People who know I used to work there often ask me, how did academia get so screwed up?
The short answer is: I dunno. By the time I got to undergrad, all the professors with real, PhD-worthy educations — the kind where fluency in Latin is required — were starting to get “emeritus” after their names. By the time I got to grad school (after a few tours of duty in the real world), the lunatics were fully in control of the asylum. There must’ve been big fights in faculty meetings between the Educated and the Insane — within my lifetime, History was a conservative discipline, at all but the wackiest California schools (and you could still find a few even there) — but I wasn’t around to see them. When I started, it was simply understood that we’re all post-structuralist Marxist feminists.
The long answer has something to do with the Educated actually following through on the premises of their educations. In History, for example, the Educated were quite willing to concede that Marxist “history from below” had real and important things to teach us. Guys like Christopher Hill were real scholars, with rigorous educations, and so, the Educated concluded, the discipline was safe from him despite his politics — Hill was a card-carrying Communist well past Stalin’s death, but his academic work conformed to all the canons of scholarship.
So, too, with all the scholars who focused on “popular beliefs.” Heresy, Renaissance magic, folk belief, etc. went from being dismissed as primitive ooga-booga stuff to real and important contributions to our understanding of their epochs. These folks were all on the weird end, and — predictably — Leftists, but some of them did truly landmark work. Eugene Genovese, for instance, was specifically searching for a group of downtrodden, oppressed Workers to wax communistically rhapsodic over. He found them, and almost singlehandedly founded the modern study of Slavery and the Antebellum South.
Genovese is, in fact, a great example of the last generation of the Educated. Born in 1930, he was a Communist until 1950, and was still a radical Leftist until the 1990s. He then became “a traditionalist conservative,” Wikipedia informs us, which is Wiki-speak for “slightly to the right of Saul Alinsky.” Genovese was intellectually honest enough to realize the Southern Agrarians had a point, and said so, which to us is just “a historian doing his job,” but to the Left is unforgivable betrayal. I was in grad school when he died; the most common reaction was “good riddance, apostate!”
The Educated, like Genovese, were believers in what was once quaintly called “the Western canon.” To get their foot in the door, the Left of the 1960s pushed to “expand the canon,” which, they said, meant paying attention to women, minorities, etc. while still acknowledging and celebrating the centrality of Socrates et al. The Educated, even the conservative ones, could hardly object. The Left did, after all, have a point — you can only understand that “the best that has been thought and said” is the best if you’re familiar with the second-rate and also-ran.
It was a lie, of course, because lying is just what the Left does. N’Gungo the Ubangi shaman was first an interesting footnote on, then equal to, then better than Socrates, to the point where nobody’s ever even heard of Socrates anymore. Because why would they? Nobody’s better than anyone and everyone’s the best at everything… except White people, who are all uniquely awful, whoever they were. Now, for our final HIST 401 exam, let’s all get out our crayons and color in this picture of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior….
PS Harold Bloom, the self-appointed Guardian of the Canon, has made a list of what he considers canonical works. Maybe we should read a few and discuss them — the Friday Book Club. Whaddaya say?Loading Likes...