When Tenured Radicals was published in April 1990, many critics—including some who were generally sympathetic to the book’s chief arguments—wondered whether recent developments in the academy were really quite as bad as I claimed. Surely, the argument went, professors of literature who specialize in the rock videos of Madonna are exceedingly rare; there can’t be many professors who devote their scholarly energies to showing that Paradise Lost is a sexist document or that The Tempest is an expose of Western imperialism; are there more than a handful who maintain that there are no compelling reasons for judging Middlemarch to be a greater artistic achievement than the cartoons of Bugs Bunny? And how many professors, really, would dismiss the traditional notion of literary quality and the ideal of disinterested scholarship as oppressive legacies of white patriarchal culture? Surely such professors are a tiny minority, freak or comical exceptions in an otherwise blandly moderate intellectual universe.
It would be consoling to think so. Unfortunately, subsequent developments in the academy have shown that if Tenured Radicals erred in its indictment, it erred on the side of understatement. It is not just that the peddlers of such politicized nonsense are in many cases among the most celebrated academics in the country: senior professors safely ensconced at Yale and Stanford, at Princeton and Harvard, Duke, the University of California, and other premier institutions, where they chair departments, sit on promotion and tenure committees, and busy themselves developing and implementing radical curricular changes for their own and other institutions. That was already clear in the late 1980s. Nor is it simply that, unlike most of their moderate colleagues, such tenured radicals tend to be indefatigable proselytizers, bent on winning converts in their war against the traditional moral and intellectual values of liberal-arts education. Troubling though that be, it, too, has been obvious for some time. Nor, finally, is it news that even the most bizarre writings and proclamations coming out of the academy, instead of being regarded as exotic or repellent curiosities, are often instrumental in setting the terms of debate both in the classroom and within the profession as a whole. No one familiar with the land of thing that passes for scholarship today will be surprised to discover—to take just one example—that the presentation of a paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” at the 1989 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association was matched by a paper at the 1990 meeting on “The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?” (One might have thought that the evidence for the existence of heterosexuality was well established, but evidence does not necessarily count for much among our new academic elite.)
All this is wearisomely familiar. What is new is the extent to which the constellation of radical trends that dominate the teaching of the humanities at many of our best institutions has found common cause in the rise of a new political ideology: the ideology of multiculturalism. Notwithstanding the emancipationist rhetoric that accompanies the term, “multiculturalism” as used in the academy today is not about recognizing genuine cultural diversity or encouraging pluralism. It is about undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and in society at large. In this sense, multiculturalism provides a convenient umbrella for the smorgasbord of radical ideologies now regnant in the academy. The one thing your literary deconstructionist, your Lacanian feminist, your post-structuralist Marxist, your New Historicist, and your devotee of what goes under the name of “cultural studies” can agree on is that the Western humanistic tradition is a repository of ideas that are naïve, repressive, or both.
At the center of the multicultural imperative is the assumption that all cultural life is to be explained in political terms, preeminently in terms of gender, race, class, and ethnic origin. In other words, categories of thought that have their home in the social sciences are imported into the arts and humanities and granted the status of golden explanatory keys. In good Marxist fashion, culture is denied autonomy and is reduced to being a coefficient of something else: class relations, sexual oppression, racial exploitation, etc. Questions of artistic quality are systematically replaced with tests for political relevance, even as the whole realm of aesthetic experience is “demythologized” as an insidious bourgeois fiction designed to consolidate the cultural hegemony of the ruling class. The thought that there might be something uniquely valuable about culture taken on its own terms, that literature, for example, might have its own criteria of achievement and offer its own distinctive satisfactions that are independent of contemporary political battles—none of this seems to matter or indeed to be seriously considered by our multiculturalist radicals.
The whole realm of aesthetic experience is “demythologized” as an insidious bourgeois fiction.
Some partisans of multiculturalism will claim that in placing issues of gender, class, and race at the center of the humanities they are merely following a time-honored procedure for enriching their discipline by asking novel questions. Just as the New Critics of a previous generation enlivened literary criticism by focusing on verbal complexity, ambiguity, and irony at a time when philology and textual scholarship still ruled literary studies, so what we might call the New New Critics, marching under the banner of multiculturalism, are invigorating the humanities by concentrating on issues of gender, race, and class. The subjects addressed by their criticism may differ markedly from the subjects addressed by criticism of previous generations; the judgments made about what matters in literature and in life may differ radically as well; but that is only to be expected; in essentials, such critics are doing what humanists have always done: they are interpreting texts with the categories that seem most pertinent to contemporary experience.
