February 16, 2003

Bugs in Amber In undergrad,

Bugs in Amber

In undergrad, there was a running joke at my school that you could tell in which year a professor received his or her PhD by the way he or she dressed. It was particularly true in the Psych Department: the two professors who matriculated in the seventies--one male, one female--still wore lime green leisure suits and peasant blouses and skirts (with knee socks!), respectively. And the newest addition to the faculty (this was in the late 80s) was all about the Capezios shoes and parachute pants. At the time, I chalked it up to "absent minded professor syndrome"--they were so busy thinking deep thoughts that they never looked around and noticed that things change.

Fast forward a decade plus three, after more schooling and a university job, and I realize that my first analysis was at least half right. Those professors and a lot of the ones I ran into subsequently didn't notice that things change, but it wasn't because they were thinking deep thoughts, it was because they were repeating the same thoughts that they had in grad school (or earlier) over and over until the thinkers became completely paralyzed--trapped in one mindset and preserved like bugs in amber, unable to recognize or react to the outside world.

How else can you explain the disproportionate number of academicians who cling to the rhetoric of class warfare and who still believe that Marx holds the answers when human nature and real world regimes have proven this false? How else do you come to terms with ideologies that are all about "shades of gray" until someone offers an opposing viewpoint, and right and wrong suddenly solidify into darkest black and starkest white? And how else can you begin to understand a worldview in which the academic alone holds the key to correct knowlege and the greatest sin is hypocrisy, not the consequences of actions undertaken in the real world, where those shades of gray are much more apparent than in a classroom?

The "explosion" of critical theory in the last couple of decades is simply the application of popular late-nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophies and causes--Marxism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Feminism--to literature. The ideas are recycled, the concepts are nominally "freshened up" by adding a dash of race or sex, and voila! Post-Colonial theory, Queer theory, and New Historicism magically appear. Yes, part of the joy of literature is finding universally relevant themes. But turning the themes that you find into courses of study all their own just leads to an overabundance of specious research and poor writing, as each little critical theory sub-group fights for a piece of the pie. And for all of their writing and research and scholarly production, these folks are still basically talking about Marxism, the academic cause du jour when they were up and comers.

This watered down Marxism pervades academia to such an extent that it is every bit as unquestioned as the old-fashioned reader-response approach to literature used to be. Incoming students are fed it, learn to regurgitate it back, and even if they don't necessarily buy into it, they learn how to play the game if they want a career in academia. Until recently, no one bothered to question the politicization of literature courses--it was simply accepted that your english professor was probably going to make a snide comment about Reagan, and no one batted an eye when he or she did. What was that old chestnut? The battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low--that about summed up the student attitude toward politics in the classroom.

But the world has a stubborn tendency to change, and so for whatever reasons--the end of the cold war, the rise of the internet, 9-11--students, scholars, and those outside the academy are a little less apt to swallow the old line. This is a healthy thing, I think, for the university, provided there is energetic debate about the issues involved. However, I am not encouraged by what I've seen thus far. CampusWatch and NoIndoctrination.org are being held up as the new McCarthyism, as though anyone with the temerity to question a professor's tactics or beliefs must automatically be an imperialist troglodyte and tool of the man. We have professors writing course descriptions in which those students who aren't "right thinking individuals" aren't encouraged to attend. And we have universities implementing draconian speech codes, to protect the young from the consequences of speaking their minds, one would assume.

These responses are ridiculous and out of touch, and expose the universities and scholars who hold them as fearful, inflexible relics, unable to fulfill the basic definition of a university: unity from diversity. The folks in charge of academia today are, by and large, the youthful rebels of the sixties, who wanted to get rid of the old strictures in the name of freedom. I submit that they have become what they once beheld: rigid rule-makers, or to put it metaphorically, bugs in amber.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at February 16, 2003 07:16 PM