Gore Vidal, as always, has the words for every cutting opening (see “Hacks of Academe”). The world of ‘the enlightened’ is devoted to books that are written to be taught; they are not written to be read. The captive subjects, undergraduates, only mildly different in caste from particularly well-to-do peons, have no other recourse than to read books whose actual value is nil. The professors, perhaps delusional, fret that their free ride managing their classes of aspiring middle-managers and labyrinths of footnotes will end. This is their insurance policy: insulate the conversation up, and beyond, the point of sense. Write books and allow their cohorts to force payment.
“Why does the academy play such a minor role in guiding popular taste in theater, dance, and music?” bemoaned one recent graduate. Why is it that we can go into our libraries and pull off the shelf works that have not only gone untouched but uncared for? Pnin’s a tragic character, but is that because so many in the humanities see a reflection of themselves?
My answer: probably.
Today I held in my hand two books. One was visionary. Exciting. It was, there is no doubt in my mind, why ‘we’ write history. Max Berger defined art as anything that raises our consciousness to a new level, and if that is the case then this book is simply art. So little of American history is interesting to me. This, however, was a dream. A beautiful dream made moreso by its reality. The other book, however, was a perfect muddle. Repetitious. Incorrect. Tedious. Awful construction. My literary taste is not well-defined. My palette does not need much salve but there is no doubt in my mind that this book has done significant harm to my soul.
It was brought home, loudly and clearly, how far the academe has gotten from its purpose of existence. It is a self-perpetuating (Abyss? Morass? State of mind? I leave the word choice up to you, dear reader), or to quote Cornell West “the Academy feeds on critiques of its own paradigms.” It is, in short, “feeble” and it has never felt more feeble as I numbly flip through paragraphs of history—human life—drained of all meaning.
One was rejected by several ‘academic’ presses. It was deemed too, perhaps this is an unsympathetic interpretation, exciting. It would wake too many students in the classroom and hacks enshrined behind their self-importance. It would teach us that essential rule of history: it is the laboratory, the only laboratory that we are given to test ideas. The book was forced, finally, to ask for a printing by Random House. No academic would touch something that did not have a literature review! Heaven’s no. A book that did not consult the intricate, exclusive system of minutiae that they strain under? Heresy, plain and simple. The other, however, went smoothly through an academic press. It’s been reviewed, well, by all his friends.
One will be thrown into the trashcan by innumerable men and women in my classes. One will be cherished. Does anyone want to guess what one goes where?