I've been arguing that academic
I've been arguing that academic administration is increasingly oriented around producing, maintaining, and managing a strongly left-wing campus culture. I've shown how left-leaning ideology has become thoroughly institutionalized in American education by way of an ever-expanding, fabulously well-funded bureaucracy, and I've argued that one aim of a fully bureaucratized agenda is to perpetuate itself by substituting collective contemplation for decisive action. Today I continue that train of thought by developing a related observation: that within the left-wing academic bureaucracy, opinion formation is increasingly understood not as the work of the individual, but the work of the group.
The Mona Baker scandal offers a fine example of collective opinion formation at work. The uproar surrounding her decision to fire two Israeli scholars from the editorial board of an academic journal has been enormously revealing, not simply for the moral bankruptcy it reveals in some of today's academics, but also for the anxieties it has raised within academe about what the scholarly position toward Israel ought to be. In response to this anxiety, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently held an online colloquy dedicated to the question, "How should scholars respond to the calls to boycott Israeli academics and universities?" As a discussion, the colloquy was nothing special. But as an example of academic opinion formation in action, it was remarkable indeed, not only for its assumption that "scholars" are unanimously opposed to Israel's present policies (the question assumes that Israel's putative wrongdoing has been firmly established), but also for its assumption that "scholars" are a definable, coherent group (as in, "the scholarly community"), one whose members would naturally refer to the collective to find out what to think and how to act.
Trained in the art of leftist groupthink, the participants in this colloquy--who are admittedly self-selecting--never question the validity of the topic. Instead, they do as they are told. They obediently debate. Some say yes, and some say no; some say maybe and some say further study is required. But all agree implicitly that the purpose of the debate is to achieve consensus.
Only one poster, several days into the discussion, paused to reflect on the creepy terms of the debate: "My God...how is it that this issue is under discussion...are we all trying to see if there is some issue on which we can show unanimity?" The answer is clearly yes. The colloquy sets this desire in motion. Academics used to putting up a unified political front are embarrassingly divided on whether or not to boycott Israel. But they are apparently unanimously agreed that the academy should have an official position on the subject. A position must be adopted; scholars as a group should have a clear foreign policy.
Thus was this lone poster's question swallowed up in the angry pursuit of partyline consensus that made up the bulk of the colloquy. Apart from this anguished, intuitive aside, no one says the question is stupid; no one challenges the terms of debate. No one notices the obvious, that the question is insulting and intrusive, that it reeks of herd mentality, that it conceives of scholars not as thinking individuals but as some kind of undifferentiated intellectual mass that must seek consensus and must act in concert. It's a chilling testament to the quality of the well-administered academic mind.
Charles Johnson has picked up on the Palestinian Chronicle's version of such groupthink, which is currently enjoining Mona Baker supporters everywhere to loudly proclaim their belief that "academic freedom demands that Israeli academics speak out loudly against their government's oppressive actions in Palestine." The notion that academic freedom somehow mandates the expression of group loyalty, rather than individual expression, is as alive in the U.S. as it is in the Middle East.
Casting collective contemplation as decisive action and treating opinion formation as a collective activity are closely related, mutually reinforcing techniques for turning the university into a scene of static ideological consensus. The more you rely on the group for your opinions, the less able you are to think or act on your own. Similarly, the more you submit matters of private conscience to the group for adjudication, the more you begin to confuse the process of debate with the fact of action. As ideology increasingly replaces inquiry as the modus operandi of academic life, the intellectual, at least in his left-leaning incarnation, begins to understand his private beliefs as something that can and should be administered--chosen, monitored, policed--by the "scholarly community."
Such are the moral and procedural confusions of the leftist academic collective, a vast ideological bureaucracy that bears more than a little resemblance to a badly run socialist state. The results are, predictably, those sought by other collectivist regimes: privacy, personal choice, and free expression disappear; in their place arises a totalitarian approach to belief that has as its ultimate effect the paralysis of personal accountability. More on this soon.
July 29, 2002
Today I continue my ongoing
Today I continue my ongoing exploration of leftist academic bureaucracy by focussing on a prime recent example of this culture in action. Within the politicized postmodern academy, intellectuals like to think of themselves as activists whose scholarship contributes to important socially progressive--and even politically subversive--projects. A look at how the academy runs tells a different story, however, one that suggests that an ideologically-driven academe does more to enforce collective mental inertia and individual moral erosion than it does to encourage fierce intellectual independence.
Exhibit A: Collective contemplation as decisive action
The bureaucratic machinery of leftist academe is a fabulously efficient mechanism for ensuring the ideological stasis upon which the present-day university depends. Its central principle is to prevent change by making endless contemplation the principle work of management.
The scene of that contemplative administrative work is the Committee Meeting. When there is a problem, what do you do? You form a committee on the problem. What does the committee do? It meets. What does it do at meetings? It massages the problem. This activity proceeds until either a) the problem ceases to seem to be a problem (this is most often achieved by "redefining the problem"); or b) the problem proves to be even more problematic than it had first appeared (in this instance, additional committees and further meetings are required, thus deferring the inevitable moment of defining the problem away by "redefining" it). The mechanisms of the academic committee meeting are sacred. Academics grouse about their committee work--commonly known as "service"--but they also revere it as the mechanism of a consensus-based approach to governance; i.e., service is self-serving. Just how deeply academics revere the concept of the committee is revealed in moments of danger: when an administrator or a professor acts unilaterally--even if that action is entirely within that person's professional jurisdiction--all hell breaks loose.
True to the Taylorist ideal they both exemplify and undercut, the principles of contemplative management provide a maximally efficient means of never getting anything of substance done (a "consensus-based approach" to problem-solving usually translates into doing nothing beyond trying to arrive at an ever-elusive, endlessly receding consensus). Never getting anything done means no change; no change in turn ensures that entrenched procedures for hiring, firing, promoting, admitting, and teaching--as problematic and even corrupt as they often are--remain entrenched. Most importantly, contemplative management looks busy where it is actually busily being inert. As such, it works beautifully to create the effect of decisive action when in fact no action is taking place.
Case in point: California Governor Gray Davis' Seven Point Action Plan for addressing hate on campus. In response to the string of anti-Semitic incidents on UC and Cal State campuses this past year, Davis has asked Richard Atkinson, president of the nine-campus UC system, and Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-campus Cal State system, to address the growing racial tensions among students by reviewing and assessing policies, procedures, and courses. In other words, he calls for committees and meetings. This is an action plan that calls for neither action nor a plan. Davis does not even call for reports on the reviews.
What Davis does call for is cant, which we should understand here as the moral proclamations of a disembodied bureaucracy that has neither the inclination nor the spine to back them up. For example, he recommends issuing a hollow warning to freshmen that hate crimes will be prosecuted (alert freshman haters will recall how the criminal charges were dropped against SFSU's pro-Palestinian hate group, and will proceed to hate undeterred). And he just as hollowly recommends promoting civic values of tolerance and understanding on campus, even though it is precisely the rhetoric of tolerance that has been used to excuse the intolerant and uncivil behavior of pro-Palestinian students at SFSU, Berkeley, and beyond. It remains to be seen whether Atkinson and Reed manage to do much better, though it should be noted that at least they have asked each campus to report on the results of its internal review.
Bureaucratize the contemplative life, and this is what you get: action plans whose plan is not to act. As Richard Russo points out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Empire Falls>, the contemplative life is itself inherently bureaucratic: "The problem with the contemplative life was that there was no end to contemplation, no fixed time limit after which thought had to be transformed into action. Contemplation was like sitting on a committee that seldom made recommendations and was ignored when it did, a committee that lacked even the authority to disband." Put a lot of intellectuals on committees and you get an academic administration centered not on doing, but on discussing all the different things that could be done; not on deciding, but on deciding not to decide.
As collective contemplation comes to stand in for action, independent thought becomes, quite literally, unthinkable. In my next blog, I'll explain how with Exhibit B: Opinion Formation as Group Activity.
July 27, 2002
This blog continues my discussion
This blog continues my discussion of bureaucracy in the politicized academy.
It turns out I'm not the only person to blog on Rick Perlstein's account of the annual meeting of The Historical Society. David Horowitz has written a blistering critique of Perlstein's piece, scathingly noting Perlstein's failure to mention that The Historical Society was founded by marginalized academics who had been effectively forced out of major historical organizations, and taking the liberal Perlstein to task for drawing thereby a distorted picture of the conference: only by omitting the facts surrounding THS's origins could Perlstein represent the conference-goers as bound by an obsolete belief that the culture wars were still happening, Horowitz argues, and only then could Perlstein seriously contemplate depicting them as naively unaware of the precise nature of their frustrations with academe. I mention Horowitz's piece because it dovetails with my own sense that it does not make sense to separate the anti-bureaucratic feel of the THS conference from the political marginalization of THS itself. My guess is that the desire to escape bureaucracy that manifested itself at THS's meeting was very much an expression of frustration with the campus left's enormous administrative machinery.
It's not hard to connect the dots here. The yearning for community that Perlstein witnessed at THS was the yearning of marginal academics for a place where they could gather and exchange ideas in a climate of tolerance and respect. The anti-bureaucratic dimension of that yearning--a dimension Perlstein perceptively identified--was in turn closely tied to the intellectual and political isolation and even ostracism that many of THS's members know well. In the wake of the won culture wars, left-wing academe has been busily building a huge ideologically-oriented bureaucratic infrastructure: on top of the already impacted bureaucracy of the billion-dollar university has been laid the additional administrative weight of politicized policy, procedure, projects, and programs.
Probably the best place to begin an analysis of the campus left's administrative coup would be to note how much new bureaucratic bloat is created by politically correct boondoggles. Diversity is fast becoming a huge industry: multicultural coordinators, programmers, and consultants are in high demand on campuses, where the expensive and intricate sensitivity machinery forms a significant chunk of middle academic management. Campuses have become crowded with things like residential programming, divisions of student life, offices of multicultural affairs, women's centers, area studies departments and programs, diversity task forces, and so on. Together they do the arduous, time-consuming work of "celebrating diversity"--they handle minority recruitment and retention, they conduct sensitivity training and run endless programs to raise our various awarenesses, they schedule separate orientations and graduations for minority students, they ensure that the residence halls are zones of sensitivity and inclusiveness, and so on. You can get an idea of the political temperament of these entities by looking at the degrees of the people who run them: there are many people with the evil Ed.D. degrees; plenty, too, with degrees in English, women's studies, and other "soft" fields that have ceded their educational missions to agenda-driving. Academic administration is a favorite landing strip for former humanities majors and even unattached humanities Ph.D.'s; women's studies majors, for example, frequently get recycled into low-level administrative jobs in the feminist establishment--as an Independent Women's Forum article points out, that's about all their degrees are good for.
