Higher education, R.I.P.
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Begun as the honest left's answer to Stalinism, the magazine's quality and independence scarcely wavered till it was overwhelmed by much more respectable publications with much less talented writers and editors. (Respectability is the death of thought.)
The Fugitive, that last redoubt of unreconstructed Southern letters in the 1920s, had editor-writers like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren as it took its last stand in the 1920s.
As for the late Partisan Review, an era of tame criticism and lame taste consigned it to irrelevance long ago. Besides, once Soviet Communism had imploded, the magazine had lost its reason for being. Not even the sainted John Silber of Boston U., that unlikely combination of intellectual and college administrator, could save it from Progress.
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A little magazine does remain here and there. On the right, William F. Buckley's National Review still stands athwart History yelling "Stop!" and, on the left, the New Republic is still worth reading even if its gaudy new typography and lay-out make it look like a society matron got up as a streetwalker.
But my favorite little magazine still standing, an almost lone voice of sanity and connection to past standards -- that is, high culture -- has to be the New Criterion, est. 1982 by Hilton Kramer, the late art critic and refugee from the ever-more-with-it, and ever more tedious, New York Times.
An item in the January issue of the magazine caught my sorrowful eye, for I'm of an age at which the obituaries are the first thing I check out in the morning paper. Just to know who's gone today. The dear departed in this case: Higher Ed.
The cause of death was the usual in modern, bureaucratized, obese and increasingly ossified academia: administrative bloat aggravated by diluted standards and the erosion of the core curriculum, the basis of liberal education.
Tenured faculty now teach less and less as the "drudge work" of dealing with undergraduates is shifted to a corps of slave laborers styled adjunct professors or TAs, teaching assistants. In both ill-paid categories, I learned mainly how little I knew. I had to conquer my embarrassment at that continuing revelation every time I stepped into a classroom in place of the real teacher who should have been there.
Now, one by one, the disciplines that were once the basis of a liberal education are eliminated as not worth the trouble. Literature, foreign languages, real history as opposed to current ideology, and the arts and sciences in general give way to simulacra with the telling label Studies after their name. As in Queer Studies or African Studies. (The other day I ran across a twofer: Queer African Studies.)
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Consider the sad example offered by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where German is out and Movies are still in. Excuse me, Film Studies.
In this ever-encroaching bog called Higher Education, which keeps getting lower, administrators prosper while scholars grow scarcer. Matthew Arnold, who defined liberal education as the study of "the best that has been thought and said," is dismissed as another dead white male -- if he is remembered at all.
Deconstructionism, post-structuralism, or whatever ism may be in vogue today, is all the rage, sometimes literally.
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Cardinal Newman's serene guide to the perplexed, "The Idea of a University," is as forgotten as Ortega y Gasset. Who now cares what such have to say? They're old -- that damning pejorative -- much as Greek and Latin and the King James Bible and Shakespeare are old. It's new that counts, just as tinkling brass and clashing cymbals impress every new generation of suckers under the impression they're music.