Feb/Mar 2009

Policed Academy

Richard Byrne


The cult of intellectual collegiality that suffuses the contemporary university isn’t exactly stifling American culture. But that atmosphere sure keeps academic life a lot quieter. Blood sport over ideas is frowned on. Indeed, battles over office space and budgets leave more bruises than do scraps over monographs and essays. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; some of them are even good ones. Barbarians are always lurking at the gate, seeking to re-ignite culture wars that consume precious funding and public credibility. Why give them ammunition? Better to render cool judgments within carefully demarcated borders. Don’t rock the boat. Remember that tenure comes by making steady advances within your discipline.

In this uneasy near silence, John H. Summers, author of the new volume of essays Every Fury on Earth, represents a brusque and welcome voice. A lecturer at Columbia University and a visiting scholar at Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Summers writes pieces that traverse multiple disciplines—history, sociology, literature—and bristle with elegant pugnacity. Whether he is blowing the dust off late-nineteenth-century sex scandals or slashing at the parlous state of adjunct labor in the academy, his sentences resound with the clatter and clank of fresh thought coming hard up against the intellectual armor protecting powerful institutions.

The essays are culled from a wide variety of publications, including Boston Review, the Journal of American History, the New York Times Book Review, and The Nation. It’s no surprise, then, that Summers is a scholar with a particular interest in C. Wright Mills—an influential and rebellious sociologist with a popularizing and culture-shaping streak. (Summers recently edited The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills for Oxford University Press.) Indeed, the final section of Every Fury on Earth is largely devoted to analysis, celebration, and defense of Mills’s work; the book’s final essay, “The Epigone’s Embrace,” is a blistering attack on Rutgers University scholar and Mills biographer Irving Louis Horowitz.

Summers’s catalogue of Horowitz’s errors, self-aggrandizement, misprisions, and duplicity is a case study in how an enterprising, dubiously motivated biographer can effectively reshape the legacy of a central figure like Mills. “Irving Louis Horowitz has made a mess of Mills,” Summers concludes, “but one thing he has not done is leave him alone. His many volumes, best approached as sociological equivalents to junk science, keep on coming.” The lay reader may find this rehearsal of Horowitz’s sins a bit too much, especially since Summers studiously avoids proffering any ideological motive for the epigone’s malfeasance. In the absence of such explanation, the essay becomes an exercise in moral judgment on its subject—brutal, final, and astonishingly personal. And it underscores one of Summers’s key beliefs: Ideas are inextricable from character. Not only are we what we think, we are how we think and act in our thinking.

With his unflinching voice and equally bravura willingness to name names, Summer is a social critic in the best tradition of Mills. And like Mills, his focus is broad. He considers academic labor, offering sharp and authoritative firsthand accounts of the exploitation of the adjunct. His essay “The Toughest Job” is an especially succinct explication of the class divide in academia, one that has made writing teachers “the largest, oldest, and most abused contingent of non-tenured instructors in higher education.” Class also rears its ugly head in “History as Vocation,” an academic autobiography that takes in Summers’s delight in the influence of mentors (the late Roy Rosenzweig) and institutional legacy (the University of Rochester’s history program, which once boasted Christopher Lasch and Norman O. Brown) and his steady disillusionment as he progressed deeper into the academy—as the editor of a graduate labor column for the American Historical Association’s newsletter and as a teacher at Harvard University.

Summers’s take on his sojourn at Harvard is particularly stinging. He found even at America’s most prestigious university the perversion of higher education into a consumer-centered outlet catering to a cynical student body. This had a slightly dazzling quality at the same time that it nauseated him: “Teaching on the temporary staff at Harvard was a little like visiting Disneyworld. The magic dust induced a light narcosis. The mind went incontinent in the presence of paradox and conflict, and it was tough to tell how much fun I was having from how much fun I was pretending to have.”

Every Fury on Earth doesn’t always cohere, and there is much that even a sympathetic reader can dispute. For instance, many will balk at Summers’s assertion in “History as Vocation” that academia’s decline in professional prestige and growth in aversion to conflict coincided with the “feminization of campus society.” At the core of Summers’s work is a belief in the renewing power of anarchism—not as a historical phenomenon, but as a deeply felt and active assault by the individual on institutional power. It is why the author renders harsh judgments on the ineffectual left and on historians such as Richard Hofstadter while being more forgiving of intellectuals like James Agee—whose anarchist tendencies have, in Summers’s view, been erased from his legacy.

Summers’s voice is a valuable addition to whatever debate remains about the future of higher education and the humanities. His powerful and unremittingly candid essays should provoke the replies, defenses, and counterattacks necessary to pull the academy some way out of its present torpor.

Richard Byrne is a writer and a playwright living in Washington, DC.

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