The making of career bureaucrats is a signal aim of the politicized postmodern academy, which has a seemingly endless array of grants and ideologically-oriented programs to administer. As David Horowitz has shown, the initiatives of the campus left have been almost single-handedly funded by the Ford Foundation, which has, over the years, turned liberal philanthropy into a multi-billion dollar tax dodge. Ford gives over $900,000,000 in left-leaning grants annually; as Horowitz shows, the common liberal assumption that the right has all the money, and the frequent charge that conservative scholarship has been "paid for" by well-heeled conservative foundations, is a patent falsehood. As Horowitz explains, "the biggest and most prestigious foundations, bearing the most venerable names of the captains of American capitalism -- Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie and Pew ’Äì are all biased to the left, as are many newer but also well-endowed institutions like the MacArthur, Markle and Schumann Foundations. MacArthur alone is three times the size of all 'big three' conservative foundations--Olin, Bradley and Scaife--combined."
Much of this liberal foundation money goes to fund campus projects and programs; for decades, the campus left has been happily picking the pockets of the great nineteenth-century robber barons. The left is paid well to do the work that best suits their global mission. In 2001, for example, the Ford Foundation gave $50,000,000 to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The largest gift Ford has ever made, and the largest KSG has ever received, the money will go toward expanding KSG's decidedly left-wing educational reach, training future policy-makers around the globe in the arts of central planning and big government. Horowitz, who keeps track of such things, has noted that KSG is overwhelmingly liberal in its orientation: "The Kennedy School of Government," he wrote in 2000, "is arguably the most prestigious and important reservoir of intellectual talent and policy advice available to the political establishment. Cabinet officials are regularly drawn from its ranks. Yet of its 150-plus faculty members only 5 are identifiable Republicans, a ratio that is as extraordinary, given the spectrum of political opinion in the nation at large, as it is common in the university system."
But the Ford Foundation is not alone; there are many organizations eager to sink money into left-wing campus projects and programs, the U.S. government not least among them. Jessica Gavora has shown how Title IX--which forbids gender discrimination in all federally funded educational institutions--has become the agent of reverse discrimination: Title IX has been used for decades to attack men's athletics; Gavora argues persuasively that it is fast becoming the basis for imposing gender quotas on every branch of American education. Likewise, Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer have shown how Title VI--which grants federal funding to academic "area studies" programs--has been used by left-wing academics to further a distinctly anti-American agenda.
In effect, foundation grants and federal dollars are paying for massive social engineering on American campuses. They finance the institutionalization of left-wing bias, turning politically correct agendas into the basis for academic policies, programs, hiring, firing, recruitment, and curricular reform. Wendy McElroy reported on a disturbing new instance of this just this week: At the University of Maryland, a pilot program called RISE (Research Internships in Science and Engineering) has been established for the express purpose of helping women enter these historically male-dominated fields. McElroy notes that under Title IX, UM cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. She also notes that this is exactly what UM is using nearly a million dollars of government money to do: RISE internships are reserved for women; the National Science Foundation is paying for RISE with $899,814 of your tax dollars. Worse: RISE is billed as a "demonstration program"; the aim is to establish programs like it at universities across the country.
Nearly a million dollars thus backs the logical fallacy that the lack of equal numbers of men and women in the hard sciences means lack of equal opportunity for women; i.e., that institutionalized discrimination effectively bars women from participation in the scientific and engineering professions. The hypothesis that not as many women as men want to be engineers and physicists is dismissed as an impossibility--if equal numbers of women aren't drawn to these fields, the argument goes, it is because women are socialized not to engage in masculine intellectual pursuits from day one of life. Likewise, the suggestion that women as a group may not be as talented at abstract reasoning and problem-solving as men are is dismissed as the false consciousness of the misogynist. Within the logic that funds RISE, there is no room for the possibility that there may be subtle differences in intelligence between the sexes, and that these differences make men more likely than women to excel in the hard sciences.
When it comes to education, there is plenty of money out there for people who want to try to make dubious ideological propositions come true. RISE is born of the belief that equality between the sexes is not achieved by ensuring equal opportunity for women and men, but by engineering equal results. The radical feminist agenda behind RISE is parity, which must be achieved even if it is at the cost of quality, even if it involves pushing women into fields they might not otherwise choose and then refusing to select out those who can't do the work. Moreover, because it is founded on the premise that discrimination keeps women out of the sciences, RISE is also a program that cannot fail (or, to be more exact, can never be held responsible for failing). If RISE does not substantially increase the numbers of women in science, that won't be the fault of RISE. It will be the fault of sexism, the perniciousness of which will have been shown to be even more dire than we had thought. This will in turn become a rationale for even more funding. If nearly $900,000 isn't enough to combat discrimination against women in the sciences, then the government and good-hearted foundations will just have to cough up even more in the future.
As these examples show, campus social engineering is a huge, hugely lucrative bureaucracy. It's also a distinct culture, one that produces and sustains a distinctly collectivist, distressingly irresponsible mindset in the name of social responsibility. More on this soon.
July 25, 2002
Yesterday I suggested that the
Yesterday I suggested that the hyper-politicized, intellectually shallow atmosphere of much of contemporary academe grows out of the overly systematized bureaucratic machinery of the modern university. Today I'll explore that idea a bit by way of Rick Perlstein's American Prospect essay, "The Historical Present."
The occasion for Perlstein's piece is the recent meeting of The Historical Society, an organization known for its methodological and political conservatism in the face of history's increasing fragmentation and debilitating political correctness. Invited to report on the meeting, the progressive Perlstein spends much of the article recounting his efforts to discern the agenda behind the invitation and to assess the agenda of the conference itself. The article is in this sense a piece of unwitting self-parody, as Perlstein searches vainly for the reactionary motives he just knows must be behind the conference and his all-expenses-paid presence there. There is a hint of inverted McCarthyism to it (instead of hunting for commies, he hunts for conservatives). There is also a hint of Sherlock Holmes ("If I just look hard enough," one hears him thinking, "if I just learn to detect and decode the signs, the reactionary truth of this conference will be revealed to me").
But in the end, Perlstein is forced to confess that the conference was very moderate indeed; that a variety of political and methodological perspectives were represented there; and that the atmosphere was nonetheless genial and tolerant: no one seemed to have a particular axe to grind. In fact, he notes, far from having the adversarial feel he was expecting, the conference was extremely warm, welcoming, and personable. Perlstein concludes that perhaps this warmth was itself the conference's primary agenda. His final assessment: the goal of this small, intimate conference was to mitigate the alienating effects of academic bureaucracy, which have become the single most defining feature of contemporary academic life. The culture wars are over, he suggests, and a new kind of struggle, one directed at bureaucracy itself, is under way:
The anti-bureaucratic, almost communitas way so many of its members were recruited: through personal phone calls from friends they trusted. THS is a close-knit group, smaller, grown organically from the specific interests of its members rather than from any outside imperative to behave this way or that. It's a quiet community of mutual respect.
The only thing holding the movement back, Perlstein suggests, is that academics have not realized that it is one; they are still too caught up in the terms of the culture wars:
THS seemed to attract scholars vexed by something in contemporary academia, though they had trouble describing what. They had clung to a familiar description -- of a profession riven by the politics of race and sex, reliant on theory instead of evidence, given to naval-gazing, obscurantism, and writing that reads like badly translated German -- but it didn't quite fit. Why did they -- do they -- not discuss the frustrations an excess of bureaucracy brings to the life of the mind? Probably the culture wars have stolen their words.
These 1960s-inspired culture wars may never truly end. But the sooner we stop using them as a crib sheet for explaining academia and its discontents, the likelier we are to draw fresh insights into the contemporary scholarly world -- not, that is to say, the academy of 1994, which might well have been characterized by the wrangling over political correctness.
It's an attractive proposition. The culture wars have been so divisive, after all. Plus they are old and everybody is tired of them. It would be so nice to believe in Perlstein's picture of a newly tolerant academic community united against the impersonal, soul-destroying machinations of bureaucratic process. But it would perhaps be more truthful to see the proposition itself as just another movement within the culture wars, a disingenuous characterization of a situation that is far more complex than Perlstein's pat formulation allows.
Perlstein's premise rests on two false assumptions: first, that bureaucracy is politically neutral (and therefore clearly outside the territory of the dreaded culture wars); and second, that because bureaucracy is neutral, it can only become a problem in an academy that has effectively overcome its differences. In other words, Perlstein's idea here is that the anti-bureaucratic flavor of the Historical Society meeting indicates, in and of itself, the end of the culture wars and the advent of a newly unified, if frustrated, historical profession.
The problem with this logic, though, is that bureaucracy is not at all politically neutral; it is, indeed, the engine of central planning, and as such is the far left's organizational mode of choice. As in socialism, so in the left-wing academy: the more entrenched the ideology, the more impacted the system.
During the 1980s and early '90s, the campus left fought to establish speech codes and sensitivity workshops; they fought for women's studies departments, ethnic studies departments, black studies departments, chicano studies departments, and even gay and lesbian studies departments. They strenuously defended ever more aggressive affirmative action and in the name of minority retention and campus harmony they instituted multicultural course requirements and separatist dorms for minority students. They hired their own and they converted the classroom, the dormitory, and the scholarly monograph into scenes of enforced political conformity masquerading as zones of heightened, historically-informed sensitivity.
In short, it's not that the culture wars have evaporated, as Perlstein would have us believe, but that they have been decisively won. Over the past couple of decades, the campus has effectively become what one scholar I know terms an "ideological fiefdom." Now the victors are busy administering it. Bureaucratic bloat is the predictable result.
I'll talk more about the unholy alliance between bureaucracy and the politicized academy soon.
to be continued...
July 24, 2002
I've spent the past week
I've spent the past week and a half or so on a lengthy five-part analysis of how politicized postmodernism has damaged the academic humanities while at the same time providing an economic boon to cost-conscious administrators. In writing the series, I realized that in many ways what I was really talking about was bureaucracy, specifically about what happens when the desire to learn, or teach, or do research, or write scholarly essays and books, meets up with the gruesome impersonal reality of Academic Administration. It struck me that politicized postmodernism is in many ways not the cause of academe's intellectual bankruptcy, so much as it is a peculiar effect of that bankruptcy, kind of a dysfunctional mechanism for coping with the impoverishment of a scholarly life lived not according to its own natural rhythms but rather in cramped conformity to an academic timetable.
In other words, I've been thinking that maybe the real problem with American higher ed is one of oversystemization. If you think about it, the notion that you can administer mass education at the collegiate level doesn't make much sense. People don't all learn on the same schedule, and at this level it's positively damaging to try to make them do so. The softening of the mind and the curriculum that results is well documented; so is the devaluation of the B.A. (while buying plane tickets today, I met a perky young travel agent who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2000; not a good return on a six figure investment if you ask me, but an increasingly typical one all the same).
