The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Treasonous Clerk: Reviving the Culture Wars, Again
James Matthew Wilson - 08/04/08

When I broached the prospect of a Great Books program to some of my contemporaries not long ago, they thought it an arcane, incredible proposal. They truly could not credit the possibility that someone would suggest a curriculum beginning with the Greeks and running chronologically through to such worthies as T.S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt, and Alasdair MacIntyre. If my experience can justly be generalized, we are not on the cusp of an age that has fought itself free of reductive and strident political debates about education, but rather are cruising without resistance through the dark aftermath of the culture wars: a vacuous complacency of right-thinking liberal consumerism, where self-creation becomes the ultimate freedom of radical thought and mass culture alike.

Professors who wish to share the examined life with their students have been mostly, if not entirely, forced to the margins of the mainstream academy, or onto the faculty of the small crop of new colleges that have emerged in reaction against the secular “post-humanism” that predominates from Harvard Square, to Ann Arbor, to Palo Alto. Meanwhile, the young faculty in these established centers have only dim memories of a time before race, class, and “gender” were the only three quantities worthy of discussion. Their politics can safely remain as radical as that of their predecessors without any of the heat or defensiveness that comes from knowing someone might actually think otherwise.

The caricatured professor of seventy years ago was a curmudgeonly pedant, with a few faint romantic doctrines about poetry sufficing for his faith in the intellectual life, and a vaguely formulated genteel conservatism serving as his politics. The poet-critic Yvor Winters termed him “Professor X.” The “Professor X” of the last few decades was a much more self-congratulatory and angry figure. As literary historian Malcolm Cowley once observed, this Professor X quoted Marx and expressed radical hatred against all forms of intellectual and political authority, but he was in essence a populist with an exaggerated sense of just how equal persons ought to be in a just society. The destructive hegemony of this Professor X’s regime derived in part from the disproportion between an insatiable egalitarianism and a critical vocabulary ever more suspicious of every possible expression of power. Even the ideas of equality and justice eventually fell to such levelers as Professor X sought to liberate his students from every imposition of human culture.

The Professor X of today has inherited the critical vocabulary and the radical assumptions of the previous generation. Indeed, he has developed them, made them more subtle, supple, and sophisticated. His dissertation was not simply a critique of western colonialism or misogyny; it probed distinctions that were imperceptible a generation earlier and critiqued the inadequate minutae of Spivak, Agamben, Baba, or Derrida. He breathes the language of critique and meta-critique, and spouts it for exam committees, dissertation directors, and before his colleagues at academic conferences. According to the letter, this Professor X is more radical than his predecessors.

But the letter is spoken exclusively within the professional arena of the academic department and peer-reviewed journal. In spirit, the populists have been replaced by professionals: the professor who speaks solidarity with the subaltern by day, goes home at night to watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the flat screen and consume Chai tea and veggie-burgers in the light of scented candles recently purchased at Target. The professor by day, in other words, becomes just like every other young professional by night. He appreciates that sharing his critique of the reification of women in Dickens with the neighbors would be as needless an indiscretion as would be his neighbor, the analyst at Lehman Brothers, sharing details about the latest company he has helped take public.

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