The Troves of Academe
The surface truth about Athena and Euston is that a college campus today may be the least safe place in America to speak dangerously: less safe than a TV talk show, less safe than a newspaper, less safe than drive-time radio. Comprehensive studies--from Ellen Schrecker's No Ivory Tower, about redbaiting in the fifties, to The Shadow University by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, on speech codes in the eighties and nineties--make that no cultural epiphany. On some campuses, academic freedom means freedom for professors to hide when issues of principle threaten business as usual.
But Prose and Roth itemize deeper illnesses on campus, not just knee-jerk PC conclusions and stereotypical faculty cowardice. When Coleman and Delphine Roux try to talk, every contrarian remark by either seems a conversation-ender. ("Coleman, you've been out of the classroom for a long time."/"And you haven't been out of it ever.") When the Euston English department gathers at Dean Francis Bentham's house for a "check-up" dinner, the small talk evolves into an exchange of uncomfortable classroom moments about gender, capped by Swenson's incendiary solution, which comes back to bite him: "Lock them in a room and shout dirty words at them until they grow up."
To both Prose and Roth, the college campus seems a halfway house between rambunctious real life and the microscopic nosiness of the courtroom. It exhibits all the attention to detail, sensitivity to rights and violations of the law, but virtually none of its regard for evidence, fairness or due process. Political correctness, college style, looks to Prose and Roth like execration without representation, primitive stigmatizing gussied up as principle. Both Coleman and Swenson end up pariahs in these books despite being technically innocent of the charges against them.
Both Prose and Roth dig through further layers of pathology. Coleman and Swenson exude a deep-rooted condescension for their work and habitat, unmitigated by healthier thoughts from any character around them. Coleman reflects ruefully, in retirement, on how he had "guided Athena's mediocre students, as best he could, through a literature some twenty-five hundred years old." Clashing with Roux, he rages that
our students are abysmally ignorant. They've been incredibly badly educated. Their lives are intellectually barren. They arrive knowing nothing and most of them leave knowing nothing. Least of all do they know, when they show up in my class, how to read classical drama. Teaching at Athena, particularly in the 1990s, teaching what is far and away the dumbest generation in American history, is the same as walking up Broadway in Manhattan talking to yourself, except instead of the eighteen people who hear you in the street talking to yourself, they're all in the room.
Swenson--guided by Prose's pointillist irony rather than Roth's orotund rage--muses, "When he first started teaching, he'd settled for nothing less than the whole class falling in love with him. Now he's content to get through the hour without major psychic damage." While Swenson thinks he gives students "a useful skill," his approach to his job is largely cynical, aimed at getting the students to "see him as generous, giving--on their side," when he hardly cares. Swenson actually admires the many women who quickly transfer from Euston: "The women are just smarter, quicker to catch onto the fact that they're wasting their parents' money in this godforsaken backwater."
Even after a conference with Angela, his favorite, Swenson feels he's once more "siphoned all his creative juices into a brainnumbing chat with a student." His workshop often consists of trying to remember the details of a student submission, figuring out "some way to improve this heartbreaking, subliterate piece of shit" and achieve "the weekly miracle of healing the terminally ill with minor cosmetic surgery." Swenson and Magda, his poet colleague, don't argue too hard for a creative writing major: "Why would they want the extra work of reading student-thesis novels?"
Swenson's colleagues similarly depress him. "Why not see this scene," he asks himself, scanning the English department dinner party, "as Chekhov might: a gathering of lost souls pretending they're not expiring from boredom and angst in some provincial outpost?" Dean Bentham will "ask thoughtful questions and murmur soft grunts of comprehension as they cut their own throats, one by one, each sounding too jaded, too naïve, too earnest, too complaining, until even the tenured will feel anxious about their jobs as Bentham sits back and watches how badly they're behaving." The dean himself "was hired a half-dozen years ago in a fit of community self-hate; not even when he visited Euston as a candidate did he make a secret of his natural Oxbridge-assisted superiority to these touching but hopelessly naïve colonial morons."