So goes the argument when the new academic orthodoxy is challenged. But the difference is that whereas the New Critics drew on the essentially literary resources of rhetorical analysis to give us a deeper appreciation of literature, our multiculturalists employ the tools of ethnic and sexual redress in order to transform literature into a species of political propaganda and virtue mongering. Our appreciation of literature is not enhanced; it is canceled and replaced with something else. We are told that by concentrating on questions of gender, class, and ethnicity, multiculturalism provides new ways of looking at literature; in fact, literature per se never really comes into focus at all. The freedom that belongs to the exercise and experience of art is delivered over to a preordained set of political scenarios. The effect is to impoverish, not enlarge, our experience. Furthermore, the notion that criticism is a free-floating activity, equally valuable whether applied to comic books or to the poems of Dante, underscores the deep cynicism that characterizes so much academic criticism today. It is as if what is actually said, believed, or advocated in our critical judgments is somehow incidental to the character of the humanistic enterprise—as if the value of a particular interpretation were independent of its truth!
Implicit in the politicizing mandate of multiculturalism is an attack on the idea of a common culture, the idea that, despite our many differences, we hold in common an intellectual, artistic, and moral legacy, descending largely from the Greeks and the Bible, supplemented and modified over the centuries by innumerable contributions from diverse hands and peoples. It is this legacy that has given us our science, our political institutions, and the monuments of artistic and cultural achievement that define us as a civilization. Indeed, it is this legacy, insofar as we live up to it, that preserves us from chaos and barbarism. And it is precisely this legacy that the multiculturalist wishes to dispense with. Either he claims that the Western tradition is merely one heritage among many —and therefore that it deserves no special allegiance inside the classroom or out of it—or he denies the achievements of the West altogether. As a student at Williams College patiently explained to me when I spoke there recently about some of these issues, “You are telling us, Mr. Kimball, that we undergraduates ought to focus our attention on the monuments of Western civilization. But you don’t seem to understand that Western civilization is responsible for most of the world’s ills.”
Indeed, it is this legacy, insofar as we live up to it, that preserves us from chaos and barbarism.
The sources of the multicultural animus against the West are varied. In its more radical versions, as the historian Diane Ravitch has pointed out in a perceptive essay on the subject, multiculturalism “has its roots in the ideology of ethnic separatism and in the black nationalist movement.” In this sense, multiculturalism denies the ideal of the United States as an integrated society in which peoples of different races, creeds, and ethnic backgrounds can live together in a state of social harmony. The multiculturalist replaces the traditional integrationist image of our society with the ethnically and racially divisive image of the United States as a kind of salad or mosaic: a potpourri of essentially unassimilable elements. Despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary, he scorns the motto e pluribus unum—out of many heritages, one society—in order to bolster ethnic, racial, or class-oriented fiefdoms. It follows that the multiculturalist will also have little patience with the idea of universal humanity. Corresponding to the attack on the idea of a common culture is a rejection of the idea of a common humanity. The multiculturalist rejects the idea that our identity as human beings transcends our membership in a particular class, race, or gender. On the contrary, for the multiculturalist what is important is not what binds us together but what separates us. And what separates us—be it gender, ethnicity, class, or race—is used as a totem to confer the coveted status of victimhood upon certain approved groups.
In order to appreciate what is at stake in the debate over multiculturalism, consider the phenomenon of Afrocentricity, one of the more extreme but also most influential manifestations of the multicultural ethos. The basic supposition of the movement for Afrocentricity is that Western culture is a bastardization of African, and especially Egyptian, culture, which in a highly innovative piece of ethnography is said to have been predominantly black. Consequently, black Americans—often referred to as “diasporan African people”—are enjoined to discard the “the preponderant Eurocentric myths of universalism, objectivity, and classical traditions” and reclaim their proper intellectual, cultural, and spiritual legacy by returning to African sources. What might be left of culture after “myths” of “universalism, objectivity, and classical tradition”—in other words, with rationality, science, and history—is never really discussed because the truly radical nature of the enterprise is never brought to light. One hears the call for Afrocentricity on many campuses, but—what is even more disturbing —it has so far been most successful influencing the curriculum in high schools around the country.
