Civilization and Its Malcontents
Or, why are academics so unhappy?
May 9, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Showalter makes only brief mention of one of my favorite academic novels, The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. Ms. Goldstein is quoted on the interesting point that at Princeton Jews become gentilized while at Columbia Gentiles become judenized, which is not only amusing but true. Goldstein's novel is also brilliant on the snobbery of university life. She makes the nice point that the poorest dressers in academic life (there are no good ones) are the mathematicians, followed hard upon by the physicists. The reason they care so little about clothes--also about wine and the accoutrements of culture--is that, Goldstein rightly notes, they feel that in their work they are dealing with the higher truths, and need not be bothered with such kakapitze as cooking young vegetables, decanting wine correctly, and knowing where to stay in Paris.
Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists understand it, simply isn't part of the deal. "What do you guys in the English Department do," a scientist at Northwestern once asked me, quite in earnest, "just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like Talmud?"
"Nothing that grand," I found myself replying.
Professor Showalter does not go in much for discussing the sex that is at the center of so many academic novels. Which reminds me that the first time I met Edward Shils, he asked me what I was reading. When I said The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie, he replied, "Academic screwing, I presume." He presumed rightly. How could it be otherwise with academic novels? Apart from the rather pathetic power struggles over department chairmanships, or professorial appointments, love affairs, usually adulterous or officially outlawed ones, provide the only thing resembling drama on offer on the contemporary university campus.
Early academic novels confined love affairs to adults on both sides. But by the 1970s, after the "student unrest" (still my favorite of all political euphemisms) of the late 1960s, students--first graduate students, then undergraduates--became the lovers of (often married) professors. If men were writing these novels, the experience was supposed to result in spiritual refreshment; if women wrote them, the male professors were merely damned fools. The women novelists, of course, were correct.
The drama of love needs an element of impossibility: think Romeo and Juliet, think Anna Karenina, think Lolita. But in the academic novel, this element seems to have disappeared, especially in regard to the professor-student love affair, where the (usually female) student could no longer be considered very (if at all) innocent. The drama needed to derive elsewhere. That elsewhere hasn't yet been found, unless one counts sexual harassment suits, which are not yet the subject of an academic novel but have been that of Oleanna, a play by David Mamet, who is not an academic but grasped the dramatic element in such dreary proceedings.
Sexual harassment, of course, touches on political correctness, which is itself the product of affirmative action, usually traveling under the code name of diversity. Many people outside universities may think that diversity has been imposed on universities from without by ignorant administrators. But professors themselves rather like it; it makes them feel they are doing the right thing and, hence, allows them, however briefly, to feel good about themselves.
Nor is diversity the special preserve of prestige-laden or large state-run universities. In the 1970s, I was invited to give a talk at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. I arrived to find all the pieces in place: On the English faculty was a black woman (very nice, by the way), an appropriately snarky feminist, a gay (not teaching the thing called Queer Theory, which hadn't yet been devised), a Jew, and a woman named Ruthie, who drove about in an aged and messy Volkswagen bug, whose place in this otherwise unpuzzling puzzle I couldn't quite figure out. When I asked, I was told, "Oh, Ruthie's from the sixties." From "the sixties," I thought then and still think, sounds like a country, and perhaps it is, but assuredly, to steal a bit of Yeats, no country for old men.
By the time I began teaching in the early 1970s, everyone already seemed to be in business for himself, looking for the best deal, which meant the least teaching for the most money at the most snobbishly well-regarded schools. The spirit of capitalism, for all that might be said on its behalf, wreaks havoc when applied to culture and education. The English novelist David Lodge neatly caught this spirit at work when he created, in two of his academic novels, the character Morris Zapp. A scholar-operator, Zapp, as described by Lodge, "is well-primed to enter a profession as steeped in free enterprise as Wall Street, in which each scholar-teacher makes an individual contract with his employer, and is free to sell his services to the highest bidder." Said to be based on the Milton-man Stanley Fish, an identification that Fish apparently has never disavowed but instead glories in, Morris Zapp is the freebooter to a high power turned loose in academic settings: always attempting to strengthen his own position, usually delighted to be of disservice to the old ideal of academic dignity and integrity. Fish himself ended his days with a deanship at the University of Illinois in Chicago for a salary said to be $250,000, much less than a utility infielder in the major leagues makes but, for an academic, a big number.
