How Do I Look in This Beret?

Norman Levitt has some very pointed things to say about Harvard.

Harvard University, the oldest in the USA and the wealthiest in the world, thinks very well of itself…It is an open secret that [Summers] was handed the helm at Harvard out of a growing sense that the place had grown stale, complacent, and narcissistic. Too many Harvard professors had settled into the habit of assuming that any old doctrine, opinion, or casual observation they chanced to utter was, ipso facto, profound and epochal merely because it issued from the great faux-Georgian citadel on the Charles. In truth, the place had grown somewhat dowdy, intellectually speaking, and, even worse, had proved itself susceptible to the vagaries of academic fashion…In some areas, Harvard had not only tolerated trendy mediocrity, but actively embraced it. Summers’ task, then, was to shake things up and to restore a relentlessly meritocratic ethic to the process of hiring and rewarding faculty where mere piety and sentimentality had previously been permitted to call the shots.

It’s funny how exactly like the New York Times that description sounds – at least to me. Thinks very well of itself; stale, complacent, and narcissistic; profound merely because it is itself; intellectually dowdy; medicrity; piety. The Times has a dreadful habit of announcing that it’s the best newspaper in the world – which apart from anything else simply can’t be true, can it? Surely in the entire world there are better newspapers than the Times – aren’t there? If not I think I’ll have to join the French Foreign Legion.

But that’s a digression – except it’s not entirely: because the phenomenon of the complacently mediocre top of the heap is interesting, and it’s part of what Levitt is talking about. His account sounds plausible to me because I’ve seen the same sort of smugness in other institutions with excessively solid reputations. Or in people with the same things. Remember the Cornel West fuss?

Summers lost no time in taking up the challenge. Early in his regime, he notoriously confronted Black Studies eminence Cornel West, essentially accusing him of goofing off with flashy and trivial projects (like voice-overs on hip-hop CDs) rather than turning out scholarly work of real substance. The touchy West promptly picked up his marbles and headed for Princeton, where a certain soft-heartedness still reigns. Many Harvard students, bred on the platitudes of ‘diversity’ and greatly susceptible to West’s showmanship, were outraged…But though some still blame Summers for ‘losing’ West, the prevailing opinion – most often stated anonymously, of course – is that Summers did the university a favour by cleverly easing out a dubious academic ‘superstar.’

Showmanship. Just so. That’s a serious occupational hazard for academics, you know. It comes of spending much of one’s waking time telling callow ignorant young people what’s what. (We have a joke about it in the Dictionary. ‘Socratic deformation or elenchusitis.’) Men are especially prone to it. Yes they are; don’t argue. Come on, you know they are. It’s the sex thing. They know their students are going to get crushes on them – how can they help strutting a little? Whereas women mostly know their students are not going to get crushes on them, and are mostly not all that flattered if they do. (Why? Because young men are repellent, while young women are attractive. Next question.) Then add some flashy ‘radical’ politics and ‘Indian’ credentials (however bogus), and you’ve got yourself a first-class Che-wannabe. Tweak the ingredients and you’ve got Cornel West. Tweak again and you’ve got Judith Butler (I said men are especially prone, not exclusively). Particularly at a time when there are a lot of people around inexplicably willing to call some academics ‘superstars’ – the temptation is clearly almost overpowering. But how nice it would be if the dears would resist. They kind of discredit the whole enterprise when they preen themselves in public. They feed into the suspicion of people like Fox News anchors that universities are nothing but theatrical settings for people who like to dress up as wevowutionawies and frighten the bourgeoisie.

I was actually going to talk about the substance of Levitt’s article but I got sidetracked by the style question. But that’s just it: in a lot of cases I think the style is the substance. Looking at and reading Ward Churchill, I find myself convinced that he doesn’t really mean any of it, that he just says the most ‘radical’ thing he can manage to think of, for the sake of saying it. To show off, basically. I knew people like that when I was at university – boy, did I. They were so much more into posing than they were into really thinking about what they were talking about. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, saith the preacher. Well he was a showoff too.

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