Even more ridiculous than the administrative fantasy of universal college education is the notion that you can administer the intellectual. But that is exactly what graduate education and the tenure system seek to do, with their prepackaged, one-size-fits-all degree programs and their ominously named, loudly ticking "tenure clocks." The assumptions underwriting the administration of the intellectual seem to be a) that you can turn someone into an intellectual, and b) that the way to do so is to put prospective intellectuals first through a standardized program of study (where there is neither time nor incentive for truly independent inquiry) and then through a pressurized period of probation (where the results of one's routinized education must be converted into a certain number of publications by a certain date).
Looked at this way, the academic credentialling process sounds pretty stupid. Well, that's because it is. I don't deny that there is much to be said for formal intellectual training, particularly training that takes seriously its responsibilities to a particular discipline while also acknowledging the limitations of that discipline. Nor do I deny that plenty of truly stellar scholars have emerged from the academic system. But the widespread mediocrity I spoke of last week is no accident. It is institutionalized by the system; it is guaranteed by it; one could go so far as to argue that it is what the system is designed to produce.
In the midst of my meditations, I ran across Rick Perlstein's recent American Prospect essay, "The Historical Present." In it, Perlstein argues that the academic culture wars are over, and that the old battles between left and right have been replaced by a new, collective yearning for community (one, he hastens to add, that academics fail to recognize because they are still using the language of the culture wars to describe what is by now a substantively different sort of dissatisfaction). A distaste for the impersonal, overadministered quality of university life unites today's academics, Perlstein contends. Today's faculty and graduate students are far more concerned with "the frustrations an excess of bureaucracy brings to the life of the mind" than they are with fighting about their pet political issues. It's an interesting premise. But an oversimplified and misleading one. I'll explain why in my next post.
to be continued
July 21, 2002
This is the final installment
This is the final installment of my blog series on the politicized postmodernism of the English department.
The public outcry against the leftist postmodernism of the academy is often accompanied by the demand that radical postmodernists be replaced--or at least counterbalanced--by more moderate scholars whose priorities are what they should be: to teach the field and to write knowledgeably and well about it. But this is a naive--if understandable--wish. Postmodernism cannot be excised from academe as if it were a wart or a mole. It's built in. It's systemic. There is no going back. It's what just about everyone under the age of fifty-five is doing; it's what graduate students have, for the past twenty years or so, been trained to do. You can't find very many people who can teach literature qua literature anymore, nor can you find very many people who want to. Many of the people working in English today are not there for the sake of literature. They are there for the sake of politicized postmodernism: they are there for the cultural capital they accrue--if only among themselves--by "theorizing" the "political," for the smalltime snobbish rush of insular pseudo-intellectualism. Take away the ego-gratification and the pomp and circumstance, and they won't want what's left. Though they are technically English teachers, many of them do not identify with the essentially modest, deeply traditional aims of the field. They don't want to teach writing, and can't write well themselves. And too often they are not even people who genuinely cherish literature, who treasure it for its aesthetic power and noble tradition, who feel a vocation to spend their lives as curators of that tradition, helping to keep it alive, making it accessible, giving students the skills to understand and appreciate it, instilling in them the ability to value art--to study it, to preserve and sponsor it, to be moved by it--throughout their lives. Too often, these are people who want to tell you what to think and what to believe. Too often, these are people who are so entranced by their own lies that they cannot even recognize that this is what they are doing.
This is why they can't, don't, or won't recognize that their cherished politicized postmodernism--the thing they believe gives them a special oppositional consciousness; the thing they believe purifies them morally and politically; the thing they rely on to resist institutionalized oppression in all its forms--plays perfectly into the penny-pinching hands of the corporate university. How? By turning the core content of the field into an easily mastered set of interpretive paradigms and declaring expertise to be identical to mastery of these paradigms. Over the past twenty years, English has become the intellectual equivalent of the industrial assembly line; formulaic politicized postmodernism has cheapened the Ph.D. in English, producing docile drones instead of fearlessly independent thinkers. It's been deadly within English. But it's been a dream come true for university administrators.
Here's how this works.
Most people undertake the Ph.D. when they are quite young. They are in their early to mid-twenties, many are fresh out of college. They are expected to finish in 5-6 years; their funding packages typically evaporate at the end of this time. In practice, this means that people who are frankly too young and too inexperienced to have read much, or to know much about the world, or to have developed a distinctive perspective on it are expected to become not just experts in literature, but theorists of culture in a matter of a very few years--three of which are spent doing the infantilizing remedial work commonly known as "graduate coursework." Because the first two years of college are also largely remedial, and because the undergraduate English major has softened considerably in the wake of politicized postmodernism, today's Ph.D. students don't generally come to graduate study well grounded in literature, history, philosophy, or even their own lingua franca, postmodern theory. They need remediation. But they do not get it because graduate course offerings tend to be too specialized and too theoretical to provide the broad, basic coverage many students need; because students are trying to get a jump on their dissertations by specializing early; and because no one--not the faculty, and certainly not the students--is willing to admit that many doctoral students are not in command of the basics. To do so would be to topple the fragile edifice of graduate education. Instead, a scholarly game of emperor's new clothes prevails in which everyone pretends that graduate students, taken as a group, are always already well-rounded, and no one admits--not publicly anyway--the plainly visible truth: that the emperor has no book learning.
But like any good god, politicized postmodernism giveth what it taketh away. It ministers to the problem it produces by giving graduate students--and junior faculty, and increasingly senior faculty--a surefire critical formula they can plug into any text, any time, anywhere. It goes something like this:
1. Identify text, author, genre, object, entity, or period for study.
2. Determine political angle on text, author, genre, object, entity, or period. Decide whether your topic reflects or resists the dominant culture. Decide whether it interrogates or subverts the dominant culture. Extra points if you can show that it is doing all of these at once.
3. Determine proper critical matrix. Choose among the following: feminist, postcolonialist, marxist, deconstructionist, cultural materialist, psychoanalytic, queer, Foucauldian. Extra points if you can use all of these at once.
3. Assemble according to standard instructions for your chosen critical matrix.
4. Employ concepts such as ideology, hegemony, identity, subjectivity, power, discourse, textuality, and cultural formation. Optional, only for the advanced: define these concepts and explain where they come from.
5. Pay special attention to categories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Extra points for using them all at the same time.
6. Affix properly grandiose title, preferably involving a pun, a quote, or a colon: extra points for using all three.
This all-purpose recipe works for scholarship and for teaching. It allows you to get on the publish or perish bandwagon early, and it also allows you to teach without a deep feeling for literature and without much knowledge of literary form, historical context, or authors' lives. With the politicized postmodernist instant crit kit all you need to know is how to plug the text of the day into the framework of the hour, and you and your students can have what appears to be endless numbers of substantive discussions. By the time undergrads realize they are having pretty much the same discussion in every course, no matter what the material is or who is teaching it, they'll be graduating and you'll have moved on to a new crop of absorbent, trusting minds.
In short, far from the sophisticated analytical framework it claims to be, politicized postmodernism is frequently no more than an elaborate crutch. If it is what makes professors so frequently dogmatic and silly, it is also what enables them to function in an era when there are no clear guidelines about what does and does not constitute "English," and when, as a consequence, mastery of the field has become more elusive and more daunting than ever. Granted, there are some truly skilled postmodernist critics out there. But for your average English professor or grad student, politicized postmodernism does not signal skill so much as stand in for it. Vulgarized into the predictable, boilerplate forms it most often takes in research and teaching, it is less an indication of hardwon intellectual expertise than it is a demonstration of one's ability to perform the set moves of a stylized ideological tap dance.
University administrators know this, and they capitalize on it. Recognizing that what passes for "instruction" in the politicized postmodern classroom is hardly the rarified stuff of refined intellectual pursuit, administrators are increasingly unwilling to pay top dollar for a service that cheap and plentiful adjunct labor can provide at a fraction of the cost of a tenure-track faculty member. Thus does politicized postmodernism contribute to the governing problems of the field: the disappearance of tenure-track lines and the correspondingly terrible job market. Having abandoned its claim to know and value literature, having degraded the very concept of expertise, having turned the teaching of literature into something anyone with the ability to natter on about race, class, and gender can do, English has effectively played into the hands of the corporate university in the very moment of trying hardest to resist it.
Though the job market for English Ph.D.'s is and has been terrible for years, the number of Ph.D.'s being produced far exceeds the number of tenure-track jobs in English. Many English departments are actually losing tenure-track job lines; as older faculty retire, they are not replaced, and the faculty shrinks accordingly. Meanwhile, English remains a tremendously popular major, and it also remains responsible for staffing the huge remedial undertaking known as freshman English. Graduate students and part-time lecturers drawn from the vast pool of new-minted unemployed English Ph.D.'s fill in the void; standing faculty carry on with their standard teaching loads, unaffected by the squeeze.
The relation between the overproduction of Ph.D.'s, the shrinking number of tenure-track faculty positions, and the growing reliance on underpaid, uninsured wage-labor for undergraduate teaching has been the subject of much anguished and angry debate within English. Activist faculty and students wax political about the corporatization of higher education, the devaluation of the humanities, and the exploitation of grad student and adjunct labor. Unions form and ink is spilled (as with everything else, this problem must be theorized to be believed). Fingers are pointed, blame is assigned, discussions are had, measures are proposed, and protests are held. But despite this massive whirl of agitated activity, a simple truth has yet to be acknowledged. What no one admits (because as I noted above no one is willing to say that the emperor has no clothes) is that English has contributed immeasurably to its own problems. It's not just that English turns out far too many Ph.D.'s (some will concede this point, but not all), but that it turns out so many bad ones.
If English actually produced experts, it would be harder for administrators to justify cutting costs by hiring expendable adjuncts in lieu of full-time faculty. If English could make coherent, believable claims for the unique teaching abilities of those seasoned experts, it would be even harder for the admins to justify their tactics. If English produced far fewer Ph.D.'s, and if those Ph.D.s actually knew literature qua literature, and if they could teach what they knew well, and if the faculty at elite schools were actually willing to spend time on campus teaching it (as in, more than the two teach-in-your-sleep, quick-and-dirty courses a semester to which they are accustomed), administrators might have to think twice before farming the work out to the poor under-employed over-degreed souls who want university teaching work so badly that they will do it for what works out to be less than minimum wage.
If these leftover Ph.D.'s left academe in dignified disgust, that would help, too. What would help most of all is if departments didn't make so many redundant scholars-in-waiting in the first place, or if--radical thought--they trained Ph.D.'s in such a way as to make them attractive to non-academic employers, who at present regard them with a deep and appropriate skepticism. But that would involve change, and we've already seen how important it is to English departments to avoid change. It would also mean more work for everyone. Existing faculty would have to teach more classes, and they would have to teach composition (at many universities, composition is handled by graduate students, whose numbers are kept higher than the market can handle because the faculty don't want to do the "scut" work of teaching comp themselves). Faculty would also have to start preparing graduate students for non-academic careers, a problematically assimilationist project that would deprive professors of the narcissistic pleasures of training graduate students to be just like them. This is not convenient. And so it has not happened.
