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The Death of Learning

I remember the first time the thought occurred to me that higher education may be dying in the U.S. It was around 1985 and I had just received tenure and a promotion to associate professor in an English department. I felt pretty good about things, and was just then reaching for the knob of the door leading out to the hall from the faculty lounge when someone mentioned the name Jacques Derrida. Did I know about him, my colleague asked.

“Derrida? No, nothing comes to mind.”

“He’s all the rage,” he said. “Very big thunder right now. Says nothing is certain about the written word, not even that it was intended or can be read with any certainty. Nothing but the paper on which the ink rests can be said to be certain, otherwise, the written word is this unstable stream of particles whose meanings are for the most part accidental and whose interpretations are without verifiable truth. It’s all about the infinite elasticity of subjectivity,” he said smiling.

Soon after, everyone was talking about Derrida. How we cannot intend what we mean, or that we cannot grasp our own thinking. It gets mistranslated on the way into sentences, and then we fudge and allow the medium to obscure what we had thought was pretty clear beforehand. So, when we read something, we have to overcome the accidents of verbal transmission, since there are so many gaps and uncertainties built into a text, and then fabricate some more certain kind of text to satisfy our urge to grasp its meaning. But meaning was now twice removed from the fluidity of someone’s mind in a moment of reflection. The author was receding into a mist behind the text, and the text itself was rubbery, lumpy, full of tiny quantum flashes that gave up the glimpse of a thought and then blanked out and erased it.

What the new enthusiasts for Derrida didn’t stop to think about was that our department was based on the remaining foundations of 18th century empiricism, and here was a man eager to deny that such a philosophy had any reliable principles that could be tested. It was a bit like David Hume’s essay, “An Inquiry into Human Understanding,” published in London in 1748. Hume talks about how we form our ideas from impressions, and over time, we join one impression to another from habit (or custom). But the relation between one impression and another is not the result of cause and effect for the simple reason that there is always the possibility that the next instance of pairing the two impressions will not show the same result. Instead of cause and effect, we might have what he called “constant conjunction,” a coincidence of two things appearing together over time. For example, if I believe that releasing a ball will make it drop to the ground, I have formed a causal relation and buttress it with Newton’s law of gravity. But no one can be sure that the “law” will always be present and bring about the predicted result. The ball could rise on the n+1 occasion, and then the law would be worthless. Every pairing of impressions is based on habit, not absolute certainty. Anything could go wrong and in time will go wrong.

Derrida was the Hume of the late 20th century, and if the Christian church felt threatened by Hume’s skeptical mind, the English department, the History department, and every other discipline in the university was feeling the ground shift under them. Our world was beginning to fall apart. Nothing we believed could be shown to be true, because not only was the author unable to define his thoughts definitively, neither was the reader sure of what he or she had read. The book was as much a probability, an idea, as was the author and the reader. If that were true, the final implication was that we had nothing to teach because nothing was fully ascertainable. Our disciplines were like the trees and the clouds on the surface of a lake. You could “see them,” but once in the water, you dissolved them into ripples of doubt and uncertainty.

I wasn’t smart enough to realize the fatal implications of Derrida’s assault on literature. It would occur to me slowly, over time, when others began to talk about the western canon, the historical and cultural errors built into it, the biases against women and people of color implied in every canonical judgment. Everything left out of the canon was likely as valid as everything included in it, once you removed the authority ruling over it. To do that, you had to adjust your approach to literature and begin to think of it as a set of forensic clues to how society tyrannized itself and limited its reality. Hence, everything in the typical “anthology” of literature was now suspect, because the pairings and the hierarchies of texts meant that some agency with social power could manipulate the pyramid and create the illusion of cultural truth.

The dismantling of the house of words began soon after, in which injured and ostracized parties to the cultural dialogue could now make their case for inclusion, or substitution, or even throw up the question of the truth of any text that dared to construct a tradition. By the late 1990s, humanities was in anguish over the bases of its own working principles. Seminars became shouting matches; faculty became coalitions and cliques on all sides of the debate; recruitment of minorities became a necessity to avoid the taint of continuing the hegemony of white male rule. If the legacy of literature from Sumeria to Harvard favored one gender and one racial type, then all of it was false, imposed, artificial from its most fundamental tenets.

The war that broke out had many fronts, but the central conflict was with the canon itself, and the difficulty in creating a new one that addressed the errors that accumulated over the centuries. A more subtle battle was under the surface of most of this academic warfare – the role of esthetics in reading literature. Was there any pleasure left to the written word? Was a poem a tissue of musical phrases laden with associations and partly exposed symbols from the deep past? Or was it a graph of sexual and ethnic biases to be ferreted out by careful forensic analysis? Every work of literature was now suspect and freighted with the distortions and wounds of cultural history. Professors became advocates of one injured party or another, from native Americans to immigrants to the poor and the imprisoned. The hegemonic text was no longer sacred but corrupt, a failed vision put forth by those exercising their power and social prestige.

I heard many students in those years groan when they had to read the polemical assaults upon tradition and the false tenets of ordinary interpretation. The search for pleasure in a text was a deliberate attempt to ignore or conceal the biases of the text in favor of savoring the skill, finesse, subtle enchantment of the work – in other words, to avoid the term rape and concentrate on the skill of the forced seduction. All history was sham and self-aggrandizement, and nothing written in the past could survive the condemnation of the living. Someone was always wounded, rejected, killed in a text that praised and sanctified the victors.

In thirty years, the university has not been able to recover from the toxic arguments coming out of France and Germany. When I mentioned that American English departments were deeply embroiled in a debate over Derrida and Paul de Man at a French café one afternoon, my friends at the Sorbonne laughed loudly and ordered more drinks. “We’re glad to have exported these people; even gladder they found a home with you. But that was so long ago when all this was a fuss over here! Funny to think of America as just now catching on.” Funny indeed.

I did not get into the debates or even attend the lectures of so-called stars in the movement. I was tired of it all, and only wanted to read the literature I still loved for its grandeur of imagination, its sublime flights of language, its exhaustion of lyric impulses. I did not want to put on Columbo’s trenchcoat and crushed hat and chew the stub of a cigar while I drew Shakespeare into a trap. I wasn’t all that interested in his use of Shylock as a stereotype of the Elizabethan Jew, although I found the issue illuminating on a small scale. The real delight was the thunder and majesty of Portia’s soliloquies, and the power of Shylock’s logic and revenge.

It did occur to me when the dust began to slowly settle in the first decade of the 21st century that the main provocateurs of deconstruction and post-structuralism were from countries eager to bury their own pasts, whether as the perpetrators of the Holocaust or abettors and colluders in it. Why Americans would be so eager to embrace these nihilists is a question – but I think it has to do with our own uncomfortable relation with a long racist past and the genocide committed against indigenous people. This was classic post-Holocaust thinking, a desire to escape from the tyranny of the written record.

The result of the cultural civil war in the university has been the mass exodus of undergraduates from courses in the humanities. No one wants to hear a long cultural guilt trip as discerned from the artful concealments of the written word. People are rushing to the neutral ground of business and computing where the question of values is bottommost. The exodus includes many talented mid-level academics who no longer wish to proselytize the young for one cause or another with Robert Frost in one hand and Derrida in the other. The result is a loss of an intellectual theater in which our souls were dissected for their music and laughter and replaced by a gloomy courtroom full of guilty artists and writers.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen