BY HANK REICHMAN
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?