And here we have it: what works out best from the perspective of a short-sighted, self-serving faculty also works out best for the university (which can and does turn the degradation of the English Ph.D. to account). It's a stable economy at least for the time being. Faculty get what they want: a light teaching load free of the onerous duties of freshman writing, and administrations get what they want: plenty of cheap interchangeable teachers who make up in exploitability what they lack in competence. But it's also a fraudulent economy. Even as faculty and graduate students bemoan their fate at the hands of the evil, anti-intellectual, bean-counting administration, they are willing if unconscious collaborators in their own undoing. Politicized postmodernism underwrites it all. It may not be worth much intellectually, but it's one hell of a business plan.
For more on the politics of postmodernism, see Armed Liberal and Protein Wisdom. For an extended analysis of tenured academics as an American version of the fanatical Muslim imam, see Orson Scott Card's War Watch. And for some thoughts on what can be done to begin to reclaim American education, check out Jacob Proffitt's response to Card.
July 19, 2002
This is Part Four of
This is Part Four of my ongoing blog series on the English department as a model politicized postmodern community. In my July 17 installment I wrote about how politicized postmodernisn degrades graduate education. Today, I begin a two-part conclusion to this series dedicated to the proposition that for all its pretensions to be radical, transgressive, and revolutionary, politicized postmodernism is first and foremost a profoundly conservative, even reactionary force. English departments demonstrate this beautifully. Any proper sociology of English will notice how nicely postmodernism assists the essentially conservative aims of the English department, and, by extension, of the university itself.
The main goal of an English department is not to be radical, or postmodern, or even political, but to keep being an English department. People in English want to keep their departments as autonomous as possible (they want to control their curriculum, hires, admissions, promotions, and fires); they also want to continue to expand as much as possible (to attract and graduate as many English majors as possible; to hire ever more faculty working in ever more arcane and unusual areas to teach those undergrads; to admit ever better graduate students, to graduate them at ever higher rates, and to place them in ever more, ever better jobs). Academic departments are little bureaucratic machines; in the case of English, politicized postmodernism is the grease that keeps the gears grinding smoothly along.
If you go to your average English department, you will not find there a bunch of leftist dissidents plotting for the revolution, or even a bunch of dedicated postmodernists playing with their signifiers. What you will find is a group of well-fed, leisured yuppies drinking cappucino and plotting their next career move. These folks theorize the ills of capital, the institutionalized oppression of western culture, and the discursive dimensions of power first and foremost because it is their livelihood, their ticket to job security and the comfortable lifestyle that comes with it. If theorizing corn starch would get them tenure and earn them professional glory, then they'd do that. They do what's rewarded, they do what they are told, they do what it pays to do. And then, seeing how the rest of the world mocks and reviles them, they call themselves radical and get off on how subversive they are. The reality: what may seem subversive--or just stupid--to the rest of the world is a badge of membership in academic circles (this is not to discount the corrosive psychological impact politicized postmodernism has on many of those who imbibe it; it is simply to note that this impact is not, in most cases, the principal aim of politicized postmodernism so much as it is a devastating effect). My point is that most of the academy's so-called radical critics are about as rebellious as the members of high school cliques, and about as desperate for the feeling of group belonging.
Politicized postmodernism ministers to this need for group identity. By isolating its practitioners--whose beliefs are alien to outsiders and whose jargon seals them off from all but those who speak the lingo--politicized postmodernism creates a strong us/them mentality. Utterly irrelevant to everyone but themselves, mocked and derided when they are acknowleged at all, radical academics in English and other departments defiantly define themselves as "oppositional critics" whose subversive thought works to undermine the racist, sexist, and homophobic worlds of science, of corporate capitalism, even of the traditional home. "They" are unenlightened agents of an oppressive social order; "we" know better. "They" serve the status quo, seeking only to better their selfish little lot; "we" serve critique, making a better world possible by exposing ideology in all its varied, invidious forms. "They" are blind; "we" see. "They" are the enemy; "We" are the forces of good. (Contrary to popular opinion, the politicized postmodernist does not disbelieve in moral absolutes; she just disbelieves in absolutes that are not her own.) George Lucas does a better job with it, but English and Star Wars basically have the same plot.
Politicized postmodernism thus also regulates those who belong to the "us" part of the us/them binary, controlling what "we" write, teach, and think so tightly that the likelihood of genuine innovation or serious dissent is basically nil. So strong is the stranglehold that politicized postmodernism exerts on English departments--it's generally only the aging, increasingly marginal white male professors (cruelly known as "dinosaurs") who aren't on board--that the ideas in the field have not evolved or changed in any significant way since politicized postmodernism burst onto the scene during the 1980s (in the form of queer criticism, postcolonial criticism, poststructuralist feminist theory, and Foucauldian criticism, to name the most important incarnations). That was an exciting time, and it did seem then as if English were entering some kind of a methodological renaissance--anything seemed possible, and much was changing and new. But since then, time seems to have stopped. The aims of the criticism produced in English are the same as they were then, the arguments have been endlessly recycled, reinvented, upgraded, retooled and renewed. The only thing that is surprising about the present state of the discipline is that more people aren't bored to tears with it. Politicized postmodernism is a professional meme, one that contains within it not only the capacity endlessly to reproduce itself, but also to dull the sensibilities of those who are infected by it, to convince them that the untiring repetition of other people's old ideas is somehow the same thing as innovative intellectual work.
Within English, "radical" criticism has thus proven to be a deeply conservative force: stable, stabilizing. Without new ideas, there is no dissent. Without dissent, there is no change. As more and more politicized postmodernists earn tenure and work their way up into the ranks of full professor (there are many there by now; they are the stars of the field), and as more and more of the thinning ranks of older, unapologetically unreconstructed faculty retire, so English comes ever closer to its fondest wish and deepest goal: to be a model politicized postmodern community, a small, perfectly multicultural, self-contained world that stands in ideological opposition to the corporate university whose dollars support it.
Within this community, what matters is collective well-being. Collegiality--or at least the appearance thereof--is crucial; peace and harmony--or the appearance thereof--are all; disagreement is thus redefined, proactively, as aggression, and discouraged as such. Individuals who do not subordinate themselves to the needs of the group are often understood as rogues, or, because defamation is a favored method of enforcing departmental groupthink, as crazy. In English, one speaks in terms of groups: there are "the faculty" and "the graduate students;" within "the faculty" there are "the medievalists," "the modernists," "the Victorianists," "the junior faculty," and "the senior faculty." When hiring, one does not look for exceptional individuals, but for an exceptionally representative member of a group. In any given year, "a queer theorist" or "a postcolonialist" or, more traditionally, "a Romanticist" may be hired; always there is the push to hire women and people of color; always too the push to recruit graduate students who belong to one or another oppressed group. It is understood that you can and will teach the literature that belongs to your group: women may specialize in a period or genre, but they are expected to be able to handle "women's literature" and feminist theory, too. More often than not, scholars of color work on race. It is the rare politicized postmodern academic who does not gladly embrace the equation between her genetic makeup and her expertise; to do so would be to fly in the face of communal expectations.
Politicized postmodernism is, finally, more a means than an end; it supplies the basis for a closed collective, one whose harmony depends on an enforced absence of independent thought and a related unblinking allegiance to a group that understands itself as perpetually embattled, at war with the conservative, corporate forces of the university and beyond.The ubiquitous phrases "departmental community" and "departmental citizen" are deeply telling in this regard. One belongs to one's department; one owes it; when one does well, one brings credit to the department; when one deviates from the collective norm, one brings shame on the department.
English today is hardly an inspired, inspiring environment, and despite the glitz and glamour of the politicized postmodern paradigm, it isn't meant to be. Institutionalized, routinized, and oversimplified over time, politicized postmodernism is, above all, a means of producing dependency and docility in the very people it presumes to empower. I'll explain in the last blog of this series, coming soon to a web browser near you.
July 17, 2002
This is part three of
This is part three of my blog series on the English department as a model postmodern community. I wrote in my July 14 installment that politicized postmodernism has rendered English incoherent by effectively vaporizing the content of the field. In this installment, I address how politicized postmodernism corrupts graduate education. In the next and final installment, I will talk about professional literary study as a whole, drawing together the various threads of my argument to suggest both how politicized postmodernism has damaged English beyond repair and how it allows English to persist, and even to thrive, despite its deeply crippled state.
Just as politicized postmodernism undermines English by discrediting the concepts of literature, tradition, beauty, and aesthetic judgement, so it also undermines the quality of the work that is done under its aegis. The reason for this is simple: you cannot have consistent or reliable standards in a field that rejects the very basis for them. Standards are incompatible with politicized postmodernism: the postmodern part of the equation denies the existence of objective measures of quality or truth; the politicized part of it replaces disinterested assessment with an ideological agenda masquerading as fair criteria.
In the relativistic economy of the politicized postmodern English department, you can't really do things like grade your students' work, or assess that of a job candidate or a junior colleague when they come up for tenure, or even require that the people working in the field work in the field. (This is a major reason why so many English profs write about things that have nothing to do with literature, like sexuality, imperialism, the body, the politics of identity, medical history [my own former faux pas], consumption, nationalism, and so on.) Of course, English still maintains the ruse of standards and puts its Ph.D. students through numerous rituals of assessment--graded coursework, qualifying exams, language exams, the dissertation, the defense. But these moments are marked more as rites of professional passage than as occasions for serious and scrupulous judgement. As long as you observe the proper forms, you cannot fail.
The hardest thing, indeed, about getting a Ph.D. in English is getting into a "top" program. At the elite schools (in this business you have to attend an elite school if you want a chance at a rare tenure-track job), hundreds of applications come in every year for 10-15 entering spots. That's a tough and often arbitrary cut. But if you can make it past the cut, you are home free. Complete your work, take your exams, cover 200 pages with something resembling an analysis of something, and in a mere five to seven years you will be the proud owner of a Ph.D. in English, a certified politicized postmodern scholar of everything in general and nothing in particular.
To earn the degree, you don't have to do original work, or even good work, just work that fits in nicely with the dominant ideologies in the field. You do get more points for inhabiting the politicized postmodern paradigm with flair; your profs will like you better and your fellow students will envy you more if you can come up with a neat twist on the current intellectual fashion. But there is no need to do that. Becoming a clone works just fine for most people. It will get you a transcript covered with A's (you have to work awfully hard not to get all A's in this branch of grad school). It will get you faculty support (providing you are also fairly personable). It might might even get you a job (if your stars line up just so). You can make an entire career out of being a Jameson knock-off or a second-hand Homi Bhabha or a Judith Butler wanna-be. Departments that can't afford the real thing are eager to hire cheap imitations fresh out of school, and it is an accepted truth that the best way to prepare oneself professionally for life as an English professor is not to actually learn your literature and become skilled at teaching it, but to write a dissertation that puts your personal stamp, such as it is, on a reigning hot topic.
