Novelists delight in retailing life and times in the academy. Write about what you know, the adage goes, and many authors stay solvent by teaching their craft to the next generation of literary hopefuls. Besides, what transpires in the intellectual padded cells of institutions of higher learning provides ample fodder for stories told out of school.
From one era to the next, certain themes recur: scabrous college politics, the narcissism of small differences, the chasm between rhetoric and reality. But at their best, these stories also reveal--more effectively than the soporific memoirs of ex-college presidents, or polemics about identity politics on campus, or mind-numbing social science data-dumps--the ever-changing culture of the academy.
In this respect, the latest additions to the genre, Philip Roth's brilliantly realized The Human Stain and Francine Prose's equally, if quite differently, wonderful Blue Angel, are worth paying close attention to. As in many recent novels of academe, two themes--paradigm putsches and the politicized battle of the sexes--fill center stage. What's less widely noticed, though ultimately of greater moment, is that these narratives chronicle a transformation so significant that it deserves to be described as an academic revolution: the new dominance of the market ethic.
Despite all their visible faults, American universities have, for most of the past century, aspired to be communities of scholars, places for free thought. The struggle for academic freedom has represented an effort, against long odds, to maintain some distance from the pressures of the day, to secure breathing room for criticism of the prevailing wisdom. Money has always greased the wheels, of course--were it otherwise, the term "legacy" wouldn't have a meaning specific to higher education--but money used to be treated as an undiscussed necessity, not as synonymous with the good. In the present Age of the Market, however, the dominant values are much the same inside the gates of the academy as outside: It's each department a revenue center, each student a consumer, each professor an entrepreneur, each institution a seeker after profit, whether in cash or in kind. From Harvard University to the University of Phoenix, Miami-Dade Community College to MIT, the slogan adopted by the Regents of the University of California pertains: The university means business.
In the dime novels of the 1930s and 1940s, students frolicked away their adolescence on the gridiron and the backseat of Dad's car. Their professors were kindly pastors in mufti with their elbow patches and their lofty, if hopelessly impractical, ideas. But in 1951, C.P. Snow's The Masters, a tale of intrigue at Oxford that resonated on this side of the Atlantic, showed an entirely different, and far less flattering, side of academic life: the spectacle of distinctly un-absentminded professors engaging in political machinations that Machiavelli would have appreciated. The sycophantic college president who spent his days buttering up rich alums made his appearance in Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954). This was the era of Holden Caulfield, the precocious protagonist of J.D.Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951), who, with his laser beam capacity to hone in on pedagogic hypocrisy, became a hero for a generation of college students (even as the novel spawned endless bad imitations in creative writing classes).
These were novels of utterly self-preoccupied campuses, a world apart from the storm that followed. The university of the countercultural 1960s found its cheeky bard in David Lodge, refugee from pre-cool Britannia, whose fictional alter ego took a joyride on Berkeley's wild side in Changing Places (1975). The political 1960s, Vietnam come to Columbia, were represented, though far less memorably, in James Kunen's Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary (1968).
Almost before the ink was dry, the campus wars had evolved into their next incarnation: the struggles over how to make, or discover, meaning--battles of ideas waged by adherents of rival world views, fierce debates about the merits of deconstruction versus text-centered readings of literature, rational-choice modeling versus analyses of political narratives. Fifteen years ago, in White Noise, Don DeLillo captured this tempest, conjuring a professor who built his reputation as the founder of "Hitler studies," and surrounding him with colleagues who specialized in such esoterica as Elvis studies and grocery store hermeneutics. This was news, for Dinesh D'Souza and Allan Bloom hadn't yet delivered their popular diatribes. It gave those troubled by what was happening on campus a reason for their unhappiness: The Greats were out, the trivial was in; the professor of platitudes, now fashionably garbed all in black, was distributing intellectual live bullets to students.