The journalist Andrew Sullivan provided a kind of introduction to the subject in his account of the Second Annual Conference on the Infusion of African and African-American Content in the High School Curriculum that was held early in November 1990 in Atlanta. As Sullivan points out, the impetus for the conference was the Afrocentric aim to rid black education of “white influences” and “to transform the high school curriculum by giving it an exclusively Afrocentric base.” A fantasy? In Portland, Oregon, a version of the Afrocentric curriculum informed by a document called the African-American Baseline Essays has already been adopted. Similar documents are planned for other “geo-cultural” groups. The Portland curriculum, which has come to serve as a national model for curricular transformation, is being adopted at schools in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. In New York, a recent task force presided over by Thomas Sobol, State Education Commissioner, recommended sweeping changes in the teaching of history in New York schools in order to accommodate ethnic pressure groups and to root out what Commissioner Sobol called the “hidden assumptions of white supremacy” in the textbooks currently used. And what is taught? Like much about Afrocentricity, it is beyond satire and would indeed be funny if it were not in earnest. In the African-American Baseline Essays students learn about the great “African-Jewish” scientist and philosopher Maimonides. Old Testament history is conveniently rewritten to portray the ancient Hebrews as guests, not slaves, of the Egyptian pharaohs. It is suggested that the “so-called Pythagorean theorem” was discovered—like just about everything else—by the ancient Egyptians. There is even a section on ancient “Egyptian Metallurgy and Electrical Engineering.” Sullivan reports that ninth graders are to immerse themselves in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics, cleansing rituals, and numerology. Students are taught that Greek philosophy was plagiarized from black African Egypt (Plato and Aristotle, it turns out, are figures of derision for Afro-centrists) and, more generally, that “all Western knowledge is a corruption of Egyptian, i.e., black African thought, and must therefore be junked.” One charming participant in the conference explained this point as follows:
When we adopt other people’s theories, we are like Frankenstein doing other people’s wills. It’s like someone drinking some good stuff, vomiting it, and then we have to catch the vomit and drink it ourselves. . . . The Greeks gave back the vomit of the African way. . . . Don’t become the vomit-drinkers!
Leave aside the objection that it was not Victor Frankenstein but his monstrous creation that the speaker has in mind here: who would expect someone who considers the Western European tradition of literature and philosophy to be a kind of vomit to bother to acquaint himself with any of it firsthand? The movement for Afrocentricity reminds one of nothing more than Evelyn Waugh’s portrait, in his novel Scoop, of the Consul-General from the fictional African country of Ishmaelia haranguing passersby in Hyde Park:
“Who built the Pyramids?” cried the Ishmaelite orator. “A Negro. Who invented the circulation of the blood? A Negro. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Who discovered America? . . . As that great Negro Karl Marx has so nobly written . . . Africa for the African worker, Europe for the African worker, Asia, Oceania, America, Arctic and Antarctica for the African worker. . . .”
The difference is that instead of being a novelist’s wicked parody of certain fringe elements, the movement for Afrocentricity is a powerful ideology affecting the curricula in high schools and colleges across the country.
There is something grimly ironic about the spectacle of our new multiculturalists using ethnocentricism as a stick with which to beat the West. After all, both the idea and the critique of ethnocentricism are quintessentially Western. There has never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own; nor has any tradition been more committed to self-criticism than the Western tradition: the figure of Socrates endlessly inviting self-scrutiny and rational explanation is a definitive image of the Western spirit. Moreover, “Western” science is not exclusively Western: it is science plain and simple—yes, it is “universal” science— which, though invented and developed in the West, is as true for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley as it is for the denizens of New York. That is why, outside the precincts of the humanities departments of Western universities, there is a mad dash to acquire Western science and technology. The deep est foolishness of multiculturalism shows itself in the puerile attacks it mounts on the cogency of scientific rationality, epitomized poignantly by the Afrocentrist who flips on his word processor to write books decrying the parochial nature of Western science and extolling the virtues of the “African way.”
Despite the racist character of Afrocentricity, it pleases advocates of multiculturalism to present it and other forms of multiculturalism as prime examples of freedom, diversity, and tolerance. In order to understand what our tenured radicals mean when they use such words, let us remind ourselves of the ingenuous student from the University of Pennsylvania who made the mistake of expressing her “deep regard for the individual,” only to be reprimanded by a university administrator who responded that the word “individual” “is a ‘RED FLAG’ phrase today, which is considered by many to be RACIST.” As Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania has noted, the real lesson to be drawn from this episode —as from the many similar episodes that could be cited—is that the university “is a tolerant and diverse community, and if you do not agree with its particular notions of tolerance and diversity, it will gladly re-educate you.”
