ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Faulty Tower

May 2, 2005 by ACTA

Writing for The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein uses the publication of Princeton English emerita Elaine Showalter's new book, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, as the occasion for reflecting on why it is that so many academics are so very unhappy in their work. Epstein concentrates on academic humanists, whose collective unhappiness is palpably greater than that of their scientific counterparts, and concludes with a series of observations as unspeakable in academic circles as they are undeniably true:

Universities attract people who are good at school. Being good at school takes a real enough but very small talent. As the philosopher Robert Nozick once pointed out, all those A's earned through their young lives encourage such people to persist in school: to stick around, get more A's and more degrees, sign on for teaching jobs. When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure.

But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.

Now that politics has trumped literature in English departments the situation is even worse. Beset by political correctness, self-imposed diversity, without leadership from above, university teachers, at least on the humanities and social-science sides, knowing the work they produce couldn't be of the least possible interest to anyone but the hacks of the MLA and similar academic organizations, have more reason than ever to be unhappy.

And so let us leave them, overpaid and underworked, surly with alienation and unable to find any way out of the sweet racket into which they once so ardently longed to get.

Followers of the culture wars will recognize both Epstein's argument and his tone as typical of a certain disaffected strain of criticism; English departments in particular have long been subject to the sort of damning—and damningly brusque—analysis he offers here, and they have increasingly come to stand, metonymically, for all the procedural and philosophical ills besetting both the academic humanities and social sciences. Epstein's long tour of duty in Northwestern's English department between 1974 and 2002 explains his own penchant for generalizing outward from English; his equally long extra-academic career as an editor and writer account for his willingness to regard more insular academic malcontents as the victims of their own chronic failures of imagination and effort.

Epstein finds support for his theory in the evolving genre of academic fiction, which he reads quite differently from Showalter. Where Showalter sees the genre declining from the humorous heyday of Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (1954) into a squalid and undistinguished contemporary cattiness, Epstein reads the academic novels of the moment as anthropological documents, meditative records of how the profession of English—and, by symbolic extension, academe itself—has lost its dignity in a welter of self-aggrandizing strain:

By the time that the 1990s rolled around, all that was really left to the academic novel was to mock the mission of the university. With the onset of so-called theory in English and foreign-language departments, this became easier and easier to do. Professor Showalter does not approve of these goings-on: "The tone of ['90s academic novels]," she writes, "is much more vituperative, vengeful, and cruel than in earlier decades."

The crueler the blows are required, I should say, the better to capture the general atmosphere of goofiness, which has become pervasive. Theory and the hodgepodge of feminism, Marxism, and queer theory that resides comfortably alongside it, has now been in the saddle for roughly a quarter-century in American English and Romance-language departments, while also making incursions into history, philosophy, and other once-humanistic subjects. There has been very little to show for it--no great books, no splendid articles or essays, no towering figures who signify outside the academy itself—except declining enrollments in English and other department courses featuring such fare.

All that is left to such university teachers is the notion that they are, in a much-strained academic sense, avant-garde, which means that they continue to dig deeper and deeper for lower and lower forms of popular culture—graffiti on Elizabethan chamber pots—and human oddity. The best standard in the old days would have university scholars in literature and history departments publish books that could also be read with enjoyment and intellectual profit by nonscholars. Nothing of this kind is being produced today.

All this is to say that Epstein's review appears to make for better reading than the book that occasions it—he is every bit as conversant with the genre of academic fiction as Showalter is, but his take on that genre is less self-serving and, as a result, far more historically provocative.

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