“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.
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.”
Now, in 1998, the Clinton sex scandal weighs on everyone’s mind, and Coleman has further attenuated his status in the town of Athena by beginning a sub rosa relationship with Faunia Farley, an illiterate 34-year-old Athena College cleaning woman victimized by one man or another since childhood. (“Everyone knows you’re sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age,” announces an anonymous note Coleman receives.)
As Roth artfully unfolds his story in slo-mo, we also learn that Coleman has been living a lie since early manhood. A light-skinned black high school valedictorian from East Orange, New Jersey, and the son of a nurse and an optician turned dining-car waiter, Coleman’s been passing himself off as Jewish since lying about it on his application to join the Navy, eager to escape being a “We,” determined to be “just on his own and free.” By the time we meet Coleman, father of four children and widower since the recent death of his wife, Iris, he’s a nineties academic disaster waiting to happen.
By contrast, Ted Swenson at first appears to have made all the right calls, sidestepping clichéd pitfalls of his trade. At 47, still haplessly trying to follow up on the promise of his two successful early novels, he’s the tenured writer in residence at Euston College, a third-rank liberal arts school in Vermont with an “alarmingly tiny endowment.” Swenson claims he loves his wife, Sherrie (the college nurse). He hopes to melt the late-teen ice that has formed between them and their daughter, Ruby, and to continue to avoid the most obvious temptation: sleeping with his students.
Sure, at the administration-mandated session on sexual harassment Swenson thinks, “What if someone rose to say what so many of them are thinking, that there’s something erotic about the act of teaching, all that information streaming back and forth like some…bodily fluid.” But “as hard as it might be for anyone, including himself, to believe, he’s taught here for twenty years and never once slept with a student…. How hard it is to remember their names, which proves that they meant nothing, nothing worth risking his job for.” In Swenson’s own mind, “He’s the saint of Euston!”
That’s particularly prudent since at nearby State U. an art history professor has recently been suspended without pay for saying “Yum” when introducing “a classical Greek sculpture of a female nude.” (“The students accused him of leering. He said he was expressing a gut response to art.”)
Swenson’s time to screw up, however, is now. Because “what really bothers him…is that he was too stupid or timid or scared to sleep with those students. What exactly was he proving? Illustrating some principle, making some moral point?”
Enter punky 19-year-old Angela Argo, a student who shows real writing talent and reawakens romance in Swenson–first for her gift, then for her, a “skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate, sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places.” Slowly, deftly, Prose orchestrates Swenson’s descent into the same humiliation that awaited Professor Rath in the classic Josef von Sternberg movie The Blue Angel (1930). Angela turns out to be a lying, manipulative opportunist, but Swenson, a liar himself, falls into all her traps.
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.”
It’s no coincidence that Prose and Roth, coming to college novels at the same time, fail to portray anyone as healthy or admirable, living a life we should envy and respect. Prose, whose “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” essay in Harper’s two years ago smartly challenged tropistic ways of reading male and female novelists and their subjects, undoubtedly recognizes the campus novel as an equal-opportunity odor du jour, attracting everyone from Coetzee to Jane Smiley. One can emulate her guerrilla tactic of juxtaposing male and female writers–Updike and Mary Gaitskill formed a particularly inspired pair–to support her notion that an adroit woman novelist may well tackle a subject more boldly, crisply, precisely than the male novelist exploring it through a counterlife.
Coleman Silk, despite his unusual ethnicity for a Roth protagonist, eventually becomes one more spokesman for a certain psyche’s life as a man, however entertaining and on target the rants of this and all seasons. While some critics have taken The Human Stain as volume three of a trilogy begun with American Pastoral and I Married a Communist–the main reason being that New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani passed on the notion from Roth and the book’s publicists in her review–one might as well ask whether the book forms a tetralogy with long-ago Letting Go (and its troubled young Jewish academic at the University of Chicago), or The Breast and The Professor of Desire, in which Professor David Kepesh’s transformations were both more and less remarkable than Coleman’s.
Regardless, Roth’s choices in The Human Stain make Coleman–and Zuckerman as Boswell–less convincing critics of academic hypocrisy than Swenson and the waspish wizard behind him. Prose continues her evolution here from the once remote and redemptionist young novelist, whose earliest books (Judah the Pious; Marie Laveau) arrived like parables at the novelist’s ball, to the wickedly observant muralist of tabloid conceits (Bigfoot Dreams), literary envy (Guided Tours of Hell) and many other abundantly alive slices of life. As pointedly reportorial as the more self-anointedly journalistic Tom Wolfe, Prose re-creates the intricate texture of distortion on today’s campus by going beyond just the charges against Swenson to marvelously savvy passages about the deceitful dynamics of writing workshops, the abashed stealth with which professors recoil at the pierced faces of students and the glib flexibility of the campus tour for prospectives, in which every college flaw turns into an asset, smallness into “intimacy.”
Swenson faces as much damage as Coleman, but because Prose wisely denies him a soapbox on every headline from Monica to the traumas of Vietnam service, both his transparent justifications and those Prose leaves open for fair assessment come as a surprise.
Swenson’s anger, to be sure, ends up trained on his colleagues and dean, all too ready to play “by the rules of this cult” to which they’ve surrendered their lives, to play scripted roles from the top down when the time comes to drum him out as a “predatory harasser.” But at the same time, Swenson responds by looking inward while Coleman, eager for an end to “significance,” settles for the liberatingly nonverbal obsession with Faunia, leaving it to Zuckerman, more or less, to handle the meaning of it all. Swenson’s attempt to understand his respect for Angela’s novel, to confront the “erotics of teaching” and “the dangers of starting to see one’s student as a real person,” all take him into neighborhoods of truth and falsehood Coleman never enters. In the end, Swenson, unlike Coleman, feels sorry for many things, among them wrecking his career and marriage. He is, however, most “extremely sorry for having spent twenty years of his one and only life, twenty years he will never get back, among people he can’t talk to, men and women to whom he can’t even tell the simple truth.” Unlike Coleman, Swenson knows that he’s the victim of more than bad trends, bad breaks, too much testosterone. He’s learned something about the place where he spent his life, while Coleman, one suspects, would take back his deanship in a flash if he could keep his cleaning lady on the side.
Intricacies of characterization aside, it’s no small news that two of our sharpest, most sophisticated culture critics and novelists indict the liberal arts college as a gorgeously landscaped prison, a dysfunctional refugee camp for lost intellectuals, a Kafka neighborhood with Hallmark postcard. A community, thinks Zuckerman, where “simply to make the accusation is to prove it. To hear the allegation is to believe it. No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence.” And all this “in the New England most identified, historically, with the American individualist’s resistance to the coercions of a censorious community–Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau come to mind.”
Years ago, University of California president Clark Kerr laughingly described a campus executive’s three major administrative problems as “sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” These days, the problems of the liberal arts college are no laughing matter.