The bizarre predilections of English departments, ground zero in the theory wars, have become fixtures of the genre--nowhere more entertainingly than in Book: A Novel, Robert Grudin's 1992 romp in which a deconstructionist attempts to murder a humanist. Blue Angel and The Human Stain likewise recount the intellectual cul-de-sac down which the study of literature threatens to disappear. In The Human Stain, a literature professor named Delphine Roux insists that Euripides's sexism be held up to scorn, in order to assuage the sensibilities of female students. Roth's novel is a work of gravitas, filled with that special combination of tour de force riffs and Olympian judgments, this time about the parlous state of higher learning, for which he is rightly famous. Prose's touch is lighter, more deft, though the creedal wars are very much in evidence in Blue Angel as well. She has crafted a pitch-perfect novel of manners that probes the space separating academic rhetoric from reality.
Yet by now, the riff is familiar. The professor of intellectual meaninglessness has become as much a cliché as yesterday's absentminded professor.
Since the 1960s, the war of the sexes, the second great theme of contemporary academic novels (as well as the subject of David Mamet's theatrical provocation Oleanna), has moved out of the hot tub, into the realm of campus codes and kangaroo courts. Any contemporary academic who dared to emulate the sexual exploits of the remarkable cocksman in Changing Places would quickly find himself up on charges. Eros's arrow is now tipped with poison.
Such fateful engagements figure heavily in The Human Stain and Blue Angel. Coleman Silk, Philip Roth's protagonist, is a classics professor and the longtime dean of faculty at Athena College, a liberal arts school secluded in the Berkshires, its name an unsubtle mockery. Several weeks into the fall term, Silk inquires after two no-show students. "Do they exist or are they spooks?" Unbeknownst to him, the two absentees are black. They demand Silk's head for this "racial slur," and no one is willing to come to Silk's defense. Rather than face continuing public humiliation, he resigns, then falls much further from grace when he takes up with Faunia Farley, a supposedly illiterate campus cleaning woman. The Human Stain is set in the midst of l'affaire Monica, and the specter of an old goat up to new tricks inspires a burst of self-righteous indignation. An unsigned note--written, it turns out, by Delphine Roux, arrives in Silk's mailbox: "Everyone knows you're sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age."
As punishment for his sexual misadventure, Ted Swenson, the central figure in Blue Angel, is kicked out of Euston College, another one of those out-of-the-way New England campuses. Swenson, a burned-out novelist, is tasked with teaching the untalented young to write fiction. Along comes Angela Argo, and Swenson's seduced--not by her appearance (she's "a skinny, pale redhead with neon-orange and lime-green streaks in her hair and a delicate sharp-featured face pierced in a half-dozen places") but by her skill as a writer. Angela turns out to be as complicated as a Swiss watch and as vampiric as Lestrade, but even as the alarm bells sound, Swenson's too far gone to listen. One fumblingly brief encounter, engineered by Angela, and Swenson is undone. Evidence of Swenson's perfidiousness, presented by Angela the damaged angel (who secretly tapes, and damningly twists, the words of her supposed seducer), is presented to a tribunal of his peers. The school puts on a show trial that Stalin would have approved of: finis for Swenson.
The colleges drawn by Philip Roth and Francine Prose are not merely curiosity shops where the misused leisure of the theory class is palpably in evidence. They are also shops under siege in the new economy--products in need of a market, brands in search of shelf space. The Classics Department in which Coleman Silk teaches has shrunk in size, absorbed into Delphine Roux's combined languages and literature program. Ted Swenson's creative writing program is in danger of being eliminated altogether. A seminar with just nine students is a luxury item in a school that's barely in the black.
The impact is especially strong in humanities departments, which don't generate piles of money, but market pressures are everywhere evident. Euston College has hired a consulting firm--a fixture on the higher-education scene these days--to help it figure out how best it can sell itself. The school is located in the middle of nowhere. The consultant recommends turning its isolation into a virtue: Euston's a real community, the new recruiting brochures claim. In fact, Euston more closely resembles a Hobbesian war of all against all. But the parents of potential students have to be persuaded that there's a reason to spend $20,000 a year to educate their progeny at such a place.
