Faking Your Way to Tenure

in Philosophy and Literature 17 (1993): 402-409.

Denis Dutton

Robert Hughes’s Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (Oxford University Press/New York Public Library, $19.95) is a splendid book. It will make its author myriad enemies — the pious, ideologues of the political right, the thought-police of the puritanical left, those who view education as really a form of personal therapy and art a means of politics, both know-nothing, prejudiced multiculturalists and blinkered Eurocentrists (if there are any left; we still have a few in New Zealand) — along with whiners, complainers and especially, levellers of every stripe. In other words, a significant percentage of the mediocre minds who inhabit and fumble about the controls of the educational and cultural bureaucracies of modern life.

The Culture of Complaint Hughes has in mind is the contemporary glorification of victims and therapies. Where the fifteenth century was eager for saints and the nineteenth century looked for heros, today we subscribe to the cult of the victim. As Hughes put it, “to be vulnerable is to be invincible,” and every month brings new trends in victimhood: “Complaint gives you power — even when it’s only the power of emotional bribery, of creating previously unn“oticed levels of social guilt.”

Victimhood takes many forms, for example, the failed artist whose plight surely results from being (check one or more) black / woman / gay / third-world / indigenous person / HIV-positive / etc. Hughes notes its corrosive effects on feminism, which used to gain adherents by promoting the positive image of the autonomous, active, responsible, achieving woman, but which now in some of its guises has given this up in favour of “woman as helpless victim of male oppression — treat her as an equal before the law, and you are compounding her victimization.” The most recent fashion demands that responsibility for all our inadequacies and unhappiness be placed on our parents: “whatever our folly, venality, or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it.” The search for the abused Inner Child, Hughes says, comes just at the time when it might be more helpful for us to figure out where the Inner Adult has gone off to.

Hughes steers a liberal middle course between ideologues of the right and left. He heaps contempt on right-wingers — who want to get state control “out of the board room and into the cervix” and on the little martinets of the left, including feminism’s “large repressive fringe, self-caricaturing and often abysmally trivial, like the academic thought-police who recently managed to get a reproduction of Goya’s Naked Maja removed from a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania.” The impulse which joins these two extremes is their repressive puritanism, their demand for conformity and intolerance of independent thought.

The war between education and television, he says, has been won — by television. In addition to TV’s baleful effects, the 1960’s hostility to elitism has given us an education system with “an enormous and cynical tolerance of student ignorance, rationalized as regard for ‘personal expression’ and ‘self-esteem’.” Thus we have a generation of students “untrained in logical analysis, ill-equipped to develop and construct formal arguments about issues.” They don’t know how to mine a text for information, and when called upon the only position they can take is “what they felt about things.” With all topics thus subjectivised, and each new generation of students going through the teachers colleges to instruct the next generation, we have, as Hughes puts it, “the entropic background of our culture of complaint.”

Hughes’s regard to the absurdities of political correctness and the more excessive multicultural demands in education have received most of the attention in press reviews of Culture of Complaint. But the book also has a few passages addressed directly to the scholarly climate of universities. Hughes, a college dropout who had the undeniable advantage of a demanding Jesuit high school education in Sydney in the 1950s, sees straight through the simple-minded conformity of university academics who would be cultural or intellectual critics. First, there is this nasty little problem of writing ability: “With certain outstanding exceptions like Edward Saďd, Simon Schama or Robert Darnton, relatively few people who are actually writing first-rate history, biography or cultural criticism in America have professional tenure, though many writers are attached to universities as decorative hermits or trophies in those therapeutic diversions known as Creative Writing courses (‘I am astonished,’ wrote the boxing Dadaist Arthur Cravan in a philippic against art schools, back in 1914, ‘that some crook has not had the idea of opening a writing school.’ Now we know better.)” To this Hughes adds the disease of specialization, which “has become so narrow, so constipated by the minutiae of theory, so pinched by the pressure to find previously unworked thesis subjects, that it can’t extend into a broader frame.” Put the lack of writing talent together with the obsession with theory, and you end up with “a mound of largely unreadable cultural criticism.”

