“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
Alas, I can’t accurately attribute that quotation because, appropriately enough, its authorship is disputed.
Another truism of contested paternity holds that the absurdity of the modern world long ago rendered satire impossible.
Conveniently enough, these two sayings go together like keggers and frats. Having cleverly avoided going to college myself, I have it on good authority from the less fortunate that fictional spoofs of academia (Moo, Lucky Jim) are more like grimly amusing documentaries.
Doesn’t Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) — about an African American professor passing for white who’s falsely accused of racism for calling ghosts “spooks” — sound more like a news story than a novel?
Especially this week.
The depressing saga of Naomi Schaefer Riley demonstrates how hard it’s become to distinguish fact from fiction — or in her case, The Onion from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The latter (supposedly more sober and reputable) publication fired Riley on May 7 merely for blogging about “some of the absurdities appearing in the field of black studies.”
Ron Radosh reported on what happened next:
Noting that there were legitimate problems to address about the plight facing the black community today, Riley argued that they were not being addressed in black studies departments. Instead, she argued, all they want to do is engage in arguments that blame everything on the white man.
The result of Riley’s article — again, her opinion — was an avalanche of protest to the Chronicle’s letters section. The editors told readers that they received “thousands” of protests.
Then, of course, Riley’s dismissal provoked another flurry of commentary, this time — like Radosh’s post — in her defense.
The narrative was irresistible, a veritable Tom Wolfe novel in miniature.
Everything about the story — from the ponderous, pretentious titles of the dissertations Riley mocked, to the unedifying spectacle of black scholars “lynching” a “racist” white writer (whose husband happens to be African American) – epitomized the stubborn root rot afflicting the groves of academe.
So now seemed like the perfect time to ask Riley – previously best known as the author of last year’s The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For — what she thinks are the biggest problems facing higher education today, and whether or not reform is even possible.