Those Little Bard Torquemadas

A recent Wall Street Journal article told of how Bard College, my alma mater, has tasked three undergraduates, funded by the school’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, to peruse the college’s 400,000-book library and evaluate “… each book for representations of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and ability.” According to the library’s newsletter, this evaluation was the first step in “decanonizing”—breaking the connection to the past—the stacks and, ultimately, exorcizing some ill-defined toxic miasma (though, to be fair, Bard library director Betsy Cawley insisted that no book was to be removed).

That being said, the message remains clear: Bard is building a new and politically updated Librorum Prohibitorum, or a catalogue of prohibited books. One library spokesperson said that this measure is necessary since these books “…are written mostly by straight white men, are a physical manifestation of white men ideas taking up all the space in our library stacks.” (Confession: I have several books in the library’s “alumni collection” but, so far, I’ve not been “deaccessioned”).

Culling “bad” books from libraries is as old as libraries themselves, so Bard’s textual purge is hardly novel. It’s all a question of whose books get removed and how the cleansing is justified. Still, acknowledging this history hardly excuses outbreaks of censorship, and proponents of intellectual openness should at least monitor those rooting out alleged evil. One can only wonder how three undergraduates—Bard’s little Torquemadas—can digest hundreds of thousands of books on subjects well beyond their intellectual expertise.

Moreover, Bard is hardly unique—similar ventures targeting “stereotypes” and “domination” by cis-gendered white males have already occurred at Loyola Marymount University and the University of California Irving (for more on anti-racist ideology in libraries, see here). In 2019, Quebec public schools removed 4,700 books from their libraries for alleged “outdated” content and negative stereotypes. Thirty were burned in public.

Now, where is the American Library Association (ALA), an organization ostensibly opposed to any and all censorship of libraries? Will this venerable organization condemn Bard’s drift toward censorship? Alas, if one visited the ALA’s own bookstore, the censorious-minded would happily find Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries, a goldmine for would-be defenders of the Faith. Its message is crystal clear:

This collection explores the ways in which academic libraries are working to address the historic legacies of colonialism, in the context of decolonizing the curriculum and the university. It acknowledges and explores the tensions and complexities around the use of the term decolonization, how it relates to other social justice aims and approaches, including critical librarianship, and what makes this work specific to decolonization.

It’s hardly surprising, of course, to watch Goodthink librarians condemn the removal of Critical Race Theory texts while simultaneously purging books authored by white males (at least those white males who are pre-woke or who don’t toe the party line).

[Related: “The Greatness the Professors Denied”]

Escaping such inconsistency will not be easy, but rest assured, librarians are skilled wordsmiths, and the hemming and hawing has already begun. One Bard library representative announced that the project was designed “to increase our understanding of our collection, not to remove books.” Maybe just attach a trigger warning on books authored by the patriarchy. Perhaps the ALA will claim that it just sells a how-to manual on censorship in its bookstore, but this hardly officially endorses censorship. Narrative Expansion, the ALA might claim, only provides a choice, and who can oppose choice?

Unfortunately, what has occurred at Bard should not be viewed as yet one more wacky outlier at a pricey liberal arts college. Today’s academy is a petri dish of intellectual insanity, and crackpot ideas often escape the lab. Past experiences are clear: there is no such thing as crying wolf when the woke are on the march. Professional librarians may well object to this politicization, but they are easily pushed aside. Today’s social justice warriors may soon multiply into an army of the righteous committed to decanonizing. Make no mistake—the academy itself is at stake. Think about the current mania over banishing statutes of Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and similar icons of American history. So much for an idea once judged too crazy to be taken seriously.

This detoxification of libraries will inexorably undermine the publishing industry, which in turn will destroy the careers of young scholars struggling up the academic ladder. Today’s academic publishers already have enough financial problems, and with library acquisition budgets tight, why should librarians risk ordering a soon-to-be-demonized book due to the author’s sex, race, and/or sexuality? In fact, buying this book may endanger one’s own career by aiding and abetting the white, heteronormative patriarchy. Library acquisition now becomes a political act—who wants to be on the wrong side of history? And, for good measure, no outsider will ever know which books were neglected due to the author’s oppressor status. This is the perfect weapon in the culture war: kill the enemy with no witnesses.

Now, with libraries removed from the marketplace, good luck to the junior faculty with the “wrong” demographics seeking a publisher, regardless of manuscript quality. Even if one is of the “right” demographics, simply doubting the official narrative on race, gender, social class, ableism, and all the rest may mean self-publishing on Amazon, a choice that counts for zero at tenure time.

