Deconstruction Goes Mainstream

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For the origins of ‘woke’ culture, look to the turn that higher education took half a century ago.

A recent Wall Street Journal editorial drew attention to the source of the moral denunciation that now dominates journalism: namely, “dogmas that began in the universities.” These dogmas go by various names (among others, “postmodernism,” “multiculturalism”), but I will gather them under the term “deconstruction,” as it best encapsulates what is at their core. It consists of critiquing the writings of past authors, especially male ones, “deconstructing” them, which means exposing the submerged ideology of power, racism, misogyny, repression, and so on that is hidden below the overt text of a novel. This French cultural product, which began to occupy a prominent place in American university literature departments in the 1970s, has had the effect, over several student generations, of bringing literature departments, especially those of foreign languages, to extinction. Why? It is in the DNA of adolescents, even of those who have never heard of Jacques Derrida, to deconstruct, to tear apart the assumptions of their forebears. When professors stopped talking about Milton’s prose and began pointing out his treatment of his daughters, students got the point immediately. Why would 18-year-olds hang around to confirm what they knew only a year or two earlier, anyway: that anyone born before their own birth year doesn’t have a clue?

The academics who have brought about this state of affairs first went to school in the 1950s. I am among this generation, the early Boomers, and we have been the most privileged generation in the history of the world. The best and brightest of us who grew up in the bare and quiet 1950s –– those who had mastered the three R’s, learned to write in a comprehensible hand, and absorbed the ability to sit quietly at our desk several hours a day –– would by 1963 continue to the next educational and social experiment. Unlike at the beginning of the 21st century, when 70 percent of high-school graduates go to college, many of them possessing weak reading, writing, and study skills, no one in 1963 thought that the boys sitting in the back row of public-school classrooms were college material, even if most of them probably knew how to read and write.

With college, a weeding-out process began. Moreover, unlike high-school grads who enter college today, my cohort found itself in an environment that continued to nourish and support the capacities that had been drilled into us from the first grade. Thus, the curriculum across the country, whether at Stanford and Harvard or at a Big Ten school like the one I attended, was likewise standard. “Requirements,” as they were called, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s major, counted for a large portion of the credits needed for graduation, which included at least two years of a foreign language. Back then, it was taken for granted that “Western civ” was to be part of our education. When we entered the professional world circa 1973, we were high achievers who comprehended the importance of efficiency, of deadlines, of getting to work on time, and all the other prerequisites of the modern economic order.

Many of us, myself included, had majored in foreign languages in college. Just a few years earlier, in 1958, within a year of the launch of the Soviets’ first satellite, Sputnik, the National Defense Education Act became law, providing financial assistance for “defense-oriented” studies at universities: engineering, math, and foreign languages. My high-school interest in German, a most accidental enthusiasm, had occurred at just the right moment, as the foreign-language departments of universities were a serious undertaking. This reassessment of foreign-language education, combined with study abroad, produced by the mid 1970s young scholars, men and women both, trained in various European languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. It is not overstating things that my generation went on to do real scholarship on foreign literatures and languages.

We published a lot, books, articles, reviews, as is reflected in the Publications of the Modern Language Association, or PMLA. This is the journal of the Modern Language Association, or MLA, the mandate of which is the promotion of the study of modern languages and literatures. Anyone who has done a historical search of the PMLA will discover, by the late 1970s, the increasingly deconstructionist bias of articles and reviews. Deconstruction of the literary canon in which it had been trained became the focus of the scholarship of a generation that had profited so immensely from educational opportunity.

The aim of theory, as it was called in the academy, was to “read forward.” It would no longer be a case, as in traditional scholarship, of reading backward, of studying sources or analyzing the traces of literary predecessors (one could also apply this to historical events), documenting the immediate conditions of the creation of a work or of its reception by contemporaries, but instead it would lay bare the biases of its creation — intolerance, racism, privilege, misogyny, you name it — that lived on and was passed down in literary works. Those of my cohort who majored in English literature, which for the most part also meant the study of a “foreign” literature, i.e., the British literary tradition, carried out a similar job of deconstruction of that field. Currently, one of the biggest areas of research among American scholars of 18th-century British literature is the Atlantic slave trade. As I said, students already knew that anyone born before them is an idiot. They walked out of the classes long ago, and the scholars talk only to themselves.

The damage that has been done to university curricula can be seen in a report in 2018 by the MLA. Take foreign languages: “The 2016 ratio [of enrollment in foreign-language instruction versus overall student registration] is less than half of what it was in 1960 and approaches the lowest ratio recorded, 7.3, in 1980. Taking a long view, modern-language enrollments have lagged far behind overall college and university enrollments since 1960.” Further: “The percentage of four-year colleges and universities requiring students to take courses in languages other than English dropped 17 percentage points between 1995 and 2010, to about half of all institutions.” In my own field of German, for instance, course enrollment went from 95,614 in 2009 to 80,594 in 2016. But compare 1968: 216, 263! And French in 1968: 388,096.

Also, according to the MLA, in the four years since 2012, B.A.s in English have likewise fallen, by almost 11,000, or 20.4 percent, from 53,840 in 2012 to 42,868 in 2016. As the MLA admits, this “downturn” is not confined to English, but to all the humanities, “especially history, where bachelor’s degree completions have fallen by over 9,500 (27 percent) between 2012 and 2016, from 35,190 to 25,686. Degrees in languages other than English and in philosophy and religious studies have also declined, by 15.3 percent and 18.7 percent, respectively, since 2012.”

As the Wall Street Journal piece pointed out, the deconstructionist temperament is widespread in America, precisely because the early Boomer generation has come to occupy culturally important positions. But let me remain with the current situation of “woke” culture, which is primarily a phenomenon of kids who have passed through elite universities. “Woke” is so apposite, such a culturally apt description of the thinking (!) of kids who have been raised deconstructively. In my own long-ago experience teaching undergraduates, they are not only highly susceptible to overestimating their own worth, but they are also very idealistic. One has only to teach the novels of Hermann Hesse to a class of undergraduates to know this. (Remember Demian? Or Siddhartha?)

We should be so lucky if any of them read Hermann Hesse these days. They are no longer introduced to works that once helped young people overcome their own vanities or that encourage them to measure up to the standards of literary heroes. You can’t pay them anymore to read them. Novels are the only place where you can get into the mind of another person, but the minds of the young protesters are virginal, without depth, without empathy for differences of point of view. They have become more cynical than even the most hardened criminal when it comes to the values of Western civ. Channeling their idealism into spouting shibboleths, they have become spooky commissars merrily carrying on the work of deconstruction. After all, they know what kids instinctively know: They are always right.


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