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The Troves of Academe | The Nation

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The Troves of Academe

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"A university," poet John Ciardi acidly observed, "is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students." Add this contemporary counterpunch: A college is what a university becomes when its faculty and administrators lose interest in truth. Though liberal arts colleges don't acknowledge it in the snazzy brochures they express-mail to high school seniors, many elements of all but the best institutions--the modest franchises, the flimsy finances, the self-preservationist instincts of timeserving faculty--subvert the visionary claims historically made on behalf of higher education.

About the Author

Carlin Romano
Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic at large of The Chronicle of Higher Education,...

Also by the Author

As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side

Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded"
nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the
twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to
and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did,
the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York
Times
nonfiction bestseller list. In the
April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly
half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that
middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced,"
"exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid
the issue.

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean
trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist
"nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots.
Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him
for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as
Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One
Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and
again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy
research is often to blame."

David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative
movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas
and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing,
on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on
that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as
honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded
by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings
with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to
understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems
largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as
the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed
emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is
the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated
acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar
throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the
possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a
lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn,
offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and
verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general,
"distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and
large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one
purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however,
and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the
Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing
smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case,
how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of
revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within
eclectic media.

Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing
by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter
gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player.
But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have
swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The
National Review
complimented the author for "collecting the dossier
on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic
department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington
Post
's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research,"
rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's
accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.

So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that
over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers
Weekly
's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed
"right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be
remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a
Conservative
) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown
batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be
considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously
critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what
of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told?
Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course
alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery
Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion
, whose system apparently involved
repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and
better"?

Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could
have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps
rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by
any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it
omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big
lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?

Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer
care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and
counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject
matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to
accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all
that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books,
newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is
entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative
trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors
alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction
books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?

Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing
curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002
America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post-
eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or
left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one
feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly,
unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too
many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so,
and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.

It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an
upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000
electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of
Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm
that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers).
Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the
American Bestseller, 1900-99
(Barnes & Noble), suggests
that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon
Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos
and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do
it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How
to Win Friends and Influence People
, not How to Win Friends,
Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks
. Books by
political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with
Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the
truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the
1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life
Begins at Forty
and Walter Duranty's I Write as I
Please
--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered.
Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's
divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered,
Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on
the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover,
"an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number
one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that
"explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused,
entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg
and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's
over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media
vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra
rocket to the binding.

The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no
fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten
the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger
appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we
organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in
American culture.

Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have
been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even
attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in
person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the
status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel
Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism,
and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which
eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true
that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves
against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense
took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy
the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.

Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not
only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our
gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first
century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as
the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an
unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated
positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and
a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the
down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the
poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the
puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad
infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our
tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment.
Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any
viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In
our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.

TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan
talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk
show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an
exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny
commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be
left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the
culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position"
omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an
interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's
missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant
American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable
texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from
the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like
artists, they're simply expected to arouse.

It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution
to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge.
But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign
rights? Don't even ask.

That "genus gap" between aspirational ideal and quotidian reality may explain what draws protean novelists like Philip Roth and Francine Prose to campus, following in the tracks of such earlier anthropologists as Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell and Bernard Malamud. With the exception of Christian churches, no American institutions provide so much yawning space between appearance and reality for the novelist of manners to explore. Like Christian churches, charged to live up to the Gospel ideal of love with frail humans driven by what-Jesus-wouldn't-do motives, liberal arts colleges--also handicapped by the challenge of getting good help--march to an oratorical drumbeat of truth and free speech designed for great universities, but imposed on less august institutions as well, and portentous enough to put grown women and men to sleep at commencement time.

"He who enters a university walks on hallowed ground," James Bryant Conant declared at the Harvard tercentenary in 1936, and subsequent declaimers of higher-ed ideology have kept the faith. Harvard's Nathan Pusey asserted in the thick of academe's McCarthy-minded fifties that the task was "to keep alive in young people the courage to dare to speak the truth, to be free, to establish in them a compelling desire to live greatly and magnanimously." Robert M. Hutchins likewise declared that the university "is not a kindergarten; it is not a club; it is not a reform school; it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda.... Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching--without these a university cannot exist.... The university exists only to find and to communicate the truth. If it cannot do that, it is no longer a university."

Against those boosterish toasts to the campus as Free Thought U. ran a countertradition of disdain for higher education's mustiness, an attitude already expressed in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations gibe at the university as a "sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every corner of the world." Only in recent times, and distinctively in America, have the university and college been seen as repositories of the new and obnoxiously ephemeral.

Whatever their proper niches in the respective oeuvres of Francine Prose and Philip Roth, the new novels from these prolific masters share this: They precisely inspect a subregion of the American "acascape"--the tony New England liberal arts college--exposing the peculiar corruptions of an environment outsiders frequently consider close to paradise. Both books transcend their settings, expanding into complicated literary accomplishments. But both books also drill home lessons about small-time academe that no April visit to campus, accompanied by your gangly 17-year-old, can provide.

In a freer literary universe, Roth's Coleman Silk and Prose's Ted Swenson would lunch together weekly, swapping the secrets they keep from everyone else. At 71, Coleman (regularly referred to by his first name), is an aging classicist, the longtime dean of Athena College in the Berkshires, who resigned under pressure two years before to end a political-correctness soap opera. After two registered students missed his class for the first few weeks of term, Coleman asked aloud, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" The truants, who turned out to be black, filed charges over the "racial slur." It was a lie that Coleman intended anything racial, trusted old narrator Nathan Zuckerman assures us, but lies thrive in the biased systems of small colleges like Athena. Coleman's defense that he employed old-fashioned diction for "ghosts" is worthless against enemies like Delphine Roux, the 30ish politically correct chair of languages and literature whom he hired despite their instant mutual dislike. So Coleman, known for his "bulldozing vanity and autocratic ego," simply quit, "an act not of capitulation but of outraged protest, a deliberate manifestation of his unwavering contempt."

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