The traditional ideal of the professor—a vaguely eccentric, impractical seeker of truth always teetering, like the Greek philosopher Thales, on the brink of some well or other—has all but disappeared. Though obviously a caricature, this stereotype at least captured the essence of what a professor should be: someone whose life is passionately consumed with the pursuit of ideas, knowledge, and truth as goods worthy in themselves, apart from any practical benefits; and someone who is equally passionately dedicated to the speaking of that truth through writing and teaching. Such a creature will be an irritant to the rest of society and stand apart from its dominant values. After all, this pursuit of truth necessarily is critical and often dissenting, for the other institutions of society too often are comfortable with a false knowledge that, though emotionally and economically gratifying, nonetheless has pernicious long-term effects. Like Socrates, then, the true professor should be annoying and disquieting, for he continually questions the received wisdom with which his fellows insulate their lives.
As I say, this type of professor has nearly disappeared. These days homo academicus is no longer a descendent of Thales and Socrates, but instead springs from the loins of Mammon. There are many causes for his disappearance, the most obvious being the politicization of the professoriate that has sacrificed the pursuit of ideas and truth on the altar of various supposedly liberating ideologies the professor now fancies himself to serve. Seventy years ago, Julien Benda wrote a book whose title still accurately describes and judges this phenomenon: The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (La trahisons des clercs). In Benda’s day nationalism was the ideology that intellectuals served at the expense of their duty “to urge their fellow beings to other religions than the religion of the material.” Today a strange amalgam of therapeutic leftist politics and postmodern anti-rationalism has become the false god to which many academic intellectuals have sacrificed their calling.
Anyone still in doubt that the professoriate, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, can be politically characterized in this way should pick at random a recently published scholarly book or article and examine the political and philosophical assumptions it betrays. Consider, for example, the following statement about the significance for us of Sophocles’ Ajax, from a recent “cutting edge” collection of essays purporting to demonstrate the efficacy of postmodern theory for the study of classics:
But I think we too in our culture need to come to grips with our deep emotional investments in our own John Waynes [and other] figures whose essential brutality, moral obtuseness, and gender-based emotional blockage we are constantly invited to forgive…. And why? Perhaps because we are dimly aware that, as a society, our privileges derive from the genocide of Native Americans, from the crushing of Japan, the devastation of Korea and Vietnam, and—not least—from the systematic brutal repression of the criminal element at home effected for us by our military and detective heroes.
The astonishing historical ignorance of these sentences, their reductive, trite psychologizing, their unearned assumption of moral superiority, sadly are all too typical of most academic writing, where this same multiculturalist myth of history as therapeutic melodrama—in which wicked Caucasian Westerners brutalize and oppress peace-loving “peoples of color”—is told and retold with the robotic fervor of airport cult-solicitors.
The pervasiveness of these attitudes in the university is so obvious one wonders why anybody bothers to deny it anymore. Not just in scholarly writing or the class syllabus, but in every document most universities generate, in every event they sponsor, in every program they tout and fund, the mantras of multiculturalism are chanted as talismanic charms to ward off accusations of Eurocentric elitism and hegemonic pretensions. What is lost in this eager adherence to a questionable ideology, of course, is the sense of the university’s mission to encourage “the free play of the mind on all subjects,” as Matthew Arnold put it, and to foster the “instinct prompting [the mind] to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever.” These days what is taught is driven instead by “identity politics”: that is, whatever gratifies the sensibilities, esteem, and prejudices of various state-certified victims and their self-selected tribunes, who profit in institutional power from their presumed representation of the “oppressed” and “exploited.”
The net result is an illiberalism diametrically opposed to the liberal education to which professors supposedly are dedicated, and an antihumanism that challenges the fundamental assumptions of modern democracy and its bedrock of human rights inhering in rational, autonomous individuals alone. Here too Benda was prophetic: he saw in the traitorous intellectuals of his day—many of whom, remember, would go on to contribute to the fascist and Communist barbarity of the thirties and forties—a scorn for universalism, a fetishizing of “liberationist” practicality over spiritual concerns, and an idolatry of ethnic particularism and “cultural” specificity all similar to the modern multiculturalist ideology.
