Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Already dreading the search-engine traffic this post will attract

Sometimes, to illustrate the point that Americans could stand to eat more fruits and vegetables and consume smaller portions, we'll see a photo or news item about some festival out in Real America where the tradition is to eat a whole deep-fried pig on a popsicle, covered in nacho-cheese sauce.

Joseph Epstein announces (thanks A&L Daily!) the End of Higher Education because some prof at Northwestern, after warning his class beforehand, went all Monty Python (NSFW of course) on his class, presenting a live sex act. (How anyone can mention this story and not "The Meaning of Life" is beyond me.) Epstein includes in his curmudgeonly rant, for extra curmudgeon points, one supposes, a letter he had written previously to the president of Northwestern, where he himself had been a prof, complaining about the choice of Stephen Colbert as commencement speaker. Because unless students fall asleep hearing someone hold forth on new developments in microbiology, it's not educational. No matter that Colbert, aside from being "in the cant phrase, a fun speaker," is a political force in our culture, someone who will likely show himself to be historically significant, and whom graduates would likely remember having heard speak for years to come, in the way they wouldn't if an especially good stand-up comic got the gig. Colbert is Pop Culture, Epstein is Team Classical-Music-and-Foreign-Films, which is all we need to know.

He goes on to fault the sex prof for... researching sex; maintaining a website about his family; writing a book that "apparently argues" something not so outlandish that Epstein couldn't be bothered to skim or have an intern look at to verify; and wearing "leisure cut" jeans, whatever that means. While there seem to be some valid complaints about the prof's ethical behavior, up to and including l'Affaire Dildo, there's no need to throw legitimate research into human sexuality out with the this-particular-prof-has-issues bathwater. Or so one might think.

Epstein, however, is prepared to dispose of the entirety of academia as it currently exists. He goes off on the question of profs sleeping with students in the name of academic freedom - a fad, if it ever was one, in the 1970s, and certainly not in today's climate of (thank god, on this issue especially) extreme professionalization. Epstein sees the post-1968 moment not as a blip, but as the beginning of a slippery slope culminating in every class as an orgy during which, in fine George Costanza manner, everyone is simultaneously eating pastrami and watching television. He then goes on to explain to the curious reader that, while he sure had opportunities, he as a prof preferred an older woman. Well, that's crucial information. This, in turn, segues into the question of 18-year-old females' virginity or lack thereof in the late 1960s...

Forgive me if I'm getting a bit lost in all this - the article is at this point hopping seemingly at random between various Conservative Critique of Education talking points. Too much fluff, not enough Shakespeare! Slutty coeds! Marxist literary criticism!

Oh, but Epstein meanders back to a point, and his point is that sex is not a valid subject for research. Not that live sex acts in a classroom are about provocation and not education, which would have been reasonable, but that sex is in some mystical realm of the unknowable:

Students don’t need universities to learn about varying tastes in sex, or about the mechanics of human sexuality. They don’t need it because, first, epistemologically, human sexuality isn’t a body of knowledge upon which there is sufficient agreement to constitute reliable conclusions, for nearly everything on the subject is still in the flux of theorizing and speculation; and because, second, given the nature of the subject, it tends to be, as the Bailey case shows, exploitative, coarsening, demeaning, and squalid.
Note again the leap from 'dildo action in class=bad' - something I'd imagine most would agree with - to a blanket condemnation of all academic study of human sexuality.

I know I told Rita that my principal objection to anti-modernity is its tendency to be barely masked nostalgia for a time when it was OK to be a bigot, and I do hold by that. But with Epstein, it's all about the curmudgeonliness, no hint of veiled anything, and it's still damaging. Academia needs thoughtful conservative critics, thoughtful critics of the new, but what we get instead is undirected, clichéd nonsense about how things sure ain't what they used to be.


X.Trapnel said...

Please, let's be precise here. It wasn't a dildo, it was a Fucksaw. Which is a word so hilariously awesome that one ought never miss a chance to use it when appropriate.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Huh. I have to say I find the "saw" part of that the more startling half. To each his own...

Withywindle said...

Keeping in mind that it's only cliches for those who haven't heard it before. I do think there is a genre in opinion journalism of Regurgitating Hoary Talking Points for the Benefit of New &/or Inattentive Readers. Which has a point--I've been a New &/or Inattentive Reader myself, in my infant years--but can be skipped by others. This version does need editing. Maybe some eager bunny can set up an Internet Archive of Felicitously Expressed Talking Points, for future reference.