Hughes’s account of the transformations Marxism has taken in academic life is especially telling. With the “beautiful promises” of 1968 shattered, the American left turned to the Frankfurt School in order to “discover,” as it would like to imagine, the “repressive mechanisms embedded, not in manifest politics, but in language, education, entertainment — the whole structure of social communication.” This was joined with poststructuralism with its campy skepticism and suspicion about all utterances. Hughes says, “It would be difficult to find a worse — or more authoritarian — dead end than this,” and he quotes John Diggins: “Today the intellectual’s challenge is not the Enlightenment one of furthering knowledge to advance freedom: the challenge now is to spread suspicion. The influence French poststructuralism enjoys in American academic life...answers a deep need, if only the need to rationalize failure.”


Hughes remarks that though Marxism is dead, its “carcass will continue to make sounds and smells, as fluids drain and pockets of gas expand.” This particular example of Hughes’s robust, vivid style came to mind as I was leafing through The End of Education: Toward Posthumanism, by William V. Spanos (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95). Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as though I’ve actually read the whole book. The two chapters I finished were like swimming through porridge. Consider, as a typical instance of what follows it, Spanos’s very first sentence:

This book was instigated by the publication of the Harvard Core Curriculum Report in 1978 and was intended to respond to what I took to be an ominous educational reform initiative that, without naming it, would delegitimate the decisive, if spontaneous, disclosure of the complicity of liberal American institutions of higher learning with the state’s brutal conduct of the war in Vietnam and the consequent call for opening the university to meet the demands by hitherto marginalized constituencies of American society for enfranchisement.

The prose style of this book falls, in Hughes’s precise phrase, somewhere between a sleeping pill and a scandal.

Spanos is not only incapable of Hughes’s lucid language, he also lacks on the evidence presented here any sense of humor whatsoever. His book is a turgid, unrelenting diatribe against liberal, Enlightenment values in education. Every page seethes with what strikes me as resentment — perhaps the sort of thing Nietzsche described as the mainspring of Christian moralizing. One has the impression that the Vietnam war deeply affected the author, and though it gives his writing a fervor — or fever — it doesn’t help his argument. Look again at that first sentence: are we to suppose that minority groups and women came knocking at universities because of the Vietnam war, that they’d still be ironing shirts or something if the U.S. had stayed out? He does use the word “consequent.” Is it a noncausal consequence Spanos has in mind, and anyway is there any such thing as a noncausal consequence? Is the “call” a consequence of the initiative, the delegitimation, the disclosure, or the complicity? Who can be sure? Years ago, a reviewer at this point might have remarked, “Ironically, Spanos is an English professor.” These days, it’s more fitting to say, “Spanos, as we might have expected, is an English professor.”

The End of Education has a chapter entitled “The Violence of Disinterestedness.” Now disinterestedness is not normally what I’d consider violent, at least compared, say, to a couple of skinheads with baseball bats. But Spanos finds in its advocacy (by Arnold, Babbitt, and I.A. Richards) “a recurrent call for the recuperation of a logocentric pedagogy in the face of historical ruptures that betrayed the complicity of humanistic discourse with an essentially reactionary bourgeois ideology and its discreetly repressive capitalist state apparatuses, which have dominated the vision and practices of liberal Western industrial societies, especially in North America.” Isn’t it crazy, when you think of it? The Western industrial societies, especially in North America, were just about the first places in the world where the vision and practices of liberalism have been given, however imperfectly, a chance to dominate repressive state apparatuses, rather than vice versa. Does it ever occur to Spanos what the military police in Burma do to people they don’t like? In Iran? El Salvador? Those cosy Marxist dictatorships in Africa? Give me the “discreet” repression of the Western liberal societies any day. Spanos is a man stuck in the 1960s: he doesn’t notice Tiananmen Square because he’s still obsessed with Kent State.


Being stuck in the sixties is also the accusation made against Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, by an English professor who can write. In his defense of liberal education, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (Yale University Press, $30.00), David Bromwich quotes some remarks by Bennett in a 1986 speech that would have been more accurately descriptive of the radicalism of universities had they been delivered twenty years ago.  Bromwich says that the “1960s are a nightmare from which Bennett cannot awaken.”  Bromwich’s assessment of Bennett’s intellectual pathology would perfectly fit Spanos: he “will not rest content until he is cured of his memories; and nothing will ever cure him.”

