University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Monday, May 01, 2006


“When students in freshman composition at a university like my own,” writes Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia, “are compelled to read third-rate imitators of Walter Benjamin, they are not inspired to organize against the depredations of capital. They are … inspired to aestheticize social analysis.”

No. They’re not inspired to do anything -- and certainly not to aestheticize anything, since what they’ve been compelled to look at is the ugliest son of a bitch on the curricular block.

Innocent freshmen compelled to admire illiterate writing in writing courses are not inspired. They are confused.

They mean well. They are ready to extend respect and the presumption of expertise to their professor. Still, they can’t help noticing that the essayists their professor enthusiastically tells them to read write atrociously. Are the students supposed to look beyond the writing to the urgent truths it contains? But isn’t this a course in writing as well as argumentation?

The sorts of composition courses Gitlin is talking about are a form of aversive therapy. They are designed to insure that students will never want to read or write anything again.

Gitlin’s remark is part of a longish essay in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, in which his exasperation with the spectacular self-destructiveness of the academic left has finally gotten the better of him, and his tired language shows it. It’s not the positions of the academic left that he’s after anymore; it’s “the pathos of the academic left,” “the downright peculiarity” of a “meager,” “helpless” band, a remnant “force… of purification” which, having withdrawn from any actual politics, flounces about denouncing traitors.

Underlying this sad turn is not so much “identity politics” as “the politics of being” (as another writer on the subject nicely calls it). As with a certain type of rock music fan, for whom, Roger Scruton writes, “any criticism of [his] music is received by the fan as an assault upon himself and his identity,” so for the politics of being people, their ideas are they themselves, and they derive gratification from embodying those ideas themselves alone. It’s rather as Auden wrote:

[T]he error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Gitlin’s right to use the word “pathos” for the odd combination of arrogance and self-erasure which has guaranteed that “the academic left is nowhere today.”