The phrase "private tuition" was almost invented to be used about this subject matter.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I do think there is a genre in opinion journalism of Regurgitating Hoary Talking Points for the Benefit of New &/or Inattentive Readers."

Fair point. I suppose if Epstein was repeating truth, as opposed to knee-jerk kids-these-days foolishness, I'd be more sympathetic re: his lack of originality. Still, I find it hard to believe more than at most a couple of readers of the Weekly Standard are reading these arguments for the first time. (Unless via A&L Daily, in which case the jumping around from impure coeds to Not Enough Shakespeare must read as curmudgeonly, as opposed to, as I read it, as part of a specific, consistent if not coherent argument one hears all the time.)

"The phrase 'private tuition' was almost invented to be used about this subject matter."

Har har, fine, but once again, dildo-in-class =/= the entirety of the academic study of human sexuality. I'm on Team That Was A Dumb Idea, too! But having made it this far in academia without having ever so much as heard of anything like that, I have to say I think it's all kinds of ridiculous to suggest that that was indicative of the overall academic culture.

Withywindle said...

It would be interesting to interview an opinion-magazine editor on 1) the number of readers new to a subject they hypothesize; 2) whether they think of opinion journalism as analogous to a politician's speeches, where the same point has to be repeated over and over again until it makes an impression; and 3) whether anyone ever complains about different articles endlessly repeating a thesis.

The larger argument about the nature and purpose of university education does involve a number of mutually exclusive a prioris, hence a repetitive & unproductive debate. I think the interesting challenge would be to come up with a course on sex that also consists of discussion of the Epsteinian best on what was said and done, and seeing if one can get grudging acknowledgment of limited pedagogical virtue from the Old Curmudgeon. "Chastity, Libertinism, and their Discontents, from Aristophanes to Tolstoy," or some such.

Britta said...

One thing I've noticed to be a trop of conservative critiques (and to be fair, sometimes present in more liberal ones as well, though not as systematically), are ad hominem attacks on people's appearance. The softness of the professor and his "leisure cut" (presumably loose fit?) pants are a jab at this, especially since Epstein lets us know that he didn't sleep with undergrads in part because it was too easy, presumably because dozens of 18 yo girls were leaping to get into his pants. It's not enough to be smarter and morally superior, but one has to be better looking as well, and make this clear, repeatedly, to one's readership.

The whole "you represent the downfall of western civilization and UR UGLY" just seem like two extremely incongruous arguments to put together.

Britta said...

um... ^trope, not trop

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Obviously in terms of general themes, arguments get repeated. There's a left and right politically, and you can usually guess ahead of time where someone will stand. And each side keeps trying to win over others, thus repetition. The problems I have with the conservative critique of academia are...

-There should be a viable conservative critique, but there isn't one. I'm not arguing this from the perspective of, let's have more dildo classes, In Defense of Dildo Classes, whatever. What's out there is actually detrimental both to those who want to see a range of views and to conservatives, esp conservatives in academia (such as yourself!), in that its main function is letting young conservatives who might find such an article that academia's a useless pit best avoided.

-There's always the same slew of arguments that don't fit into one coherent whole. Thinking it's dumb to have classes on "Two and a Half Men" doesn't mean thinking college women need to be virgins. Thinking dildo classes are stoopid doesn't mean

-The critiques tend not to be substantive, which gets at why the repetition is a problem. Criticisms get repeated that will wrong in the first place. Example: the great conservative fear of disciplines called This-or-That "Studies." Sometimes this is a sign of Silly, often enough just a name for work being done that conservatives would like, such as the grilling all of us French Studies grad students get in our field's Great Books. Another example: words like "race" or "gender" are brushed aside as Nonsense, when they are in fact legitimate topics for research. (I, for one, am researching both, yet my topic would not have conservatives tearing their hair out.) Yet another example: Epstein's gratuitous Colbert-bashing. It's all to fit the persona of Curmudgeon, but if anything detrimental to the goal of curbing change in academia.

Or, long story short, these critiques are more geared at repelling conservatives from academia than about reforming anything. So someone like you ought to be taking a stand!


I thought I'd covered this ground, but I can't say I'd noticed any other conservative critiques of academia that go off on the physical appearance of profs.

Britta said...

I don't think it's as common in conservative critiques of academia (though I'm sure there's more along the line of Epstein's subtle digs that I'm forgetting), but looks definitely seem to be more front and center for conservatives than liberals.

