Sadness Regarding Academia

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English: Old Well at the University of North C...

English: Old Well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been out of town in Tennessee, my home state, and am back in North Carolina–only to discover that my library books checked out from UNC Libraries could not be renewed because of fines. I drove to Chapel Hill, paid the fines, returned some books, and renewed and checked out more. As I walked the sparsely populated summer school campus, I felt a twinge of sadness at the current state of the academy. Academia is my job and my vocation. I enjoy working in an academic setting, teaching, reading, writing, wandering through libraries, walking around lovely campuses. At its best, the academy teaches the great traditions of Western Civilization as well as introducing students to other civilizations after they better understand out own. Great philosophy, literature, and art are introduced to students. They can also learn science, mathematics, and various technical skills. Ideally, a college or university campus should be a Mecca of learning, free-spirited discussion, and developing the wisdom to use learned knowledge in a prudent way.

Ideals are never actuality, especially in a fallen world. I remember the summer after my senior year in high school, naively thinking that college would be an intellectual community with students like those who used to appear on the GE College Bowl. Alas, that was not the case for the most part. There were serious students, but most were wanting a degree and that was it. They were not interested in learning about the high points of civilized life. It is no surprise to me, looking back to those days in the early 1980s, that the children of those students now have similar attitudes–or worse. Yet there are students who, in spite of themselves, learn something, and that is a joy to any teacher.

The saddest aspect of the current academy is its radicalization by left wing, Neo-Marxist ideas. Along with such comes speech codes, an anti-Christian bias, and a refusal to entertain alternative points of view.. What used to be a venue for knowledge has become, in most places, a soapbox for left wing propaganda. The days when the Agrarians could survive in the academy are long gone. Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom would probably pass muster–perhaps even Allen Tate. I doubt that Andrew Lytle or Donald Davidson would be hired. I do not think any of them would be hired today at Vanderbilt University where they once wielded such influence. I could name other academic conservatives from the past who would have difficulty in today’s academy, but that would be superfluous–and it is a pathetic fact that such would be superfluous. For once I would like to see a college or university that believes in teaching the classic works of Western Civilization. St. Thomas Aquinas College in California does, but it is by far a rare exception to the rule.

I hope in the future that there will be good alternatives to the academy–private tutorials in Greek and/or Latin classics or in great works in philosophy, for example. That is most likely a pipe dream. I hope that one day academics wake up that their current course often does more harm that good, creating clones instead of wise thinkers.

Nostalgia for the New Critics

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Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren

Image of U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The field of English is in shambles, and the Modern Language Association is a gaggle of voices for various interest groups based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Dissertations in English appeal to Derrida and Foucault long after they became passe in France. A presentation on any topic by any writer at a conference sponsored by a college or university English Department that does not mention the four “code words” listed above will be considered quaint and out of date by most of the audience. Much of the radicalism in academia stems from English Departments (although other departments can be guilty as well–philosophy, with its analytic bent, may be narrow in methodology, but at least it eschews the relativism of many people who call themselves “postmodern”). Although many English professors are old-fashioned social democrats who are liberals, not radicals, the radicals have a missionary-like zeal in pushing their agenda. This agenda is anti-Western Culture, anti-traditional Christianity (and Muslims take note–if Christianity were to falter in the West, Islam would be the next target of the radicals, who are engaged in a “divide and conquer” strategy now). When radicals take over, ideological diversity dies, and the departments become as one-sided, closed-minded, Puritanical, and bigoted as religious Fundamentalists.

I long for the days of John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and T. S. Eliot. They may have failed to give psychological and sociological factors sufficient treatment in literary criticism, but their focus on a close reading of the text is surely a better approach than seeking the alleged hidden motivations of the authors. From the New Critics I have read, I see no evidence that they denied the existence of polysemy, but they limited their discussion of polysemy to what was suggested by the text and various historical and mythological allusions found in the text. Postmodern criticisms of the New Critics seemed to confuse the New Critics with European Structuralists–Structuralism was more narrow in approach than the New Criticism, must more Platonic than Aristotelian in approach, much more abstract than concrete. Structuralism deserved the scathing critique of Derrida. The New Criticism was a horse of a different color.

With the emphasis on “newness” in academia, the decline in the New Criticism had to be replaced with something, and that something included Marxist, feminist, womanist, African-American, and queer approaches to literature. Some approaches (such as Marxism) were not necessarily subjective, but the other approaches I listed are largely subjective. Since the advocates of radical theories consider themselves social reformers, including reformers of the academy, they push their agenda like a Fundamentalist preacher pushes being saved from hell fire. The resulting cultural rot spreads to other humanities departments, to the extent that it is difficult to blame students who do not want to major or minor in the humanities. Frankly, I cannot blame them–the New Criticism probably offered more that is relevant to their lives–Shakespeare’s plays concern the universal human experience of revenge, pain, suffering, and happiness. The New Critics could at least point out where the text does relate to students’ lives. Poststructuralists focus so much on polysemy and a political reading of the text that students walk away in disgust. They should be disgusted. Let’s bring out some “New New Critics” to restore intellectual coherence and sanity to English Departments.