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December 14, 2004

Rorty on English Departments

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A braincell or two of mine has been chewing over the commentsfests at Crooked Timber that I recently took part in. Academic intellectuals, eh? Exceptions allowed for -- including some of the Crooked Timber regulars -- talking with academic intellectuals can be like trying to communicate with Martians.

My favorite example from the yak at CT was the way many of the commenters treated the topic of intellectual diversity in humanities faculties. For a few minutes, they'd be in denial mode: the faculty at my university is very intellectually diverse! A few minutes later, they'd be arguing that the reason there are so many leftists teaching the softer subjects is that leftists have earned their university positions fair and square: they're smarter, after all. Point out that they've just implicitly admitted that humanities faculties aren't very diverse, and they instantly return to denying that this is the case.

This shiftiness reminds me of Steve Sailer's observation about leftists and IQ: lefties hate the idea of IQ, and spend much energy denying that IQ exists. At other times, though, they feel the need to assert that they're smarter than righties. And what do they turn to for proof? IQ studies. Fake ones, as it turns out.

But what took me most aback about many of the people who joined in at CT were two things:

  • Their determination to quarrel over whether or not the politicization of many of the humanities has turned those departments into national jokes. Word evidently hasn't yet gotten through to many academics in the softer fields about how they're seen by much of the rest of the world. And what happens when a word or two does make it through the fog? The academic intellectuals complain about how "anti-intellectual" our benighted country is. Yep, our lib-arts academics live in a veritable state of siege.

    What's to be done about these people? Perhaps the worldly thing would be to ignore them, or to have a jolly time throwing darts at them and watching them gasp, clutch at their sensitive hearts, and spin in self-enraptured pirouettes.

    I'm afraid my earnest side was overcoming me, though. I found myself wondering what kind of evidence it might take to pull an academic away from admiring his intellectual prowess. Can anything stun some of these academics out of their self-regard? Dozens of books on the topic and hundreds of articles on the topic of what's happened to the humanities haven't done the job. These authors and writers have all -- each and every one of them -- been motivated by ugly rightie agendas, apparently. And we can, of course, take it for granted that "motivated by a rightie agenda" automatically means "every fact cited is untrue."

    How about the declining enrollments in some of these departments? A consequence of the Reagan '80s. America is a money-obsessed, crass place, and we humanities types couldn't be performing more nobly in the face of greedhead onslaughts. OK, then: how about the testimony of scads of disaffected, rueful, and pissed-off people who have been through these brainwashings, er, educations? Anecdotal evidence merely. Serious studies need to be done. Get back to me in a century or two.

    What about my own personal experience? In the late '70s I thought for a minute about pursuing an English-Lit career. (Readin' and writin'! Long summer vacations!) But it was perfectly clear even then -- and even to naive l'il me -- that a bunch of intellectual Stalinists had targeted the nation's English departments; the last thing I wanted to spend my working life doing was wrestling with them. So I picked up my skirts and ran. Ah, well, that's just sour grapes. I didn't make a choice; no, I just didn't have the goods. Which, to the standard academic intellectual -- convinced that academic intellectuals are the smartest people imaginable, and that smarts of their sort are everywhere and always a Good Thing -- means that I simply wasn't smart enough to become one of them. Which in turn means that anything I say even today is simply too dumb to respect.

  • The other thing that surprised me at CT -- it shouldn't have but it did -- was that, in the course of many long back-and-forths about whether or not faculties should be more intellectually diverse than they are, the topic of the welfare of the students was almost completely neglected. I raised the "is it good for the kids" question (too feebly, but still) a couple of times. But I'm pretty sure none of the academics pitching into the discussion demonstrated a peep of interest in the good of the students.

    The questions that popped up instead were along the lines of "What are colleges and universities?" (Academics: never so busy that they can't pause for a long quarrel over ideals and definitions.) The CT gang was quick to say that colleges and universities are "places of free inquiry" and "research centers." It never seemed to occur to them that the rest of the world might think that the most important function of college-level institutions is to give the students passing through them a halfway-OK education. It also seemed to be a long way from occurring to the CT crowd that an OK education in the softer subjects might in part consist of exposing students to a variety of points of view. I suppose that your standard academic intellectual finds the idea of being engaged in a service business -- you pay us and we'll educate your kids -- to be ... what? Repellant?

    Society presumably should be supporting the lib-arts academic so that he can "do research" and engage in "free inquiry." Which makes me think of some middleclass friends of mine. They've got two bright kids in private colleges; they'll be paying well over a hundred grand for their kids to get their diplomas. How do you suppose my friends would react if told that what they're really shelling all that money out for is so that professors can masturbate? Er, "pursue research?"

Academics really inhabit another planet than we mere mortals do, I guess. Back here on Earth, most of us don't have too much trouble with the idea that we only get paid when we supply other people with goods and services that these other people want. This may or may not suit us in some sense; I certainly don't deny myself the occasional wallow in self-pity. But, generally speaking? Hey, that's the way the world is, and why waste too much time quarreling with simple facts?

By the way, is anyone else sent into the same fits of hoots and giggles as I am by the idea of English Department types being engaged in "research"? (We know that by "research" they don't mean, for example, "looking deeply into the way the publishing business worked in colonial America." We know that what they really mean is "doing Theory" -- doing research into their own thought processes, in other words.) Many English-dept. types really want us to believe that they're involved in something as exciting, out-there, taxing, and mind-boggling as ... I dunno. Genetics, or computer science, or physics. They expect us to buy the idea that English profs are right out on the frontiers of abstraction, alongside the most radical string theorists. English profs!!! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!! ... Pardon me while I wipe the tears from my eyes ...

They can't really believe this silliness themselves, can they? They do? A-ha-ha-ha!!! ...

OK, Sorry. A-ha- ... Giggle giggle giggle ...