The only way you can really run into difficulty in graduate school is if you are on a different ideological channel than everyone else. You can do shoddy work, you can teach poorly, you turn work in weeks, months, sometimes even years late. You can show absolutely no talent; you can learn absolutely nothing of substance. I've even seen people get caught plagiarizing. None of these things will matter much in the end as long as you slog on through and keep yourself in line with everyone else. Refusing the party line, though, is a different story altogether. If you approach your Ph.D. program from a liberal humanist perspective, for example, you will be mocked by your peers and you will be raked over the coals by your professors, who will bring your "naivete" to your attention and will advise you to acquire the necessary (i.e., postmodernist) tools for what they consider to be "sophisticated" thought.
There is indeed a powerful element of indoctrination at work in graduate training today. Students pursuing humanities Ph.D.'s are not, as a rule, given a solid grounding in either the Enlightenment tradition or the literary critical tradition that sprang from liberalism. Instead, they are told, from day one of graduate school, that the Enlightenment was bad, that liberalism is over, and that any self-respecting intellectual will recognize this immediately and sign on to the postmodern critical project. Ph.D. students are encouraged--often required--to take courses in "literary theory," "cultural theory," "poststructuralist theory," and so on. Typically, these are crash courses in pomo methodology, samplers of major postmodern works that neglect to situate those works within a wider philosophical and historical context. These courses do not generally function as courses "about" postmodern theory so much as they function as seminars in how to "do" postmodern theory. Discussion often centers on how to "use" or "apply" postmodern concepts, rather than on how those concepts fit into the Western intellectual tradition or on whether they have any real validity or value. There are cogent, convincing, and damning arguments against this sort of theory, and against a humanities oriented around this sort of theory. But they are dismissed out of hand as the hostile ravings of right-wing reactionaries--when their existence is acknowledged at all.
The unquestioned sanctity of postmodern thought is perhaps the single most invidious aspect of graduate training in the humanities: students are required to sign on to politicized postmodernism as a condition of doing acceptable work. It's a loyalty oath masquerading as scholarly method. Needless to say, persons for whom the far-left, in-your-face radical social constructivism of the English department poses an ethical problem--conservative Christians, for example--need not apply.
The result is very far from a thriving scholarly community with a vital and invigorating graduate program. Students trained under this system are trained to be something very far from independent, well-rounded critical thinkers. They tend, instead, to be sadly thwarted, their intellects narrow where they ought to be broad, their attitudes hostile where they ought to be tolerant, their ethics situational and pragmatic rather than heartfelt and constant. Within the mind of the new-minted politicized postmodernist, suspicion supplants curiosity; condescension and contempt stand in for reasoned refutation. The mind made by graduate training in English is a mind confused and even threatened by difference (even as it prides itself on celebrating difference). It is not a mind that has been taught to think in a free, unfettered, rigorous way. It is, conversely, a mind that has been taught what to think and how to think it.
One of the things this mind has been taught to think is that it has been liberated by the politicized postmodernism that has been forced upon it. This last lesson is driven home by the student's knowledge of what happens to those who dare to differ. It's not pretty, and it's career-ending, and the student knows this so deep in her bones that it is a part of her. It guides her choices without her even being aware of it. The student that has learned the lessons of postmodern necessity well is one who will fight tooth and nail to defend them. She cannot afford to do otherwise; she cannot afford to realize the extent of her ignorance or her deception. And so she becomes a perfectly socialized politicized postmodernist, ready to deconstruct and eager to please.
I've focussed on graduate education in this blog because it brings out two equally damning truths (yes, I use that word without scare quotes) about the contemporary English department and about the kind of ideal community that department is attempting to embody.
The first is that faculty operating from within a politicized postmodernist perspective have, as a group, utterly abdicated their responsibility to their students. While a 22-year-old first-year Ph.D. student may be forgiven for eagerly latching onto hip pseudo-scholarly trends, the professor who encourages her to do so--who, indeed, demands that she do so, and gives her no alternative but to do so--is committing the worst sort of pedagogical malpractice. This is a professor more interested in replicating herself than in helping a young scholar find her own feet; it is a professor who values conformity to her own beliefs over intellectual diversity; it is a professor who is totally exploiting her students, using their desire to please and their need for praise to lure them into embracing her own personal principles.
The second truth follows from the first. The Ph.D. students of today are the English professors of tomorrow. Their training does not bode well for the future of English or the education of their students. The evidence for this safe conjecture lies in today's English professors, a growing number of whom are products of the system described above (I am a product of that system myself; I bought it hook, line, and sinker for over a decade; recently, luckily, I woke up). The patterns I lay out here have been going on for several decades. There is hardly anyone in the profession under the age of fifty who wasn't bred to be a politicized postmodernist. It's been a case of the blind leading the blind for a long time now; with every passing generation of graduate students, the blind get a little bit blinder. Meanwhile, those few remaining souls who know another, better way--who are old enough to remember a field that was not dominated by politicking and agenda-driving--have by and large abandoned the field to the victors. They are getting old; they do not have the will or the energy to fight for the future of the field or the dignity of scholarly work. And so they quietly retire, taking with them the knowledge and experience that alone could launch a reclamation of the discipline. They are not missed.
to be continued....
July 14, 2002
This is Part Two of
This is Part Two of my present blog series on the role of politicized postmodernism in corrupting the field of professional literary study (as instanced in the English Department). In my July 12 blog, I suggested that English has basically set itself out, over the last several decades, to become a model postmodern community, and that as such one may learn something about the effects of politicized postmodernism on people and on culture by looking closely at English. My aim in this series is to think usefully on two levels: one, the local level of the academic humanities, which seems to me to be dying a particularly ugly, largely self-inflicted death; and two, the broader level of contemporary American culture, which is increasingly inflected by the kinds of equivocations, and the kinds of personal and social damage, that result when politicized postmodernism gains mainstream respectability (which it has, especially on the left). Whether English is a principal cause of what is happening in the wider culture, or whether it is more an instance and an effect of a more general shift in American values, I will save for another time. At the moment, my concern is simply to read English as a microcosm of politicized postmodernism. My hope is to shed light on the risks involved in adopting politicized postmodernism as a value system by looking closely and uncompromisingly on what that value system has done to the field in which I have studied and worked for the last twelve years.
What happens to the content of a field when those working within it are more invested in their postmodern praxis than in the field itself? The field disappears. Postmodernism situates itself in opposition to liberal humanism, which it sees as naive, and as complicit with the oppressive ideological structures associated with bourgeois culture (racism, sexism, classism, and so on). This means that it rejects "humanist" notions of art (as that which should be beautiful, or morally uplifting; as that which can be great, and can contain within it universal truths about the human condition) and of tradition (all we really have are stories; those stories that belong to a so-called tradition are the ones that have been marked as "meaningful" by those in power; those stories that are regarded as part of the historical record are likewise the self-serving interpretations of the powerful).
What does this mean for English? It means that English has rejected the very terms and categories that make the field make sense. Under politicized postmodernism, there is no longer something we can reliably call literature. No one can agree what "literature" is. Is it Shakespeare? Is it the phone book? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Because "literature" is really just a privileged form of "textuality," it no longer makes sense to talk about the "literary tradition" or the "literary canon." In the radical equivalency of postmodern levelling, there is no such thing as a common core of works that constitutes the content of the field. In other words: there is no field. There is only "the text."
It goes without saying that when there is no such thing as literature, literature cannot be taught. But texts that have historically been classified as literature can be used to teach other kinds of things--psychology, sociology, multiculturalism, marxism, the history and theory of power, resistance, and oppression. Politicized postmodern English profs think it's their job to use the literature course to model utopian ideals of resistant reading, revisionist history, and multicultural community. The syllabus is not where you list great works of literature that are worthy of careful, guided study. That's apolitical, uninformed, and reactionary. The syllabus is where you reject the idea of the "great work" in favor of creating a synecdoche of your ideal world. The ideal syllabus is one that represents the marginal and gives voice to the oppressed. The syllabus without women writers and authors of color is a syllabus with a political problem. The more modern the syllabus, the bigger the problem you have if it is all white or all male or both. (Hence, for example, the notorious uproar at Stanford about the too-male, too-white Western Culture requirement, and the present scuffle about Western Civ at the University of Chicago.)
The conversion of the literature course into a staging ground for a proper politics and an ideal rewriting of history hinges on the belief that discriminating between good and bad writing is just as bad as other, more blatantly oppressive forms of discrimination. Thus the objection to the literary canon as we know it--as it has traditionally been anthologized and syllabized and revered--is that it is a canon of white European males. It's an old boy's club, one that excludes women and minorities by privileging stuffy old boy standards for fine art. Arguments for an expanded canon are consequently arguments that read the white male tradition as essentially discriminatory, hostile to the special artistic talents of women and people of color. Cultivating discriminating judgement and discriminating against historically oppressed groups are utterly and idiotically confounded in this debate. Unfortunately, it is one of the defining debates of "the profession" (that's a pompous phrase we English professors like), and has done more than its share of damage during the several decades of its ascendancy.
The result is a rabidly anti-intellectual inclusiveness, one that doubles as an excuse not to master the material that once formed the backbone of the discipline. On the one hand, the conventional postmodern wisdom defiantly asserts the right of the English prof to extend his reach indefinitely: Who says The Color Purple can't hold a candle to Hamlet ? Who says comic books aren't literature? Who says out-of-print women writers aren't as important as Wordsworth, Wilde, or Joyce? Who says Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud don't belong in an English class? Who says the professor of English--the expert in language and the master of textuality--cannot expound upon economics, history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, medicine, and law? On the other hand, the widening of English's purview tends to correspond to an erosion of field-specific expertise: Who says the professor of English must know his Shakespeare, or the difference between a sonnet and an ode, or be able to discuss modernism's relationship to realism? In the context of the English department, politicized postmodernism is a recipe for irresponsibility, one that not only institutionalizes a lax contempt for the field's own subject matter, but rewards it as the stuff of professional sophistication.
How is this possible? Because along with the concepts of literature and tradition, politicized postmodernism has junked the methods of literary evaluation. Aesthetic judgement has fallen into disrepute. There is no taste, only ideology. There is no beauty, only the power to privilege something as beautiful. There are no good or bad poems or books or plays, just texts that "encode" or "interrogate" ideology. Aesthetics is politics. To argue otherwise is to announce your complicity with the bourgeois hegemonic order. It's also to advertise either your reactionary politics (because not properly postmodern) or your naivete (for not knowing that aesthetics is really just a cover for ideology). Or both.
The critical tradition has thus suffered a fate analogous to that suffered by literature. As literature, taste, and aesthetic judgement have been deconstructed, so has criticism that takes these categories seriously been discredited. In practice, this means that just about all the literary criticism written before the 1960s has been relegated to the realm of the--you guessed it--reactionary (Marxist literary criticism is the signal exception). That which has been designated as reactionary (or naive, or unsophisticated, or liberal, or humanist) thereby ceases to belong meaningfully to the history of ideas or the critical tradition: you will not find it taught and you will not find it cited--except, occasionally, disparagingly--in the scholarly literature. It is, quite literally, beneath notice.