We were given a good sense of how the virtues of tolerance and pluralism have been faring in the academy when some professors at Duke University decided to establish a chapter of the National Association of Scholars this fall. The NAS is a group of tradition-minded teachers and scholars whose motto is “For Reasoned Scholarship in a Free Society.” Among the faculty who organized the Duke chapter of the NAS was James David Barber, the eminent political scientist whose impeccable liberal credentials include leading a successful fight against establishing the Nixon library at Duke and serving as president of Amnesty International. Nevertheless, as soon as word got out that a chapter of the NAS was being established at Duke, the redoubtable Stanley Fish, chairman of the Duke English department, sent an anguished letter to a student newspaper, The Chronicle, in which he warned, among other things, that the NAS is “widely known to be racist, sexist, and homophobic.”
We must remember that Professor Fish proudly identifies himself as a sophist.
Professor Fish was apparently so worried that reasoned scholarship in a free society might come to Duke that he also took it upon himself to write to the provost “advising him,” as one commentator observed, “that faculty belonging to the NAS should not be appointed to key committees involving tenure or curriculum decisions.” Professor Fish denied proposing this. But he had made the error of sending copies of this missive to a handful of trusted colleagues, one of whom was upset enough at the suggestion that basic civil rights of Duke faculty members should be summarily abridged to suit Professor Fish’s politics that he made the contents of the letter public. Hearing of Professor Fish’s denial, an editor at The Chronicle commented, “It was really strange to hear him say that. We had the letter with his own words asking just that, right in front of us.” But then we must remember that Professor Fish proudly identifies himself as a sophist, one who, in the classical formula, “makes the stronger argument appear weaker, the weaker argument appear stronger.” Perhaps he should remind himself that what works between the covers of a contemporary text of literary criticism is not always so convincing when exposed to the steady, if pedestrian, light of common sense.
Embarrassing and, indeed, disappointing as Professor Fish’s exhibition is—one might have expected a modicum of principled behavior from so gifted a scholar—what is most revealing about this new controversy at Duke is that those organizing support for the NAS are not arch conservatives but, by any conventional measurement, liberals. “What’s happened to Duke,” said one observer, is “the remaking of a mainstream university into a radical one—with terrible consequences—and I speak as a man who campaigned for George McGovern.” The episode dramatizes the extent to which the traditional, moderate center of university life has been occupied by the new radicalism. As another scholar—one not, incidentally, affiliated with the NAS—put it: “Today they have something they should call the House American Activities Committee because people and ideas that are pro-American or pro-Western are now treated on the campuses as though they were some sort of subversive evil.”
Notwithstanding the charges blithely hurled by Professor Fish and his allies against those supporting the NAS—“racist, sexist, and homophobic” for starters—the real battle that is now shaping up is not between radicals and conservatives but between radicals and old-style liberals. Or perhaps one should say that the classical liberal position—which fought for the ideals of quality, disinterested scholarship, and for advancement according to merit, not adherence to a given political line—is now castigated as conservative and reactionary. Professor Fish, for example, has gone to great pains to demonstrate that “there is no such thing as intrinsic merit,” only conventional opinion. The result is that at many institutions any middle ground has been abolished. On the one side we have the remnants of the much besieged liberal tradition attempting to maintain traditional standards of civility and scholarship. On the other side we have the ruling academic clique, the tenor of whose educational philosophy was vividly summed up by Stanley Hauerwas, a well-known professor of theological ethics at Duke. When the controversy over the NAS broke out, Professor Hauerwas disparaged the educational goals of the NAS, explaining in a local newspaper that “The canon of great literature was created by high Anglican -- holes to underwrite their social class.” Edifying, is it not, to acquaint oneself with the table talk of our contemporary academic theologians?