Phew. Anyway. At the same time that these musings about academic intellectuals were sloshing around my noggin, a couple of loose brain cells were semi-occupied with the question of Richard Rorty, a philosopher whose work I've sometimes felt I should get to know; in some ways his thinking resembles that of Stephen Toulmin, who I'm a big fan of. At other times, though, I've felt I could easily pass a lifetime or two without worrying too much about Richard Rorty. What to do, what to do? ...

So there I was, idly web-surfing, typing "Rorty" into Google ... Maybe I could avoid the hard work of wrestling with Rorty's actual books -- books! feh! -- by reading articles by him. Or articles about him. Even better, maybe I could find some interviews with him. I love interviews with high-powered thinkers, don't you? There's no better quick way to get a superficial handle on someone's thought. Asked by an actual human being to explain his ideas, the loftiest thinker will often dig deep and manage to put his case into plain English. Thereby demonstrating that even complicated thinking -- at least of the humanities kind -- can indeed be put forth in a straightforward and comprehensible way. And if there's anything I deep-down believe, dammit, it's that there is nothing a humanities person needs to say that can't be said plainly, directly, and (perhaps) even amusingly.

Google obliged by turning up a few interviews with Rorty. Imagine my delight when, in the middle of one of these conversations, Rorty -- who describes himself as a "romantic bourgeois liberal" but whom many of us would label a leftie Democrat (unions, feminism) -- says this about the left and the softer sides of the academy:

Interviewer: How do you respond to the recent conservative attacks on the academy?

Rorty: I think that the academic left has made sort of an ass of itself and has given easy targets for the conservatives, but basically I think that the conservatives are just either jealous of the soft life that we professors have or else are working for the Republicans and trying to undermine the universities the same way they undermined the trade unions. I mean that the universities and college are bastions of the left in America, and the closest thing we have to the left is roughly the left wing of the Democratic Party, and if you look at the statistics on what kind of professor votes for what, the humanities and the social science professors always vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and obviously the youth that is exposed to courses in social sciences and humanities is going to be gently nudged in a leftward difrection. The Republicans are quite aware of this fact, and they would like to stop it from happening. Any club that will beat the universities is going to look good to them. The more the English departments make fools of themselves by being politically correct, the easier a target the Republicans are going to have.

Interviewer: Is that what you meant by "making asses of themselves"?

Rorty: I think that the English departments have made it possible to have a career teaching English without caring much about literature or knowing much about literature but just producing rather trite, formulaic, politicized readings of this or that text. This makes it an easy target. There's a kind of formulaic leftist rhetoric that's been developed in the wake of Foucault, which permits you to exercise a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion on anything from the phonebook to Proust. It's sort of an obviously easy way to write books, articles, and it produces work of very low intellectual quality. And so, this makes this kind of thing an easy target from the outside. It permits people like Roger Kimball and D'Souza to say these people aren't really scholars, which is true. I think that the use made of Foucault and Derrida in American departments of literature has been, on the whole, unfortunate.

Let's skip quickly over Rorty's inabiility to conceive of critics of the academy who might not be handmaidens to evil. That's a small imaginative failure, easily forgiven. Let's also bypass Rorty's deep-seated conviction that no Republican can be a decent human being. Ooops, there go all the sweet and generous smalltown Republicans I grew up with; and there goes most of my family. Not a very pluralistic stance to take, especially for a man who has made himself well-known as an advocate for pluralism.

Bypassing all that in any case, let me note down some of what Rorty freely admits to in the passage above:

  • The softer departments in universities are heavily leftist.
  • Many of these leftists have gone 'way too far with political correctness.
  • The kids who are taught by PC leftists will be affected by the experience.
  • Lit departments are in particularly ludicrous shape.
  • Lit departments have overdone the reliance on Foucault, etc.
  • Lit deparments these days turn out an amazing amount of facile, predictable, and overpoliticized hack work.

I also enjoyed Rorty's passing admission that humanities academics have an easy life, didn't you? That's certainly one of the big reasons why I thought (for a minute) about going into the field.

Anyway, how do you suppose many of the commenters at Crooked Timber would respond to Rorty's observations? It's not as though they can attack his motives, let alone his politics. And since he's had a great career, he can't be accused of sour grapes. Rorty is nothing if not a a widely-lauded intellectual giant.

Why do I suspect that they'd find ways to cavil and object anyway? I wonder if they'd simply withdraw tortoiselike into their shells, there to go into self-regarding denial-mode. Perhaps they'd quarrel over definitions, or demand restatements of ideals. Or maybe they'd just pump their fists in defiant triumph: "Fuck yeah! We own the English Department!"

"Might that not be a problem where the students are concerned?"

"Students? Students? Huh? Oh, right: them ..."

The interview with Richard Rorty is here.



UPDATE: Don't miss this good Chronicle piece by Jeffrey Williams. (Link thanks to ALD.) It turns out that academia's annoying obsession with being "smart" has its own interesting history.

posted by Michael at December 14, 2004


I wish to point two things out to you: (1) republicans don't fare much better in the 'hard' sciences than they do in the 'soft' ones. It is very hard to find a biologist, a physicist, a mathematician, a neuroscientist who approves of what is perceived as pandering to the religious right. (I am a mathematician, and I report to you that among my colleagues there was nothing but consternation on November 3rd.) (2) Ricard Rorty is talking out of his ass when he dismisses the intellectual quality and rigour of literary criticism. Lit crit has abandoned the adulation of icons, and that has been a significant move forward. It may be the case that a lot of lit crit people out there are making very silly statements about science--like the Sokal affair made evident--, and it may be fair to accuse some of the close readings of lit crit scholars of rabid paranoia, but to suggest that English departments now are doing something less valuable than in the old times is ludicrous. In fact, some branches of literary criticism look to me more and more like what History ought to look like. A healthy dose of emphasis on the analysis of all sorts of texts (not just the stupid 'canon') that speak to the historical dynamics of culture.