In English, one may thus claim professional expertise without knowing much, if anything, about literature, or literary history, or the history of one's profession, or the history of ideas within that profession. One need never have read one's F.R. Leavis or one's Lionel Trilling, let alone one's Matthew Arnold or one's Northrop Frye. Even Aristotle is optional. A steady dose of Jameson, Spivak, Butler, Bhabha, Foucault, Derrida (or, since Derrida is hard, Culler's primer to same)--none of whom talk consistently, clearly, or particularly well about literature or literary history--will get you anywhere you want to go.
Politicized postmodernism thus produces a strangely truncated, tautological version of professional literary study: one need only read the work that conforms to its premises in order to acquire a proper understanding of the world and of one's field. Imagine if this were the situation in medicine, or law, or physics. Would you let a surgeon who never had to learn anatomy operate on you? Would you hire a defense lawyer who believed that "guilt" and "innocence" are mere social constructs? Would you trust a nuclear physicist who was more concerned with the sexual politics of plutonium than with its explosive properties? Don't let the obfuscating pontifications of today's politically postmodern critical theorists throw you: incompetence is incompetence no matter how polysyllabic it is.
English professors today enjoy the dubious distinction of working in a field that they have exploded. Unlike mathematics, or biology, or even philosophy, there is no common core of knowledge, of texts, or even of analytical techniques, that binds the motley crew of literature professors into something resembling a professional culture. Into the void left by the discrediting of literature has crept a deadly pseudo-culture, one that has more in common with fundamentalism than with intellectual inquiry, and that allows a virulently exclusive snobbery to insulate it from challenge and debate. Its principal components are collective embarrassment (at "merely" being English teachers), communal pretension (to be "theorists"), and political grandiosity (as "cultural theorists" and as self-styled "experts in language," literature professors believe they are specially licensed to behave as pundits in their scholarship and activists in their classrooms).
It's hard to imagine English lasting much longer, especially when no one in the field is even willing to admit that the field has gone terribly far awry. We in the academic humanities blame our problems on the poor job market, on the corporatization of the university, on the anti-intellectualism of American culture, and on conservatives (who are, in the reigning conspiracy theory that passes for reasonable explanation, out to stifle the radical thought of the scholarly left). The last people in the world we are willing to blame is ourselves. So goes accountability in the culture of politicized postmodernism.
In the next installment, I'll talk more about what the politicized postmodernism of the English department has done to its ideas about professionalism and authority, concentrating particularly on the degradation of graduate training and the related confusion of scholarly excellence with political conformity.
to be continued...
July 12, 2002
In my July 10 blog,
In my July 10 blog, I noted the correlation that is being made in some circles between the ethically problematic relativism that has come to exemplify American left-wing politics, and the English department, which has become synonymous with the worst excesses of American left-wing politics. Today I'll begin a series of blogs dedicated to unravelling that association.
As the media fulminates against postmodernism and against Stanley Fish, identifying the one with all that is wrong with American values and the other with all that is wrong with the values of academics, I want to begin with two points of clarification.
The first is that it's not postmodernism that is the problem. The problem is what happens when postmodernism becomes the basis of an ethical system, specifically when it becomes a politics. Andy Warhol's soup cans never hurt anybody. But, as countless critics have pointed out recently, radically equivocal thinking that refuses to make crucial distinctions between, say, terrorism and national defense, or that equates, say, an Israeli scholar with the Nazi psychopath Joseph Mengele, does a lot of harm indeed. It is also the sign of harm already done: people who think this way--who look at the world this way--are walking testaments to the moral erosion that results from organizing one's value system around an ethical vacuum. Postmodernism was never meant to be a politics, and, almost by definition, it cannot be. There is nothing new or particularly threatening about the postmodern critique of "truth" and other categories that pretend to a spuriously transcendant stability (nor is there anything particularly postmodern about such a critique). What is new and threatening, however, is the way postmodernism operates in today's activist academy. When postmodernism stops being a philosophical stance or an aesthetic approach, when it becomes instead the basis for a self-consciously politicized world view, then there's trouble.
I'll develop this point shortly, but first I want to lay out my second point of clarification, which is that Stanley Fish is not the problem, either. Largely because of his own public posturing on the subject of postmodernism, Fish has emerged as the emblem of all that's wrong with the academy in general, and with English in particular (hence Jonah Goldberg's image of the literature professoriate as Fish's terroristic henchmen, busily manufacturing the postmodern poison that infects the left, the media, and a goodly number of well-meaning everyday Americans). But this is misleading. Fish is hardly your representative literature professor. He's fabulously successful, even powerful, for one. But even more fundamentally, he's an outright cynic and a proud chameleon: postmodernism a la Fish does become a rationale for an eternally shifting, always self-serving, bizarrely Macchiavellian brand of power-seeking, one that privileges convenience over consistency and that privileges Fish over all. But Fish is largely unique in this (so much so that he has been unforgettably lionized--and ironized--by David Lodge as the globetrotting, bed-hopping, trendier-than-thou literary theorist, Morris Zapp). Postmodernism a la your average literature professor, by contrast, is a very different sort of thing. Most lit types are terribly earnest. They are deadly serious about themselves and about what they do (often defensively so, because, unlike Zapp--I mean Fish--they are also very insecure). Puritanical earnestness and grinding uncertainty do not mix well with the philosophical playfulness that lies at the heart of postmodernism. They combine to make a lethally slippery form of dogmatism, one whose extraordinary rigidity is bolstered by an equally extraordinary inability to recognize that rigidity for what it is. The problem, in short, is not the cynical amorality exemplified by the author of There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, but the theoretical self-righteousness exemplified by most of the rest of the politicized postmodernists who populate English departments.
Which brings me to my point, which is that English departments are excellent examples of what happens to individuals and to communities when postmodernism becomes a political and ethical norm.
The English department may be understood as a model postmodern community. With very few exceptions (most of them occurring within the older ranks of professors, those who are nearing retirement and who don't count in the academy's diversity calculus because they are mostly white and mostly male), you have to be a card-carrying politicized postmodernist to exist in English. You might get into grad school without obvious credentials in that line, but only because you strike the admissions committee as a malleable sort with the potential to become a political postmodernist just like them. It's harder to get through grad school without the credential--you're likely to hear a lot about your naivete and your lack of political sophistication, and you're likely to have trouble finding professors who are willing to work closely with you and write you strong letters of support. It's likewise just about impossible to get a job if you aren't talking the talk and walking the walk of the ontologically anointed. We won't even discuss tenure. The bottom line is clear: no praxis, no pose, no dice. Apart from the stultifying sameness this produces, the politicized postmodernism that defines the academic humanities gives rise to some absolutely damning--even suicidal--structural problems. If politicized postmodernism is the defining characteristic of the contemporary English department, it is also its fatal flaw. More than anything else, it is the thing that is killing English, which is no longer a coherent field, and which is no longer willing or able to try to be one.
In upcoming blogs, I'll look at what politicized postmodernism has meant for the content of the discipline and for the quality of the work done within it.
To be continued....
July 10, 2002
Some choice outtakes from Jonah
Some choice outtakes from Jonah Goldberg's current rant against postmodernism, Stanley Fish, and English departments:
In the sciences, when we translate an idea to physical reality we take into account the fact that there might be tangible repercussions in the real world.
In the world of art and humanities, however, no such principle exists. Indeed, the total lack of a principle of restraint is more often mistaken for some kind of principle. In the humanities, all ideas--except conservative ones--spurt out as if from an unmanned fire hose, spraying in every direction without a care about who gets soaked. Indeed, the only notion actively censored is the suggestion that things might be better if someone grabbed hold of the hose.
The occasion for these comments is Fish's article on postmodernism in the current Harper's. "What's set me off," Goldberg confesses, "is Fish's claim that postmodernism is simply 'a rarefied form of academic talk.' Fish would have people believe that postmodernism is simply what postmodernists do in their hidden English-department laboratories." As Goldberg notes, Peter Berkowitz has already handily shredded the article, along with Fish himself. What concerns Goldberg here is the more general problem of the English department, whose total philosophical irresponsibility he equates with a familiar strain of terrorism:
Well, not only did the virus of postmodernism escape Fish's lab, but he and his henchmen ground it up into fine particles and sent aerosolized packets of it to every magazine, newspaper, publishing house, and movie studio in America. Fish's hypocrisy is stunning. The PoMo virus has infected millions, destabilizing traditional institutions across the social landscape. And yet when confronted, he says "I'm not responsible for what happens in the real world, I'm just a lab technician." Well, this high priest of the cult of the twelve monkeys is responsible.
Call it feminism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, queer theory, whatever: It's all shrapnel from the same postmodern bomb, broadly speaking. These doctrines haven't all been terrible for America, but their misapplication and over-application have. Scientists take responsibility for the damage they do. English professors take speaking fees. Conservatism, which does not fetishize the masses, understands that even an intelligent idea can have horrific consequences if let loose upon a society. The uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb can adopt sharp-edged ideas and use them as blunt cudgels if we are not careful. The authors of postmodernism have not been careful.
This is strong stuff, and that's why I quoted it at length. Goldberg's anger is worth a long, hard look. Fish may be the catalyst for the column, but the culprit is not the oh-so-trendy, always-ahead-of-the-game, I-know-better-than-you, let-me-tell-you-what-to-think-and how-to-think-it Fish, so much as it is what Fish stands for: the English department. English, to Goldberg's mind, is an ideological anthrax laboratory (or, as his metaphor mixes, an unauthorized munitions factory). What gets made in English is, as far as Goldberg is concerned, every bit as lethal, and every bit as evil, as the poisonous spores and deadly explosives wrought by terrorists. Maybe even more so, if you consider how many millions of people have swallowed the radically egalitarian swill proferred by the politicized postmodernists who run the show in English and its adjunct departments--Women's Studies, Afro-American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and so on. Shakespeare wrote about pouring poison into unsuspecting ears; Goldberg is suggesting that this is just what English departments do.
One of the major topical gripes Goldberg and others have with politicized postmodernism is that it diminishes terrorism by simultaneously defining it away (suicide bombers are not terrorists; they are noble emblems of resistance) and by confounding it with legitimate exercises of power (Sharon is the real terrorist in the Arab-Israeli conflict; the U.S. war on terrorism is itself an act of terrorism; and so on). It's a damn good criticism of an academy that has shown itself to be shamelessly, even proudly amoral in the wake of 9/11. That so many academics saw that day principally as an opportunity to theorize, that the events of 9/11 were, for the radically hip, not a political and moral wake-up call, but instead a gloriously self-confirming proof of their pet postcolonial theories, was, and remains, repellent in the extreme. Hence Goldberg's extraordinarily virulent language.