Professor Hauerwas’s comment reminds us that a major issue in the whole debate over multiculturalism—as indeed in the controversy at Duke over the establishment of the NAS—centers on the question of the proper content of a liberal-arts education. For both better and worse, discussion of this question in recent years has crystallized around the word “canon.” On the positive side, putting the traditional literary canon at the center of the debate effectively called attention to some of the more egregious assaults, on the humanities in our colleges and universities. When professors of literature begin teaching Louis L’Amour—to say nothing of the rock videos of Madonna —instead of Henry James, when students begin reading Frantz Fanon instead of John Locke in their political philosophy classes, something has gone terribly wrong. And it is well to remember that instances of such pedagogical frivolity are now increasingly the rule, not the exception. A major legacy of the 1960s in the academy has been the destruction of standards. The very idea that some works might be more worth reading than others, together with the ideal of excellence that informs it, is regarded with suspicion as “hierarchical” and “elitist.” Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the attack on the canon. Between the introduction of works of popular culture into the humanities curriculum and the unending search for works by authors of the requisite gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or ethnic heritage—between, that is, the trivialization and the politicization of the curriculum—the substance of liberal-arts education at many institutions has suffered catastrophic damage. Nowadays, many liberal-arts majors are being graduated having read little more than a handful of popular novels, a bit of esoteric literary theory, and various works that confirm their chosen ideological prejudices. The great works of the tradition remain, literally, a closed book.
The great works of the tradition remain, literally, a closed book.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be uncomfortable about the prominence that the word “canon” has assumed in the debate over the future of the humanities. For one thing, by concentrating on what is taught critics have sometimes tended to slight the question of how teachers are approaching the material they teach. Few would deny Jane Austen a place in the canon; but “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” does not exactly raise one’s hopes for responsible pedagogy. Plato and Aristotle belong in any liberal-arts curriculum, but not as examples of how the white race has corrupted the wisdom of black Egypt. No author is immune to the depredations of ideologically motivated criticism, which is to say that our concern for the integrity of the canon must be a concern for responsible teaching as well.
It must also be said that the scramble to draw up approved reading lists has had the unfortunate effect of suggesting to some that those supporting the canon wish to impose a changeless tablet of previously certified texts on unsuspecting students. In fact, no serious commentator believes—or has said—that the canon is a sacrosanct catalogue of books that may never be altered or added to. But this not to deny that there is a body of works from the Western tradition that should form the core of a liberal-arts education, works that embody what Roger Shattuck, one of our leading scholars of modern French literature, has called “accepted versions of greatness,” “scales of human eminence, qualities to admire and perhaps to emulate.” Of course, the number of books belonging to this core is far larger than the most voracious student could hope to master even if he were granted several lifetimes. In this sense, “being educated” is an ideal any one person can only aspire to. Yet when it comes to the content of a liberal-arts education—when it comes, that is, to the works and authors one should study in the four years of one’s undergraduate career—decisions have to be made. The criterion is first of all not whether a given work is included on the Received List of Great Books but whether it has proved to be of permanent interest. It happens that some works have demonstrated their insight, beauty, or truth to so many educated people for so long that failing to read them is tantamount to consigning oneself to the ranks of the ill-educated. My own view is that liberal-arts education should concentrate as rigorously as possible on works that have proved to be of permanent value; in practice, that means that few if any contemporary works should be part of the undergraduate curriculum. This is not to say that students shouldn't read contemporary fiction and criticism, or that they shouldn’t go to the movies, listen to contemporary music, and generally immerse themselves in the life of the moment. In fact, any young person who is intellectually alive and curious will do so as a matter of course. But contemporary culture should not form the basis of a college education. One should look to the past, not to the streets, for the substance of the liberal-arts curriculum.
Some critics of Tenured Radicals have complained that the book fails to outline alternatives to the morass it describes—where by “alternatives” most seem to mean reading lists. But unless one subscribes to the ethos of multiculturalism, which looks to cultural politics instead of intellectual substance to dictate educational policy, the question of what one should read is not an esoteric matter. Nor is the rationale for a liberal-arts education. One reads as much of what has stood the test of time as one can, beginning if possible with the oldest and most influential books of the Western tradition; and one does so because one desires the gifts of a liberal education: knowledge, intellectual freedom, and a cultivated appreciation of the traditions that have been instrumental in forming our culture. If that sounds like a list of cliches, well, it is—just as any true description of what matters in education will be. It is in the nature of generalizations about life’s difficult chokes to be perfectly obvious, which is perhaps why both are so often confounded by those making a profession of sophistry.