Bromwich himself is more forward looking, and he gives academic readers a great deal to think about. Like Hughes, he tries to steer a middle course between the “conservative political culture outside the academy” and the “radical political culture inside,” taking jolly potshots at each. The spirit that animates this book is generous, open-minded, secular, and pro-Enlightenment. Bromwich, like Hughes, is temperamentally opposed to Puritans of any stripe, and perceives intellectual conformity and provincialism as his major antagonists. His introductory chapter, “The New Fundamentalists,” analyses some chilling instances of ideological bigotry in universities. Not surprisingly, the most eye-opening cases of authoritarianism come from the left, because though the right is awful, it’s mostly outside the universities, not inside.

Despite his position as director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, I suspect Bromwich (probably like Robert Hughes) has the soul of an anarchist. In the exemplary stories he recounts basic principles of freedom of thought, research, expression, or teaching are overridden by concerns for the “needs” of some group within the university. If academic freedom is lost, he says, it will probably come about because of “concessions to the sensitivities of...advocacy groups” who “want to control the scene of education to assure nothing wrong, or strange, or possibly injurious to the self-esteem of their members, gets said in the public forum of the classroom or the quad.” Parochial communities everywhere go in for the kind of “nurturing and sheltering and oppressive” tendencies to which the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment was a reaction, and “cosmopolitanism and the tolerance of tactless and insulting speech are closely connected.” It follows naturally that the liberal ideal of tolerance must therefore be exposed by the authoritarians of the left as just another device of Western imperialism, patriarchy, etc.

These observations lead on to Bromwich’s own characterization of higher education, which personally I found sufficiently thought-provoking to be alone almost worth the price of admission: higher education is the learning of certain habits, above all the habit of sustained attention to things outside one’s familiar circuit of interests; and it is the beginning of a work of self-knowledge that will decompose many of one’s given habits and given identities. In these respects the aims of education are deeply at odds with the aims of any coherent and socializing culture. The former is critical and ironic, the latter purposeful and supervisory. Most of the book develops the implications of this definition. 

Consider in its light perhaps the very mildest example Bromwich gives of political interference in academic life. The faculty of Clark University were a few years ago asked to sign what Bromwich calls a loyalty oath for the 1990s: forms for new course proposals contained this request: “Insofar as it might be relevant to the content of the course, please explain how pluralistic views are explored and integrated into this course.” For “pluralistic views” read “issues of gender, race, class.” In this case, philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers had the courage to challenge the oath. (Let’s not underestimate the guts required to take on university administrations in these circumstances: people like Sommers fight on behalf of colleagues too stupid or lazy or sheepish to stand up either for principle or for themselves.) Professor Sommers’s dean, Douglas Astolfi, denied that this was an attack on academic freedom. He said rather, “I find it an attack on academic freedom to suggest that [the faculty] somehow be barred from thinking about these issues.”

Bromwich asks us to consider the dean’s snake-like response: “Here is as fine an instance as one could pluck from volumes of faculty minutes to capture the soft-peddled authoritarianism, the exquisite and unconscious triple-think, that gives daily energy to the life of the academic promoter of the community.” Professor Sommers was obviously not suggesting that faculty and students be “barred” from thinking about gender/race/class but only that they and she not be either asked or told by the administration to incorporate these issues into courses. There is a big difference, as Bromwich brings out in some detail. Beneath the dean’s soothing words lies an insidious little idea: “those who do not want to be told to do a thing must therefore disapprove of the thing.” Bromwich’s analogies to the cold war loyalty oath is highly relevant. Back then, if you didn’t want to sign the oath you must be placed under suspicion of being somehow pro-communist. Professor Sommers, the contemporary form of such bigotry would insist, must be “soft on nontraditional, pluralistic perspectives.”

Is the question on the Clark University course-proposal form at its heart about broadening academic offerings and expanding the minds of students, thus bringing a greater cosmopolitanism to narrow, “traditional” academic pursuits? Not on your life: it is about making sure teachers return to the axis of students’ present cultures and gender or ethnic identities: it’s an oppressive form of the 1960s question, “How is this course relevant to me? — me, me, me! My culture. My identity.” Much of Politics by Other Means is an attack on the place of notions of “culture” in education. From outside the academy, the political right sees culture as a frozen tradition which must be passed on to the next generation (this is how Bromwich reads Allan Bloom). The cultural strategies of the right also include the efforts of Bennett and George Will to give a religious overlay to the secular tradition they seem so to value. “This demand propels them to the outmost bounds of sophistry, far from their own sources in the Enlightenment tradition they cannot help invoking.” On the left, culture is seen in terms of a personal identity which must at all costs be cherished and protected. Both want students to be left only with the correct culture, whereas Bromwich argues the importance of higher education is its capacity to call any of these cultures into question. I’ve never before thought of education in quite Bromwich’s way — as profoundly anti-cultural — but in the refreshing terms in which he mounts the argument, he’s got a strong point. The Enlightenment was in a certain sense against the demands of particular cultures.