For example, it has become a talking point that Michelle Obama's "let's move" campaign is a terrible idea because she herself is fat. (I know this was started by Rush Limbaugh, who is not known for being highbrow, but he is a major and central figure in the conservative movement), and it's been picked up by lots of other people. It also seems that lots of stuff written by conservatives about prominent female conservative figures--Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann/Malkin, etc, emphasizes how attractive they are, and in comparison, how much better looking they are than liberal women. I know there can be ugliness and misogyny from the left, (e.g. the whole Ann Coulter looks like a man stuff), but it seems more confined to certain fringes, i.e. I couldn't imagine the, say, Stephen Colbert arguing that someone's point was invalid because they were too fat or ugly. (I don't think that all prominent conservatives do this either...just that it seems more common on the right than the left). Even Althouse, whose blog is presumably fairly academic, has been posting photos of Wisconsin protestors for commenters to mock the appearance of (sample comment on a fat woman: "she puts the lumpen in lumpen proletariat"), as though the physical attributes of the protestors diminishes the legitimacy of their claims.

I apologize if this is off topic, but Epstein just seemed to be doing a subtle, more high brow version of something that I feel I've noticed to be a bigger thing.

Britta said...

Oh, and to be less off topic, I too am somewhat of a curmudgeon when it comes to academics. I think students should learn how to read critically and write properly, be forced to take lab sciences, and that college should not be an excuse for people to consume pop culture "critically." I'm not against the idea of a canon either. Like Phoebe, I guess the difference between me and Epstein, or probably Withywindle, is that I think the canon can be expanded to include women and people of color etc. without destroying its standards. Including Toni Morrison doesn't mean you have to teach a class on Two and a Half men, or the existence of a Chinese modernist lit. class doesn't mean you need to be open to a Lady Gaga class, either.

What would be interesting would be to see a spirited defense, based solely on merit, of excluding prominent authors/thinkers who are not dead white males that don't resort to finding the Ward Churchills or the dildos of academia.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I think students should learn how to read critically and write properly, be forced to take lab sciences, and that college should not be an excuse for people to consume pop culture 'critically.' I'm not against the idea of a canon either."

You've hit upon the great secret: academics are rule-followers and book-nerds. Someone who really did just wield a dildo in class and sleep with hot young coeds would not have tenure, or even get into grad school. For all their ranting and raving about "radicals," conservative critics of academia have missed the amount of time academics do things like pore over texts in difficult languages, return to the classics, etc. I mean, in French at NYU, I ought to be at the center of all that conservaranters despise about academia, but between the reinterpretation and methodical analysis of Great Books, the teaching of subjunctive to undergrads, and the painstaking research into ye olde French archives, there's not a lot of time for critically analyzing the role of affected French culture in the "Real Housewives" oeuvre.

PG said...

For example, it has become a talking point that Michelle Obama's "let's move" campaign is a terrible idea because she herself is fat. (I know this was started by Rush Limbaugh, who is not known for being highbrow, but he is a major and central figure in the conservative movement), and it's been picked up by lots of other people.

I thought I'd been keeping up with U.S. political discussion fairly well while traveling, but this makes me glad that I've evidently completely missed some stuff. W.T.F.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Another thing - I think the difference is we're anti-dildo-class because it's provocative rather than educational, and because it sounds... unprofessional. Whereas Epstein hints at sharing that concern, but is clearly more upset about Icky Icky Sex, and the fact that 18-year-old coeds are "experienced."

Withywindle said...

You raise enough topics for, well, a book-length critique. I think I would say briefly that I take a great deal of the standard conservative critiques of academia to have substance & merit, although what they critique is endemic rather than (as yet) pandemic. The call for a "viable" critique may be a call for accepting far too much of an unacceptable status quo--and it is possible that the long-term reform of academia will benefit now more from an uncompromising call for revolution. Since conservatives are so marginalized in academia anyway, I'm not sure much benefit is gained from viability-seeking compromises.

All this is meta-critique; I'm not here proposing My Critique of Academia--although I think you've seen bits and pieces of it in A & J over the years. I think I will say only that questions of discipline and methodology have been conflated on all sides with politics for a long time (e.g., social history was a radical political project, so too women's history, etc.); that while it is not yet proven that there is an essential link between a particular subject matter or methodology and a political slant, there certainly have been contingent links; it therefore makes sense on the tactical level to conflate political culture wars with disciplinary/methodological academic wars; but in the grand scheme, it would be nice to disentangle some of these linkages.

I suppose I would add that I don't necessarily take liberal defenses of academia to be any more coherent or persuasive, as a whole, than conservative critiques of them.