John Searle, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the most thoughtful critics of Tenured Radicals, put the conventional rationale for liberal education with consummate simplicity when he observed that
there is a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature, and it is essential to the liberal education of young men and women in the United States that they should receive some exposure to at least some of the great works in this intellectual tradition; they should, in Matthew Arnold’s overquoted words “know the best that is known and thought in the world.” The arguments given for this view—on the rare occasions when it was felt that arguments were even needed—were that knowledge of the tradition was essential to the self-understanding of educated Americans since the country, in an important sense, is the product of that tradition; that many of these works are historically important because of their influences; and that most of them, for example several works by Plato and Shakespeare, are of very high intellectual and artistic quality, to the point of being of universal human interest.
Until recently, as Professor Searle notes, this description would have seemed so obvious as to have been a “platitude”—which we might define as a statement sufficiently self-evident that its utterance is superfluous.
It is a measure of how drastically things have changed that in the academy today Professor Searle’s vignette would, as he acknowledges, generally be regarded as “wildly reactionary.” Indeed, I can think of few major universities that would dare to endorse it, even as an educational platitude. (Seismic shifts in a culture’s values show up first in its choice of platitudes.) From Socrates to Wittgenstein? Where are the women, the blacks, the Hispanics, the Asians? Ditto on Homer to Joyce. Furthermore, why should a liberal-arts education focus on “the best” that has been thought and said? What about populations and points of view that have been “marginalized”? What about popular culture? What about Madonna? What about the tradition essential to uneducated Americans? Moreover, who says that America is a product of the white, male, Eurocentric tradition outlined above? What about native American influences? What about Africa?
Seismic shifts in a culture’s values show up first in its choice of platitudes.
And so on. A swamp yawns open before us, ready to devour everything. The best response to all this—and finally the only serious and effective response—is not to enter these murky waters in the first place. As Nietzsche observed, we do not refute a disease. We resist it. And yet there are two issues that must be engaged. The first concerns the often-heard charge of “elitism.” The traditional notion of a liberal-arts education is unquestionably elitist in the sense that it focuses on the pinnacle of human cultural and intellectual achievement. It must also be admitted that not everyone is either interested in or capable of taking advantage of a liberal-arts education conceived in this way. In a deeper sense, however, the impulse behind a traditional liberal-arts education is radically democratic. For its riches are in principle available to anyone with talent and energy, regardless of class, gender, skin color, ethnic origin, etc. The real tyranny is to deprive students of the best that has been thought and said in the name of one or another version of political rectitude.
The second issue that must be engaged concerns the last item in Professor Searle’s inventory, the fundamental question of “universal human interest.” To speak of universal human interest is to acknowledge faith in a community of human endeavor that transcends the contingencies of race, gender, ethnic heritage, and the like. As the multiculturalists realize, some such faith is central to the tradition of liberal education; this is one reason they are so eager to repudiate that tradition. Many commentators have pointed out that the demography of the United States is changing so rapidly that the non-white populations in this country may outnumber the white by the end of the next century. Already in certain areas more than half the population is non-white. Shouldn’t the liberal-arts curriculum acknowledge this change by questioning the priority still granted to Western culture and by including more literature by blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc.? The multiculturalists think so.
Demographics notwithstanding, the truth is that by virtue of its history, its political institutions, its major cultural affiliations, and its dominant language the United States is essentially a Western society. And short of a major cataclysm, it will remain so. As Donald Kagan, dean of Yale College, observed in an address that is one of the most hopeful signs from the academy in recent years, the United States does enjoy a common culture,
itself various, changing, rich with contributions of Americans who come or whose ancestors came from every continent in the world, yet recognizably and unmistakably American. At this moment in history an objective observer would have to say that it derives chiefly from the experience of Western Civilization, and especially from England, whose languages and institutions are the most copious springs from which American culture draws its life. I say this without embarrasssment, as an immigrant from a tiny country on the fringe of the West, without any connection to the Anglo-Saxon founders of the United States.
Because the roots of our society are so deeply embedded in Western culture, being ignorant of that culture means being ignorant of oneself. Consequently, as Dean Kagan argues, “It is both right and necessary to place Western Civilization and the culture to which it has given rise at the center of our studies, and we fail to do so at the peril of our students, our country, and of the hopes for a democratic, liberal society emerging throughout the world today.”
