Many years ago, in the late ‘90s, three professors and I met with the undergraduate dean at Emory University to discuss a Great Books proposal. Steven Kautz, a political scientist, led the effort, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Harvey Klehr, and I backed him up. The idea was to build a Great Books track within the undergraduate curriculum whereby if a student took enough approved courses, he could add a certificate to his record. Kautz had lined up funding for the program and promises of cooperation from (to that point) three or four departments.
The dean was cautious. He wasn’t really a humanities guy, and none of us knew him well. Soon afterward, in fact, he left Emory to become head of the Bronx Zoo. Without his approval, though, we couldn’t move forward. He listened to Kautz’s pitch without any show of enthusiasm, simply nodding and posing a logistical query now and then. When Kautz finished, he finally made a substantive suggestion: drop the “Great Books” label.
The Sound of Superiority
He didn’t like the term. I recall him saying something about “Great Books” sounding superior or combative. Professor Kautz didn’t waver on the title, but he didn’t make much of an issue out of it, either. The suggestion trailed off, and we left the dean’s office without any determination one way or the other. As I think back on it now, I can’t conceive of anything we might have said after he offered his criticism that would have gotten past it and left our vision of the program intact. Obviously, we were there because we wanted a mini-curriculum of traditional, Western Civ works available for students interested in that kind of material.
Like everyone everywhere else, we had seen the core of liberal education erode as multiculturalism spread through the professorate and as “education” types called for more student choice in the general requirements for the bachelor’s degree. A policy that allowed a student to take a course on contemporary fiction instead of one on The Odyssey disgusted us. To object to “Great Books” was to ask us to drop our basic philosophy of teaching.
Perhaps that was his intent. A clever bureaucrat doesn’t kill an initiative by beheading it. He goes after a big toe, a small-seeming request or inquest that, in fact, disables the whole project or discourages the leaders of it.
But if that was the case, the resistance didn’t make much sense. After Western Civilization had suffered such a resounding defeat over the course of the 80s and 90s, it seemed bizarre or paranoid for anyone to worry about a tiny re-institutionalization of it. The modesty of our ambitions, which would only touch, most likely, 50 or so students per year, made the anxiety over the very name “Great Books” clearly overdone.
Nothing came of the proposal. Professor Kurtz left Emory awhile later and, I presume, took his idea and funding with him. I never spoke to him about it, but I’m sure the tepid, quibbling response to his initiative spurred him to search the job market for more congenial climes. He should have known better, though, and so should we. As anyone who has attempted such a program has seen, resistance on the part of campus leftists to small and non-competitive projects with a traditionalist flavor is a common occurrence. You must tread carefully to establish something that might smack of reactionary motives, even one that will be beneficial for all and won’t impinge on others’ turf. People are quick to express mistrust and worse.
The dean understood that, and his misgivings should have given us that lesson in resistance. But we could learn it only by not taking his words in earnest. He wasn’t speaking for himself. He was anticipating the reception of the initiative by our colleagues. Administrators, you see, are not the problem (Emory’s leadership has been quite helpful with conservative-oriented programs in recent years). It’s the other professors who don’t want to let it happen, no matter how unambitious the effort. A few weeks later, one of my closest friends at the time, an art historian who was gay and had close ties to Women’s Studies professors (I was still voting Democratic back then), told me that he’d heard Betsy Fox-Genovese was trying to push some conservative program under the radar. “Conservative” here meant “vile.”
The Moral Frame of Victimhood
The professors act this way because they are suffused with ressentiment. Ressentiment is, of course, Nietzsche’s term for a certain state of mind, or rather, a condition of being. He liked the French word because it signified a deeper psychology than the German (and English) equivalent does. Ressentiment is the attitude of slave morality, Nietzsche wrote, the moral formation of one who feels rage and envy but hasn’t the strength or courage to act upon them. A man of ressentiment knows and resents his own weakness and mediocrity, and he hates the sight of greatness, which only reminds the lesser party of his own inferiority. And so he fashions a new moral system whereby victimhood becomes a high badge, suspicion signifies a sensitive eye for justice, and group denunciation of lone dissenters is the surest path to virtue.