The chocking of book publishing outlets will be felt long before the manuscript is submitted. Department recruitment committees, particularly at better schools that stress publication records, evaluate assistant professor candidates with an eye toward future tenure decisions. Junior faculty will be doomed from the start if review committees beyond the department demand a book or two from a name-brand publisher. And good luck explaining to the committee members how things have changed since the era when book publishing was far more open to those with the “wrong” demographics.

[Related: “Campus’ Disappearing White Males: The MacArthur Awards”]

The ramifications will likely extend to those still in graduate school. Many faculty know “the talk”: “Listen, Fred. You’re brilliant, and I’m sure you can be a productive scholar at a top school, but due to factors you have no control over, you will have troubling getting into print, and that is the coin of our profession, so do yourself a favor …” At best, Fred will be advised to steer clear of anything “controversial,” and if necessary, to fill his articles with woke boilerplate to appease the commissars.

Meanwhile, a different talk will be given to those with a more “diverse” genetic profile. These fortunate future academics will be told that publishers are hungry for their scholarship thanks to libraries’ need for books authored by the previously excluded. Better yet, with a little revising, their dissertation could be published as a scholarly monograph, which may be sufficient for tenure at a decent school.

All in all, Bard’s decanonization may be just the beginning—from a little microbe, a mighty plague is born. Defenders of free speech will correctly claim that while these purged books may be few in number and are likely available from non-traditional outlets, the deeper impact will be on the composition of the academy. A Bard student who wants to read my Bad Students, Not Bad Schools, if and when it is de-acquisitioned by the college, may find a cheap used copy on Amazon, but buying it hardly supports the publisher. My publisher (Transaction Press) wants libraries to buy new copies, and when libraries dread adding such books to the stacks, publishers will likely reject the manuscript.

Don’t underestimate those little Torquemadas at Bard. They probably have scant idea of what they are reading, but they are a harbinger of things to come. Their labor will shape the future professoriate and, more importantly, will determine future knowledge.


Image: Giammarco, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

14 thoughts on “Those Little Bard Torquemadas

  1. The author notes, “One can only wonder how three undergraduates—Bard’s little Torquemadas—can digest hundreds of thousands of books on subjects well beyond their intellectual expertise.”

    Of course they can’t. It’s an impossible job IF what you’re interested in is actually “digesting” the content of those hundreds of thousands of books.

    But the impossibility has nothing to do with their age or educational bonafides. Heck, put 100 Professors Emeritus there instead and the task is still impossible. It’s impossible both because NO small collection of readers could possibly manage hundreds of thousands of volumes (the magnitude problem)…and because NO small collection of readers (of any academic level) could possibly have the expertise to digest hundreds of thousands of subjects (the intellectual problem). The more you know about one thing, the less you know about almost everything else.

    This inability to grasp the content of libraries in detail is actually what made them libraries, repositories of thought even if you, me, those people over there didn’t actually understand or care about that particular thought. Not so much any more.

    So how could Bard (or any school) set themselves such an impossible challenge?

    Because the challenge is not to ‘digest’ or understand ANYTHING. As a matter of fact seeking understanding in this culling would actually stand in the way of completing the primary task (and would probably pollute the Torquemadas with Bad Thought!). The real challenge here is data management: the sifting for key words to allow efficient author categorization: Woke & UnWoke. I don’t need to read Twain to know his books must be de-canonized. All I need to do is see a single word that I don’t even need to mention. DONE. Twain is on the Bad List

    Any heterosexist White Male writing before 2000 is automatically questionable…if only because they occupy a place undoubtedly stolen from BIPOC’s, Women, and the Sexually Fluid. Any work deemed worthy by Old Thought must be unworthy by Woke Thought. If the canon is to be de-canonized then everything which created the canon (i.e. Western Civilization and its Cultural Standards) becomes by definition fruit of the Old White Guy Poisoned Tree. Shun it!

    Four Undergrads running word search programs by algorithm for the entire College library? The question is not how can they do justice to such a monumental thing but why on earth would it take more than a week or two to complete?

    China’s Red Guard during their own Cultural Revolution went about the same task (much the same way wildfires go about curating forests), attacking what they called The Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas….what Bard would call the Canon….the ‘toxic miasma created by White Men and their Toxic Ideas’. THAT Red Guard killed millions as they sought Mao’s prescribed ideological clarity. I think this will be much less messy, don’t you? I mean Bard, et al, doesn’t want firing squads on the Quad, for goodness sake.

    Besides — we’ll all feel so much better when they’re done (at least until the next purge).

  2. World Cat shows Weissberg’s _Bad Students_ in no less than 341 libraries — hardly scarce and inaccessible. Many copies are located in some of the largest and most eminent libraries in the country, research collections never likely to purge books for their content. In time, the book (a product of its time by appearances) would end up in remote storage, but would remain cataloged and available for any and all seekers. Weissberg also fails to mention the major digitizing projects of two decades ago which put many titles in the public domain at the fingertips of average, even unskilled, computer users.

