While most of us were opening the last of our "holiday" presents, basking in the glow of Lancome's "multi-defense protective tinted cream," or deciding whether to wear the new tie with prancing horses or the one with intertwined golf clubs, several hundred Nervous Nellies and Fearful Freddies, many with newly minted Ph.D.s in hand, were busy networking, i.e., job-hunting, at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Washington.
This meant sitting through days of seminars on subjects of interest only to the authors of the learned papers. (Who else could understand what they were talking about?) Their parents had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate them, incurring loans putting them deep in debt for decades, and it was time to shed the cap and gown and look for work. The politically incorrect graduates who don't conform to the unstated but clearly implied correct color have to work hardest to find jobs. That's particularly true for white candidates who majored in black studies. How can a white man teach black literature?
Of course, at most professional conventions, whether of accountants, plumbers, dermatologists or hip-hoppers, the range runs from dull to boring to shocking. But MLA conventions are unusual if not unique. Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason magazine who has attended MLA sessions as both member and reporter, observes that "there are few collective groups more insufferable than humanities professors." (Gulp. Full disclosure here: When I was a card-carrying liberal in an earlier century, I earned my Ph.D. with a dissertation exploring "realism and allegory in the early plays of Harold Pinter.")
The graying profs were particularly frightened this year by the news, as one professor after another told ghost stories at the bar if not around a campfire, that more and more conservative kids are arriving on campus, ready to argue. Tenured professors are hysterical (a good "gendering" word) over the rise of the Right on campus, of students who aren't buying into lesbian literature, identity politics, deconstructionism, feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Marxism, gay culturalism and all the other -isms that have dominated the curriculum for the generations since the '60s. Assumptions are under siege.
One seminar, examining the image of professors in the media culture, asked the question: "Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about Us?" Why indeed? The profs have been difficult to take seriously since The New York Times published a list of their goofiest scholarly papers in 1989, including such intellectual gems as "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," and exposed the obfuscating jargon that was more like kitty litter than ideas, littering conversations with such phrases as "transgressive discourses," "systems of stratification" and "culturally over-determined structures of seeing."
Not long afterward, The New Criterion, a rigorously conservative intellectual journal edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, bid "Farewell to the MLA." They argued that the "feminization" of the organization had left it prey to radical sexual philosophies like "gay studies" and "queer theory." The likes of Joseph Conrad and Willa Cather were reduced to the blather of pop psychology, anthropology, "gendering" and power relations.
But the winds, like the times, change. Among the affiliated organizations listed in the MLA catalogue this year is the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Nick Gillespie of Reason, a publication of the Cato Institute, has in recent years sponsored special sessions on "market-friendly libertarian topics," and the sessions were well attended. A sophomore from Duke University reports that John Milton, one of the deadest and whitest males so enthusiastically maligned in the politically correct covens, is once again popular.
Sneering at the white man fell particularly hard on William Faulkner, who was all but evicted from campus. When Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize for literature in 1950, he spoke of the importance of "the old verities and truths of the heart . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." Such qualities have since been strangers at MLA sessions. When the Faulkner Journal called for scholarly papers, they asked authors to consider "the whiteness of Faulkner himself." One paper was entitled, "Why Are You So Black? Faulkner's White-face Minstrels Primitivism and Perversion."
The dead white man is still under siege, to be sure, but the pop guns are of smaller caliber. It's still easier to be admired as a transgendered man seeking to become a woman so he can be a lesbian than to be proudly heterosexual and unapologetically white, but authentic scholarship may be scaling the walls of the academy, providing a growing awareness that "diversity" requires conflicting theories. Anyone who reads John Milton quickly discovers that a mix of ideas engages and provokes the intellect toward wisdom. There's a subversive or two hiding in the ivy.