At both Euston and Athena, the students are treated as consumers whose wishes are to be catered to, rather than as novices for whom, as Henry Adams wrote in his autobiography, "education had not yet begun." In these fictions as in life, professors who award bad grades are chided by the deanery, ever vigilant to keep the customers happy. The "gentlemen's C" has morphed into the "slackers' B." However misguided, the self-righteous claims of adolescence--the insistence that Coleman Silk's a racist; the contention that Ted Swenson's folly, allowing himself to be seduced by a siren, should be career-ending behavior--are to be catered to, for students might otherwise migrate to more hospitable climes.
Athena College is a bit farther up the academic pecking order than Euston. As dean of the faculty, Coleman Silk worked hard to make the school, which was long run as a WASP-y men's club, into a more intellectually rigorous place. (Translated into market terms, this means a better ranking in the all-important U.S. News & World Report survey, which in turn means better students, more alumni giving, and so on.) Professors who've sat on their laurels for years are told to wake up, intellectually, if they want to enjoy the perks of their position. All of Silk's hires come from the elite institutions--he can recruit such talent because of the prevailing buyer's market for academic jobs--even if they aren't particularly collegial. This brand of academic leadership wins Silk no friends, even among the faculty he has recruited. Silk's very last hire is Delphine Roux, the theory-choked professor who leads the campaign of vilification against him.
Before World War II, before the staggering, publicly subsidized growth of higher education, the primary loyalty of the professoriate was to the institution. In The Academic Revolution, published in 1968, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman pointed to a major shift in attachment, away from the university and to the discipline. An equally momentous change is evident in The Human Stain and Blue Angel. Now professors are entrepreneurs, pure and simple, whose truest loyalty is to themselves.
The market-driven changes that have seeped into the liberal arts colleges that Roth and Prose are writing about are even more brazenly obvious in big public universities. During her reign as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher effectively starved British universities, trying to make them behave like businesses. Novelists had a field day. In Nice Work (1988), David Lodge, back in England after his sybaritic turn in 1960s Berkeley, writes of a young professor in the English midlands, sent by her university to "shadow" a plant manager in order to learn how the other half lives. Frank Parkin's The Mind & Body Shop (1986) takes the market conceit a big step further. In Parkin's redbrick U, undergraduates pay a fee for admission to each class session, rather like the movies, and peddle their bodies to professors to get good grades. Academics rewrite research results to reflect the prejudices of odious funders. The History Department has been shut down and its books sold off by the corporate executive brought in to run things; it didn't generate enough business. If philosophy is to avoid the same fate, it must sell itself--literally, by opening up a storefront operation in close and, as it turns out, intimate proximity to a massage parlor.
The tidal wave of market pressures came later to American universities, as did the fictional accounts. Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) and Jane Smiley's Moo (1995) tell similarly sordid stories about big public institutions on this side of the Atlantic--tales that would seem over-the-top farces if they weren't so true to the mark. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chair of the fractious English Department at a badly underfunded university in Pennsylvania's rust belt, is called on to be the hit man for the administration. His task is to recommend which four faculty members should be fired. In this environment, chairs take the fall for deans, who in turn take the fall for the chancellor. With the state legislature unwilling to fix the university's budget until the last minute, Devereaux can't even reassure the adjunct instructors, hired on starvation wages, that they'll have a job come fall. At Moo U--a school that bears an un-canny resemblance to the University of Iowa, where Jane Smiley teaches--a high-flying economist, invited to give a talk at a more prestigious institution, charges handsomely for the speech, having "pointed out the unwisdom of services and knowledge given gratis (which devalued them in the marketplace and persuaded buyers that they were of little worth)." Meanwhile, top university administrators, faced with a $10-million shortfall and a state legislature bent on more cutbacks, are ready to turn over their research agenda to an entrepreneur with a record of peddling sick chickens to unwary consumers.
These novels are all laugh-aloud funny. They make great vacation reading. It's only when the laughing stops that you realize what's at stake in the game they describe--the perpetuation of higher education as something other than a shopping mall for practical learning. ¤