Posted by: pedro on December 14, 2004 12:32 PM


Weirdly, your little set-to with the boys at Crooked Timber has also stuck in my mind in odd ways. One thing that became clear over time is that dodge they use about "ideal" and "real." I ran into the same thing when I commented on a discussion being moderated by one of the Crooked Timberites. The discussion was on progressive taxation, and was being conducted on very much John Stuart Mill lines. I suggested an alternative hypothesis, which was that progressive taxation was a fairly obvious result of majority rule--to wit, rich people are a fairly small minority, numerically, and hence are unable to protect themselves in a democracy by their votes, so are easy pickings for their more numerous, less wealthy fellow citizens. The response from the Crooked Timberite (I've forgotten who it was, actually, but it wasn't John Holbo) was pretty similar to what you got. To wit: in the muddy real world, such considerations might play some role, but 'ideally' such primitive considerations had to be balanced by abstract notions of fairness, etc. My Crooked Timberite was quite confident that all rich people had--in one way or another--been lucky, and that progressive taxation was in essence a luck tax (as opposed to, say, a tax on hard-work and risk-taking). He made no effort to critique such a view or subject it to experimental verification--I guess he saw it as obvious: well, if you're rich, you seem fortunate, so you must be rich as a result of being fortunate.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that if the Crooked Timber guys get to define the terms of their little ideal worlds properly, they get to control the terms of the debate. Hence, the whole exercise is masturbatory, without the, ahem, fun at the end. If Mr. Holbo was solely concerned with 'ideal' circumstances, that the whole notion of political bias in academia would never be a problem--the best ideas would automatically win out. It's only in the messy real world, where the thumb of politics gets placed on the scales of intellectual justice, that people are going to get angry about political bias in academia. So he ended up with a form of intellectual bestialism--saying that there might be a real-world (thumb on the scales) problem in academia, but that it can only be addressed via an 'ideal' solution, which stupid righties have yet to supply. Hmm, I wonder why there's no easy solution to that problem?

Another issue, however, was their disdain of some author's (Russell Kirk's?) "mysteries of life" approach. I've never read Mr. Kirk, so maybe he overworks the whole mystery angle. Yet, let me ask you something candidly--at 50, don't you think that there are, in fact, mysteries of life on every side? Do you think your unaided reason is going to resolve those issues? (I'm talking about the 'Why are we here?' 'What the heck should we be doing with the very brief time we have here?' 'How do we know what are the correct social policies when so many of our successes seem to have been the result of fortunate screw-ups?' variety of mysteries.) Anyone over the age of 30 who laughs at such questions or demands 'rational' answers to them is, ahem, not nearly as brainy as the Crooked Timber people seem to think they are.


Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 14, 2004 12:35 PM


I can't speak for MB, but I think you're choosing to ignore very large amounts of evidence that suggest that hard scientist-types are in fact significantly more politically (and religiously) conservative than their soft-science colleagues. I don't know if that makes them happy with Mr. Bush and his politics or not, but I don't recall MB ever proposed the willingness to vote for a candidate approved of (and approving of) the Religious Right being used as a litmus test for ideological balance in academia. Let's not set up straw men here. (English departments, you must admit, seem to have a mysterious process for stuffing their faculty full of straw.)

I personally agree with you that English departments by doing something other than enforcing 'reverence' for the classics may in fact be taking a step forward. Regretfully, however, given what they are up to, this step forward is having very few, rather sterile results. Have you ever actually taken such a class? The results are less than intellectually stimulating, at least to me.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 14, 2004 12:42 PM

Friedrich, I'm sure that there's a stack of research out there that strongly links the accumulation of wealth to such things as social status, education, parental attitudes, etc. etc. No doubt hard work and risk-taking come into it as well, and no doubt those two criteria are also more strongly indicated among people with higher social status, better education etc., etc.

Posted by: H. on December 14, 2004 01:09 PM


I'm sorry if my little tax example drags this discussion away from MB's subject. I was only using it to illustrate the intellectual slipperiness of switching promiscuously back and forth between 'ideal' and 'real' considerations in a discussion. I think any discussions of taxation should be postponed to another post.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 14, 2004 01:15 PM

What a nasty little piece. Have you read Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind? (Came instantly to mind when you mentioned Reagan.)

Posted by: Toby on December 14, 2004 01:52 PM

Pedro -- I'm completely happy to join you in beefing about Bush & co. What irks me about the something like Rorty's view is that he isn't taking into account the actual fact of who many Republicans are. He also seems remarkably more willing to accept that a necessary corollary of "Repubs are evil and have awful motives" that Dems are intelligent, trustworthy people of good will. Where'd he get that idea? Personally, I've known at least as many psycho Dems as psycho Repubs. I do think FvB is onto something: I remember studies showing that the "harder" a subject the less leftie the profs tend to be, but I'll have to do some Googling to turn that up. Do you find that your math friends have much skepticism towards the Dems? Or are they pretty willing to accept them at their word?

FvB -- Yeah, the determination to pull conversations back to definitions and the ideal is pretty striking. One of the things that gripes me most about humanities academics is their lack of openness to common experience. I remember a conversation I once had with an English prof. I forget what she was saying. But it was something that I knew was simply wrong; I spent 15 years following publishing, and she was simply being naive about how publshing works. I tried to politely let her know that my experience contradicted what she was saying. She let me know that, since I didn't have an academic text to back me up on this, she wasn't going to accept my claim. They're a bunch of books talking to other books, with nary a bit of actual experience allowed to interfere... Come to think of it, it seemed hard for her to allow that I might actually know something she didn't know. Hmm, intellectual snobbery and bullying ... You don't suppose a lot of soft-subjects profs might actually be ... insecure, do you? I mean, isn't it generally fair to conclude that most bullies are cowards deep down?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2004 01:57 PM

Hi Toby -- Sorry, I guess I hit "post" the same instant you did and didn't see your note. What do you find nasty about my posting? Maybe it is nasty, but I'd love to know what in particular struck you as nasty. I thumbed around in the Bloom; it struck me as on the one hand as having a lot of substantial points to make and on the other as being 'way too square and stuffy to spend a lot of time on. How'd you react to it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2004 01:59 PM

MB -- Your posting here is a good read, but the stuff at CT is, for the most part, incredibly dull and boring. Unreadable. Makes me remember why I had to get out of school in order to get an education.