Nonetheless, one has to ask what it means that Goldberg uses such provocative language in the context of a complaint about the postmodern abuse of language. After all, in comparing literature professors to terrorists, isn't Goldberg engaging in just the sort of radically equivocal thinking that he is reviling? And as such, isn't he discrediting his argument about the violence English does by doing the same kind of violence unto English? I don't have the answer, but I have some thoughts about what it is that Goldberg is getting at when he fingers English as the scene of America's moral malaise. I'll elaborate soon in another blog.
July 8, 2002
In my July 3 and
In my July 3 and July 5 blogs, I wrote about how the new GRE writing assessment looks to be a political litmus test. In my July 5 blog, I showed how the pool of essay topics consistently seeks to assess where test takers stand on a number of issues that are central to left-wing academic culture, among them a preference for collectivism over individualism; a hatred for capitalism, consumerism, and patriotism; a commitment to hard-line social constructivism; and an unfailing adherence to a morally bankrupt but snobbishly appealing ethical and historical relativism.
Today I want to spell out some further observations about the new GRE test format. I'll conclude with some thoughts on what you can do to make your opinion of the test known, and to make your opinion count.
My observations today center on credibility. Despite the stated goal of the GRE writing assessment--to test writing ability--the GRE site does not inspire confidence in the ETS's ability to evaluate writing. Most basically, GRE.org's description of the new writing test is riddled with typos, spelling errors, and grammatical gaffes.
On the Test Preparation page, for example, we are advised to prepare for the Issue task by reading "the screen directions and the entire pool of Issue topics from which your test topics will be selecte" (sic) and by "reading the eassay-writing (sic) strategies for 'Present Your Pepsective (sic) on an Issue' task." Likewise, we are advised to prepare for the Argument task by reading "the screen directions and the entire pool of Argument topics from which your test topics will be selecte" (sic).
The topics themselves do not reliably observe the conventions of proper English either. Here's an illiterate keeper: "The true strength of a country is best demonstrated by the willingness of its government to tolerate challenges from it's own citizens." As the possessive "its" becomes the contraction "it's," we witness the wonders of syntactical drift. Here's another gem: "The bombardment of visual images in contemporary society has the effect of making people less able to focus clearly and extensively on a single issue over a long period of time." The sentence wants to suggest that visual images are bombarding people, but through a failure of prepositional phrasing it instead suggests that visual images are themselves the object of society's bombardment.
Scoring procedures look to be on a par with the test directions and topics: scoring the writing assessment "requires identical or adjacent scores from 2 readers; any other score combination is ajudicated (sic) by a third GRE reader." Google spells better than the GRE people. When you type in "ajudicate," it says, "Did you mean adjudicate."
"In creating this assessment for the GRE Board," the site announces, "Educational Testing Service (ETS) followed a rigorous test development process that was guided by faculty committees representing different academic institutions, disciplines, and cultural perspectives." Too bad none of them can write.
In all fairness, GRE.org does note that the writing assessment is not geared toward assessing test takers' ability to write correct English so much as it is toward evaluating how well they can express themselves in writing. Sure, it's a non sequitur, and an irresponsible one at that (How can you express yourself well in writing if you do not know the rules of grammar and syntax? Who can be held responsible for knowing the language if intellectuals can't?). But let's go with it and see where it leads.
All concerns about political content and poor grammar aside, the writing assessment topics are hardly designed to produce thoughtful, considered explorations of complex issues. They are, instead, poorly designed attempts to provoke. Structured as declarative statements, they are at once contentious and closed off. They encourage the respondent to take issue, to dispute, to agree or disagree, but they do not encourage the respondent to think, or question, or explore. In their simplistic formulations and pat pronouncements, the topics send a strong message that boiling complex issues down into insipid generalities is possible, desirable, and inherently intellectual (this is, after all, a test to determine who is cut out for the life of the mind). More to the point, the topics imply that failure to engage in analogously boilerplate thought will be construed as failure to perform the required task: to "present your perspective on an issue." That many of the topics are so poorly framed that it is not possible to have an intelligent perspective on them seems not to have occurred to the people at GRE; nor does it seem to have occurred to them that in many cases the best response to a "topic" might be to reject it as a callow and superficial platitude that cannot sustain the serious consideration test takers are expected to give it.
Where does this lead the intrepid aspiring graduate student? One of two places, depending on how canny that student is.
Place Number One--Ethical Double Bind: The test taker who can see the writing assessment's intellectual shallowness and political intrusiveness for what they are is put in the awkward position of either throwing the exam (by refusing to respond, or by responding with a frankness that could be costly come scoring time) or abandoning principle (by coughing up the formulaic cliches that the exam telegraphically demands).
Place Number Two--Unthinking Assent to Indoctrination: The test taker who does not see the writing assessment's shallowness and intrusiveness for what they are is even worse off. This is the test taker who trusts the educational system and the testing service implicitly, and who never imagines that there could be anything untoward about the methods or aims of either. This is the test taker who is a perfect student; who does all work on time, who studies hard, and who earnestly and unquestioningly does her best on every assignment and every exam. This is not an unusual test taker; while I can't speak for the sciences, I can say from experience that this is the profile of the vast majority of students who go on to grad school in the humanities. This test taker willingly conforms her opinions and beliefs to the requirements of the writing assessment; she takes the topic seriously, and responds to it in kind. She thus freely offers up her private thoughts on controversial, politically fraught subjects as a professional credential, and she freely consents, in turn, to the proposition that her professional fitness may be measured in terms of what, and how, she believes.
Tests do not simply examine; they also teach: this one teaches that one's private opinions are the same as one's professional qualifications; that one ought, in academe, to be ready to parade those opinions upon request; and that one ought, in turn, to expect one's opinions to be a central factor in the moments of performative evaluation that define academic life--the seminar paper, the qualifying exam, the dissertation, the job interview, the tenure review. In an academe where this is very much how things go, the GRE is doing useful work indeed. But it is neither credible nor conscionable work, and the GRE should not be permitted to pretend that it is.
If you want to write to the ETS about the new GRE writing assessment, address your correspondence to:
Executive Director, GRE Program
P.O. Box 6000
Princeton, NJ 08541-6000
They are not, alas, terribly email friendly at ETS.
If you are an academic, an academic-in-the-making, or if you hold a Ph.D., you might also consider writing to selected deans and departmental administrators at your home institution. Alert them to the changes in the GRE (assume nothing! there are many daft administrators out there!). Explain why you find the writing assessment degrading / invasive / stupid / other (because of the rampant administrative daftness in our halls of higher ed, you must always explain in detail: do not imagine your correspondent can or will think for herself!). And then make some suggestions. You could suggest that deans and academic departments have a responsibility to take the matter of the writing assessment up with the ETS. You could also suggest that they might refuse, as a matter of principle, to consider the writing assessment score when evaluating applicants to their graduate programs, and that they might even go so far as to announce this fact in their application materials.
All kinds of possibilities come to mind. Protest in good health and impeccable grammar!
July 5, 2002
In my July 3 blog,
In my July 3 blog, I suggested that the new GRE format, in which a two-part analytical writing assessment replaces the former multiple choice analytical reasoning component, will test applicants' politics as well as their writing abilities. The new writing assessment will compel test takers to write two essays, one in which they articulate their personal standpoint on a given "issue," and one in which they assess the logic of a given passage. It is the first of these essay formats that concerns me here.
When I first learned of the changes to the GRE, I was immediately struck by the litmus-test quality of the "Present Your Perspective on an Issue" part of the exam. The idea sounded ominous to me, reeking as it does of an invasive desire to probe private beliefs and to make the results of that probing part of an assessment of the test taker's preparedness for advanced graduate study. Such evaluative intrusions into matters of private conscience have, after all, become all-too usual in contemporary academic contexts. In an academic world where professors can require students to sign on to their politics as a condition of speaking in class, where composition instructors can advise conservative students not to register, where freshman orientation frequently doubles as indoctrination, where discipline frequently consists of sentencing students and faculty offenders to "sensitivity training" (a Newspeak term for thought reform), and where, as I observed in my last blog, a vastly disproportionate percentage of the faculty are politically liberal, the GRE's decision to assess students' writing abilities by requiring them to "present" their "perspective" on a selected "issue" reads just a little bit like a thinly disguised attempt to vet students' beliefs as well as their skills; indeed, it reads like an attempt to confound the two so thoroughly that a positive assessment of ability depends on a correct statement of opinion.
My fears were hardly allayed by my tour through GRE.org's on-line pool of "Issue topics". GRE.org assures prospective test takers that the essay topic they will be asked to write about on their GRE exam will come from the pool. This is alarming enough in itself--giving out the topics ahead of time cheapens the test, making it something that can be prepped for by rote and, significantly, taught for profit by self-styled test-taking experts. Even more alarming, though, are the topics themselves, which predictably cluster around the very issues that are nearest and dearest to academe's politically correct little heart.
There are the topics that seek to determine whether you are a proper collectivist:
"If a society is to thrive, it must put its own overall success before the well-being of its individual citizens."
"The best preparation for life or a career is not learning to be competitive, but learning to be cooperative."
"It is primarily through our identification with social groups that we define ourselves."
"People work more productively in teams than individually. Teamwork requires cooperation, which motivates people much more than individual competition does."
And there are topics to make sure you are properly anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist:
"Competition is ultimately more beneficial than detrimental to society."
"In most societies, competition generally has more of a negative than a positive effect."
"Although many people think that the luxuries and conveniences of contemporary life are entirely harmless, in fact, they actually prevent people from developing into truly strong and independent individuals."
There are topics to assess whether you are a proper social constructivist:
"People's attitudes are determined more by their immediate situation or surroundings than by any internal characteristic."
"When we concern ourselves with the study of history, we become storytellers. Because we can never know the past directly but must construct it by interpreting evidence, exploring history is more of a creative enterprise than it is an objective pursuit. All historians are storytellers."
And there are topics to make sure you are a proper moral relativist:
"Facts are stubborn things. They cannot be altered by our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions."
"Much of the information that people assume is 'factual' actually turns out to be inaccurate. Thus, any piece of information referred to as a 'fact' should be mistrusted since it may well be proven false in the future."
"There is no such thing as purely objective observation. All observation is subjective; it is always guided by the observer's expectations or desires."
There are topics to make sure you have the proper understanding of oppression, hegemony, and personal accountability:
"The concept of 'individual responsibility' is a necessary fiction. Although societies must hold individuals accountable for their own actions, people's behavior is largely determined by forces not of their own making."
"The absence of choice is a circumstance that is very, very rare."
"Choice is an illusion. In reality, our lives are controlled by the society in which we live."
"One often hears about the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own lives. However, the conditions in which people find themselves have been largely established long before people become aware of them. Thus, the concept of personal responsibility is much more complicated and unrealistic than is often assumed."
And there are topics to make sure you are properly anti-American (in the wake of 9/11, academe has shown how important it believes a cold contempt for America is to intellectual work):
"Patriotic reverence for the history of a nation often does more to impede than to encourage progress."
