An Open Letter to the Students of Harvard
Anyone concerned with the future of literature and art in America should be repelled by that witch's brew of hypocrisy and sanctimony called "political correctness," which as poisoned the professional life of elite colleges and universities. If there is to be a spiritual and intellectual revival, the students must do it. The academic establishment, paralyzed by cronyism, greed and moral cowardice, incapable of reforming itself.
For 25 years, I have watched from a distance as Harvard's distinguished tradition of literary scholarship self-destructed. In 1968, when I left college I attended the State University of New York at Binghamton, the graduate English programs of Harvard and Yale were nationally rated as equivalent in stature. Accepted at both, I chose Yale rather than Harvard, since Harvard required graduate students to teach--a questionable practice that Harvard senior faculty to minimize contact with undergraduates.
My Sixties generation, with its irreverence and confrontational style, was determined to make profound changes in America's political and cultural life. Education in the humanities had become narrow and desiccated, imprisoned by an overspecialized, overdepartmentalized curricular structure.
Those of us most influenced by popular culture, psychedelia and the sexual revolution felt that the universities had lost touch with reality. We wanted to end their authoritarian control of our private lives. And we were militant about free speech, which had inspired the first student demonstrations at Berkeley.
What is most disgusting about current political correctness on campus is that its proponents have managed to convince their students and the media that they are authentic Sixities radicals. The idea is preposterous. Political correctness, with its fascist speech codes and puritanical sexual regulations, is a reactionary reversal of Sixties progressive values. except for Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin, not a single Sixties political activist of my age holds a tenured professorship at any of the elite schools, coast to coast.
On the contrary, the boldest and most original Sixties people either did not go on to graduate school or refused to play the sycphntic career game required for advance in academe.
The Ivy League literature faculty now in their forties are chronologically my generation, but they made their way up the ladder not because they were of the Sixties but because they were of the Sixties but because there was nothing Sixties about them. I know, because I was in graduate school with these characters. I saw how they operated. The never challenged or threatened the status quo--which is exactly why they were hand picked to succeed the conservative old guard.
In literary studies, text-centered New Criticism had reached a dead end by the late Fifties and needed to be widened and deepened, trough the study of history and sexuality, respectively. Major North American writes who helped Sixties students rechart the mental landscape in inter disciplinary terms were Allen Ginsberg, Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLunan and Leslie Fiedler.
But my fellow graduate students, far from absorbing these radical thinkers, ran off after dull, pedantic European poststructuralists, who were trapped in cynical semantic mindgames that my generation had ditched when we substituted Elvis Presley for gloom and doom Samuel Beckett. Despite their inflated reputations, none of the French theorists, including Foucaults, is competent at speculation about either history or sexuality. Those who claim otherwise are naively credulous or uninformed.
I will give just one vivid example of the opportunistic trend-chasing that the Ivy league has systematically cally rewarded with its ultimate honors. A prominent woman literature professor at Harvard obtained her present position as a devout disciple of Deride and Paul de Man, an affiliation that changed only in the late Eighties when it was revealed that de man was a Nazi sympathizer. For this and other reasons, deconstruction began to sink.
Suddenly, this woman jumped into feminism and, incredibly, African American studies--neither of which, as the paper trail of her books shows, she had any prior interest in. The shameless chameleon display was capped off by her melodramatic avowal, at a 1991 Harvard rally, of her lesbianism, a p persuasion that had become politically chic.
Pardon my contempt. As the only openly gay person at the Yale graduate school, I paid the career price for my pre-Stonewall candor. Where were all these lesbians when it mattered? They stayed in the closet until tenure--and other people' sacrifices--made it safe to come out and claim the spoils. The then-bizarre themes of my dissertation, Sexual Personae--homosexuality, transvestism, transsexualism, sadomasochism--also ensured that no research university would hire me. I am only one of incalculable numbers of members of my generation whose fidelity to Sixties principles led to their exclusion from the establishment. That is tolerable, since we disdain money and status. What is intolerable is that frauds and poseurs, who rejected radical American culture to make shiny new gods out of boring French theorists, should now claim to be the heirs of Sixties though. Political correctness is the obscene clumsines of johnny come latelies who never understood and therefore criminally distort the Sixties.
The bottom fell out of the Harvard literature departments in the Seventies. They had failed to find new blood to continue Harvard's reputation into the next generation, while Yale, after a bitter battle with undertones of anti-Semitism, secured Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, followed by several figures from Johns Hopkins.
Harvard waited too long to respond contemporary changes; no younger faculty of Bloom's age came remotely near the education and superb scholarship of Douglas Bush, Harry Levin and Walter Jackson Bate, Luminaries of Harvard's recent past. The English department nearly went into receivership. Ten years after I entered grad school, Harvard's reputation in literature hit rock bottom.
Desperate, the Harvard administration went on a fast shopping expedition and filled the faculty with the current hot property, theorists, many of them women, as an affirmative action sop. Now you're stuck with them.
Theory is moribund everywhere, but Harvard, which sacrificed scholarly standards for expedience, has condemned itself to at least two generations of mediocrity in the humanities, since these people are certain to hire only those who will prop up their decaying reputations.
Harvard students are sadly mistaken if they think the literature faculty currently in their thirties and forties are the best America has to offer. Not one was chosen strictly for scholarly accomplishment. Not one came to Harvard through honest means. They are without exception products of the cliquish conference circuit, a crassly commercial phenomenon that arose in the Seventies, as a result of the recession. Their work, under its hip varnish, is shoddy and shallow.
When will Ivy League students wake up to the corruption that is all around them? The leftist press in America has been grossly negligent in not identifying and attacking the slick career system that has made deception, pretension and manipulation business-as-usual in the humanities for 20 years.
Economic analysis should be the first principle of authentic leftism. Phony, obfuscatory, elitist French theory became the ticket to ride for an amoral, overpaid, overpraised coterie that is incestuously interconnected from Berkeley and Duke to Princeton and Harvard. These days, its pashas pretend to be doing "cultural studies," an amateurish mishmash of this and that, without scholarly command of any area.
Student newspapers, which used to question authority and attack the establishment, have been lazily oblivious to a national scandal equal to that of the Wall Street Junk-bond crash.
The solution is in your hands. You can bring learning back to the center of the university. You can end the era of gimmicky theory. You can demand that quality of scholarship, rather than slick wordplay, be the standard for employment at Harvard.
How? First make the library your teacher. Rediscover the now neglected works of the major scholars of the last 150 years, who worked blessedly free of the mental pollutants of poststructuralism. Mine the reference collection, and master chronology and etymology. Immerse yourself religiously in great art. Refuse to cooperate with the coercive ersatz humanitarianism that insultingly defines women and African-Americans as victims.
Insist on free thought and free speech. Offensiveness is a democratic right. The university should be organized around vigorous intellectual inquiry, not therapy or cozy creature comforts.. Harvard has become a nursing home for kids.
I have elsewhere detailed my proposals for massive reform of the university: an end to departmentalization of literature by nationalities; sex studies, rather than the overideological and unscientific women's studies and gay studies; and a world plan for a truly scholarly and depoliticized multiculturalism, based on comparative religion, archaeology, art history and anthropology.
The liberal versus conservative argument is pointless and passe. Its rhetoric has simply concealed the venality and sycophancy of the academic marketplace, which has in actuality driven the conflicts of the past 15 years.
In the twenty-first century, we will want something new. But there has to be a balance between tradition and innovation. it is my secret hope that the students of the Nineties, in finding their own way, may fulfill the broken dreams of the Sixties.
Camille Paglia is Professor of Humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is author of Sexual Personae (1990) and Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992).