Sunday, December 21, 2003
The Unacceptability of Harshness
The judgment-phobia and difficulty-phobia that has produced grade-inflation, plagiarism-acceptance, and fifty million dollar Wellness Centers on American university campuses is now as entrenched among faculty as it has pretty much always been among administrators. If you’re wondering (as many thoughtful people have wondered over the last few decades) why no serious culture critic of the Orwell, Shaw, C. Wright Mills, Hitchens, Camus, or Lasch variety has come out of an American university in a long time, it is in part because the contrarian, judgmental, lucid, and harsh stance of the true social thinker has been ruled unacceptable by a speech-codes obsessed academy.
To agree to be on the faculty of the American university at all today is already to agree to a wimp’s view of allowable discourse. As a freelance writer who occasionally pops into the academy for lucrative visiting gigs, Christopher Hitchens has figured out exactly the right relationship between serious people who want to retain their integrity and the academy: by all means use it now and then to help sustain you financially, but don’t stay long enough to be accused of sexual harassment because you’ve used a certain word in a lecture.
Of course, outside the academy serious people who speak and write truthfully are constantly attacked for their cruelty. Mother Theresa was cynical? You bastard.
Lemme at him! Did you hear what he said about the teddy bears people left for Diana? The guy’s sick! And okay, fine - people like Hitchens will always be seen as appalling by most people, because most people are emotional wrecks - they view themselves and their world through thick sodden lenses because they have failed to become educated. But nothing as amorphous as “the outside world” has the focus and the will to destroy a non-conforming person’s life which the university has.
The stunting of the American mind begins, to be sure, long before college. In secondary school, students are assigned novels that are chosen for their point-by-point, flattering reflection of the lives of the students themselves. If your sixth-grade class is composed of Albanian yodelers, you assign a novel about a sixth-grade Albanian yodeler who wins the all-Albania yodeling contest. And that’s because above all else you want something the young Albanian yodeler can relate to and feel affirmed by. Wouldn’t want to make things difficult by having your YAY read Crime and Punishment, would we? No, we want to create a world that is as recognizable, as familiar, as personally triumphant, as possible. American education, from the get-go, is the cerebral equivalent of comfort food.
This philosophy of easy identification persists through the university years - indeed, it now expresses itself institutionally in intricately differentiated special interests departments and programs tailored to you, you you. It’s currently quite easy to go through four years of university socializing with and reading about only people exactly like oneself ethnically, racially, and sexually. This used to be possible only for the football team, whose intellectual horizons were firmly bounded by Human Kinetics and Leisure Studies, but it is currently possible for
One of the reasons academic writing in the humanities is so horrible is precisely this phobia about harshness. Gnostic interrogatives and linguistic daisy-chains are what you end up with if you’re terrified that any form of direct discourse will shatter someone reading you, or make you yourself vulnerable to the ultimate form of destruction in the American academy: You’re mean. You’re mean-spirited. You lack collegiality. You use words that hurt. If you can’t write the truth, you can at least enjoy what Michael Walzer calls “the compensations of incomprehensibility -- individual heroism and sectarian rectitude.”
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
"Professor X is so great," a graduate student at a university where a friend of mine teaches once told him. "On the first day of class she hands out a syllabus and she says, 'Now this is just a draft syllabus; I want you to tell me what you want to read. We'll just play with the syllabus until everybody's happy, okay?'"