These are just a few of the wonderfully evocative topics catalogued at GRE.org. There are also topics designed to assess whether you are properly green, properly multicultural, properly suspicious of technology, and properly sensitized to the importance of never giving offense. But I am guessing there is no need to list them here. I am guessing you get my point.
One might argue that there are no right and wrong responses to these topics, and one could cite GRE.org's own promise that evaluation of the essay will be viewpoint neutral. But that would be naive. In certain academic disciplines, there absolutely are right and wrong approaches to these issues. The GRE analytical assessment seems specially crafted to determine whether the test taker knows what the proper approaches are, to see if she can adequately reproduce the accepted tenets of the postmodern, multicultural academy, and to score her accordingly.
How am I so sure? I'll explain in part three.
To be continued....
July 3, 2002
With all the debate surrounding
With all the debate surrounding the College Board's new, "improved" version of the SAT, you'd think there would be some discussion about the changes that have recently been made to the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). But it's as if the SAT has served as a sort of standardized decoy. While pundits, parents, teachers, and administrators have been duking it out about whether the SAT should test aptitude or achievement, whether it is racially or ethnically biased, whether verbal analogies measure anything worth measuring and whether the addition of a tougher math section and a writing sample will help or hinder those populations that have historically done poorly on the traditional SAT, the GRE has been overhauled in some extraordinarily controversial and potentially destructive ways. And no one, as far as I can tell, has raised an eyebrow.
The GRE is to graduate school as the SAT is college (note skilled use of the much-maligned verbal analogy). If you want to get a Ph.D., you have to take it and report your scores as part of your application. Like the SAT, the GRE has math and verbal sections that read like enhanced versions of their SAT counterparts and are scored, like their SAT counterparts, on an 800 point scale. Traditionally, the GRE has also had an analytical reasoning section and what's known as a "subject test"--a specialized multiple choice exam that measures your knowledge of your proposed field of study. Both of these have also been scored on an 800 point scale.
As of October 1, however, the analytical reasoning section of the GRE will be replaced with a two-part writing section, described on the GRE website thus:
The assessment consists of two analytical writing tasks: a 45-minute "Present Your Perspective on an Issue" task and a 30-minute "Analyze an Argument" task. The "Issue" task states an opinion on an issue of general interest and asks test takers to address the issue from any perspective(s) they wish, as long as they provide relevant reasons and examples to explain and support their views. The "Argument" task presents a different challenge--it requires test takers to critique an argument by discussing how well-reasoned they find it. Test takers are asked to consider the logical soundness of the argument rather than to agree or disagree with the position it presents. These two tasks are complementary in that the first requires the writer to construct a personal argument about an issue, and the second requires a critique of someone else's argument by assessing its claims.
Reading through GRE.org's Q&A on the new format, the rationale for the change seems straightforward enough: writing skills are crucial in academe; too many students arrive at graduate school without the requisite writing skills; the GRE ought therefore to test writing ability. And, indeed, in my quick googling of the issue, I did not find any major objections to the change. A student paper at Arizona wondered whether the new requirement would discriminate against non-native English speakers, but that was about it.
The essay portion of the GRE has been optional for two years, and its format has been borrowed from the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), which has been using the two-part writing assessment for a number of years. The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) and the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) also have essay sections. This probably accounts for the ease with which the analytical writing section has been adopted as the new right way to assess how prepared someone is or is not to embark on graduate study. The GRE has long been an outlyer in its failure to test the writing skills of aspiring Ph.D. students. But I think, too, that a lack of analytical reasoning ability has, ironically, had a lot to do with how quietly and decisively the change to the GRE has been made.
Certainly the writing section provides a way to verify a student's real writing skills. Just as the SAT writing section will allow college admissions officers to see what an applicant's writing looks like in its raw, unpolished state, before it has been thoroughly worked over by parents, teachers, and hired consultants, so, too, will the GRE essay section allow the testing service and graduate admissions committees to get a look at a writing sample that is unequivocally the applicant's own work. (The statement of purpose and the writing sample portions of the standard graduate application are, like college entrance essays, notorious for being the much-coached products of collective efforts at packaging.)
But certainly, too, the writing section provides a way of verifying a student's politics. In an overwhelmingly left-wing academy, one where many humanities and social science departments cannot count a single Republican as one of their members and where, as a consequence, the curriculum is heavily and unapologetically biased against conservative and religious beliefs, this is, to say the very least, a problem. There is already plenty of informal (and illegal) gatekeeping going on at the graduate admissions level--now the GRE looks to be making it official.
A paranoid assessment? Not in the least. I'll explain why in part two of this series.
To be continued....
July 1, 2002
This is part two of
This is part two of my SFSU-inspired blog series on student groups. In part one, I discussed how the constitutional right of freedom of association protects students who want to form groups based on common interests or beliefs, and I explained how it is that the right of such private groups to define and delimit their membership tends to trump anti-discrimination law--even at public universities. In this blog, I will discuss how student groups are funded and explain what students and parents can do to make sure the fees they pay don't go to support groups they find personally objectionable. "Freedom of Dissociation," as I like to call it, is potentially a very useful strategy for students at schools like SFSU and Berkeley, where partisan campus groups such as General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) promote views and behave in ways that many other students find to be politically misguided, physically threatening, and morally repugnant.
First the history:
In the beginning, student activities fees were assessed to pay for amenities all students could use and enjoy. They were the invention of students themselves, and they were intended to create a fund out of which students could purchase good and services that would benefit most, if not all, students. When mandatory student fees were first assessed during the late nineteenth century, they were used to pay for such uncontroversial items as caps and gowns for graduating seniors and communal playing fields. Sometimes they even went to pay for necessities, such as lighting and lab fees. This was the case up through the 1950s.
But during the 60s, things changed. During that decade, student activities fees, like everything else on American campuses, became the subject of political debate and struggle. Some student activists saw the fees as a potential means of furthering their chosen causes. They ran for student office, and once there they and their fellow elected activists transformed the meaning and the dispensation of mandatory student fees. What once went to pay for services all students could potentially use began during the 1960s to be used to back special interest groups.
By the end of the 60s, student groups had become politicized. In addition to hobbyist clubs organized around shared interests--chess, ballroom dancing, underwater basketweaving--more and more student groups were forming on the basis of political, ethnic, and sexual affiliation. And, as more and more student groups formed around political stances and politicized concepts of group "identity" (whether racial or sexual), the nature of "student activities" underwent a profound shift. Advocacy was the primary activity of these new groups.
It hardly needs saying that most of the advocacy groups funded by student activities fees mirrored the political leanings of the activist student officers who allocated their funds: just as it was left-leaning students who saw student fees as a chance to back selected political and moral causes, so it was left-leaning student groups who received a disproportionate amount of the money thus dispensed. The result: the institutionalization of leftist politics as a norm of campus life.
It was only a matter of time before some students began objecting to the fact that their mandatory student fees were going to fund groups whose political and moral beliefs ran counter to their own. Some students chafed so much that they sued for the right not to support certain student groups. And thus did that seemingly innocuous thing, the student activities fee, become the concern of the courts.
Now for the law....
There is a surprising amount of law on the subject of how student fees are to be assessed and distributed. Cases have been coming before the courts--and occasionally making their way up to the Supreme Court--since the 1970s. The majority of these suits have concerned the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). Initially, student officers at certain state schools were using a percentage of the student activities fund to support the PIRGs' lobbying activities. Over the years, students at Rutgers, SUNY Albany, and UC Berkeley have sued for the right not to pay fees into these advocacy groups, and they have won. The details of the cases differ, but the consensus among the courts was that state schools could not legally make students pay into a fund that would be used to finance partisan political activities.
In addition to the PIRG suits, there have been two landmark Supreme Court cases surrounding student fees. The first is Rosenberger v Rectors of the University of Virginia (1995), and concerns freedom of association (the subject of my June 27 blog). In this suit, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Virginia violated the First Amendment rights of conservative student journalists when it denied funding to a Christian student paper because of its "religious" viewpoint.
The second case is Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth (2000), and concerns what I call freedom of dissociation. In this suit, the Supreme Court ruled that students have the right to opt out of paying fees if those fees are being distributed in a discriminatory (i.e., non-viewpoint neutral) manner. According to the Court in a concurrent case, Fry v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, the University had no checks in place to ensure that student officers were allocating fees in a neutral manner; therefore, the finding in Southworth was that students who did not want to pay into the system had a right to opt out. Like Rosenberger v. Rectors, the Southworth case was brought by conservative Christian students who felt their rights of free expression and free association were being violated by a partisan campus climate: the specific groups the Southworth plaintiffs did not want to fund were, predictably, left-wing groups (particularly the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Campus Center) dedicated to promoting lifestyles and beliefs that were totally contrary to the students' deepest convictions.
Taken together, the cases clarify several things about how the funding of student groups must work at public colleges and universities. They show that a group's viewpoint cannot be the criterion for denying a group funding; they show that schools must use viewpoint neutral criteria for determining which groups get funded and how much money they get; they show that if a school abides by viewpoint neutral funding criteria, it can make all students pay a mandatory activities fee; and they show that where schools do not abide by viewpoint neutral funding criteria, all bets are off--underfunded groups can potentially sue for discrimination and individual students can refuse to pay activities fees.
Now for the strategy:
Many American colleges and universities don't even come close to abiding by viewpoint neutral criteria when allocating funding to student groups. Choose any old campus at random, and odds are you will find well-heeled Black Student Unions and Queer Alliances and MEChA chapters. Odds are, too, that conservative and religious student groups will be comparatively poorly funded--if they receive funding at all. David Horowitz has documented the phenomenon of campus partisanship extensively, as has Christina Hoff Sommers (see also my May 7 blog). It's basically an established, if underappreciated, fact that student funding is a very partisan business on American campuses--despite the anti-discrimination laws and the court rulings that mandate otherwise.
So....to make a long blog short, if you attend a public college or university and there are student groups on your campus that you just do not want your money to support, do some research. Look into how your school distributes its funding for student groups (at SFSU, for example, this money is distributed by Associated Students). Look at the criteria for funding, and look at actual funding patterns. If you can prove that your school is not distributing funding in a fair way--and at many public schools this is a point just waiting to be made--then you've got yourself a case. You've got the law on your side. You can refuse to pay fees that fund campus groups whose politics and/or morals conflict with your beliefs.
A small victory, perhaps, but hardly a meaningless one. You will be honoring your conscience. And you will be showing your school that it needs to clean up its act. And, if enough students act along the same lines, certain groups (SFSU's GUPS comes to mind, as do Berkeley's SJP and UCSD's MEChA) just may find themselves pressed for funds--not because they have been officially defunded (recall that they can't be defunded for viewpoint alone), but because they have been de facto defunded--because so many individuals have made it a matter of conscience to refuse to fund student hate groups.
Higher ed needs some massive ethical overhauling. Taking the terms of student funding seriously may be one way to gain leverage with schools where political double standards reign, and where, as a result, violence seems to be bubbling ever closer to the surface.