Posted by: Notary on December 14, 2004 02:01 PM

Nicely put! And a good reminder that it's healthy not to dwell too much on beefs about school. I'll blog about something else soon, I promise. Movies, sex ... Something of substance.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2004 02:10 PM

Where on earth, in this interview, do you find "Rorty's deep-seated conviction that no Republican can be a decent human being"? It's not there, Michael, mainly because it doesn't exist, and it speaks volumes that somehow you manage to discern it regardless.

As for the American philosopher vs French philosopher trolling, that's just SOP for the academy, I think: no point in reading too much more into it. Americans who work in the analytic tradition, like Rorty, have always been very suspicious of Derrida, Foucault, etc. Rorty probably more than most, since he works in that grey zone between Philosophy and the rest of the humanities, especially Eng Lit, which was for a while there dominated by the Frenchies. As other commenters have noted, however, the pendulum is now swinging back.

Posted by: Felix on December 14, 2004 02:24 PM

I think this thread missed the money shot in MB's piece:

The questions that popped up instead were along the lines of "What are colleges and universities?" (Academics: never so busy that they can't pause for a long quarrel over ideals and definitions.) The CT gang was quick to say that colleges and universities are "places of free inquiry" and "research centers." It never seemed to occur to them that the rest of the world might think that the most important function of college-level institutions is to give the students passing through them a halfway-OK education.

Michael, you hit the nail on the head. I simply cannot believe how many discussions (like the one at CT) are conducted as if undergraduate students simply don't exist, or will take care of themselves. What's frustrating is that these are usually dominated by professors.

Posted by: Tim on December 14, 2004 02:50 PM

Interesting discussion going on here and at CT. My husband is an art professor at a private liberal arts college, and it is a very good life. The pay is terrible, but the hours are great, the work is pleasant and intellectually stimulating and has lots of variety. Yes, the outside world balks at the idea of making and exhibiting art being deemed "research," but hey, you've got to call it something that applies to every discipline. Administrations rightly expect professors to stay current in their respective fields, thus the generic research requirement.

Most civilians don't realize the enormous difference between a research institution and a teaching institution. My husband works for a teaching institution, where students are of course the highest priority. Often the professors at private universities aren't as up on the latest theories/conferences/journal articles as those who work in research schools (although most try), simply because they don't have time. They're too busy teaching a 4/4 load and grading and filling their office hours and meeting with students and serving on committees.

Research institutions often only require 2/2 teaching loads (with the help of TAs), and the barest minimum of office hours. But they are expected to actively research and publish and/or exhibit. RIs get the majority of their money from state coffers, not from tuition, and usually have state mandates to serve as publicly funded think-tanks. Students are, by design, a much lower priority.

People should know this when they're shopping for colleges, but most don't. They assume that a college is a college is a college. But there are enormous differences. If you're footing the bill for tuition, you can have greater expectations of professors, but if you're only paying 2 grand a year, you can expect your child's teacher to phone in the lectures.

My favorite example of this was Derrida, who "taught" at UC Irvine. He flew in from France for six weeks during the fall semester, and met with graduate students a few hours a week on a lottery system and gave a few lectures. For this, he received a full professor's salary.

It seems to me that most of the profs who are active in the blogging community tend to be from research institutions, probably because they're the ones with more free time. It can seem as if they are speaking for all of academia at large, but really, the experiences at the different university levels are as vastly different as working as a corporate tax attorney is from being a public DA.

Posted by: Megan on December 14, 2004 02:52 PM

I, like, totally, agree with pedro. That darn "stupid 'canon'". We have the same problem in the music biz. Too much reverence for those very dead white heterosexual males Bach, Beethoven and Bartok. The three Bs indeed. Should be the three bozos, agreed??

What we need in music is some of that lit crit approach. Rather than canonizing this so-called "classic" music, we should analyze hip-hop or country music. If we're going to be academically irreverent, let's choose a genre that merits it.

I think I could make an academic career out of this. Whadda the bloggers think???

Posted by: Haydn on December 14, 2004 03:38 PM

Felix -- I'm paraphrasing and exaggerating for effect, but when Rorty says "basically I think that the conservatives are just either jealous of the soft life that we professors have or else are working for the Republicans and trying to undermine the universities the same way they undermined the trade unions," I don't think I'm exaggerating too much. He's indicating that in his mind no conservative can be doing anything that isn't essentially destructive. They're either operating from jealousy or are in the employ of -- shudder -- Republicans. I'm not sure where you get the American vs. Froggy philosophy thing, btw. I didn't mention it, and Rorty in any case is anything but an Anglo-analytic type. He's a fan of Derrida; he likes to think he's knocked down some of the walls between the Anglo and continental traditions. Or so I gather from the, cough cough, extensive reading of articles and interviews that I've done... Oh, you mean the crack about Foucault? Actually Rorty's a fan of Foucault; he thinks American profs have used Foucault very poorly.

Tim -- Undergrads sometimes sure do seem to get lost in the shuffle, don't they? I picture them like little punch cards being hurried through a big processing engine ...

Megan -- That's an awfully good explanation, thanks. I became aware of the distinction a while ago, but it was 'way too late for my own education. May I copy and paste your comment into its own posting?

Haydn -- Damn dead white males! Me, though, I think I'd split the diff between you and Pedro: I'd focus on both the standard-issue classics and take note of the wider world beyond too. It wouldn't be a bad thing for a kid interested in music to get a sense of the general folk/popular/classical/other-culture geography, would it? I know I'd have appreciated it. It would have helped me get the hang of classical music better too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 14, 2004 04:49 PM

I find myself in a similar situation to that of FvB's. I have read studies on the political leanings of academics, but I can't find any online links to them right now. I may find PDF copies of them in my old hard drive, which would be wonderful. From what I can remember, it isn't quite true that the harder a discipline the redder its constituency.