But our clerks today are afflicted as well by something equally destructive of liberal education: the juvenile epistemic, ethical, ontological, and linguistic nihilism of postmodernism and post-structuralism. That postmodernism and multiculturalism are essentially self-canceling and fundamentally irreconcilable makes no difference to the poorly educated and inadequately trained academics who dominate the humanities and social sciences and who, as E. P. Thompson noted years ago, suffer from an “amateurish intellectual preparation [that] disarms them before manifest absurdities and elementary philosophical blunders.”
Yet we would be mistaken to attribute the decline of the professor merely to a sixties-inspired fall into politics and the morbus Gallicus of postmodern theory. The charge that “tenured radicals” have corrupted the university from within in order to promote a leftist agenda, while partially true, obscures the larger developments in education that have brought us to this pass. And it provides the politically correct professors with a flattering foundation-myth about their daring “rebellion” against the “establishment.” Rather than rebels, the politicized professors are “company men,” as Camille Paglia puts it, “Rosencrantz and Guildensterns, privileged opportunists who rode the wave of fashion.” They have eagerly assimilated themselves to the bureaucratized university and its hierarchical systems of rewards and pelf, and it is here that we must look to find the deeper reasons for the professor’s decline—in the decades-long transformation of the university from a haven of truth-seekers dispensing liberal education, into a utilitarian industry, a profit-making trainer of technicians.
For most of this century the university has had to defend liberal education against the utilitarian bias. But the opportunities for acquiring money and prestige from a traditionally impecunious profession accelerated with the rapid growth of higher education driven by post-war prosperity, the G.I. Bill, the peculiar American doctrine of higher education as an entitlement for everybody, and the perception that American students were falling behind our Cold War and economic rivals. This growth led to the creation of institutions structured on corporate bureaucratic models with their division of labor and administrative hierarchies and unions. And it was all financed by vast infusions of federal money via grants to students and universities alike, with the result that by the early nineties sixty percent of the budget for all of higher education, both public and private, came from the federal government.
The post-war explosion of university growth had disastrous effects on the quality of the professoriate. To meet expanding demand, professors had to be manufactured very quickly to staff the new “colleges” and “universities” being created by Oz-like fiat out of old normal schools and state colleges. The result was creeping mediocrity, as standards for students and professors alike had to be debased to accommodate the vast numbers of both. As Martin Andersen has pointed out, the qualities that make for a genuine academic intellectual are rare—at least as rare as the qualities that make for a National Basketball Association player. Imagine what would happen to the quality of play in the NBA if we suddenly expanded the number of teams from 30 to 3000 and guaranteed even mediocre players not just jobs but starting roles for life, and you can see what has happened to higher education in the last 50 years.
Meanwhile, the sheer abundance of money and the proliferation of opportunities for grabbing it transformed the university into just another venue of opportunism and self-aggrandizement. The “absentminded professor” was increasingly replaced by the lupine educrat, who thought not in terms of the impractical development of the individual student’s critical consciousness and cultural literacy, but in terms of power, prestige, institutional expansion, and money—obsessions almost always destructive to the nonutilitarian, quirky, eccentric values of liberal education.
Along with the new class of education administrators, however, faculty have been just as aggressive in nosing up to the rich trough subsidized by the federal government and plutocrat philanthropies. Many have become what Robert Nisbet has called “the academic capitalist, the professorial entrepreneur, the new man of power.” Charles J. Sykes calls him “Academic Man, this strange mutation of 20th-century academia who has the pretensions of an ecclesiastic, the artfulness of a witch doctor, and the soul of a bureaucrat.” Rather than committed to the life of the mind, to speaking the truth as he knows it, the Academic Capitalist is dedicated instead to career advancement and the acquisition of ever greater perks, status, and money in the form of cushier appointments at more prestigious universities, reduced teaching loads, grants from government and robber-baron trust funds, consulting contracts with industry, and sinecures at institutes and think-tanks. This goal occupies his time and energy, leaving little of both for the classroom. And it shapes his research, which now must be what Nisbet calls “conspicuous research,” significant not for quality but for quantity, driven not by the demands of truth and new knowledge but by the prejudices, ideologies, and dogmas of those determining who gets published, who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets tenured, who gets to go to conferences and “network” for better jobs, who gets invited to think-tanks and institutes and centers, and who gets the grant and fellowship. Conformism is more rewarded than originality, and intellectual fad and fashion are more important than truth. Rather than a reproach to a utilitarian, materialist society, the professor has become just another opportunist on the make, hungry for material rewards.
