.” Professor Baker also opined (no doubt correctly) that Allan Bloom would not have much to tell us about the work of Frederick Douglass and other nineteenth-century American black writers or about the marvels of contemporary lesbian plays—though why a specialist in Plato and Rousseau like Professor Bloom should have much to tell us about these subjects was not explained.
We were now approaching Professor Baker’s peroration. “Mr. Helms and that amendment have to do entirely with the institutional framework that I have discussed,” he said breathlessly, referring again (one conjectures) to the National Endowments as the site of institutional authority. He then went on to issue a warning about those who criticize the dismantling of the traditional curriculum. “They are dangerous to all of us,” and even, he said, to democracy. Moreover, he charged, alluding to Professor Himmelfarb’s description of traditional historiography, while this conservative view of education pretends to strive to respect the facts, it really “assigns the values and makes the facts correspond to them”—in other words, though Professor Baker didn’t put it so bluntly, it lies. He then squeezed in a few words about racial stereotypes and concluded in ringing tones by saying that while it may be too early to know whether all the new movements sweeping our campuses are right, we know “indisputably that what we have seen in the past is wrong.” This remarkable performance was met by wild applause.
What can we make of Professor Baker’s denunciation? Consider only his observation that officials administering the National Endowments were not elected by the “Voters in this room.” It may be that Professor Baker is unacquainted with the idea of representative democracy. It’s possible, too, that he has something to learn about the character of the American electorate. Does Professor Baker believe that the voters at large in this country favor spending their tax dollars to support university humanities programs that have devoted themselves to a frankly radical political agenda? Perhaps he believes that most voters wake up thinking, “I wish the government would give more money to professors who spend their time criticizing the site of institutional authority in this country and teaching my children about lesbian plays.” Or maybe—since he, too, mentioned the Helms amendment—he is convinced that most voters want more Federal money spent on exhibitions of photographs of sexual degradation and coercion. The fact is, it is impossible to know just what Professor Baker thinks about these or the other matters he touched upon. We can be pretty sure, however, that he is blissfully unaware of how privileged and protected a position he and his colleagues occupy, thanks precisely to their being insulated by the authority and largesse of the institutions they excoriate.
No doubt sensing that he had let himself get carried away, Professor Baker later apologized to Professor Himmelfarb for comparing her to Strom Thurmond. He found nothing else in his declamation to retract, however, and, as the audience filed out of Chapin Hall a little later that evening, his denunciations continued to echo. Professor Taylor had concluded by reassuring us yet again that, even if there is a crisis in the humanities, it is “a sign of vitality rather than demise.” In fact, the proceedings at Williams reminded one of the extent to which the centrist position among our academic faculties has collapsed into a species of accommodating leftism. Not only was there the continuing spectacle of Professor Hirsch busily dissociating himself from charges of conservatism; there was the even more egregious example of this surrender to the Left provided by Werner Gundersheimer’s convocation speech the following day. Though obviously meant to represent a “moderate” position midway between, say, Professors Himmelfarb and Baker, this historian and director of the Folger Shakespeare Library—a man whose very position would seem to require him to act as a guardian of one of the greatest writers in the literary canon—in effect showed to what extent academic moderates have capitulated to the radical extreme. His speech, entitled “ ‘Our Battles join’d’: The Struggle for the American Mind,” had two chief messages: 1) New trends in the humanities, from deconstruction and feminism to radical curricular revision, are only so many signs of vibrancy and health; and 2) The real danger to the humanities comes from those who wish to preserve the traditional curriculum and the values it embodies.
Professor Gundersheimer’s address was full of the requisite clichés and slogans.
Professor Gundersheimer’s address was full of the requisite clichés and slogans: the humanities today had been “enriched” by “diversity” and “innovation,” they had “moved with the times” “by accepting new subjects and approaches into their curricula,” and so on. He did speak with some nostalgia about the English professor of old whose task was to master the literature in his field and then teach and write about it “in plain, accessible English that any educated person could understand and appreciate.” No doubt that was precisely the ideal once held up to and perhaps even espoused by Professor Gundersheimer himself. He admitted that it had long since been abandoned by fashionable academics, yet went on to assure us that, because “change is the only constant within existing academic disciplines,” its loss was not a tragedy but an exciting new challenge.
At the center of Professor Gundersheimer’s speech to the dutifully assembled Williams community was a solemn warning about the danger of attempts to reinstate a more traditional view of the humanities and what he called “the genteel ideal of plain talk in support of timeless verities.” Predictably, Allan Bloom came in for particular censure because of his allegedly “simplistic attacks on colleges and universities.” Yet Professor Gundersheimer was careful to assert that the problem went beyond Bloom and his followers. “Many distinguished scholars,” he said, “see the flux of scholarship as a threat to the very substance of received doctrines, or what they are likely to call ‘the truth.’” (One wondered what Professor Gundersheimer would be likely to call it.)