Toward the end of his book, Bromwich presents “The Case of Literary Study,” in which he diagnoses the state of literature departments, their infatuation (or obsession) with theory, and the pitfalls of encouraging academics to cross disciplinary boundaries. He says that while some interesting scholarship is yet to be done in the “literature-and” mode, there will continue to be a “lot of fraudulent work” as well: “The professional organizations and journals have done nothing to exemplify a standard of judgment which sorts out the legitimate from the false pretensions of the new work.” Nothing? Wait a minute, Buster — I insist that there are one or two ... well, anyway, one journal that has exemplified high standards in literature-and. But I’ll forgive Bromwich, because I can pretty well imagine the journals he must have had in mind when he wrote that. In truth, what he says about the erosion of standards is dead accurate.

To drive home his point about how difficult it has become to evaluate new forms of so-called scholarship, he invents an assistant professor named Jonathan Craigie and fits him out with a life. Craigie is a specialist in “Postmodernism and Cultural Studies.” Among his many unreadable articles is one that treats the Hiss-Chambers case as “a founding event” in the construction of the cold war (published in that exciting, new boundary-transgressing journal, Politics/Culture/Critique); he is also working on a double biography of Madonna and “a post-gendered novelist still to be named.” Bromwich’s little drama is meant to parody what goes on in the committees that make tenure decisions about people like Craigie. No-one has read every one of Craigie’s articles, and in any event, committee members can excuse themselves because none of his work lies exactly in anybody’s area of expertise. The historians are a bit miffed that he has for the Hiss-Chambers article read neither Witness nor In the Court or Public Opinion, has not looked at congressional transcripts, nor studied any political history. But, sticklers though they may be, they’re forced to admit that Craigie is breaking into new territory, showing how the Hiss-Chambers episode was the first (post)modern media event, “before which the tools of criticism and narrative history were alike impotent.” Besides, there are letters of support from weighty referees, including that glowing one (“pathbreaking,” “postdisciplinary,” etc.) by the famous Spenser Chase, translator of French theory and think-tank entrepreneur. In the end, everyone is reluctant to appear ignorant or insensitive or opposed to the latest trends. Jonathan Craigie gets tenure.

This is hardly parody. How many bad tenure decisions have been made in exactly the manner Bromwich describes? Hundreds, no doubt. Bromwich lists contributing factors. First, the department speaks with a group voice; individual skepticism is suppressed in an anxious atmosphere where the central question is What Will They Think? “They” are the Important People at Important Universities — the stellar Spenser Chase and his circle, people who weekly jet off to fashionable conferences and whose jacket-blurbs validate the latest “groundbreaking” contributions to scholarship by each other. Further, the apparent novelty of the work defeats close inquiry; better to defer to the “general prestige” of the referees. Spenser Chase may know nothing of Hiss and Chambers, but that’s not the point: he knows what’s hot, and in today’s nervous academic climate, that’s more than enough. We now have a situation in universities where, as Bromwich says, “tacit criteria for advancement have begun to be centered on social attitudes more than intellectual merit.” Craigie’s got the right attitude.

To all this, add the impenetrability of Craigie’s articles. Their docile acceptance by the tenure committee, Bromwich says, betrays the belief that “in the exact degree that we cannot judge it, it is the very thing we want.” Thus in the 1970s, while a few of “the theorists who thereby advanced were first-rate minds; some were abject obscurantists who had never been caught (some will never be caught).” This in its turn is explained by science-envy, which here fuels the deluded hope that Craigie might be a significant scientific pioneer: “In the presence of a new science, suspicions are put off in advance by the common fear of being judged a philistine.” Who wants to be remembered as the idiot who turned down Einstein’s tenure application? Oh, how the Important People will laugh!

Politics by Other Means is not an Important Book; it’s much too important for that. Read it.


Copyright © 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.