October 1990By Philip E. Devine
Philip E. Devine is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island, and the author of Relativism, Nihilism, and God. His The Ethics of Homicide has just been reprinted in paperback.
Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education. By Roger Kimball. Harper & Row. 204 pages. $18.95.
It is a commonplace that the academic study of the humanities is in crisis. For Roger Kimball the villains are proponents of deconstruction, feminist studies, and other politically motivated challenges to the traditional tenets of humanistic study. Kimball undertakes to expose what he considers the biggest scandal in contemporary higher education: the politicization of the humanities. His central contention is that the spirit of 1960s radicalism has installed itself in the center of our universities and is there engaged in a concerted effort to attack the very foundations of our society.
In the process of making his case, Kimball brings to light large quantities of contemporary academic idiocy. But Kimballs case not to mention his subtitle is at best misleading. The neoconservative Kimball is as much a politico as his radical opponents. He represents that movement which having begun some 20 years ago as a reaction to the cultural and political turbulence of the 1960s still searches for remnants of the 1960s to destroy.
Also, Kimballs politics are more serious than those of his adversaries that is to say, they have far greater prospects of success. While eclectic leftists murk around about logocentrism, Kimball makes a well-pitched appeal to parents, legislatures, alumni, boards of trustees, corporate donors, and the federal government to use their economic power to clamp down on politically unreliable elements in the academy. In 1977 Irving Kristol appealed to corporate donors to use their money to help the academic friends of capitalism; Kimball completes the battle plan by urging corporate types to devour their enemies.
In a revealing passage, Kimball attacks a Supreme Court decision requiring that personnel files be made available to federal investigators in disputed tenure cases. His linking of honest scholarly assessments with a demand for the power to destroy a persons career without taking public responsibility for doing so is more than slightly sinister.
Kimballs style is too repetitive and strident to be distinguished, but compared with that of his adversaries it is a model of lucidity. He makes his case to those outside the academy with brutal clarity.
But Kimballs case suffers from constrained perceptions. Obstacles to the life of the mind that do not arise from the Left are ignored. He takes Allan Blooms The Closing of the American Mind at face value: The possibility that Blooms argument may give barbarians everything they want is ignored. And the possibility that corporate largesse may corrupt the academy or at least create serious problems of integrity for scholars does not exist so far as Kimball is concerned.
For all his claims to defend humanistic scholarship, Kimball has little use for the scholarly virtues. He works on the assumption that his opponents are all fools or scoundrels. There is, in short, nothing in Tenured Radicals to dissuade anyone disposed to believe that all thought is ideological.
Indeed, Kimball is essentially an ideologue. His reason is put at the service of the political passions that seethe in Commentary and its allied periodicals. His honeyed talk of transcendent truth, humanism, and rationality does not immunize him against the demons of political animus.
Yet, whatever Kimballs limitations, the state of the academic and intellectual world remains troubling. While Kimball presents no evidence that tenured radicals pose a clear and present danger to anyone outside the academy, the more diffuse threat created by an erosion of belief in rationality remains. No one has any right to be surprised by Kimballs assault, for the tenured radicals who are the objects of his ire have behaved with astonishingly imprudent impudence e.g., in arguing that might makes right.
Kimball seems content to envision a university subordinated to the priorities of the political and economic elites; those of us who do not share this agenda nevertheless need to examine the issues he raises, while refusing to allow either tenured radicals or neoconservative brutalitarians to impose false dilemmas destructive of intellectual life.