While contending that Bawer has misunderstood his subject, Delbanco engages in another diversionary tactic, claiming that a new enemy—a crop of “resolute utilitarians”—now dominates higher education and that Bawer has neglected to note it. Whether or not utilitarianism represents a grave threat to the humanities, it is almost certainly the case that identity politics has weakened the field to the extent that it may well now be vulnerable to a variety of threats. And the fact of utilitarianism in no way lessens the gravity of the issues Bawer has targeted.
The above represents the heart of Delbanco’s attack, but the review is littered with lesser charges and mischaracterizations. For example, in seeking to indict Bawer for writing a “deliberately intemperate” book, Delbanco states that he “fails to look squarely at the university that antedated what he calls the ‘victims’ revolution’—a place where women were considered too fragile for intellectual exertion, Jews were marginalized, and blacks and Hispanics were virtually absent.” The statement is neither factually accurate nor pertinent. As Delbanco must be aware, women were admitted to North American universities in the late nineteenth century, and by the 1950s had, despite lingering sexism, established a respected presence at the center of many academic disciplines: one thinks of literary scholar Caroline Spurgeon, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, educational writer Hilda Neatby, and anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. For Jews, too, the situation had massively improved by the ‘60s: the discriminatory quota system was gone, and Jewish intellectuals such as Lionel Trilling and Allan Bloom, as well as members of the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich), had already had a major impact.
But even if Delbanco were correct in his characterization, the charge would still constitute a rhetorical dodge, a classic red herring, for it is not germane to Bawer’s study whether the university of the past was imperfect and exclusionary or not. It is a typical progressivist rebuttal to any conservative criticism to trot out the bad old days. Wrongs in the past do not, it need hardly be said, justify or lessen the severity of wrongs in the present, and Delbanco betrays the weakness of his own position in using such a deflection to attack Bawer.
Another representative leftist tactic deployed by Delbanco is the adoption of the moral high ground. In a review filled with groundless assertions, Delbanco fastens on a statement by Bawer that he finds “dubious”: the comment that “by the late 20th century virtually every young person in America had the opportunity to acquire a real higher education.” The comment (and notice that Bawer says “virtually” and refers only to “opportunity”) is by no means central to the argument—it is merely a generally accepted assertion about modern American life—but Delbanco seizes upon it with sanctimonious triumph: “Tell that,” he fumes delightedly, “to the many young people mired in poverty, damaged by dysfunctional schools, languishing in prison or drowning in debt.”
The hypocrisy of this statement has already been pointed out by Bruce Thornton in his recent Front Page article, but it bears further examination, for no other statement in this short baseless attack so clearly betrays Delbanco’s leftist biases and blinders. Scorning Bawer for this “dubious” assertion, he counters with an emotionally charged salvo so thin on substance that he has to repeat himself (“mired in poverty,” and “drowning in debt”) to make the list of outrages seem more substantial. The statement, which proves nothing about Bawer’s argument (an argument precisely about “dysfunctional” schooling and the ideology that creates it), is a staple liberal filler, an article of faith requiring no proof or reasoning, brought forth to prove the superior moral sensitivities and ethical stance of the arguer. It rests on the canard that higher education is an inalienable right even for the inadequate and the criminal. Delbanco’s choice of the phrase “languishing in prison” to describe a person who has by his own actions disqualified himself from attending university or college rests upon the all-encompassing victim-touting outlook that Bawer has so cogently analyzed. The question of whether adequate resources exist to support disadvantaged students is beyond the scope of Bawer’s book. In focusing on the debilitating nonsense that students encounter in humanities classrooms, Bawer asks whether the university in its current state is worth attending at all. But falling back on a favored leftist talking point—lamenting the victims of America’s supposedly heartless system—Delbanco refuses to address the more fundamental question of whether the academic elite have in fact ruined higher education.
In an article entitled “The Lingo of the Left,” published in PJ Media, David Solway identifies three forms of lying: “omission, exaggeration, and misrepresentation.” In its omission of the substance of Bawer’s critique, gross exaggeration of the university’s presumed turnaround, and misrepresentation of the evidence, Delbanco’s review provides a graphic model of academic mendacity at work. If he were genuinely interested in the life of the mind to which he is ostensibly committed, one would expect something better from him. That he is so unjustifiably flippant and evasive about what is arguably the most pressing academic issue of our time is an all-too-common illustration of the bad faith of leftist intellectuals today.
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