The emergent democracy to which Dean Kagan refers with justified pride is essentially a Western phenomenon. But next to the triumphs of hope and liberty we have seen in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere, we must place the many foreboding signs of resurgent nationalism, ethnic separatism, and ancient racial hatreds that have also been a prominent feature of recent history. It wasn’t long ago that we were assured that the “end of history” was nigh: that a Western-style liberalism was on the verge of establishing itself the world over and that peace and amity were breaking out everywhere. But instead of that attractive version of the end of history, we are now witnessing what some have called the retribalization of the world: a violent turn against Western liberalism and its tradition of rationality, respect for individual rights, and recognition of a common good that transcends the accidents of ethnic and racial identity. Given this situation, it is all the more imperative that we educate our students in the Western tradition, that we teach them about the virtues of our society and its democratic institutions. Such education is the staunchest bulwark against the forces of disintegration we are facing.
We are now witnessing what some have called the retribalization of the world.
The multiculturalists rant on about the repressive, inequitable nature of U.S. society. It is instructive to note, however, that people all over the world continue to flock here. They do so not because they believe the United States is perfect, but because they believe that the Western democratic institutions that govern this society will allow them greater freedom, economic opportunity, and personal dignity than they are likely to find anywhere else in the world. The multiculturalists notwithstanding, the choice facing us today is not between a “repressive” Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between culture and barbarism. Civilization is not a gift, it is an achievement—a fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from besiegers inside and out. These are facts that do not easily penetrate the cozy and coddled purlieus of the academy. But they are part of the permanent challenge that any civilization must face. This was something that Evelyn Waugh understood with exceptional clarity. “Barbarism, he wrote in a somber moment in 1938,
is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come merely from habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on. There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people’s creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies. There are times when dissidents are not only enviable but valuable. The work of preserving society is sometimes onerous, sometimes almost effortless. The more elaborate the society, the more vulnerable it is to attack, and the more complete its collapse in case of defeat. At a time like the present it is notably precarious. If it falls we shall see not merely the dissolution of a few joint-stock corporations, but of the spiritual and material achievements of our history.
Tenured Radicals is about the privileged beneficiaries of the spiritual and material achievements of our history who, out of perversity, ignorance, or malice, have chosen to turn their backs on the culture that nourished them and made them what they are. It is about intellectuals who have defiled reason with sophistries, and teachers who have defrauded their students of knowledge. Because of the times we live in and the hard choices we face as a society, it is, above all, a cautionary tale.
- This was a title of a paper in a session on “Lesbianism, Heterosexuality, and Feminist Theory.” The other papers listed for this session—which by the way is not at all uncharacteristic of the offerings that the MLA has seen fit to make available to its members—are “Mapping the Frontier of the Black Hole: Toward a Black Feminist Theory” and “Perverse Desire, the Lure of the Mannish Lesbian.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 105, no. 6 (November 1990), page 1248. Go back to the text.
- Diane Ravitch, “Multiculturalism.” The American Scholar, vol. 59, no. 3 (Summer 1990), page 342. Go back to the text.
- Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987, page 9. Go back to the text.
- Andrew Sullivan, “Racism 101.” The New Republic, November 26, 1990, pages 18-21. Go back to the text.
- Michael D. Harris, et. al., African-American Baseline Essays. Portland: Portland Public Schools, 1987; rev. 1990. Go back to the text.
- Karen Brady, “Principal Presses Indians’ Place in Textbooks.” The Buffalo News, August 21, 1990. Go back to the text.
- Alan Charles Kors, ”It’s Speech, Not Sex, the Dean Bans Now.” The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 1989. Go back to the text.
- Dorothy Rabinowitz, “Vive the Academic Resistance.” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 1990. Unless otherwise noted, quotations regarding this controversy are taken from Miss Rabinowitz’s article. Go back to the text.
- Pam Kelley, “For Duke Profs, the Hot Debate is What to Teach.” The Charlotte Observer,, September 28, 1990. Go back to the text.
- Roger Shattuck, Perplexing Dreams: Is There A Core Tradition in the Humanities? American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 2, 1987, page 6. Go back to the text.
- John Searle, “The Storm Over the University.” The New York Review of Books, vol. XXXVII, no. 19 (December 6, 1990), pages 34-42. Go back to the text.
- Donald Kagan, “E Pluribus Unum,” an address delivered to the freshman class at Yale College in September 1990. The address is reprinted in Commentary, vol. 91, no. 1 (January 1991), pages 47-49. Go back to the text.
- Quoted from The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little Brown, 1984), pages 161-162. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 5, on page 4
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