Another Tiresome Insult to Academics


The latest work by celebrated gonzo journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech, is a book-length essay that tries to pillory the academic study of language, targeting along the way for special vitriol none other than Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.  I have zero expertise in this field and have not read the book (nor do I intend to), so I will leave it to the linguists to respond; perhaps AAUP Wisconsin leader Nick Fleisher might take a crack at it.  I will say, however, that my strong suspicion is, my ignorance notwithstanding, that Wolfe doesn’t really know much about this topic at all.

Unfortunately, apparently neither does Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, who today reviewed the book for the New York Times Book Review. Her breezy review, written almost as a satire on Wolfe’s unique style, is a textbook example of the problems associated with reviews written by dilettantes rather than experts.  But that’s not actually what I want to write about.  Instead, I want to highlight this paragraph from Flanagan’s review, in which she seemingly endorses Wolfe’s diatribe against Chomsky and, in particular, his highly influential 1968 essay on “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals”:

Much that is distasteful — and, at worst, fraudulent — about the American university system can be traced, ultimately, to “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” It allowed every plodding English department adjunct and uninspired life sciences prof to imagine themselves not as instructors but as “intellectuals,” people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion. Merely by avowing — loudly — ­every doctrinaire opinion of the left, such a person could transform him- or herself into a modern-day Zola, vitally needed as the conscience of the nation. Set aside the onerous task of grading 55 lackluster essays on “Huck Finn.” Grinding out a ­virtue-signaling HuffPo piece is much more important — to your career, ­Amerika and (oh yeah, them) your ­students.

This sort of casual, insulting, and ill-informed bashing of an allegedly preening and pretentious left-wing professoriate has become a familiar trope among some anti-intellectuals on the right.  It’s discouraging, however, to see it so easily leak into the pages of a supposedly serious book review, especially given that it seems completely irrelevant to the review’s subject.  (Apparently both Wolfe and Flanagan are incapable of separating Chomsky’s highly technical and pathbreaking work in linguistics from his political writings.)  Flanagan not only misdiagnoses the problems in higher education, she completely misidentifies them.

I don’t know if Flanagan has ever taught at an American college or university, but I have for over 40 years.  And I have never, ever encountered an adjunct faculty member who fits Flanagan’s description.  Indeed, I wish that more “adjunct” faculty members were in a position to even consider themselves intellectuals, rather than members of an overworked, disrespected, and increasingly vulnerable precariat that they have become.  And the notion that most faculty members are doctrinaire leftists is entirely a fantasy.  Even in the humanities, most faculty members are pretty mainstream liberals (who read the Times Book Review and The Atlantic) and a significant number are politically outspoken conservatives.  As for the life sciences, I find this baffling.  Does Flanagan really want her readers to believe that university biologists and psychologists ignore their disciplines in favor of writing screeds on foreign policy for the Huffington Post?  Give us a break!  But the greatest outrage here is Flanagan’s unfounded and insulting accusation that faculty members willingly “set aside” the task of grading essays in order to mouth off to “Amerika.”  My experience suggests that for 95% or so of American higher ed teachers, our students come first.  Period.  If you don’t agree, show me evidence to the contrary, or shut up.

Perhaps this stereotypical drivel comes from Wolfe, not Flanagan, about whom I know nothing beyond how the Times editors describe her.  But it is drivel nonetheless, for which the Times should be deeply embarrassed.

“One senses that Wolfe is as irritated by his omission from the roster of immortals as by Chomsky’s inclusion in it,” Flanagan concludes. “But one also knows that a hundred years from now, the one whose work will still be read — whose work will remain imperishable in the face of any new discoveries — is Wolfe. In the long game, the kingdom belongs to him.”  Wanna bet?

6 thoughts on “Another Tiresome Insult to Academics

  1. It is very hard to say which writers will be valued by future generations. The generation that was re-discovering Melville was also taking seriously the novels of James Branch Cabell, Booth Tarkington, Louis Bromfield, Edna Ferber, Ellen Glasgow, and Thornton Wilder. Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis still have name recognition, but they are not as widely read as they once were. F. Scott Fitzgerald disappeared from critical view for a decade or two, and then “re-emerged,” with the twist that much more attention was suddenly being given to his novels than to his short stories. Hemingway’s reputation looked as if it might fall victim to his public persona and to the increasing sense that many of his thematic obsessions were at least as anachronistic as they were idiosyncratic. For a time, his “style” of writing seemed to have been co-opted by “popular” and “genre” novelists, and it seemed very out of step with postmodern experimental narratives and metafiction. Nonetheless, his work seems to be read just about as widely now as he was when I was an undergraduate.

    So, it is almost impossible to try to predict what a current novelist’s standing will be in 20 or 30 years, never mind 50 to 100 years. That said, if I had to place a bet for my great-grandchildren, I will guess that Tom Wolfe will be remembered much more as a “New Journalist” than as a novelist. His defenders place great stake in his bucking the trends and attempting to write “big” novels that provide a contemporary parallel to the work of the great 19th-century novelists. But, although his novels are well written and explore characters and themes that are certainly of interest, I don’t think that they are so good that they are going to place him among the top dozen or even two dozen American novelists of the half-century following World War II. I would be hard-pressed to identify why future generations of readers might be drawn to The Bonfire of the Vanities, never mind A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, or Back to Blood. Indeed, although The Bonfire of the Vanities has been included on almost 150 of the syllabi surveyed for the Open Syllabus Project, the other novels have not attracted anything close to that level of academic interest. And if the works are not taught, they have much-reduced chances of getting into the Canon. Worse, I am willing to bet that only a very small percentage of English faculty teaching fiction surveys, or even specialists in 20th-/21st-century American fiction, would be able to name all four of Wolfe’s novels, never mind have read all of them–or even more than one or two of them.

    That’s not really a knock on Wolfe so much as it is a recognition of the volume of good work being produced by an ever-increasing range of novelists, all competing (at least from an academic’s perspective) for more enduring appeal.

    I’ll add that many of the writers that I most enjoyed reading in my teens and twenties are now, at best, footnote figures in the literary histories–and are very unlikely to become more than that.

  2. To call Wolfe’s assessment of Chomsky’s linguistics gibberish would be an insult to gibberish. It is a complete embarrassment. I honestly can’t believe it was published. I am basing my opinion on my own reading of the excerpt that ran in Harper’s, along with the reactions of other linguists who had the stomach to read the whole book.

    For those interested in some exegesis of the actual linguistic issues involved (a group that does not include Caitlin Flanagan, clearly), I can recommend Norbert Hornstein’s coverage at his Faculty of Language blog, where he has covered both Wolfe’s piece itself and some of the reaction to it. I can also recommend Jerry Coyne’s review which ran in the Washington Post (links below).

    The very short version is that Wolfe bases his critique of Chomsky on Dan Everett’s work, but Everett’s work does not contradict Chomsky in the way that Everett claims. Even those who disagree with Chomsky should find Wolfe hollow and unsatisfying. He really has nothing to offer. For a history of the intellectual disputes around the development of generative grammar, a far better read is Randy Allen Harris’s “The Linguistics Wars”.

    Hornstein on Wolfe:

    Hornstein on coverage of Wolfe:

    Coyne review:

  3. The mention of the New York Times Book Review reminds me of the old joke and a true one at that.
    Why does the NYT have comic page in their Sunday paper. It does it called the Book Review.

  4. I think Flanagan is guilty of hypocrisy when she attacks adjuncts as “people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women “. This sounds more like a sin of journalists. They get to deicide what is or is not publicly discussed. When does the common man or woman get to have a say in U.S. foreign policy?

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