Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Battle of Olustee

One thing that always interests me is people who argue based on the weight of their experience yet who don’t have the courage to admit who they are. Someone using the name “olustee” responded in just this manner to a piece of mine first published by the ePluribus Media Journal and reprinted by David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine. His comment is here. Claiming half a century of experience and the guts to stand up to “a seething collection of back-biting anti-heterosexual male ideological hatemongers,” he is, unaccountably, lacking the nerve to make a public argument under his own name.

Oh, well.

The comment "olustee" penned is full of sweeping generalizations unworthy of response, but I would like to address several of the points “olustee” makes. Speaking specifically of the study of literature, he complains of the “looseness” of “criteria for judging what is and what is not relevant to the field's range of appropriate subject matter.” What’s interesting about this is that he makes a comparison between “appropriateness re: various criteria of literary quality/historical period placement/formal literary characteristics” and “stories which dovetail with the plotlines of standard political narratives which fund what are in effect various marxist-derived and marxism-driven political narratives.” The first, in his eye, is legitimate, the second not. Putting aside the validity of his description of what we in literature choose to teach now (there’s really little substance to his charge: syllabi in historical literature courses are quite similar to what they were fifty years ago), I find it notable that he accepts the primacy of the old viewpoint without challenge. I would argue, for instance, that “literary quality,” in the sense he uses it, reflects only the assumptions of a tradition and not an abstract or foundational value. It carries with it its own political orientation. As does use of “historical period” for placement, for we filter our views of the past through the choices made before us, rarely going back to the past for a fresh look. “Formal literary characteristics,” like “quality,” rest on subjective choices and not on absolutes—the formal aspects of a work of art, after all, are determined by practitioners and observers through the development of the form. They are, by definition, exclusionary—and it is this that foes of “olustee” object to. So, if the new standards are too ‘loose,’ his old ones were certainly too ‘tight.’

“Olustee” writes:

The student academic rights people have decided to take a legal approach to dealing with this take-over, because it offers certain leverage by way of the legislative control in the case of publicly-funded universities and colleges.

What he leaves out is that the leverage he argues for is non-academic and political. This, and not the rising number of feminists in his department, is what will lead to the real institutionalization of propaganda in our public universities.

I’ll agree with “olustee” on one thing: The people in control of our academic departments today can be as small-minded and cliquish as anyone ever was. Even as were “olustee” and the others they wrested control from. But I would rather fight them than I would a bunch of politicians who have rarely darkened a classroom door. For one thing, the power of the academics is limited in a way the power of the politicians (for all of our laws and safeguards) is not. As an untenured academic, I can lose my job by incurring the wrath of my department—but I will not be thrown in jail.

No comments: