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When I passed through graduate school in English in the 1980s, I had to read Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Rorty, Foucault, Derrida, de Man, Gilbert and Gubar, Adorno, and Lacan. These thinkers and critics stood as authorities even while they struck against the very idea of authority. All the talk in the humanities back then turned on “opening up the canon” and breaking up the dominance of Dead White Males—less John Dryden and more Aphra Behn, more diversity and fewer idols—but in the theory area, these figures were as canonical as the saints. We studied them as reverently as seminarians do the Church fathers.

The curriculum had a particular outcome, too, a political one. Nietzsche, Freud, Derrida, de Man, and Lacan had their anti-progressive sides, but that wasn't what the professors emphasized. Freud’s conception of the unconscious, for instance, cast a pessimistic light on the perfectibility of society; it complicated the visions of past oppression of innocents from which 1980s identity politics drew moral authority. It wouldn’t do. So, the professors ignored that stumbling block and instead used Freud against traditional notions of masculinity and sexuality. They preferred some themes—the subversive, transgressive, adversarial motifs—over others. That’s what the masters represented: a bold, penetrating critique of organized religion, Enlightenment ideals, and bourgeois lifestyles. As you studied them, you came to believe that serious and responsible intelligence always ended up taking apart a longstanding assumption of one kind or another. Criticism was equated with a nonstop project of dismantling the traditional, commonsensical, foundational, and normative.

This went on for years. It sounds like education, but in effect it was a mode of professionalization. Works so often discussed in seminars and at conferences, cited in books and journals, and raised in job interviews earned the status of disciplinary knowledge. If you were nervous about getting a post and impressing the elders, as all of us were, you learned to show them quickly your fitness for the enterprise. It was natural to assume that the anti-foundationalist lineage was the only one worth studying. Those were the names that popped up in the hottest essays by the edgiest theorists in Critical InquiryNew Literary History, and boundary 2. They became for graduate students a requirement for membership in the professoriate. Know them well or fail to measure up. Can you reproduce what Derrida says about speech and writing in Of Grammatology? What counts as a feminist psychoanalysis? What does Foucault take from Bentham? If you couldn’t answer those questions, your academic future was dim.

Needless to say, the orientation left a lot of very good criticism and thought off the syllabus. Edmund Burke's warnings against revolution, if they ever came up, were presented only as a historical statement, not a set of ideas about healthy and just politics. T. S. Eliot's complaints about the decay of civilization were treated as part of his poetic enterprise, a conception dead and gone—not as evaluations we should ponder as true. I don't recall Booker T. Washington's memoir Up from Slavery, with its social conservative message of the Protestant work ethic and political patience, ever coming up in an American Studies course or conference, even though Washington was in 1903 perhaps the second-most famous American in the world (after Teddy Roosevelt). Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science contains a careful analysis of perception that confirms his doubts about social engineering, but I don’t remember his name being mentioned in my classes. Whittaker Chambers’s memoir Witness gave credence to some of Joe McCarthy’s allegations, but it wasn’t assigned in spite of its superb literary qualities. Neoconservatives in the 1970s and ’80s produced solid studies of the bad effects of Great Society thinking, but the cultural critics in my field ignored them, even as they insisted that criticism become more political and engagé. The Catholic catechism contains loads of profound metaphysics, but raise it in a Q&A and you would earn only odd looks and dubious whispers.

What this bias has produced is two generations of college teachers who don’t realize their bias. They got a narrow education that they trusted was the broadest one. They genuinely don’t know that another critical tradition besides the progressive/transgressive one exists. Or, if they are aware of Burke, Newman, Eliot, or Hayek, they don’t respect their lineage as intelligent. The syllabus led them to believe that traditionalists are closed-minded and that transgressors are open-minded and experimental and innovative, and they’re too practiced to change their opinion. They are ill-equipped for debate and indisposed to listen. The cosmopolitan personalities they believe they possess are no such thing. They are parochial egos, the very thing they despise.

The whole thing was paradoxical—a tradition of anti-traditionalists, an orthodoxy of the anti-orthodox—but it worked. Adversary culture took over the fields. I remember a few Old Ones in undergraduate days, teachers who were sixty-five years old in 1981, who still spoke of Chaucer with a grateful smile and read lines from an epistle by Pope and urged us to savor the sounds of the couplets, to honor the genius. But they were on their way out, and quickly. All the energy was with the Young Turks eager to deride the appreciative attitude. No reverence for masterpieces, no commitment to the classics—not when the going thing was to interrogate the very notion of “the classic.” 

And let’s note, too, how much easier it was to dismantle the syllabus of classics through a conceptual critique of the notion “classic,” which saved you the trouble of actually reading all that dense and remote material. Destruction takes a lot less work than creation. As Satan says in Paradise Lost as he contemplates the delicious ruin of Adam and Eve,

To me shall be the glory sole among
The infernal Powers, in one day to have marred
What he, Almighty styled, six nights and days
Continued making . . . 

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.

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Image by Uri Rosenheck licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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