Among the Intellectualoids

Liberal Obsolescence

In their growing isolation, left-wing professors are losing contact with what it was about the Great Tradition they set out to deconstruct in the first place.

By 10.26.05

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On the same day that my review of George Stade's academic novel Sex and Violence (see below) appeared in the Wall Street Journal, John Tierney in the New York Times took up that old favorite question of why university professors are so liberal. Mr. Stade, who teaches English at Columbia, has lived for so long among people who think exactly as he does that he does not even think it in bad taste -- let alone wrong and deplorable -- to have his narrator and alter ego toss off the observation that Rush Limbaugh deserves to die. That hardly even counts as a controversial observation, I'm guessing, in the Columbia faculty lounge. But the profs do read the New York Times, so they were glad to write in to Mr. Tierney suggesting some possible explanations for the lack of conservatives in the academy. In his column he shared them with us. They are as follows:

1. Conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake.
2. Conservatives do not care about the social good.
3. Conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages.
4. Conservatives are too dumb to get tenure.

Tentatively, Tierney provided an alternative to the above -- namely the explanation that the more liberals there are, the more there tend to be, since without any intentional bias they will naturally tend to hire other people who think like themselves. This is what he calls "the false consensus effect" -- or the tendency of any group to gravitate to the "conviction that its opinions are the norm. Liberals on campus have become so used to hearing their opinions reinforced that they have a hard time imagining there are intelligent people with different views, either on campus or in politics."

I am sympathetic to this view, but think he should have looked not only at who is teaching but also at what is being taught. In the arts and humanities, at any rate, the curriculum itself is built around left-wing assumptions -- such as, for example, that literature is only worthy of study as the fossil-record of power relationships between oppressors and oppressed in pre-revolutionary societies, including our own. Hence the importance of the great -isms in their critical vocabulary: racism, sexism, capitalism, imperialism, fascism, post-colonialism and that honorary ism, homophobia. All these words are used to describe putatively oppressive relationships which it then becomes the job of the literary critic to tease out of, say, Jane Austen for no better purpose than exposing the fact -- which the critic obviously knew before he ever read Jane Austen -- that they are there. Who but a true believer would choose to make a career out of such a sterile exercise? By the same token, if you happen to cling to the reactionary belief that Jane Austen has something of interest to say beyond the implied critique of the imperialist-capitalist-racialist-fascist-sexist-post-colonialist-homophobic structures of the power elite of her time, a university is the last place you would go to test it.

Even if you believed that every narrative is resolvable into the schematic of the power relationships of its characters, you'd have to have either a pretty high boredom threshold or an enormously high opinion of yourself, or both, if you were to devote your life to the "decoding" in this way of the world's great literature. Indeed, the idea of "greatness" in literature is itself oppressive, at least to those who are so intimidated by it that they have a compulsive need to devote their minds to the subject of what great literature is "really" about. In doing so, they break their own chains of servitude, as they see it, to the masters of the Western tradition and themselves become the masters of the masters, furiously patronizing them for thinking they were writing about one thing when -- thanks to Marx and Lenin and Gramsci and Althusser and Foucault and a host of others -- we know they were writing about quite another. Whereas the love of knowledge is common to all political persuasions, this bitter pleasure in exposing and debunking that which generations have been taught to revere is a distinctively left-wing phenomenon.

Yet if I am right, it is one which must carry within it the seeds of its own destruction. Today's left-wing academics, at least the older ones among them, were taught by those who still believed in what F.R. Leavis called "the Great Tradition." But after a generation of debunking, their own students must find the memories of that tradition, as such, growing dimmer all the time. In order to feel oppressed by it, and therefore called on to "deconstruct" it, you must have it more clearly in view than the younger profs do anymore. Otherwise, that motivating anger will tend to fade too. A few more years of going through the motions of exposing the shameful political assumptions behind the monuments of Western culture and the effort will hardly seem worth making anymore. Then it will be time for the last remaining conservative professor to stand up and say: "You know what? Maybe it would be fun for a change to treat those old timey scribblers as if they actually had something interesting to say to us."

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.