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Pride, Prejudice and the Professoriate TENURED RADICALS How Politics Has CorruptedOur Higher Education by Roger Kimball (Harper & Row: $18.95; 224 pp.; 0-06-016190-6) : KILLING THE SPIRIT Higher Education in America by Page Smith (Viking: $19.95; 305 pp; 0-670-82817-3)

April 15, 1990|Donald Lazere | Lazere is professor of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and editor of "American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives" (University of California Press). and

In recent years, a concerted assault has been waged by neoconservative intellectuals--including William J. Bennett (as President Reagan's secretary of education), Allan Bloom, Accuracy in Academia, the National Assn. of Scholars, and New Criterion magazine--against those current professors in the humanities and social sciences whose political attitudes were formed in the protest movements of the '60s.

"Tenured Radicals" by Roger Kimball, managing editor of New Criterion, repeats the standard neocon refrain that academic leftists--Marxists, professors of women's, ethnic and popular culture studies--are guilty of politicizing education to the exclusion of "the ideals of objectivity and the disinterested pursuit of knowledge." Indeed, in Kimball's view, "Their object is nothing less than the destruction of the values, methods and goals of traditional humanistic study."

It may be true, as Kimball charges, that some deconstructionists and other post-structuralist theorists deny any foundation for objective knowledge and any possibility of impartial judgment. Most Politics and Higher Education leftists, however, reject such extreme theories; they only assert that claims of intellectual impartiality frequently mask partiality to conservative politics.

Poor Kimball's own defense of impartiality seems almost designed to prove the leftist case--from his lurid title and tone to his blind hatred of apparently anyone and everyone on the left, to his failure ever to raise the question of possible biases in his own views and those of his sources, who are uniformly conservative allies.

His acknowledgments include the John M. Olin Foundation and the Institute for Educational Affairs "for their generous help in the earlier stages of this project." Yet Kimball does not address the issue of whether sponsorship by such corporate-front foundations might compromise his own objectivity and disinterestedness, or that of all of the other academic and journalistic enterprises (including New Criterion) funded by conservative special interests.

How does Kimball's text itself advance "the values, methods and goals of traditional humanistic study"? Consider the following points in his first four pages of preface alone.

He asserts that during the dispute in 1988 over revision of Stanford's Western Culture course, "Jesse Jackson and some 500 students marched chanting, 'Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture's got to go.' " Kimball does not say whether he was there or who his sources were. Some witnesses say Jackson tried to dissuade the black students from this chant, urging them instead to emphasize minority contributions to Western culture. Did Kimball bother to verify which account was right?

He quotes Houston Baker, a professor of black studies at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying that choosing between Pearl Buck and Virginia Woolf is "no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza. . . . I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.' " Kimball again accepts at face value his source for this quote, an article by Joseph Berger in the New York Times. As it happens, Baker has denied saying anything of the kind, and Berger has admitted putting words in Baker's mouth.

Yet, the infamous Baker quote has been reprinted as evidence of leftist folly by conservative journalists in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times Magazine and National Review--without any questioning of its authenticity. In National Review, Jeffrey Hart, a tenured conservative at Dartmouth, gleefully cited the quote from the book "Profscam" by Charles Sykes--who took it from Berger, again without verifying it. In the same review, Hart lauded Sykes for his exposures of the academic "citation racket" (in which scholars cite each other's citations as gospel, rather than doing their own research); Kimball similarly overlooked this Sykescam in uncritically praising "Profscam" in the New York Times Book Review.

Kimball attacks Duke University for its high-salaried "campaign to arm its humanities departments with the likes of the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson (and his wife, also a Marxist professor) . . . Stanley Fish (and his pedagogically like-minded wife)." Kimball sees no need even to name the wives in question--Susan Willis and Jane Tompkins--let alone to consider their independent academic qualifications. Would Kimball write about "the Bush Administration's campaign to arm the executive branch with the likes of Richard Cheney and his politically like-minded wife" (NEH chairwoman Lynne Cheney)? But, hey, sexism is a delusion of hysterical feminists, right, Kimball?

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