Phi Beta Cons

The New Criterion

It’s been 25 years since The New Criterion started, and among its many achievements has been the consistent, revealing, and witty commentary upon the academic scene. Hilton Kramer’s and Roger Kimball’s monthly commentaries upon the sad, ludicrous, and pernicious trends in humanistic labor in the classroom have sustained the spirits of more academics than they realize. Kimball has a comment about the background at Powerline, which is worth repeating in part:

In the university and other institutions entrusted with preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of our civilization, kindred deformations are at work. Pseudo-scholarship propagated by a barbarous reader-proof prose and underwritten by adolescent political animus is the order of the day. The New Criterion sallied forth onto this cluttered battlefield determined not simply to call attention to the emperor’s new clothes, but to do so with wit, clarity, and literary panache. We acknowledge that these have been hard times for the arts of satire and parody. With increasingly velocity, today’s reality has a way of outstripping yesterday’s satirical exaggeration. Nevertheless, The New Criterion has always been distinguished by its effective deployment of satire, denunciation, and ridicule–all the astringent resources in the armory of polemic. But The New Criterion is not only about polemics. An equally important part of criticism revolves around the task of battling cultural amnesia. From our first issue, we have labored in the vast storehouse of cultural achievement to introduce, or reintroduce, readers to some of the salient figures whose works helped weave the great unfolding tapestry of our civilization. Writers and artists, philosophers and musicians, scientists, historians, controversialists, explorers, and politicians: The New Criterion has specialized in resuscitating important figures whose voices have been drowned out by the demotic inanities of pop culture or embalmed by the dead hand of the academy.
It is worth noting that our interest in these matters has never been merely aesthetic. At the beginning of The Republic, Socrates reminds his young interlocutor, Glaucon, that their discussion concerns not trifling questions but “the right conduct of life.” We echo that sentiment. The New Criterion is not, I hope, a somber publication; but it is a serious one. We look to the past for enlightenment and to art for that humanizing education and ordering of the emotions that distinguish the man of culture from the barbarian.
The New Criterion is often described as “conservative” and praised or disparaged according to the political coloration of the speaker. In fact, we are a liberal publication, understanding the term “liberal” in the sense that Russell Kirk used it when he observed that he was a conservative because he was a liberal. “Conservative”: that means wanting to conserve what is worth preserving from the ravages of time and ideology, evil and stupidity. In some plump eras, as Evelyn Waugh observed in one of his essays, the task is so easy we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving culture into a battle for survival. That, we believe, is where we are today. And that is one reason that The New Criterion’s effort to tell the truth about culture is as important today as it was in 1982. Counterpoints is a wide-ranging record of The New Criterion’s contribution to this imperative task.