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A funny thing happened when Michael Novak brought Herbert Marcuse to lecture to his students. It was the early-1970s when campus rebellion had entered its darker phase, and Marcuse was an idol of the Movement. His theory of “repressive tolerance” served as an essential touchstone for protest, and his volatile mix of Marx and Freud seemed an edgy, relevant style of intellectualized activism.

Novak was a provost at SUNY-Old Westbury, a new experimental college in the state system caught up in all the higher-ed fads of the day. Students lounged barefoot in class and showed contempt for all authority, including that of the faculty and administrators. Younger professors indulged them, refusing to impose a set curriculum and questioning the appropriateness of grades. Sentimentality for the Vietcong was widespread.

Hearing students cite Marcuse while decrying bourgeois society, Novak thought it a good idea to bring Marcuse to campus for a day of discussion and lecturing. But the admiring conversation he expected to witness didn’t occur. Instead, Novak recounts in his 2013 memoir Writing from Left to Right,

After mingling with the students, he was affronted and disgusted. At his lecture he set aside his prepared notes and instead described the severe Prussian discipline of his own education: the classics he had to master; the languages he had to learn by exercises and constant tests. His theme was that no one had any standing on which to rebel against the past—or dare to call himself a revolutionary—who had not registered the tradition of the West. (p. 107)

We can imagine how the students felt hearing this denunciation, but what could they say? Here was a prophet of youth rebellion endorsing utterly disreputable ideas—classics, discipline, mastery, tradition, the West—and telling students fully convinced of their own supremacy that they had no standing to overturn anything.

Another defense of the classics by a guru of critique happened twenty years later. In 1990, Jacques Derrida, famed originator of deconstruction, sat for an interview with the Journal of Advanced Composition. Ever since the late-1960s, American academics had celebrated Derrida’s work as a devastating prosecution of Western rationality. The conceptual analyses he performed on canonical philosophers and thinkers undid founding oppositions of reason (identity/difference, presence/absence), applying radical skepticism to one cornerstone of meaning and truth after another. He added to his dizzying dialectic the textualization of everything, the formula il n’y a pas de hors-texte becoming a slogan on the order of “I think, therefore I am” for a generation of students coming of age in the 70s and 80s.

The lesson many of them took from Of Grammatology was that the tradition didn’t have the authority their older teachers claimed for it, and that “textuality” leveled culture to a single plane of production and interpretation. One could deconstruct a Madonna video as fruitfully as one could a Keats ode or Heidegger passage.

But here is what Derrida said at one point when the interviewer spoke approvingly of deconstruction sowing disorder in the classroom:

I don’t start with disorder; I start with the tradition. If you’re not trained in the tradition, then deconstruction means nothing.

And when pressed on his reception in America, Derrida remarked,

I think that if what is called ‘deconstruction’ produces neglect of the classical authors, the canonical texts, and so on, we should fight it. . . . I’m in favor of the canon.

One can find the same endorsement in the most influential figure in the humanities in recent times, Michel Foucault. Yes, Foucault supplied lurid themes and provocative gestures, but one page of Discipline and Punish reveals how much Foucault loved the archive and grounded his scholarship in encyclopedic knowledge. His teaching showed it. A transcript of a seminar he gave at Berkeley in 1983 imparts well the burden of knowledge he set upon the students. The topic is “Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia,” and the opening sentences cite Euripides, “Jean Chrisostome,” Plutarch, and Lucian. When he says, “I should note that I never found any texts in ancient Greek culture where the parrhesiastes seems to have any doubts about his own possession of the truth,” we trust that the investigation was lengthy and copious.

Why cite these exceptions? Because they serve the traditionalist side in the current debates over the humanities curriculum. Yes, the influence of Marcuse, Derrida, and Foucault has been disastrous. In the hands of American followers, their ideas have, indeed, undermined the Western tradition and the Great Books. If tradition is, respectively, an ideological construct, a mystification, or an exclusionary institution, the disciples reasoned, then why respect it?

What these exceptions prove is this: You can critique, dismantle, and subvert the canon, but you still have to learn it. 

As we survey humanities courses and monographs and find amidst the solid presentations of Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and the classics too many hipster offerings on pop culture, tendentious treatments of social topics, and pseudo-philosophical surveys of Marxist, feminist, and queer theory, we naturally appeal to a long tradition of liberal education that includes Cicero, Kant, Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and Allan Bloom.

But we should add to this list the other side’s demi-gods, who serve to demonstrate that what has happened to the humanities has done more than betray the cultural inheritance of great art and literature. The degradation has also violated the educational principles of the very thinkers who inspired it.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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