As many of our readers will remember, back in the late 1980s Jesse Jackson led a group of about five hundred students on a march at Stanford University. Organized to protest the university’s mandatory course in Western civilization, the march instantly earned a permanent place in the annals of academic fatuousness because of its chant: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.” It has taken Stanford a while, but we believe they may finally have realized Rev. Jackson’s dream. It did not happen all at once, of course. First, in response to pressure from Rev. Jackson and his radical supporters, the faculty senate voted thirty-nine to four to abandon the required course in Western civilization in favor of something called “Culture, Ideas, Values” (“CIV” as in “civilization,” but without the offending adjective “Western”). This turned out to be a politically correct multicultural smorgasbord that featured such edifying items as “Forging Revolutionary Selves,” “Multicultural Selves in the Navaho Country,” “Our Bodies, Our Sheep, Our Cosmos, Ourselves,” and “Labor, Gender, and Self in the Philippine Uplands.”
Substituting such PC tidbits for the works of dead white guys like Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare was admittedly a good start in the war against Western culture. But although Stanford’s ostentatious display of political correctness was welcomed by academic radicals, it also sparked widespread criticism in the media. Many parents and commentators still found it hard to swallow the idea that an elite university should be quite so eager to jettison the riches of the Western tradition in favor of a thoroughly politicized syllabus. It didn’t help when a dean at Stanford opined in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal that the writings of Frantz Fanon, a black advocate of revolutionary violence, might “get us closer to the answer we need” on questions of social justice than the writings of John Locke, one of the greatest philosophical influences on the Constitution of the United States.
On balance, then, Stanford’s initial attempts to give Jesse Jackson and his chanting marchers what they wanted must be judged only partially successful. Lately, however, the people running Stanford seem to have become a good deal subtler in their efforts to destroy the intellectual integrity of the university. Instead of blatantly capitulating to the demands of student radicals marching up and down the campus, university administrators have figured out that it is much easier to destroy the humanities from within. By the simple expedient of setting up lavish new programs ostensibly devoted to the arts and humanities, and then importing high-profile enemies of those disciplines, Stanford can have it both ways: it can seem to be championing the humanities (good for alumni relations) while actually doing everything it can to undermine them.
We learned about this brilliant gambit when a friend sent us the January 20 issue of The Stanford Daily, a student newspaper, in which the new “Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts” were announced. The lecture series, along with twelve million dollars for four new professorships in the humanities and arts, has already attracted as participants such fashionable luminaries as the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende; the doyen of so-called African-American studies at Harvard, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; the deconstructionist architect Peter Eisenman; the philosopher Jacques Derrida; and the artist Christo (who has lately come billed with his wife, Jeanne-Claude).
According to The Stanford Daily, the academic and cultural celebrities invited to participate in the new symposia will typically spend three days on campus. They will deliver a lecture, participate in panel discussions, and have dinner with Gerhard Casper, Stanford’s president, and other guests, “during which they will discuss the role of the humanities and arts in higher education.” President Casper is quoted as saying that the symposia and lectures are meant to transform the humanities into “a more visible and dynamic participant in shaping, enriching, and challenging the intellectual agenda across the University.” Right. But what sorts of shaping, enriching, and challenging of the intellectual agenda can we expect from those participating in this academic road show? Hans Gumbrecht, a professor of French and Italian who is also director of the series, solemnly informed readers of the student paper that campus visits made by the above-named luminaries “are meant to leave traces.” Those up on recent academic lingo will recognize that “traces” is a bit of deconstructionist jargon: books and other communications no longer have meaning; on the contrary, they leave “traces” that cut against or undermine the very possibility of meaning. But don’t take our word for it. Here is Derrida himself:
A thought of the trace, of differance [sic] or of reserve, having arrived at these limits and repeating them ceaselessly, must also point beyond the field of the epistémè. Outside of the economic and strategic reference to the name that Heidegger justifies himself in giving to an analogous but not identical transgression of all philosophemes, thought is here for me a perfectly neutral name, the blank part of the text, the necessarily indeterminate index of a future epoch of differance. In a certain sense, “thought” means nothing.
In a certain sense? Ah yes: precisely in the sense that Derrida and his deconstructionist allies do everything they can to scramble thought with their skeins of impenetrable linguistic nihilism. What we can expect from Stanford’s latest folly is not any productive “shaping, enriching, and challenging” of the intellectual agenda but a further assault against the basic premises that inform and nourish the arts and humanities. Professor Gumbrecht was quite explicit about this. The traditional “legitimations” for the humanities, he complained, are no longer convincing. Moreover, “we humanists have not come up with any alternative and convincing explanations for what [we’re] doing.” Of course, one might wonder what a gentleman who is so much at a loss about the purpose of the humanities is doing teaching them at Stanford University. And one might wonder, too, why Stanford should entrust an expensive new program in the humanities to a man who is unable to convince even himself that they are valuable.
But perhaps all is not lost. Professor Gumbrecht brightened at the thought that Christo might “do a project on campus or the architect Eisenman’s visit will inspire a new building in his style.” Frankly, we hope he is right. A follower of Derrida, Peter Eisenman specializes in buildings that deliberately confound their occupants: stairways that lead nowhere; columns scattered promiscuously in the middle of living and dining rooms in order, Mr. Eisenman has explained, to “intrude on” and “disrupt” the “living and dining experience.” It would be fitting, we think, if President Casper, Professor Gumbrecht, and Jacques Derrida could be made to occupy a new building designed by Peter Eisenman. Of course, Mr. Eisenman, too, should be required to occupy the building. And as for Christo: he has earned worldwide notoriety for wrapping large public buildings and monuments in cloth. He once wrapped the Reichstag, for example, and a bridge in Paris. What he does is a species of publicity stunt, not art, but no matter. Why not take it a step further and engage in a little transgressive, self-referential wrapping? When Mr. Eisenman designs his interrogatory building for Stanford, he should be sure to set aside a room for Christo. Then Christo can step inside and order that they all be wrapped up together. Here, at last, would be a real contribution to “shaping, enriching, and challenging” the intellectual agenda at Stanford.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 7, on page 1
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