As for religious affiliation, I have fresher data in my memory. Mathematicians had the dubious distinction of being the most religious of all scientists, with a meager percentage of believers among their ranks (not more than 13%). The data appeared on the California Aegie a couple of years ago--or maybe that was the data on political leanings?, I'm a bit lost. There was also data suggesting that the more accomplished an academic, the less likely he or she is of being religious.

For present reference, you can visit

which makes a breakdown of political affiliation by department at Berkeley and Stanford. It didn't surprise me in the least bit to see dismal Republican numbers in Biology, for example.

FvB calls me on my rhetorical mention of the religious right. I clarify that I simply wanted to propose a modest hypothesis for explaining the animosity towards the republican party: as sympathetic as many scientists may be to conservative economic theory and policy, it seems to me that the perception of proximity with the religious right is far too damaging for the republican party. People outside of the sciences may feel slightly annoyed by the creationist movement, but it is nothing less than enfuriating to people in the sciences. This alone doesn't explain the situation of the Republican party in the hard sciences, but it helps shed some light.

Haydn calls for a repudiation of the three B's. When I refer to the stupid 'canon', I do not do so out of irreverence towards those who have been inducted in it. I simply regard it as entirely sterile to engage in studies of aesthetic adulation, when students of culture could be asking questions like: what salient 'memes' (no reverence to Dawkins implied) inform and are expressed in this particular cultural product? Certainly, Shakespeare is interesting, but to repeat ad nauseam his aesthetic virtues is an exercise in futility. The job of the lit critic ought not to be that of Roger Ebert, but that of the historian of culture.

Posted by: pedro on December 14, 2004 05:08 PM

English professors are particularly prone to making mastery of jargon and impenetrable "theory" entrance requirements for their profession because they are the most vulnerable to being replaced by enthusiastic amateurs: well-read housewives with empty nests, retired advertising copywriters who always wanted to be a poet or novelist, the whole army of people who love literature and would find the idea of a part time job teaching bright young people about their favorite authors to be highly enticing. So, English Departments erect what economists call "barriers to entry" -- stultifyingly boring masses of junk scholarship you are supposed to be aware of before you are allowed into the classroom to teach college students.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 14, 2004 05:39 PM

Michael- thanks, and sure, feel free to repost.

Another angle that isn't discussed very often in this context is the financial factor. The pay for a professor in the "soft sciences" is terrible. For the "hard sciences" it's usually much better, because universities need to be competitive with the private sector. In the liberal arts, there is virtually no private sector, and the general feeling is that artists/theorists/writers/Renaissance historians should be lucky to have a job at all.

Most people are surprised to find that the pay for professors is so low, and in fact, graduates entering the academic work force are sometimes surprised by this as well. Often public secondary school teachers make more than college professors in the liberal arts. This fact is well-guarded from graduate students, who often don't hear starting salary figures until they're too far into the process.

Add to the mix that the average academic has had a minimum of seven years of higher educational schooling, the better part of his/her twenties, and has scrimped and saved and eaten ramen noodles and studied 24/7 while friends were getting entry-level jobs in corporate America and buying their first new cars and houses and were having fun with disposable income and leisure time and starting families. Tenure babies are a very real phenomena. The tenure-track requires absolute commitment to the process, and so extracurricular pursuits are often delayed.

Then add to that a $150k student loan ($700 a month, unless you consolidate) which can take 30 years to pay back, around the time your own children will be starting college.

I've got a friend who went to Harvard for an MBA and had $150k in loans when she graduated. Her starting salary at her new job (procured before graduation) was $130k. Presumably, she'll pay back her loans much, much quicker than an MFA with $150k who starts at $35 grand a year. You can see how a real bitterness about corporate America might start to develop.

Young profs are often idealist with missionary zeal and a socialist bent (champion of the working poor; often, liberal arts academics qualify as the working poor). They have to believe that what they're doing and studying is important, because they put a whole lot of time and energy into it and they're not exactly getting compensated accordingly.

Churches and faith-based organizations have a very similar dynamic to academic institutions (and similar issues with pay): the expectation is that you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't want to change the world, and you should be motivated out of the commitment to the cause, not because of money. In both cases, you get a dogmatic allegiance which often cloaks a real bitterness towards the institutional hand that feeds you.

Posted by: Megan on December 14, 2004 05:50 PM

MB: Yes, you are certainly right about a wide musical net. There are many musical forms worth investigating, both in listening and analysis. My previous post was TIC as you imagined.

At my music college, we even have a course in "scratching" (my memory may be failing but I think I undertook a self-study in that subject while simultaneously enrolled in sentential logic).

Pedro: Isn’t adulation a welcome result of experience, study, appreciation and acknowledgement? Does anyone have a firm grasp on all of Bill Shakespeare’s “aesthetic virtues”? Why is it the lit crit’s job to be the historian of culture? Wouldn’t that piss off some of the cats in the anthropology department?

Posted by: Haydn on December 14, 2004 06:51 PM


see my post "god and the scientists" for exact religious breakdowns. you are conflating NAS mathematicians for all mathematicians.


the only thing re: crooked timber is that i believe most of them are social scientists & philosophers, not arts humanists.

Posted by: razib on December 14, 2004 08:25 PM


Lit crit, at its best, is anthropological work. At its worst, it is grandiloquent cult of individuals. I happen to love the music of those old white males like Bach and Beethoven, but that hardly makes me dismissive of the far more interesting proposition of studying pop culture today, or of studying what the art of those old white males may have to tell us about their time and circumstance--rather than studying what their time and circumstance can teach us about their much adulated personalities, sensibilities, and talent.

