How Politics Has Corrupted
Our Higher Education
By Roger Kimball
Harper & Row. 204 pp. $18.95END NOTES
Herewith yet another salvo in the continuing counterattack against the takeover of the humanities departments by those whom Roger Kimball characterizes as "the new academic establishment of tenured radicals," erstwhile political activists of the 1960s and '70s who "now teach at and administer our institutions of higher education." Their influence, as Kimball properly characterizes it, has been both astonishing and deleterious:
"Who could have guessed that the women's movement would have succeeded in getting gender accepted as a 'fundamental category of literary analysis' by departments of literature in nearly every major university? Who could have guessed that administrators would one day be falling over themselves in their rush to replace the 'white Western' curriculum of traditional humanistic studies with a smorgasbord of courses designed to appeal to various ethnic and racial sensitivities? Who could have predicted that the ideals of objectivity and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge would not only be abandoned but pilloried as products of a repressive bourgeois society? No, the radical ethos of the sixties has been all too successful, achieving indirectly in the classroom, faculty meeting, and by administrative decree what it was unable to accomplish on the barricades."
That in essence is Kimball's indictment, just as it was Allan Bloom's in "The Closing of the American Mind" and Charles J. Sykes's in "ProfScam" and, from the left of center, Page Smith's in "Killing the Spirit." By this point we may be on the verge of overkill, yet as "Tenured Radicals" makes plain there is still much that needs to be said; where this volume is especially strong is in its analysis of how the changes that have swept through the humanities departments are fundamentally political in nature and how this has been a revolution from within.
Not so long ago the great fear within higher education was of political influence from without. The embodiment of this threat was Joe McCarthy, but it took more common if less notorious form in the innumerable state legislators and bureaucrats who tried to impose political limits on academic freedom; I recall with particular distaste a "speaker ban" that the North Carolina legislature enacted during the 1960s to deny campus forums to alleged "communists," a ban that was repealed only after a long, bitter and damaging battle.
The Red scare was a bad time for the campuses, but they emerged from it in relatively good health. The attack from the left, by contrast, received to all intents and purposes no attention while it was being mounted yet has had a far more widespread and insidious effect. If the campuses managed to ward off assaults from the radical right in the '50s and '60s, they have submitted supinely to those forces on the radical left who now are prominent, if not in complete control, within those departments that stand guard over the great humanistic tradition: the departments of literature, history, languages and social studies.
Kimball documents all of this in devastating if sometimes familiar detail, noting along the way that the radicals have somehow seized the moral high ground, so that "anything resembling dissent risked being excoriated as a sexist or racist attack on the voices of freedom," and that they have managed to suppress free speech on many campuses "in the name of a certain vision of political rectitude." He notes: "It is a sobering irony that what began as an appeal by the left for free speech at Berkeley in the sixties has ended with an equally fervent appeal by the left for the imposition of censorship" -- precisely what the radical right was trying to accomplish, if in a different cause, a quarter-century ago.
Occasionally Kimball drifts away from his main arguments -- a long chapter called "Deconstruction Comes to Architecture" is not quite as much to the point as he believes it to be -- but at its best "Tenured Radicals" is a withering critique. Indeed its best may well be the penultimate chapter, "The New Sophistry," in which Kimball focuses on one Stanley Fish, a professor at Duke, who "is wont to insist that teaching and writing about literature is a profession like any other, concerned more with self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement than with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge," as both emblematic and symptomatic of what is happening on the campuses today. It is not a pretty picture.