Many years ago, a distinguished English professor and department chairman at an Ivy League school told me a story that proved that the decline of the humanities was certain.
We were walking through Atlanta, and I remarked upon a colleague who earlier that day had spoken excitedly about attending a Madonna concert. It was my first direct experience of a humanities professor delighted by pop-culture schlock.
“Mark,” he laughed, “you're way behind the times. This stuff hit me years ago, around 1990.”
He was at the height of his career at the time. I was just an assistant professor in my mid-thirties, a political liberal who regarded “conservative” as a term of reproach. But I believed in Great Books and High Art, and I assumed that a taste for them meant a distaste for mass culture.
On this distinction of culture and politics, the New York Intellectuals were the model. In their heyday, it was possible to be a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics, and a conservative in culture, all at the same time—which is how Daniel Bell characterized himself in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. It was a matter of personal disposition. How could anyone with the sensibility to savor the first ten minutes of Parsifal not find the stuff of 1980s music videos boring or noxious? Criticism, I had thought, is just that—the making of discriminations and improving public taste. To become an egalitarian in the area of beauty was to cancel your full appreciation of what is great and profound. We all like to slum it, sometimes, but to get too enthusiastic about pop culture materials or, worse, to take them seriously as objects of aesthetic judgment—well, that was an abdication of the critic's responsibilities, not to mention a sign of vulgar taste.
So I asked him, “What happened around 1990?”
He recalled, “I had hired four or five young professors, fresh out of graduate school.” He mentioned a few names and I recognized them as rising hotshots in the little world of academic literary studies. “One day I asked one of them to come over for dinner during the week. Nothing formal—just an hour or two with my wife and me, to talk and relax. She paused, though, looked sheepish, and declined. Every week, she explained, all the junior professors gathered on that night at another professor's house”—this one a well-known youngish professor who wrote about pop culture—“to watch Miami Vice,” the '80s crime show with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas (“Crockett and Tubbs”).
He continued, “Something about the look on my face must have worried her. She added that it wasn't just for the entertainment. She said that they liked to analyze the ‘cultural semiotics'—or something like that—of each episode. Like how the detectives were mirror images of the fast-living drug dealers they pursued, all the way down to their clothing.”
I shook my head. After all, these people were supposed to be the cream of the profession, the rising leaders.
He laughed again. “I know, I know.” Then he sighed and said, “When I went to Princeton twenty years ago and started teaching, a lot of the Old Guard was still around, people who went to grad school in the ’40s and ’50s and were raised on Eliot and Trilling and Leavis. You would never tell anybody that you watched a TV show like that. You wouldn't even tell them that you owned a TV.”
All that changed in the ’80s and ’90s.
It became cool to watch Terminator movies and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and demonstrate your critical acumen with nifty “readings” of them. I might believe that it took only a few minutes of discussion to exhaust these media products of all the interest they held. I might look at my savvy colleagues and judge their clever aperçus nothing but idle academic chatter. But they had all the fun on their side, while people like me sounded like outdated drudges. And if we ran circles around them and their shallow cultural theorizing because we had read more Marx and Lukacs and Frankfurt Schoolers and Sontag and Barthes than they had, they had an effective putdown: “Snob! Elitist!”
What they didn't realize—or maybe didn't care about—is that this trading in mass culture ephemera would not sustain the humanities. It would earn us disrespect. Today, when we list the reasons for the deterioration of the humanities in higher education, we should put the corrupted palates of the professors near the top.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.