Though Howe and Hook rarely agreed on anything—they had been fierce adversaries since the 1940s—Howe shared Hook’s anger over the proposed changes. “Those of us who have been or are teachers get these American kids for a short while; they come, most of them, poorly prepared from the high schools; we have a chance to expose them to a play by Sophocles, a few pages of Hume, an essay by Freud, a poem by Keats, whatever it is that’s distinguished and has survived through sheer power of mind and language–and our colleagues tell us that this is imperialistic or racist or sexist or whatever. The kids get short-changed and their parents, paying through the nose to send them to college, don’t seem to know the difference…Socialists have usually said that they wanted a better society so that the poor could get a chance to engage with the culture they had been deprived of. And now that there is an opportunity for this, our ‘radical’ friends prefer to teach them about the Trobriand Islands or to have them read Alice Walker (an atrocious writer).” Would minority students really gain in self-esteem by reading about themselves or their ancestors? Was there not something patronizing in suggesting that variety and multiplicity were suitable for middle-class white students, but not for minority students, whose literary regimen must be racially determined? And since when was the function of the humanities to inculcate self-esteem? For Howe, the substitution of Alice Walker for John Keats epitomized the debasement of public education.
Much earlier, in the late sixties, Howe had entered the culture struggle that called into question the value of literature itself. He savagely attacked people like Louis Kampf, the spokesman for “leftist” English professors who came to provide teachers and critics who never cared much for literature in the first place a rationale for their hostility to literary studies: they were both a result and an instrument of class oppression. Kampf and his acolytes believed that preferring Elizabeth Bishop to Judith Krantz was a sin of the same order as sanctioning the inequality of wealth.
The corpses of the sixties were resuscitated in the anti-traditionalist insurgents at Stanford (and most other “progressive” universities) in the eighties. They thought of themselves as leftists but in fact were animated by a mixture of American populist sentiment and French critical theorizing. “The populism,” Howe observed, “releases anti-elitist rhetoric, the theorizing releases highly elitist language…a stupefying verbal opacity” that arises from and further engenders nihilism, imbuing Raskolnikovs with bombs in their brains rather than axes in their hands. Fortunately for Howe, he did not live to see the specifically anti-American and anti-Israel expression of literary “theory,” as in this apologia for suicide bombing provided in June 2002 by Columbia University’s celebrated tribune of “international feminism,” Gayatri Spivak:
Suicide bombing—and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs—is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others….Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning…you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing…It is a response…to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality.
This is what Howe’s good friend Lionel Trilling called the language of non-thought, employed to blur the distinction between suicide and murder, to obliterate the victims—”no designated killees” here!—metaphysically as well as physically. It is what Howe, writing about the trend of literary studies at every level of American education throughout the eighties until his death in 1993, called “the explosive power of boredom.” His voice is much missed today.
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