The Magazine


Sep 29, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 03 • By ROGER KIMBALL
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John M. Ellis


Literature Lost

Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities


Yale, 272 pp., $ 25

In 1984, when the then-director of the National Endowment for the Humanities William J. Bennett published To Reclaim a Legacy -- a pointed attack on the way that the humanities were being taught -- evidence that something had gone dreadfully wrong at our colleges and universities was plain for all to see. Yet the response to Bennett's report from the academy was a combination of disbelief and rage: disbelief that anyone could still seriously speak of such things as "civilization's lasting vision" and "its highest shared ideals and aspirations," and rage that a Reagan appointee (albeit one with a Ph.D. in philosophy) should dare to criticize . . . well, them, the intellectual and moral elect. Judging from the abuse showered upon Bennett, one would have thought that he represented a monstrous threat to the survival of academic freedom, scholarly creativity, and true culture.

But that reaction was mild compared with the apoplexy that greeted the late Allan Bloom when he published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Condescension turned to shock and, once again, to rage, as this impassioned expose of the spiritual degradation of America's elite students shot up the bestseller list. Additional assaults on the academy followed: my own Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, David Lehman's Signs of the Times, Charles Sykes's Profscam, Camille Paglia's stinging essays on women's studies programs and kindred follies, and Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Whether the subject was the institutionalization of sixties radicalism on campus, political correctness, professorial dereliction, the moral and intellectual fatuousness of deconstruction and radical multiculturalism, or the grotesque attacks on science and technology by avant-garde "humanists," the message was clear: Something was very, very wrong with liberal education in American colleges and universities.

Again and again, though, the response from the academy began in denial and ended in denunciation. The phenomenon of political correctness, though documented in countless books and articles, was recently dismissed by one politically correct academic as a "myth." Spokesmen for the academic establishment have busied themselves assuring parents, trustees, and alumni that criticism of the academy is overstated, that the hue and cry over the politicization of the humanities is a fantasy concocted by "right-wing" extremists who don't know what they are talking about.

One marvels at the persistence. But the publication of John Ellis's eloquent new book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, makes one wonder anew how much longer the charade can continue. Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a founding member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, the organization of literary scholars that was started a few years ago to provide an alternative to the thoroughly politicized Modern Language Association.

It should be said straight off that the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics is not a conservative organization; indeed, in many ways it is a bastion of liberalism. It was created in the hope of providing a forum where literature could still be discussed not as a political tool but --mirabile dictu -- as literature. The eminent literary scholar Christopher Ricks, another founding member, summed it up thus: "The concern is not the presence of politics in the MLA; it's the absence of non-politics . . . . It does seem that race, gender, class, and gayness are the only aspects under which literature is seen to exist there."

It almost goes without saying that this effort to foster a little "non- politics" in the study of literature has been attacked as a viciously ideological activity. And so it is not surprising that the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and its members have been branded as right-wing apologists by bien-pensant deconstructionists, new historicists, queer theorists, radical multiculturalists, and devotees of "cultural studies."