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James Turner

Humbling the Lords of Epistemology, part 1

For almost two centuries, writers on American higher education have gnashed their teeth, rent their garments, rolled in ashes. These penitential rituals are so routine as to have become banal. Nonetheless, moments do arrive when the cries of Jeremiah ring especially loudly, when throughout the land the noise of lamentation puts eardrums at risk. Such a time was the 1820s; such was the 1870s; and such another has been the past decade.

The present rise in decibels of woe stems from the merging of two distinct strains of complaint. The first we owe to a generational shift in the professoriate. The Young Turks who populated graduate schools in the later 1960s and early 1970s have turned grey, lost muscle tone, and aged into control of academic departments and college administrations. Not surprisingly, their generally leftish ideology has come to dominate the politics of the mainstream academy. (In the spirit of truth-in-packaging, I confess that I did inhale, that I now shudder at the freshman Republicans in the House, am losing my hair, and sit on appointments committees.) Marxism having wandered away with its tail between its legs, this new orthodoxy perseverates on race and gender. Why should anyone be shocked?

Equally unsurprisingly, the to rch passed to a left-leaning generation of tenure-granters has singed academics to their right. Howls issue both from the professorial generation being displaced and from a fresh wave of Young Turks (who perforce often dwell on some well-funded fringe of universitydom). From among the elders, the late Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind was most widely heard (indeed, Bloom may well be regarded as patriarch of the new tribe of Jeremiah), while among the youngsters perhaps Dinesh D'Souza in Illiberal Education screamed most loudly. In the past few years, right-wing critics have focused their discontent on "political correctness": the alleged use of academic power to enforce a left-wing conformity on campus. Without doubt there ...

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