Top positive review
By Now a Familiar, Tragic Story
Reviewed in the United States on October 29, 2017
This book charts a pattern that faculty in English and Modern Foreign Languages have also experienced. In the late 60’s the attitude was formed that the historical method had run its course and that there was very little left to learn. This caused a panic in those who (unlike Wittgenstein, e.g.) were not prepared to take down their tents, return home and pursue other honest labor. The creature comforts of tenure, modest teaching loads, generous leaves and lucrative grants were too attractive to be abandoned. Fortunately, there were other opportunities ready at hand. The French Nietzscheans offered capital-T Theory, a form of epistemic nihilism and will-to-power essentialism that provided the opportunity to not just pursue greener professional pastures but also argue that the previous environs were fallow and uninhabitable.
Many within the Classics professoriate followed this lead, placing professional opportunity above public need. The result was a decline in Classics enrollments, a reduction in faculty, the near-abandonment of the study of Greek and a widening of the gap between the senior faculty of privilege and the contingent faculty teaching multiple sections of introductory courses. The new ‘research’ was of little interest to the general public and the tradition of ‘outreach’ in the form of translations such as Richmond Lattimore’s and books for general readers by such figures as Gilbert Highet receded into the past as the senior professoriate distanced itself from taxpayers, tuition payers and the general public.
Since the careers of the privileged members of the professoriate hung in the balance the internecine skirmishes which always characterized the academy (Johnson discusses them in his Preface to Shakespeare, long before there was even an English professoriate per se) multiplied in both number and intensity.
Hanson, Heath and Thornton speak for the ‘old ways’: an emphasis on conscientious teaching, the practice of historical/empirical/philological research, and an understanding of the historical role of Greek and Roman thought, particularly Greek, which involves the giving of proper credit but not the donning of rose-tinted spectacles. Their central method here is to examine collections of essays which advocate the ‘new ways’ and underscore the predictable and dubious assumptions which undergird them. These ‘theories’ are often questionable in the extreme; their progenitors have earned far more plaudits from the unquestioning humanists than from their disciplinary colleagues. Foucault has been characterized as doing ‘history without facts’ by a distinguished historian; Rorty went to Stanford’s Comp Lit department, not its Philosophy department. Lacan is invisible within the modern psychological sciences and Derrida is now largely seen as a passing fad who has not displaced Aristotle, Plato, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, et al.
BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES is particularly valuable because it names names and recounts actual battles; this provides the general reader with a deep sense of the self-interested ugliness which has characterized many of the events.
A note in passing: the identity politics that forms the basis for the race/class/gender obsessions of the current Humanities professoriate is often lamented because of the explicit politicization which it entails. An interesting take on this is Stephen Hicks’s EXPLAINING POSTMODERNISM, whose first edition appeared 3 years after the BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES. Hicks argues that capital-T Theory is implicitly political, in that it represents a desire for the socialism which history has failed to produce. Since socialism as experienced under modern dictators and bloodstained elites cannot stand up to historical facts and the empirical method the French Nietzscheans and their ephebes launched an attack on the Enlightenment itself, an attack which would, in effect, deflate its truth claims by denying the existence of facts, the possibility of ‘meaning’, the precision of language, and so on. This book sketches an overarching explanation and Hanson, Heath and Thornton provide a sense of how this all plays out on the ground when salaries, promotions, titles and workloads are on the chopping block. The greatest victims, of course, are our culture, our public discourse and our system of higher education, particularly as it impacts previously-marginalized students.