    As for the issues of selection bias, collection management and so on, yes indeed, the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom must battle most frequently with its own membership, no doubt about it. As for publishers, and academic advancement: none of this is news, we all know that in Academia fashion comes and goes.

  3. Keep in mind when your watch this 1933 news footage that most of those you see removing and burning books are German college students. Most of those books were written by a particularly successful CIS white male group—Germany’s (white) Jewish men. They made up only 1% of the German population, but had been awarded some 25% of the country’s Noble Prizes.

    What this students were protesting was “Jew privilege,” which is not that different from “white privilege.” At the same time measures were being taken to rid German education of “Jewish physics” (think of Einstein). Again, that is much like today’s screes against “white math.”

    That is bosh. Physics is physics, math is math, and white men have said much that we need to study and learn from.

    Here is that news footage and its historical background: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHzM1gXaiVo

  4. I hope the people here who are rightly alarmed by my fellow librarians falling prey to political ideology will also recognize that many of the politically charged conservatives who claim to be in favor of free speech/inquiry also engage in the same sort of social construction thinking as to how ideas corrupt our values and fear diverse ideas when they try to ban critical race theory or books/teaching outside of conservative values and claim some ideas are too corrosive of our values to permit an airing. Ideological conservatives are also interested in clamping down on any ideas that attack their moral certainties. No ideologues are the friends of open inquiry. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend and the answer to the ideological certainties of one set of moral scolds isn’t to throw your lot in with another.

    1. I equate CRT & 1619 with the rantings of David Duke — trash that ought not be taught. Likewise the purported “scholarship” of the Eugenics clowns of a century ago.

      I do not fear these ideas but to compare that to supporting race-based Nazi-like book-burnings is beyond reason.

    2. Brian, are you aware that CRT blames white people (and even children) for almost all the historic evils of humanity? In the case of this country, it does NOT blame the Democratic party, which championed Indian relocation, slavery, segregation, WWI censorship, WWII concentration camps, and now legalized abortion, which disproportionally kills black babies. It blames the completely innocent and yet allows the truly guilty to get off free. Your ‘moral equivalence’ is silly beyond belief. It cannot justify lies, slanders, and a grotesque coverup. Do you realized that truth matters? Apparently not.

    3. Very true. Ideologies (political and otherwise) should have no place in the continuing effort to build and maintain good Libraries. No true librarian would ever disagree.

      But there is a critical difference between holding a book in a library as ideological reference, and using that text to preach & convert. Every university should have in its stacks, Das Kapital & Mein Kampf….but we should be concerned if we were to discover either being taught, not as historical works, but as guides to social activism.

      We must also distinguish between collegiate/adult libraries designed for adult audiences and Grade School / Middle School Libraries and curriculums designed to educate and develop young children.

      Critical Race Theory….Anti-Racism….”Culturally Responsive Instruction” (the wording I saw today)…whatever it’s name… the race hatred celebrated by Kendi & the 1619 Project… has no place in the education of children.

      For an adult, certainly, there is no idea which is “too corrosive” to permit an airing. But as adults who enjoy the right to free speech we equally owe our children protection and insulation from ‘free speech’ that we believe would be, indeed, corrosive and damaging. This difference is critical and it is the difference between maturity and immaturity… between youth and age….innocence and experience.

      Said differently, there is indeed a limit to the kinds of open inquiry we allow a 9 yr. old. They are not free (as we are free). And every parent is and should continue be a moral scold. I would hope you would agree.

      1. Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 classrooms; it is taught in law schools. Along with several other theories that see the world through specific lenses: Chicago School economic theory, Marxism, feminist theory, Christian interpretations of the law, and so forth.
        What is taught in K-12 classrooms is history, and there is now a movement to make sure that it is not a history cloaked in denial of what was done to enslaved Black people. I, a fairly conservative parent, am fine with that.

  5. Better buy up all the Great Books you can right now. The libraries now, the publishers and booksellers are next. If we want to preserve these for future generations, we need them in private collections.

  6. Agreed, Patti and Dr. Ed. What Prof. Weissberg describes is happening at my university’s library as well. It is a disgrace.

  7. Mr. Weissberg states “though, to be fair, Bard library director Betsy Cawley insisted that no book was to be removed”.

    For now.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many university library staff think people are just plain stupid and will accept whatever they are told. Why do the books need to be identified if the the ultimate goal is not to remove them? It will only be a matter of time before some activist student group—aided and abeted by woke faculty no doubt—will demand they be removed to “create a more inclusive and welcoming environment” on campus.

  8. So they are burning books now — do they not remember who was doing that 90 years ago?

    And what is the difference between burning books because they were written by Jews and burning them because they were written by cisgendered White men?

    This will not end well…

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