Posted by: pedro on December 14, 2004 10:21 PM

As a recent refugee from graduate school in Lit Studies, I saw darn little movement towards doing "valuable research" in English departments. Before I sent out my apps, I'd been told many times that the culture wars of the 90s were so yesterday, that Theory was no longer the hegemon it once was, and that people who said otherwise were disgruntled conservatives with a vested interest in dominating the public discourse.

I was very surprised to discover how difficult it was to talk about neuroscience, evolution, biology, or even plain old psychology (other than Lacan) in relation to literature. Science was a phallocentric construct, empiricism was mere ethnocentrism, biology was essentialism, yada yada yick. Just mentioning evolution in one of my seminars earned me an out-and-out sneer from the prof, and sputtering accusations of capitalist false consciousness (! in 2003!) from the students.

For whatever my own experience is worth, Pedro, the scientists and techies I know subscribe to a liberalism that differs a lot from the anti-western, anti-Enlightment stance of many of my English profs. They're no more fond of science than the religious right. Frankly, they scared the shit out of me.

Posted by: Rose Nunez on December 14, 2004 11:21 PM

Rorty's wife--I think--Amelie Rorty taught a flaky philosophy class at Haverford (the ultimate in liberal institutions) in 1978-79. It was about the theory of "akrasia"--which, as far as I could make out, was the sudden impulse to do things you would never normally do, such as jump on the back of someone's motorcyle and ride off into the sunset.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on December 14, 2004 11:52 PM

Friedrich von Blowhard:
I can't speak for MB, but I think you're choosing to ignore very large amounts of evidence that suggest that hard scientist-types are in fact significantly more politically (and religiously) conservative than their soft-science colleagues.

Define "significantly", and tell me what "large amounts of evidence" you are referring to. Every article I have seen on the question of the politics of scientists has commented that they are heavily Democratic, and that matches my experience as a physics student in college, as well as my knowledge of the politics of famous scientists. The one study I've seen on the politics of professors is the one by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western, and if you download the pdf of their data, you see that for the two Universities they present data on, Berkeley and Stanford, professors in the hard sciences are indeed overwhelmingly Democratic--for example, among Berkeley physics professors you have 28 Democrats and 2 Republicans, among Stanford physics professors you have 14 Democrats and 3 Republicans. For all the hard sciences and math together (see p. 26 of the pdf), at Berkeley there were 159 Democrats to 16 Republicans (91% Democrats), at Stanford there were 78 Democrats and 15 Republicans (84% Democrats). It's true that the ratios in humanities and social sciences were even more lopsided, but unless you believe that there is significant political screening for the hard sciences and math, the results in these fields show there's a major self-selection bias in the types of people who want to become college professors, so it's not that implausible to me that the greater lopsidedness in the humanities would be mostly explained by a greater self-selection bias.

Posted by: Jesse M. on December 15, 2004 03:30 AM

whoops, I see Pedro already posted a link to the study I referred to. If anyone knows of any other studies on the politics of scientists, please post 'em.

Posted by: Jesse M. on December 15, 2004 03:39 AM

No time for a long comment, but thanks for a great post, Michael. It certainly chimes with my observations. One thing I don't get about most people who whine about the "canon" is that they're generally intellectually enslaved to a tiny canon of post-war intellectuals (almost exclusively French) themselves. Adulation knows no bounds when it comes to Foucault, Derrida et al.

Posted by: J.Cassian on December 15, 2004 07:34 AM

Further Googling needs to be done, but here's another report. Some figures from this study, which is a nationwide one:

* Democratic professors outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences. That ratio is more than twice as lopsided as it was three decades ago,

* "In a separate study of voter registration records, Professor Klein found a nine-to-one ratio of Democrats to Republicans on the faculties of Berkeley and Stanford. That study, which included professors from the hard sciences, engineering and professional schools as well as the humanities and social sciences, also found the ratio especially lopsided among the younger professors of assistant or associate rank: 183 Democrats versus 6 Republicans."

* Nationwide, "the ratio of Democratic to Republican professors ranged from 3 to 1 among economists to 30 to 1 among anthropologists." The news item I'm citing doesn't break out hard scientists. I wonder if the study itself did. Time for more Googling.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 15, 2004 08:53 AM

J. Cassian -- Great to see you, the world's Best Retired Blogger. You're missed.

That's a great (and concise) way of putting one of the big probs with the new approach. It isn't as though they're replacing a life with (in their view) an oppressive canon with a life free from all canons, and hence oppression. They're just installing a canon of their own.

Funny too how they never take into account the impact of doing this. As far as I can tell from watching young people arrive in the media biz, lib-arts kids who are educated in this way come out of it with no sense of literary history, and (this is really striking) with no taste for reading. The old oppressive-canon days seems to have turned out a lot of people who loved reading; it hooked them somehow. (It couldn't be that the stuff they read was ... better and more exciting than the stuff they're reading now, could it?) The new PC-canon days are turning out kids who feel free, who feel good about themselves, who know nothing (except that oppression is everywhere and it's bad), and who don't want to read. Nice work, reformers!

Incidentally, FvB and I were both as steamed as anyone about how humorlessly and ponderously the old canon was presented in the bad old days. (I'm speaking for him and shouldn't, I know, but ....) But I don't think either of us 1) wanted to get political about it, or 2) wanted to throw it out. It was great stuff, as well as a helpful reading list. But why be so tedious about it? And why not be more open and adventurous?

The radical lefties I guess would argue that to have an impact on the academy at all it was necessary to organize and fight. I'd argue that they're primarily political people; they like being political more than they like the arts. And I'd love to see them get out of the arts and -- what the heck -- go into politics.

Hey, I wonder if one of the reasons they went into the arts is that, while they knew that their political radicalism would get nowhere in straightforward politics (outside of Berkeley, anyway), they might very well be able to have some triumphs in the colleges and universities...