As a recent example of this “revolt against complexity,” he quoted from a book review that had appeared last summer in The Wall Street Journal. The review was written by Edward Shils, the eminent sociologist and professor at the University of Chicago, and concerned The Culture We Deserve, a collection of essays on culture and the academy by the historian Jacques Barzun. One of Professor Barzun’s chief complaints in that book is that, in the name of specialization, much academic discourse in the humanities has mired itself in a jargon that is both trivial and unintelligible. Professor Shils seconded this criticism and took it a step further. He castigated “the destructiveness of deconstruction,” an intellectual movement he aptly described as “that most chic of French academic exports, which preaches a nihilistic skepticism of language and that has now gained an almost unchallenged empire in American universities.” Professor Shils went on to note that the collaboration of deconstruction and other instances of academic “theory” with “a smattering of Marxism and political antinomianism” had “ravaged” the study of the humanities.
Professor Gundersheimer was quick to ridicule Professor Shils’s description of the state of the humanities. He began by telling us that it was little more than an example of “the discourse of alienation” and “the old ‘evil empire’ gambit.” (One can be sure that the damning allusion to President Reagan was not lost on the audience.) He then proceeded with a few words about his own view of matters in the academy, proposing the adoption of “common sense” as an effective antidote to extremists on both sides of the debate over the humanities. That might seem a worthy proposal, common sense being in short supply in the humanities these days. But lest anyone think he was suggesting something reactionary, Professor Gundersheimer explained that “I am of course prepared to believe that one person’s common sense is another person’s nonsense.” In other words, he supports a wonderful version of “common sense”—what we might perhaps call a “deconstructed” version—that is common only to the individual who happens to hold it.
Not surprisingly, this custodian of the legacy of Shakespeare scarcely mentioned Shakespeare’s name. Instead of worrying about literature, he favored us with a few “axioms” that he claimed to find useful when thinking about the mission of the humanities. For example, he informed us that the humanities do not thrive on sameness, but on “difference and conflict”; similarly, we discovered that “[complexity in the world of ideas isn’t scary. It’s fun.” “What is scary,” Professor Gundersheimer pursued, “is reductionism Hitler knew exactly what art was. So does Jesse Helms.” (You see how useful Senator Helms has proved to be.) And it’s the same way, apparently, with those who claim to know the “original intent of the framers of the Constitution”—that is to say, those who, like Judge Robert Bork, have fallen afoul of the Left. Professor Gundersheimer concluded by assuring us that, although he was all in favor of conflict, he did think it would be “regrettable if the great issues that now divide us—the sanctity of the so-called canon; the referentiality of language; the legitimacy of new methods and subjects of inquiry—were to lessen the claims of humanists and social scientists to serious public attention.”
The contrast between the message of Professor Gundersheimer’s speech and the setting could hardly have been starker.
The contrast between the message of Professor Gundersheimer’s speech and the setting could hardly have been starker. Here we had the most traditional of academic ceremonies, replete with academic regalia and communal singing of “My Country, 'Tis of Thee,” providing the setting for a speech whose essential point was that the humanities can cut themselves off from both their foundation and their ideals and still be said to be thriving. What else are we to make of the evocation of a “common sense” that has a constituency of one? Or the contemptuous reference to “the sanctity of the so-called canon”? Or the suggestion that the “referentiality of language” is something the humanities today could just as well do without? Or the idea that “new methods”—meaning deconstruction and its progeny—and new “subjects of inquiry”—meaning everything from pulp novels to rock videos—are fit subjects for humanistic study? Indeed, what else are we to make of the sum of Williams College’s inquiry into the question, “Crisis in the Humanities?”
The point is not that Professor Gundersheimer is an especially important or radical figure on the academic scene; he is neither. Nor is his message at all out of the ordinary. Again, this is precisely the problem: that even an ordinary, self-proclaimed moderate should as a matter of course abandon moderation and adopt “moving with the times” as a criterion of critical judgment. In his famous Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), the German poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller exhorted his readers to give their contemporaries what they need, not what they praise. It is good advice, as timely today as it was at the end of the eighteenth century. But to be effective, Schiller’s admonition requires of us not only insight but also the courage to dissent from the entrenched pieties of our time. Professor Gundersheimer’s performance is one of many recent events reminding us that our colleges and universities have entered a new era of intellectual conformity in which such dissent is all but excluded from serious consideration. This alone shows that, notwithstanding the equivocations of Professors Taylor, Gundersheimer, and company, the humanities are indeed in a state of crisis today. One measure of the severity of that crisis is the extent to which a genuinely moderate center has collapsed in the face of ideological pressure from the Left. In this respect, the events at Williams last September are a depressing token of the situation of the humanities in the academy at large. What we have witnessed is nothing less than the occupation of the center by a new academic establishment, the establishment of tenured radicals.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 5, on page 32
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