I don't quite know who is the gold standard for conservative critiques of academia, but I don't think Epstein is it.

Britta said...

I know. It's extremely depressing. Michelle Obama could cure cancer, and a not insignificant segment of the media would probably argue that she's taking away their right to have cancer, and ugly to boot.

Here's a "Michelle is fat" example.


Britta said...


I'd be interested to know more about which methodologies are more conservative and which ones are more liberal/leftist, if you wouldn't mind explaining.

Withywindle said...

Oh, the standard: a traditional interest in diplomatic/political history did translate into a greater estimation of the importance of the actions of an elite; interest in military history does have some correlation with approval of our militaries' actions. Social history did have some Marxizing spin--know the peasants' history, love the peasants, blah, blah. I could go through this ad nauseum, but all I'd be saying is that the traditional estimations, by right and left, of the political spin of various disciplines have something to them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

*Thinking dildo classes are stoopid doesn't mean finishing sentences. What I was getting at but failed to type was that the criticisms don't add up to any coherent whole.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Since conservatives are so marginalized in academia anyway, I'm not sure much benefit is gained from viability-seeking compromises."

By "viable" I don't mean less critical. I mean substantive points, as opposed to, hehe "studies," that sounds fluffy and communist! It's not, with conservative critiques, that they demand too much. It's that they're not directed at enacting any kind of change in academia. They're directed at those outside academia, those who have no interest in being inside academia, and meant as something to snicker at, or as a subset of general Young People Today disapproval. The point isn't to "save" the academy. It's to tsk-tsk about What Our Society Has Come To.

As for conservatives being "marginalized," you really don't think conservative writers' constant bashing of academia, the constant references to extreme cases like the dildo scenario, the blanket denunciation of virtually all contemporary academic endeavors, contributes to keeping right-wing students away from PhD programs?

Finally, as for what "revolution" conservatives would like to see... I think if you leave aside the politics of academics, which tend to be left, and which might make conservatives feel out of place at department social events, what's actually happening - the passing down of knowledge - happens quite conservatively. Not to keep harping on my own experience, but none of my exams thus far have been on French soap operas, French rap, French fashion, or anything along those lines.

Withywindle said...

1) There are conservative critiques of academia that you'd respect! -- But I don't remember precisely who to point you to. Anyway, I vaguely recollect that the sort of stuff you want is out there.

2) It's an interesting point as to who is the audience. I will mull.

3) I think academia itself does a sufficient job of repelling conservatives.

4) My grad school experience had a slightly higher fluff proportion than yours does; and I could easily have chosen classes to make it fluffier. One rule of thumb (speaking as a historian of England) is that Foreign Languages Are Hard, and the ideologues, fluffophiles, etc., are thinner on the ground wherever you have to go to the effort of learning a foreign language.

PG said...

I'm somewhat skeptical of the conflation of methodologies, subject matter and political slant, probably because I went to a grad school that's generally assumed to be politically slanted to the left, yet the subject matter (law) and the method of teaching (mostly lecture with some Socratic questioning) are so anciently respectable. My constitutional law prof wrote amicus briefs demanding habeas for Gitmo detainees, but he droned as dully about the tangle that is Establishment Clause law as Epstein might wish, while students obediently took notes. Yet in college, my politically conservative economics professors would have students take turns being class note-taker; refused to use textbooks; assigned projects like alternative economic histories; etc.

To the extent that conservatives simply don't think subjects like the history of the civil rights movement are important, then sure, these subjects will have to be taught by people who are not conservative. (At least until the revolution comes, when such courses will be first against the wall.) But I agree with Phoebe that this is not the fault of Academia as an institution.

PG said...

Oh, I'm also unclear on what's deemed "fluffy." Economics of Gender (which entails, inter alia, studying the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker)? Is interdisciplinary work inherently suspect? (There goes the cred of Becker, who won his various prizes basically by combining economics with sociology.) Is a seminar on post-colonial Latin American literature fluffier than one on Dickens?

I do consider some courses to be "fluffy," but it's based on what's required of the students rather than on what the name of the course is. An undergraduate course on the history of sex that requires students to produce a 40 page, footnoted paper using only original sources strikes me as far less fluffy than a course on the American Civil War that requires students simply to regurgitate facts on a final exam.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

MSI's non-appearing comment:

I'm not really sure what would qualify as a "substantive" critique for you. Epstein is not making any new arguments here, but he is making substantive points. For example, no "fun" non-academic commencement speakers (a rule that our own alma mater follows, incidentally). And why not? Because without headline-grabbing names, commencement addresses aren't memorable? Why ought that to be the purpose of commencements more than say, honoring some particularly accomplished faculty member?