I ran across an interesting bit of news a few years back at a conference about electronics and education. I can't cite anything -- it was just something I heard a few people talk about. But apparently one of the most striking things about education in America these days is the amount of education that's going on outside of the usual university venues. On the job stuff; night school stuff; trade stuff; online learning; for-profit schools. I take this as evidence (of I suppose numerous things) but at least of this; that the usual educational insitutions have lost customers, and partly because a lot of people don't want to put up with their approach to many subjects. Lefty academics would see this development as evidence that America is crass and moneycentric, I suppose. ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 15, 2004 09:01 AM

Two points:

1. I suspect literature/arts faculty produce "hack" research in equal proportions to science faculty. It's just easier for the rest of us to make fun of bad literary/art criticism because we all "know" what good literature/art is, but we're woefully undereducated in science.

2. You can make a convincing case that all postsecondary educators should be actively involved in current research in their field because it informs their teaching. You can also make the opposite case: that they shouldn't waste time on "research" when their main job is teaching. The balance probably lies somewhere inbetween.

Posted by: dave munger on December 15, 2004 09:54 AM

In my own corner, physics and astronomy professors are overwhelmingly Democrats (though the exact numbers are hard for me to measure, because those who aren't don't tend to speak up much about it). I agree with Rose that their liberalism is not exactly that of the humanities, however. Scientists don't like anti-intellectualism, whether it comes in the form of creationism or political correctness. They tend to prefer the actual, the demonstrable, over the ideal. I know as many evangelical Christian scientists as I know Marxist scientists, which I doubt you can say in the average humanities field.

So, I agree with Jesse that there is a self-selection process that causes professors to be heavily distributed to the left side of the political spectrum. Unlike some professors, I don't think it's because they're smarter, though.

Posted by: C. S. Froning on December 15, 2004 01:34 PM

Michael Blowhard:
Further Googling needs to be done, but here's another report. Some figures from this study, which is a nationwide one:

That's a description of the same study that I linked to, and that pedro linked to even earlier. As I pointed out in my post, if you look carefully at the data you see that Democrats also strongly outnumber Republicans in hard sciences like physics (the disparity is not quite as great as in the humanities and social sciences, but it was still more than 80% Democrats at both schools they presented data on), and since it's unlikely that there's a hiring bias in these fields, this suggests it's mostly a self-selection effect, so I'd guess it's also mostly a self-selection effect in the humanities.

Posted by: Jesse M. on December 15, 2004 01:59 PM

Thanks to Jesse and Pedro, who link to a page that analyzes results at Berkeley and Stanford. Thanks as well to Dave Lull, who found a nearby page that looks at results nationwide. It's here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 15, 2004 03:12 PM


I suspect you and I agree that Lacan is garbage, that biology is not simple essentializing, and that lit crit is at its worst when it reads science without the benefit of understanding it. I hate to see that there's a lot of that garbage in English to this date, and frankly, I'm not surprised.

But ideas have their realm of applicability. Biology is a wonderful science, and evolution is a wonderful concept. I tend to look with more suspicion at accounts of culture predicated on evolutionary theory, however, and I could grant the lit crit scholar the point that it is a bit bold to assume that culture can be simply done away with, when one intends to study issues that conflate biology and culture--like gender differences.

I also have a strong distaste for Derrida, though I'm not qualified to dismiss him as junk. But Foucault is simply not an idiot. And neither is Anne Fausto-Sterling (a biologist who engages in feminist criticism of the medical sciences, and who knows what she is talking about).

New historicism, for example, is a pretty interesting trend in English Departments. I know someone who studies travel writings of English travelers during the English Renaissance, and who has developed an interesting narrative of how the concept of race (which had a multiplicity of uses and meanings at the time) as 'skin color' can be traced to that historical period. It is interesting to note the role that travel writings had on the public Enlgish imagination about the 'others', and to look at anatomical texts of the time (some people claimed that looking at the painting of a black man when you are pregnant could cause you to have a black baby, the naivete!), as well as the effect that the use and commerce of cosmetics had on anxieties about morality and Englishness.

This to me is hard to classify as anti-scientific nonsense. It is good, smart research. I hope what you experienced in grad school isn't as pervasive as it seemed to be in your department. I sympathize most strongly with your distaste for those Lacanian fools that look at science with ignorant distrust.

Posted by: pedro on December 15, 2004 03:18 PM

Pedro et al:

Thanks for digging so much fascinating research (so I didn't have to do it!)

I may have been unclear above, but I used the term conservative as a relative, not an absolute term. I don't view voting for a Democratic candidate as evidence of raving left-wing-ism. Heck, I've done it myself on a number of occasions. But as Rose Nunez's comment makes clear, I would strongly suggest that while the hard science professoriat might not be exactly Birchers, they still sit or stand to the right of their liberal arts brethern...relatively speaking.

For all you great researchers out there any historical evidence about ideological balance of academia in years gone by? How many professors voted for Nixon and how many voted for Kennedy? How many voted for Stevenson and how many voted for Eisenhower? Has the impact of the baby boom been to shift things to the left, or is this just the default option of academia?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 15, 2004 05:05 PM

Just let me make one suggestion about what the CT crowd mean by intellectual diversity. If I said my department was diverse, it would mean that people disagree over the issues that are contested within their subjects: so philosophers fight over whether everything is empirical or whether some truths are knowable just by thinking, and neuroscientists argue about how many different types of memory there are.

When you say diversity, you seem to just be thinking politics. Now there may be some subjects where there's a political agenda that everyone is pushing in the classroom, but for most subjects, teaching the different points of view has nothing to d iwth politics because the fights in the subject just aren't political. In fact, great diversity over the fights that matter to professional life is actually consistent with even narrower political communities than currently exist.

