The redoubtable Miss Manners says that when you get down to it, people really only tell two stories: "My, how bad things have gotten!" and "My, how clever I am!" A book on the dumb things college students say is therefore a timeless idea. However, various people inside and outside the university are telling us that American colleges are being overrun by humorless, dronelike knobs — even at rarefied campuses such as MIT and Princeton. Since the G.I. Bill opened the doors of higher education to millions of veterans, the idea that middle-class children will go to college has become almost universal. The invention of the standardized test and increasing gamesmanship in getting into a good college has produced a peculiar American anxiety. Some critics of the current system promote reform in college admissions, but others simply contrast contemporary American campuses with those of an idyllic past, full of free-thinking students engaged in strenuous learning. The argument relies on gross generalizations, of course, and interestingly, it’s pretty much the same argument that was raised during the culture wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when it was asserted that tenured radicals roamed the greens, spreading a plague of Marxist, deconstructionist duckspeak and corrupting the minds of formerly free-thinking students who had once been engaged in strenuous learning.
Those who asserted that campuses in the ‘80s and ‘90s were overrun by Reds and atheists were part of a proud tradition, running back through professional student-bashers, including Spiro Agnew and Al Capp. (Dan Raeburn of The Imp wrote an excellent piece, unavailable online, on Capp in The Baffler #15.) The idea of the American university as a den of anti-Americanism dates at least to 1948, when William F. Buckley, published God and Man at Yale, one of the seminal works of modern American conservatism. Buckley asserted — in 1948 — that the American college campus, as exemplified by Yale, was dominated by atheists who were determined to undermine the religious tradition of higher education and professors who, if not card-carrying Communists, were nonetheless thrilled by state control of the marketplace, and that Yale’s alumni should really do something to restore traditional values lest Yale spiral out of control.
One rather strange outcome of the attacks on America is the return of the culture wars. Some of can be explained immediately. Witness the ongoing demonization of Noam Chomsky — see, for instance, "Noam Chomsky’s Jihad Against America" by Ronald Radosh and slavering Pinochet fanboy David Horowitz. I’ve taken Chomsky’s foreign policy analysis with a grain of salt ever since I came to the conclusion that he was an apologist for the Sandinistas, after reading What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Horowitz and Radosh go the other way, blithely dismissing any thoughts that American or contra behavior in Nicaragua might have been less than sterling. Horowitz’s writing generally isn’t worth rebutting (if you’re interested, there’s a response here), but the assertion that Chomsky is America’s Quisling isn’t limited to FrontPage. I think it stems from Chomsky’s prominence as an anti-American critic and his position (real or imagined) as the intellectual leader of campus radicalism (which seems to be something of a paper tiger, with a presence in the rhetoric of both right and left that vastly outstrips its real numbers and influence).
But how to explain the return of attacks on critical theory such as this absolutely dreadful anti-pomo screed published in Horowitz’s FrontPage? Ignoring the gratuitous crack at Michel Foucault’s death from AIDS, misogynist comments about female professors, and the oh-so-tortured reasoning, the author shows absolutely no signs of actually being familiar with any of the terms he uses. At the claim that deconstruction "is also known as poststructuralism," even a moderately-informed reader will begin to have doubts. (The idea of someone who has written on the proper conservative methods of spreading doubt and misinformation about evolution attacking English professors for their disbelief in logic and empirical facts is amusing as well.) This analysis of deconstruction from the right-leaning weblog More than Zero, which I found via Lake Effect, was written by someone who bothered to do some reading and is infinitely better and therefore probably less typical.
I will confess that I am rather fond of jargony theory, and I will refer readers who are not to this excellent summary of deconstruction. Although I wouldn’t call myself either a student or a follower of deconstruction, I’m at least fairly familiar with it (more through the work of Jacques Derrida than Paul De Man, whose work I’ve only encountered second-hand), and nowhere in Derrida did I ever encounter the idea that "Western literature (and by extension science and culture) is evil, racist and false because Western civilisation has been Logocentric, Eurocentric and Phallocentric." Critical theory is often represented by these sorts of straw men constructed through seemingly deliberate misinformation, whether malicious or not, but the fact that a great deal of it is nigh-unreadable, or terrible scholarship, or both. When you get down to it, though, deconstruction is simply a tool of literary scholarship — no more or less politically loaded than the close reading promoted by Ransom, Tate, and other New Critics. (Tate seemed to have pro-fascist leanings and his idealized South bore a strong resemblence to Pound’s idealized Italy, but nobody worth listening to dismisses close reading as a tool of fascism.) The essential idea of deconstruction is that texts — cultural artifacts — can be understood not only through what they contain but through what they omit, that the repressions, omissions, conflicts, and gaps of a book are revealing objects of study. (Since it gets swept up in these discussions, one of the principle ideas of structuralism is that "signifiers" — symbols, such as the word "pink", the smiley-face, or the swastika — have no inherent meaning, only the meaning that society attatches to them.)
I think the bogeyman arrives with deconstruction’s claims that complete textual authority does not and cannot exist. That’s the one that worries people, even more so than literary theory’s supposed crimes against the Western canon. When there is no authority, people need to explore, draw their own conclusions, shop at the marketplace of ideas. NPR-style liberals who fret that the Internet leads to closemindedness or fear our descent into an aliterate society are exhibiting the same desire to see discourse propogate along lines that they feel comfortable with. But getting your view of the world from one source and accepting that source uncritically — whether the source is Ayn Rand or the Bible, the New York Times or the New York Post, Noam Chomsky or (Heaven forfend) the writing of David Horowitz — is a bad thing. Applying a single totalizing theory to all situations (and I certainly include Chomsky’s kneejerk anti-Americanism along with bloviating conservatism) is a bad thing. Attacks on bad critical theory as bad scholarship are fun to read and productive. Attacks on critical theory as morally wrong are just weird; one doesn’t become Johnny Taliban by reading Madness and Civilization any more than by reading Hamlet or The Jungle. And attacks on critical theory as meaningless tripe are sometimes interesting but all too often reveal a hidden belief that the the author did things when he or she was a student is the one true path to knowledge.
Generational generalizations are just that: generalizations. And generalizations about students lack of creativity, moral failings, spongelike absorption of their professors’ biases, or need to be coddled are as old as the hills and, even when true, generally tedious. Dialogues about any sort of pedagogical reform almost invariably become loaded with with political overtones, but I think that most of the claims about college students that come from the left (college students are turning into sheep who don’t question statist, corporate authority!), from the right (college students are turning into sheep who don’t question liberal professors’ authority!) and from the unidentifiable center (college students are turning into ignorant yahoos who can’t think their way out of a paper bag) can be boiled down to two simple statements: "My, how clever I am!" and "My, how bad things have gotten!"