I am sure many readers of Minding the Campus have come across these types often in their academic careers. I’ve met them again and again, and a great error of my early academic career was to try to befriend them, or at least to try to lay out some common ground of collegiality. How naïve was that! You don’t ingratiate yourself with people who set their vindictiveness behind an exterior of sympathy for the disadvantaged and hurt ones among us. It obligated me to a degree of grubbing. The dynamic is never straightforward. They speak the words diversity and tolerance and inclusion, but they don’t mean them. In their mouths, those make-nice sounds are weapons of reproach. When you first encounter these colleagues, they seem tentative and probing, but not out of friendly curiosity about who you are. It’s a fraught examination of where you stand, for such creatures are acutely conscious that everyone takes a side, and they want to figure whether you’re with-us-or-against-us. Harold Bloom called them the School of Resentment long ago, and he was absolutely right. It took me awhile—far too long—to figure out that the chips on their shoulders had nothing to do with me, only with something they fancied I represented.
Defeating Male Writers
They won’t leave you alone because your very existence troubles them. One of Nietzsche’s best interpreters, Max Scheler, put it this way: “the origin of ressentiment is connected with a tendency to make comparisons between others and oneself.” They haven’t the integrity to be what they are, accept themselves, and affirm their status. They aren’t comfortable in their own skin. Other people keep reminding them of what they are not, and it bothers them. This explains the characteristic impulse to detract, to find flaws in George Washington and belabor sexism in Paradise Lost. Scheler again: “All the seemingly positive valuations and judgments of ressentiment are hidden devaluations and negations.”
When, for instance, during the Canon Wars of the late-80s a banner was unfurled atop the façade of Butler Library at Columbia showing the names “SAPPHO MARIE de FRANCE CRISTINE de PIZAN SOR JUANA INEZ de la CRUZ BRONTE DICKINSON” above the carved names Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato etc., the organizers weren’t celebrating a female tradition to go along with the male tradition. If that were the case, then students would know more today about the cultural past than they did before. The feminists would have ensured a curriculum that taught students male greats and female greats both. But, no, the real aim was to tear down the male lineage, to displace it and then to forget it. Students today know less about ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages than they did during the ancient regime of the pre-60s. Multiculturalism didn’t enrich the streams of thought and creation. It only blocked the dominant one. And that was the point.
The bare presence of a Great Books program in one unobtrusive corner of the campus concerns them. They can’t help but draw comparisons. The organizers, few and humble though they be, presume to call their materials “great.” Who are they to say so? No question embodies the attitude or ressentiment better than that one. Who are we to judge? What licenses you to decide what’s great? And don’t you know that when you call some things great, you call other things not-so-great?
The adjective hits them as a challenge; their ressentiment asks them to take it personally. Great Books organizers don’t seem to realize that History passed them by, that they were routed and should NEVER return. In 1989, multiculturalists could get irritated and impatient with Great Books requirements. The War was still on. Ten years later, we were supposed to be past the whole shebang, as the title of a 2001 story in The New York Times captured so well: “More Ado (Yawn) about Great Books.”
Fewer Canonical Works, More Diversity
In the School of Resentment, it’s personal—it’s very personal. A couple of years ago, a distinguished literary critic and teacher in the New York area told me a story about a curriculum revision in his department way back in the early 90s. Several people on the faculty set about doing the customary thing—fewer requirements of canonical works and fields, more diversity. My friend, a solid liberal who would never, ever vote Republican, leaned over to the chairman before one meeting started and said something about the necessity of preserving the classics. The chairman said to him that in ranking the classics above other things, he was saying that people who teach the classics are better than people who teach the other things. My friend replied, “That’s one of the stupidest statements I have ever heard.” The chairman didn’t speak to him for five years.
People who suffer from this kind of resentment don’t like to lose. It’s not enough for them to win, either. They don’t even like to have any adversaries. They must defeat the other side, again and again, their envy ever unsatisfied by any single victory. This is the problem they have with Great Books programs. They make the eradication process more difficult for professors of the left. The professors have all the institutional power on their side, it seems, yet these old-fashioned, atavistic conceptions of tradition and greatness keep popping up like weeds through the concrete. They thought they won, and they did, but the triumph they needed had to be absolute.
It’s a tragic situation for them. Professors who sneered at the tweedy fellows who gave us standard editions of Dryden and Hawthorne, approached the traditional curriculum as if their moral make-up were so superior to that of the Old Times, and used diversity as a screen for tearing down the monuments . . . well, they chose the wrong battle. They seized humanities departments, altered the syllabus, and set identity politics at the core of disciplinary know-how, all in an effort to displace Great Books and the appreciation of them. But the aspiration to greatness is written in the human heart—as long as that heart hasn’t been warped by ressentiment (which is itself a twisted respect for greatness). Students and readers, young and old, still want them, and long after this generation of academics is gone, Great Books will be there to edify and entertain the next.
Image: The Great Books – Wikipedia