“… I fear we are the last remaining members of a dying profession. We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top. The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus is fading, and though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that our mission and our way of life to have been lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending. But we are nearly at the tipping point, I suspect, and will soon be a thing of the past.”
—Julie Schumacher, “Dear Committee Members”
First, let me say that The American Catholic is an unlikely venue for the review of this fine work, but I’m not sure what other blog I should use to convey this book’s message. Before I expound on the relevance of that message for us non-academic American Catholics, let me set the stage. I get books for my wife at the local library. Since we’ve both done time in the academic jail, I thought this reminder of “days gone bye” might be a welcome change from her usual fare of English mysteries and romances; I had no serious purpose in mind.
THE PLOT LINE
Here’s a very brief summary of this Thurber Prize winning novel. (There are many good reviews; the best, I think, is that from the New Yorker, linked above.) The story is told by letters, mostly letters of recommendation (LOR). Almost all of these are excruciatingly funny. (My wife, reading the book, would burst from time to time into loud guffaws—question: can an elderly lady “guffaw?”)
These letters are written by a tenured English faculty member at a “second tier” private university. As the opening quote suggests, he is fighting a losing battle against a university administration that believes the future lies with the hard and pseudo-sciences, physics, economics…, those disciplines where quantitation supposedly demonstrates truth. The English department is being starved of funds for student and material support (as shown in these excerpts from a letter supporting the reappointment of a temporary English department head, Ted Boti, a sociologist):
“…for example, his [Boti’s] mild amazement when informed that English has shrunk in the past five years by more than 20 percent. See the wrinkle in his snowy brow upon learning that our student fellowships have been slashed, our graduate programs defunded,…,the student literary journal paid for by donations collected on street corners in tin cans…Even more: having spent his tenure-seeking years in the gleaming spaceship of Atwell Hall, Boti—like a wealthy traveler touring the slums—is suitably horrified by the state of our building, with its intermittent water supply, semioperational [sic] light fixtures, mephitic odors, and corridors foggy with toxins. Yesterday, on the metal bookshelf in my office, I came across a cluster of insects—a beetle, two moths, a centipede, and several bluebottle flies—writhing together like dirgeful companions in their final death throes, presumably poisoned by vapors from the second floor.” —Julie Schumacher, “Dear Committee Members”
RELEVANCE TO AMERICAN CATHOLICS
So, where’s the relevance to Catholics of our conservative bent (doctrinal, liturgical, and political) of this fuss about the decline and fall of literary academe? The disease of lowered standards, unrealized expectations, is infectious. Victorian and Edwardian England could support not only Trollope and Hardy, but also Newman and Chesterton. But where are the Dickens and Meredith of today, where are the Catholic scholars who make doctrine alive and meaningful?
The Derridas, modernists, postmodernists, and neo-modernists of literature have their counterpart in theology. Scholars and priests marching along the trail of a mutable, evolving God, a pathway blazed by de Chardin and Whitehead, deny Catholic dogma and doctrine. Academic administrators belie Catholic morality by giving honorary degrees to advocates of abortion and euthanasia (they call it “pro-choice”).
There are a few forts in the wilderness, Catholic institutions of higher learning that promote not only a classical education (call it “The Great Books”), but also sound theological principles: Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, St. Anselm, Benedictine, Thomas More. (By the way, my son attended the progenitor of this trivium and quadrivium pedagogy, St. John’s College, of which it has been said that Jewish faculty teach Protestant students how to become Catholic.) But I suggest that these few are not sufficient to stem the tide.
When secondary schools, public and private, lower standards so that students can be admitted to high rank colleges; when concessions to politically correct standards of sexual and family identity suborn history and civics; when free speech is stifled so that sensitive snowflakes will not be afraid; then rigorous scholarship and learning are on their deathbed, and there will be no resuscitation.
TECHNOLOGY, THE AGENT OF INFECTION
Like the fleas that carry bubonic plague, technology is the agent of this decline and fall in learning. When, rather than a two page letter, communication is “R u : > ( ,” then who needs synonyms or antonyms? When the “Readability” utility for WordPress authoring admonishes me that my “Readable Index” is above that for easy reading, that my sentences and paragraphs should be shorter, that I have too many dependent clauses, etc., etc., the temptation to emulate Henry James (the novelist who wrote like a philosopher) rather than William James (his brother, the philosopher who wrote like a novelist) vanishes.
Technology makes everything too easy—looking up past history, who did what in science, the 21 interpretations of quantum mechanics. God Bless, God Damn Wikipedia! I recall doing research some 54 years ago in the library at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) for the one good piece of science I’ve done. I was trying to find an article by Julian Schwinger, the Nobel Prize winning theoretician who had taught my quantum mechanics course at Harvard. The article, mentioned briefly in my course notes, gave a method by which I could develop a correct theory for paramagnetic nmr shifts (search “Kurland-McGarvey equation“). Delving into old volumes of Physical Review, being led astray by interesting, but non-relevant works, I spent three weeks finally getting to the key article. But it was worth it.
GOODBYE TO BETTER TIMES
So, as in fourth and fifth century Britain, I watch the Legions leave and await the onslaught of the barbarians. Oh, for a time machine to go back 50 or 60 years and relive that time.
*In doing an internet search for the correct spelling of “bye,” I found that “Days Gone Bye” was the title for the pilot of a post-apocalyptic TV series, “The Walking Dead.” Gee! I hit it out of the park, without even knowing!