By the time that the 1990s rolled around, all that was really left to the academic novel was to mock the mission of the university. With the onset of so-called theory in English and foreign-language departments, this became easier and easier to do. Professor Showalter does not approve of these goings-on: "The tone of ['90s academic novels]," she writes, "is much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in earlier decades."
The crueler the blows are required, I should say, the better to capture the general atmosphere of goofiness, which has become pervasive. Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it--no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself--except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.
All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture--graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots--and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today. In an academic thriller (a subdivision of the academic novel) cited by Showalter called Murder at the MLA, the head of the Wellesley English Department is found "dead as her prose." But almost all prose written in English departments these days is quite as dead as that English teacher.
For Professor Showalter, the old days were almost exclusively the bad old days. A good radical matron, she recounts manning the phones for the support group protesting, at the 1968 Modern Language Association meeting, "the organization's conservatism and old-boy governance." Now of course it almost seems as if the annual MLA meetings chiefly exist for journalists to write comic pieces featuring the zany subjects of the papers given at each year's conference. At these meetings, in and out the room the women come and go, speaking of fellatio, which, deep readers that they are, they can doubtless find in Jane Austen.
Such has been the politicization of the MLA that a counter-organization has been formed, called the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, whose raison d'être is to get English studies back on track. I am myself a dues-paying ($35 annually) member of that organization. I do not go to its meetings, but I am sent the organization's newsletter and magazine, and they are a useful reminder of how dull English studies have traditionally been. But it is good to recall that dull is not ridiculous, dull is not always irrelevant, dull is not intellectual manure cast into the void.
The bad old days in English departments were mainly the dull old days, with more than enough pedants and dryasdusts to go round. But they did also produce a number of university teachers whose work reached beyond university walls and helped elevate the general culture: Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Ellen Moers, Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Robert Penn Warren. The names from the bad new days seem to end with the entirely political Edward Said and Cornel West.
What we have today in universities is an extreme reaction to the dullness of that time, and also to the sheer exhaustion of subject matter for English department scholarship. No further articles and books about Byron, Shelley, Keats, or Kafka, Joyce, and the two Eliots seemed possible (which didn't of course stop them from coming). The pendulum has swung, but with a thrust so violent as to have gone through the cabinet in which the clock is stored.
From an academic novel I've not read called The Death of a Constant Lover (1999) by Lev Raphael, Professor Showalter quotes a passage that ends the novel on the following threnodic note:
Whenever I'm chatting at conferences with faculty members from other universities, the truth comes out after a drink or two: Hardly any academics are happy where they are, no matter how apt the students, how generous the salary or perks, how beautiful the setting, how light the teaching load, how lavish the re-search budget. I don't know if it's academia itself that attracts misfits and malcontents, or if the overwhelming hypocrisy of that world would have turned even the von Trapp family sullen.
My best guess is that it's a good bit of both. Universities attract people who are good at school. Being good at school takes a real enough but very small talent. As the philosopher Robert Nozick once pointed out, all those A's earned through their young lives encourage such people to persist in school: to stick around, get more A's and more degrees, sign on for teaching jobs. When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure.
But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.
Now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the situation is even worse. Beset by political correctness, self-imposed diversity, without leadership from above, university teachers, at least on the humanities and social-science sides, knowing the work they produce couldn't be of the least possible interest to anyone but the hacks of the MLA and similar academic organizations, have more reason than ever to be unhappy.
And so let us leave them, overpaid and underworked, surly with alienation and unable to find any way out of the sweet racket into which they once so ardently longed to get.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.