University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a penetrating, but saddening article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It’s called “Narcissus Regards a Book”, and it laments a terrible outcome of the academic culture wars of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Edmunson recalls the infamous chant of students at Stanford—in his rendition, “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Western culture’s got to go”—but focuses not on the impudence of the marchers but on the response of the professors. The youthful ones and their grown-up supporters posed a serious question, Edmundson says. Why read Blake or study Picasso? Why not teach The Simpsons and Stephen King instead, especially as those are so much more relevant to the worlds of 1990s students?
Edmundson’s comment is worth repeating in full:
I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?
It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.
But it did. The media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters. How could it be otherwise? The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness.
Yes, indeed, I recall those times, when “canon” was a dirty word and every professional opportunity in literary studies seemed tinged with edginess and topicality. Nothing seemed more benighted than the one who maintained the division of High Culture and Popular Culture. The invocation of Matthew Arnold (“the best that has been thought and said”), whom Edmundson mentions, would cast you as either a quaint throwback or a dangerous reactionary.
It looks a lot different now, and not just on campus. Edmundson identifies its worst impact outside in the ordinary leisure lives of “our former students” as they became consumers of culture in adulthood. They “went the logical way,” he writes. When their professors would not stand up for a difference between Stephen King and William Blake, they drew the simple conclusion that merit came down to themselves. When their professors did not pose the question of literary value, they still had to make choices and judgments, as all consumers do, and so they placed value somewhere else. “They said: If it makes you feel good, it must be good.” Paradise Lost is a slog—not good. Christine is cool—good. To Edmundson, they licensed youths to ignore the call of tradition and instead hearken only to their own dispositions. The avoidance of those 1990s professors turned the students into narcissists.
It shouldn’t have happened, and surprisingly enough one of the names invoked a thousand times in support of this dismantling of tradition would have had none of it if he were there while the marchers passed by. I mean Jacques Derrida, a man hailed by leftists and reviled by rightists for having undone the grounds of value and judgment, thereby opening the curriculum to radical revision—a mistaken response by both parties. Here is what Derrida said in an interview from 1990.
“I think that students should read what are considered the great texts in our tradition—even if that’s not enough, even if we have to change the canon, even if we have to open the field and to bring into the canonical tradition other texts from other cultures. If deconstruction is only a pretense to ignore minimal requirements or knowledge of the tradition, it could be a bad thing. So when those colleagues complain about the fact that some students, without knowing the tradition, play at deconstruction, try to behave deconstructively, I agree that that’s a mistake, a bad thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”
Yes, Derrida interrogated and challenged and deconstructed traditional texts and motifs in Western philosophy and literature, but he insisted that the action made no sense and couldn’t proceed without deep response and immersion in it.
“I’m in favor of tradition. I’m respectful of and a lover of the tradition. There’s no deconstruction without the memory of the tradition.”
The next time you hear someone cite deconstruction as having upended norms of greatness and brilliance and beauty, use these words of Derrida’s and make the counter-point. Which is: No, the elimination of a canon, the renunciation of tradition, is not a philosophical stance. It is, instead, a shortcut, a way to save you from doing the necessary labor of working through Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, Coleridge, George Eliot . . .