What you seem to suggest is that conservatives ought to accept whatever happens to take place in universities until they develop a critique of sufficient thoughtfulness that you will be moved to act. But that's kind of circular--whatever moves you to act from the left, right, or outer space will be deemed sufficiently thoughtful, and everything short of it will be by definition insufficiently so. This would be like me saying that I'm willing to be convinced by the Left when it produces a sufficiently convincing argument, and until that happens, I'll pick apart and reject all its efforts. Well, duh. Why not take the opposite approach and examine whether what academics do is valid or what principles should determine validity rather than defend any status quo until its critics convince you that their attacks are thoughtful enough?

For example, why not ask what scholars of human sexuality are doing in the first place? In the recent past, the scientific fruits of sexuality research have included some disturbing outcomes. http://www.amazon.com/As-Nature-Made-Him-Raised/dp/0060192119 Even putting aside his dildo presentation, this NU prof makes his political agenda clear--"sex-positivity" is an ideology, it's not science. This problem goes back to Kinsey, who hardly had an impartial curiosity about what people were doing in bed. Since Kinsey, exposure has been intended to liberate people from guilt and stigma, and that's not exactly neutral inquiry (nor is it strictly speaking an inquiry at all since we kind of know the answer in advance). Is that science? Social science? Is it academically valuable?

PG: But surely that principle can't underlie all fluff vs. substance distinctions--is a 40-page, intensively-sourced paper on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I say this as an enthusiastic Buffy fan) more substantive than a class on the history of political thought that requires two 5-7 page close readings? Or a course on Contracts that only has a standard law school final exam? Is substance simply equal to workload? Or to research paper production, such that research anything is more substantial than learning facts?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If all it takes to minimize fluff is to make a class -or at least the readings - in a language other than English, why are Romance Literature departments not overrun? This gets to what PG and MSI are debating, whether the issue for conservatives, when they complain about "fluff," is rigor or course descriptions that eschew anything that could even be interpreted as PC or pop-culture.


"To the extent that conservatives simply don't think subjects like the history of the civil rights movement are important, then sure, these subjects will have to be taught by people who are not conservative."



On the "fluff" question... I think you both have a point, in that subject matter and requirements both factor into it. Supporting MSI's point, I once had a grad class where we had to write 3-page response papers to each (dense, challenging, foreign language of course) novel we read, but there was no final paper or exam. The papers had to show that we not only finished but had intelligent responses to each book, and that we could convey this in a short space. Not long on footnotes, but not fluff. PG, I've never had the reverse, because I've never taken a pop-culture class, so I don't know what the footnoted Buffy paper would be about. I do think rigorous work can be done on fluffy-sounding topics, but giving conservative-critics-of-academia the benefit of the doubt, perhaps at a lot of colleges, Sitcom Studies 101 does not play out that way.


By "substantive," what I mean is, something more than what has become a canon of conservative-critique-of-academia talking points that a) do not add up to a coherent whole, and b) are aimed not at reforming or even revolutionizing academia, but rather at snickering at it. I mean a critique that, yes, actually looks at what's done in a class with "race," "gender," or "studies" in the title, rather than using these as code words for "look, nonsense in academia again!," or finding some egregious example of a prof happening to act like a fool in a class with one of those key words in the title. So maybe "substantive" isn't the best word - "constructive" gets at it better.

"What you seem to suggest is that conservatives ought to accept whatever happens to take place in universities until they develop a critique of sufficient thoughtfulness that you will be moved to act."

That's not what I was getting at at all. My point was that I agree with some, granted not all, of the conservative critiques, and think even many I disagree with are valid points, but that they're being made in a ridiculous way, by writers more interested in laughing at theoretical hemp-clad feminazis than actually making academia a place a) more pleasing to conservatives, or b) more welcoming of conservatives.

Re: the dildo prof - I'll repeat what I already said in the post, that it sounds like this particular guy had/has issues dildo incident aside. I don't think research like whichever study showed that men typically are aroused only by either men or women, but women by both, apparently with the use of (horrors!) pornography need to be abandoned because some things come out of the field that are out there or political.

Britta said...

Phoebe et. al.,
Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke on his blog Easily Distracted had a good post on this issue some time ago, when some right wing pundit singled out one of his classes as proof that academics were going to left wing Hell In A Handbasket. His main points were similar to PG's, but basically you have to judge a course on its syllabus, not its course title.