Given the ubiquity of academic capitalism, the conservative specter of ex-sixties radicals or postmodern subversives undermining the university from within misses the point. They are subversive, but not of the reigning values and orthodoxies of the amoral, philistine corporate marketplace into which they have smoothly assimilated themselves. After all, ethical relativism, epistemic nihilism, the therapeutic imperative, and the multicultural expansion of consumer choices are all not just compatible with, but essential to, the new global economic order.” Rather, careerist “tenured radicals” are subversive of the old-fashioned values of liberal education, of the life of the mind and critical consciousness, neither of which are immediately practical or profitable, and both of which are the deadliest enemies of what George Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies.” Nothing could be further from critical consciousness than the slavish worship of authority displayed by your typical postmodern academic, a habit of mind inculcated from the very first day of graduate school and evident in his deference to second-rate French windbags like Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault.
Thus the motley crew of Marxists, squishy leftists, radical feminists, deconstructionists, social constructionists, multiculturalists, and other postmodern warriors against patriarchal corporate hegemony are really nothing more than the court jesters of consumer capitalism, their antics tolerated because they are themselves implicated in the system’s careerist values and rewards as much as their conservative brethren. They are the devotees of Mammon, the real face of the god beneath the patina of leftist politics and postmodern cant. Unsuited, most of them, to the life of the mind and the genuine professor’s devotion to ideas and truth, and crippled by mediocre training and trivial overspecialization, their mediocrity nonetheless is rewarded by a hierarchical bureaucracy that values conformity, process, and petty prestige over substance. Is it any wonder that they embrace incoherent ideas, write so poorly, and are incapable of engaging a nonspecialist audience and firing it with enthusiasm for their subject matter and its importance?
If I am correct about the state of the professoriate, then indeed the light is dimming, and night quickly approaches. Whether it comes from the multicultural Left and its desire to transform students into “new men” with the politically-correct values, or whether it comes from the economic right and its need for more technicians to man the new world order, the utilitarian imperative today is ever more powerful and confident. Even as we speak, institutions across the land, mouthing the shibboleths of cost-effectiveness and better “customer” service, are looking to technology—e-mail, videocassettes, television—as the way to “deliver product” to their “consumers” who are eager for job-training and career advancement. The virtual university of the future will have no need for the old-fashioned professor, that quirky, troublesome, impassioned seeker of truth, the Socratic gadfly who speaks that truth to power and strips away its illusions; who believes, like Socrates, that “the unexamined life is no life worthy of a human being” no matter how materially prosperous it is; who believes passionately that critical consciousness is the best guarantor of the individual’s freedom and autonomy. What dark consequences will follow the silencing of his dissenting voice, we can only imagine.
Bruce S. Thornton is the author of Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality and Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge.
1. The Treason of the Intellectuals, trans. Richard Aldington (New York, 1928), xi.
2. Peter W. Rose, “Historicizing Sophocles’ Ajax,” in History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama, ed. Barbara Goff (Austin, 1996), 75.
3. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in Selected Prose, ed. P.J. Keating (Harmondsworth, 1970), 141-42.
4. Benda, 79, 103, 117.
5. The Poverty of Theory (New York, 1978), 3.
6. In “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” 1991; rpt. in Sex, Art, and American Culture (New York, 1992), 210.
7. For a brief history see Russell Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America (New York, 1994), 92-119.
8. See George Roche, The Fall of the Ivory Tower: Government Funding and the Bankrupting of American Higher Education (Washington, D.C., 1994), 72.
9. See Impostors in the Temple (New York, 1992), 32.
10. The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970 (New York and London, 1971), 75.
11. Proscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (Washington, D.C., 1988), 4-5.
12. Nisbet, 109. Emphases omitted.
13. For an analysis of how careerism has destroyed Classics see Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (New York, 1998).
14. Radical multiculturalists understand this: cf. David Theo Goldberg, who identifies a “corporate multiculturalism” that is really the ideology “of a centrist academy and multinational corporations that take themselves to be committed to the broad tenets of philosophical liberalism,” in “Introduction: Multicultural Conditions,” Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, Mass.: 1994), 7.