Posted by: dominic murphy on December 15, 2004 05:35 PM

All these posts just make me think traditional academia is a shrinking port in a storm. People, such as your guest, who want to wind up teaching at a small teaching-oriented liberal arts school, are, I believe, discovering that even these schools (I graduated from one) are becoming more and more demanding on the publish-prestigious-materials front, in order to compete for the ever shrinking market of students whose parents can afford to send them to these schools. The days of happily "being a teacher" and "no pressure to publish even though the pay is lower" are really receding in the distance. Conversely, less expensive alternatives, which are appealing to more students, such as junior colleges...candidly, don't really need Ph.D's. Masters degrees, and ideally, people with "real world" experience who, say, just teach one class a semester in addition to a "real job" are plenty to teach freshman english or sophomore level economics. I have no doubt that several posters here could do it right now very well.'ve either got to be a real razzmatazz researcher-publisher or have completed a novel that's actually been sold...or I think many might be squeezing in teaching a lit class one night a week while working at the phone company or whatever. The world just can't AFFORD so many pure academics anywmore.

Posted by: annette on December 15, 2004 09:13 PM

When you're discussing scientists and their political convictions, keep in mind the point that Megan McMillan made in one of her comments: there's a private sector in those fields, so surveys of scientist professors will be somewhat skewed.

Working in the pharmaceutical industry, I saw what appeared to be voting split in the recent election that was much closer to the national average, and likely leaned more toward Bush. That's partly fear of Kerry's health care proposals, though, a confounding variable. I've no hard numbers, naturally, but that's those are my impressions.

On another subject, Steve Sailer's point above really brought back memories. When I was in college, I went in (naively) thinking that although I had always been interested in science (of all sorts) that I might end up as an English or Political Science major. After all, I also liked literature and politics, right?

My father (no doubt alarmed) warned me off of that line of thinking, and when I got to college I quickly saw his point. Besides, it's easier to have a library in your basement than it is to have a lab.

I'm one of the people that Sailer's talking about. I would love to lecture on Nabokov's "Pale Fire," Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", or teach a course on poetry animated by Randall Jarrell's criticism. "The Novels of Kingsley Amis", "Fear and Philip Larkin", "The Use of Science in the Work of David Foster Wallace" - I could have a blast!

And I'd do far better by my audience than any English professor press-ganged into talking about medicinal chemistry would, that's for sure. Although - and here's the point, and the problem - not by said English prof's standards.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 16, 2004 01:42 PM

The perception that critical theory is nothing more than a "barrier to entry" into the English profession is ridiculous. On the one hand, it's not that wonderful of a barrier: beyond terms like "discourse" and "structure" taking on a specialized meaning, good contemporary literary scholarship isn't that jargon-laden, and one could read enough Derrida and Adorno in a weekend to understand what is going on. On the other, and perhaps more poignantly: if you can't understand how one could be attracted to using critical theory in their work, you don't belong in the profession. At the very least, the work of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, and the rest provide an ambitious framework through which power structures and larger generic themes get laid bare. It may be the case that these frameworks go too far and are too ambitious in doing so (Foucault could certainly be brought behind the woodshed for not historically contextualizing his work enough), but at the very least, late 20th Century French thought is an extremely attractive option, especially in the presence of other, less interesting methodologies.

If critics of theoretical perspectives would remove their blinders for a few pages, they might see that good scholarship is still largely based on solid research and extensive knowledge of a given subject. The conclusions that those scholars reach may be anathema to anti-theorists, and may personify everything that those critics think is wrong with the academy, but to criticize a scholar's expertise in a field because of the conclusions that they reach is generally an opportunity to make an ass out of yourself.

Cultural conservatives frequently tout critical theory as the end of the academy, the final straw that proves academia is nothing more than a bunch of freeloaders thumbing their noses at everyone who isn't lucky enough to be a professor, which I think is more telling than their rejection of a body of theoretical work that many (most?) of them have not ventured to read, let alone understand. The notion of an academic disconnect from the way that "real" people read things and understand them seems to me not altogether dissimilar from older critiques of those in the ivory tower having the audacity to ask how a work asks questions of its audience, or how historical realities may have affected a given work. If people are interested in reading with an eye towards falling all over Faulkner for his ingenius style or fellating Nabokov for a cleverly turned phrase, be my guest, but don't expect that retrograde position to fly with those who are eyeball deep in the archives trying to understand ideological preoccupations present in either of those works.

Posted by: theorywonk on December 17, 2004 10:40 AM

"Falling all over" and "fellating", eh? You're right, I don't expect my "retrograde" positions to fly with someone who expresses his own position in that style.

To me, the most telling part of your comment is the phrase ". . .if you can't understand how one could be attracted to using critical theory in their work, you don't belong in the profession." I actually can understand how someone could be attracted to critical theory, but that doesn't mean I think that it's a good thing.

I can see how someone could be attracted by any number of destructive and ultimately fruitless activities. Happens all the time. In my scientific research, it's a constant struggle to avoid being distracted by all sorts of engrossing - but likely to be trivial - side investigations. Focusing on the important stuff isn't easy.

And you're quite right: I don't belong in "the profession" as defined. Can we agree to call said profession by some other name than "English literature" so that one can be cleaned up and re-used? "Raceclassgenderpowertrangressivehermeneutics", perhaps? Rolls right off the tongue.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 17, 2004 01:56 PM

I'm sorry I somehow missed this thread the first time around.

1) PC is the trickle down attitude left from the collapse of Marxism. No sane person can still argue for Marxism, but we can continue the misanthropic desire to want to hold the bastards down and make them drink their castor oil.

2) The architectural twist on this is interesting. Architectural fashion in the academy is pure esotericism and ego these days: try reading Peter Eisenman's blatherings, for example. Nevertheless this anti-social public masturbating is felt to be progressive because it aligns itself with the philosophic fathers of PC, ultimately although not overtly, Marx.

3) Wow, D-Lowe and Pedro posting right here on 2blowhards! Is there a blowhard / BLOHARD connection?

Posted by: john massengale on December 19, 2004 11:35 AM

I was trained as an engineer, but I'm now working on defense policy for a non-profit research center.

I'd like to see English departments help students think, write, and talk clearly in English.

I'm no longer surprised by the many people who can't. But I am still appalled by the havoc caused by the combination of unclear writing (or thinking) and governmental authority.

Posted by: Peter Olsen on January 8, 2005 09:08 AM

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