Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Masters and Minions


Candace’s post on the Derrida flap between the AIA and the Bucknell sociologist recalls one of the sadder trends in the humanities since the 1970s. The trend is the rise of discipleship. Whether because of the incursion of celebrity culture into academia, or because of a tight job market (which increases cronyism), or because of the fading sense of tradition (which intensifies present contacts), or because the better students gravitate to the sciences and the insecure ones to the humanities . . . more and more, graduate students and assistant professors align themselves with an intellectual hero.

The stars have always been Derrida, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, historian Michel Foucault, cultural critic Raymond Williams, literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, and others (it tends to be a male thing, although a few feminists–Luce Irigaray, for instance–have their votaries). The followers look upon their heros’ works as gospel. You are judged by how well you canrecite chapter and verse, and you judge others by how closely they follow the master. Your slavishness in relation to the master is balanced by vitriol toward any dissenters. It’s a game of belonging, a search for professional identity, with high stakes for the fragile ego trying to earn a PhD and get a job.

It is even sadder to see tenured professors today, well into their forties and fifties, still defending their idols as if they were manning the barricades against barbarians. The books that hooked them 30 years ago are as alive to them as if they were published yesterday. The pique, the indignation, the rage they feel whenever a whisper of criticism blows past their hero–it’s a sure sign of intellectual corruption. And it’s one of the reasons the humanities are in such bad shape.


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