Paglia's Scimitar

Peter Wood

Camille Paglia, professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the H. L. Mencken of our times.   

Mencken’s cynical essays x-rayed right through American cant and pretense. He spent most of his career in Baltimore, insulated in that second-tier city from fads that swept Washington and New York, but close enough to watch them unfold. Mencken belonged in spirit to the muckraking school of journalism in that his aim was almost always to shock, but he was also an intellectual poseur, writing as if he knew more, saw further, and grasped more quickly than anyone else.  Human x-ray machines do see some things sooner and more clearly than those writers who operate mainly in the visible spectrum, but they also can be blind to a lot.

Paglia writes astonishing essays on contemporary culture and politics, many of which appear on Salon.com. Unlike Mencken, she is also an academic. A student of the critic Harold Bloom at Yale, she roared into prominence with her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, published in 1990 but based on her 1974 Yale dissertation. Paglia’s scholarly work trades in outlandishly old-fashioned concepts of myth and archetype, and towering generalizations. But it also has the earmarks of our age in swirling together high art, mass culture, and pornography.   In nearly all of her writings, Paglia is relentlessly self-referential, and she is especially eager to remind readers that she is a feminist, a lesbian, and a leftist. 

Her feminist-lesbian-leftist heart-on-her-sleeve, however, often is presented merely as her invitation to the party. Once inside the door, she is liable to do something shocking. At least she will try.  

Paglia’s column this week in Salon, titled “Too Late for Obama to Turn It Around?” is essentially a screed against Democrats for “the slowness with which the standing army of Democratic consultants and commentators publicly expressed discontent with the administration's strategic missteps this year.” Paglia is a many-times-over professed supporter of Obama, but she is a believer in tough love. Tough hate too, for that matter. 

What attracts my attention to Paglia’s column, however, is the characteristic Paglia moment where she leaves the immediate details behind and swings out into wide-earth orbit. Here she is explaining why conservatives have proven in recent years to be greater champions of individual liberty than liberals:

But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it's positively pickled.

Let me immediately add a disclaimer. I don’t quote this in the spirit of saying “Yes, Democrats are the complacently servile class who have mindlessly accepted the ideological brainwashing on offer in college and who blind themselves by staring at the gold stars they’ve awarded themselves for critical thinking.” Assigning that servility to Democrats is just Paglia’s characteristic triple summersault. 

But she nails the part about institutionalized learning. Let’s look again:

“Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught.”

Of course, they are taught in some colleges, just not in ones where Salon readers are likely to send their kids. The University of Detroit Mercy, for example, sets out as part of its required core curriculum that students must master:

  • Premises and conclusions
  • Arguments and non-arguments
  • Deduction and induction
  • Validity, truth, soundness, strength, cogency
  • Categorical propositions
  • Categorical syllogisms
  • Informal fallacies
  • Analogical arguments, legal and moral reasoning
  • Causality, and hypothetical/scientific reasoning
  • Statistical reasoning

UDM is a Catholic university “in the Jesuit and Mercy Traditions,” which might call into question for some how much “independent thought” occurs there, but I’d hazard a guess that the answer is “a lot more than typically occurs at Yale, Princeton, or Williams.” There are in fact a fairly large number of colleges in the U.S., not all of them Catholic, that emphasize “independent thought and critical analysis of argument.” But none of them rank in the world of elite education that Paglia is describing, nor are they to be found among our public colleges and universities. If a well-honed capacity for analyzing arguments is what you want in a college education, you have to go hunting.

Why should this be so? Paglia knows:

“Elite education … where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible.”

Independent thought and critical analysis of argument just cannot live in the same company with a curriculum in which the central premise is that all of cultural and social life can be reduced to the privileged oppressing the weak. When the terms of analysis are reduced to the race-gender-class triad, real analysis must stop. Independent ideas are instantly categorized as “bias” of one sort or another, while conformity to the stale “theory” is routinely praised as “independent thinking.”   In contemporary elite education, all the intellectual exits have been blocked. 

The “invisibility” that Paglia mentions is ensured by a curriculum that simply ignores what cannot be conveniently comprehended under the current ideological terms. Moreover, this has been going on for decades. Colleges can now pretty safely assume that candidates for faculty appointment who have attended American graduate schools have never seriously studied anything outside the charmed circle of ideological conformity. They need not be intentionally biased. They simply have no concept that dissent from the prevailing academic orthodoxies can arise from anything other than deep-rooted antipathy to manifestly wholesome ideas.   Paglia spots this self-approval forever patting itself on the back:

“The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue.”

In the current academic regime, all sorts of terms turn out to have false bottoms. “Diversity” sounds good until you realize that it means “enforced conformity”—conformity to the roles assigned to individuals as members of identity groups, and conformity to the underlying view of America as an enduringly unjust society. “Sustainability” sounds good until you realize it means “giving up individual liberty so an unelected elite can decide how best to distribute resources.” The university today spins out these terms by the dozens. “Inclusive excellence” means “there is no such thing as excellence, just different preferences among diverse groups.” 

The term that Paglia spots—“critical thinking”—is the granddaddy of all this mischief.  Critical thinking in a philosophically accurate sense ought to be part of any college education, but if it were rightly understood, such critical thinking would be inseparable from other intellectual gains. We also need substantive knowledge of important matters; we need the capacity to develop and think through analogies; we need to command inductive and deductive logic; we need to be able to follow and to use chains of association; and we need well-developed recall and well-furnished memories; we need to know how to respond thoughtfully to ambiguities (which can be constructive and not always good targets for critical dismantling); we need the capacity to zoom into microcosms and zoom out to the big picture; and we need the capacity to synthesize. “Critical thinking” as it is typically taught hones none of these skills. It is a one-size fits all hammer for smashing culture into the pieces that can be jammed together under what Paglia calls the “hackneyed approved terms” of contemporary cultural analysis. 

Of course, Paglia’s flaming sword raised over the heads of the “complacently servile” college graduates is a borrowed scimitar. The National Association of Scholars forged that instrument long ago. We are delighted that Paglia is brandishing it. Paglia has a keen eye for what H.L. Menken called the “carnival of Buncombe.” So do we.

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