Passing Judgments

One damn thing after another is how history is often described, but, fortunately, we can now and then pause amid the rush of events long enough to register some judgments about what has transpired. In this issue’s special section, “Verdicts,” we pause to offer a few judgments, positive and negative, on the contributions of some prominent figures in recent academic and scholarly history. Our list came about through interest and suggestion and is by no means meant to be comprehensive, and we anticipate having more of these “verdicts” in future issues. But here we have chosen to spotlight several figures whose work has played a significant part in current debates. It so happens also that the section features some writers new to Academic Questions.

James Kurth is the Claude Smith Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and past teacher of two of our colleagues. In “James Kurth and the Fate of Western Civilization,” Corey Abel, a new contributor, sees him as a gadfly, puncturing the wisdom received from both Left and Right on foreign policy and domestic affairs. Kurth’s emphasis on the importance of culture and tradition leads him to doubt the possibility for implanting Western-style democracy in the Middle East and also to deplore multicultural and feminist subversions of the basic building blocks of Western prosperity, social order, and cultural cohesiveness.

The career and scholarship of Edward Said has received its share of critical exposure, in AQ and elsewhere, but that did nothing to stall the adulation that has been heaped upon him by the academic world, making him the veritable “object of an academic cult,” in the words of another new contributor, Paul Bogdanor, in “The Deceptions of Edward Said.” (There is now a prestigious Edward Said Professorship of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.) Bogdanor looks again at the shoddiness of Said’s unfortunately influential work, Orientalism, based as it is on unfair selection, misquotation, mistranslation, and distorted facts, as even Said’s supporters have conceded.

In “Heidegger’s Map,” an essay that readers might find more philosophical than usual for AQ, Daniel Bonevac elucidates the achievement of Martin Heidegger’s monumental work, Being and Time. Heidegger’s ideas of consciousness and authenticity may have been deformed by postmodernism into a denial of objectivity that he did not intend, argues Bonevac, but the absence of substantive ethical constraints in his thought can lead to ugly affiliations, as it did in the philosopher’s own life.

Stephen Eide makes sense of “Martha Nussbaum: The Voice of Convention.” Although she does favor teaching the great works of Western civilization, if dutifully seeded with plenty of multicultural ideas and selections, Nussbaum’s approach to past masterpieces is restricted by her own short-sighted political narrowness.

Jason Fertig presents “The Iconoclastic Thomas Sowell,” bringing out how the work of the economist and popular columnist long ago defied conventional wisdom in revealing the perhaps unintentionally negative consequences of superficially well-meaning measures such as affirmative action and raising the minimum wage.

“The Unemancipated Country: Eugene Genovese’s Discovery of the Old South” closes out the special section for this issue. The work of Genovese, who passed away in 2012, spiked hot controversy when it first appeared, inasmuch as he discussed the paternalistic dimension of slavery, the importance of social order even in the antebellum South, and the intellectual coherence of the Southern apologists, all of it challenging the simplistic image of the region depicted by Northern historians. Genovese’s work is given a cool-headed appreciation by historian Robert Paquette, recipient of the Jeanne Jordan Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom, who heads the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Hamilton College, where Genovese’s papers and his collection of books on Southern history will be housed.

On a different note, some time ago William S. Lind, writer and military expert, made a startling comment about the training of America’s military leaders in the service academies and schools of military education, which, he argued, “teach a combination of staff process and sophomore-level college courses in government and international relations. No one is taught how to be a commander in combat. One Army lieutenant colonel recently wrote me that he got angry when he figured out that nothing he needs to know to command would be taught to him in any Army school” (emphasis added).Footnote 1 In “Learning to Fight,” David French draws on his own service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star, to explain how the Army rewards its military leaders pretty much the same, whether they are “operational” (fighting or training to fight wars) or “nonoperational” (running the peacetime military, basically a government jobs program), that is, whether they lead in combat or sit at home base on their brass.

“Happenings” is a new feature whereby AQ, a quarterly, will occasionally strive to be more abreast of current developments. Peter Wood mentions a few such developments and introduces a short essay by Herbert London, who offers his answer to recent laments over the perils currently facing the humanities.

In our poetry section, Felicia Chernesky, AQ’s managing and poetry editor and new author of a series of rhyming picture books, contemplates the summer “Solstice.”

In reviewing Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, Mark Bauerlein questions Edmundson’s weak grasp of the profound and extensive conservative critique of the present state of higher education. Bauerlein also finds the author’s exhortations to adopt an adversarial stance and resist conformity curious in today’s academy, where students are ensconced rather comically in “a superficial culture of rebelliousness overlaying utter conformity in behavior.” To thwart conventionality, Bauerlein advises students, “Turn off your selves for one hour, conform your mind to the words of Milton, and memorize the first 100 lines of Paradise Lost!” Does anyone hear welcome echoes of the great Carlyle? “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.”

A watershed has been reached in any debate when one side concedes the arguments of the other but insists that his side has won anyway. Michael Krauss takes on Randall Kennedy’s cynicism in the latter’s latest book, For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, while Gerald Russello detects the bait and switch in Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? namely, substantiating the bias against conservatives in the academy and then dismissing its importance.

We heartily thank Robert Jackson for writing our recent Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest. Jackson is now National Academic Officer at Great Hearts Academies in the Phoenix, Arizona area and Peter Wood handles the feature for this issue.

Notes

  1. 1.

    William S. Lind, “Rank Incompetence,” American Conservative, February 1, 2013, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/rank-incompetence-434/.

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Iannone, C. Passing Judgments. Acad. Quest. 27, 141–144 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12129-014-9428-1

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