I have spent the major part of my life in schools: eight years in “grammar school,” four years in high school, and eight years in college and graduate school. Then I taught for 42 years, first in a private grammar school then in colleges and universities. One might say I have an academic bent in my thought and a bit of a preoccupation with what is going on (or not going on) in education circles these days. I have written a book and numerous blog posts and articles on education and its present ills. As I say, I come at questions from a decidedly academic perspective.
Accordingly, I hesitate to write once again about one of the major movements in our colleges and universities, because I dare say readers have become a bit tired of the themes I return to so often. But some of those themes have wider application, as I have been at pains to show. One of them is put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have drawn on for several of my blog posts. She is a bright and interesting thinker and I have always managed to find ruch veins of gold in her many pages. Writing in the mid 90s of the last century, for example, she foretold on the resurgence of nationalism which we are seeing happen today. In one of her more recent books she has this disclaimer:
“Perhaps [my] book should be labelled ‘The Confessions of an Unregenerate Prig,’ because it is dedicated to the proposition that there are such things as truth and reality and that there is a connection between the two, as there is also a connection between the aesthetic sensibility and the moral imagination, between culture and society. We pay lip service to the adage ‘Ideas Have Consequences,’ but it is only in extremis that were take it seriously, when the ideas of a Stalin or a Hitler issue in the realities of gulags and death camps. It is the premise of this book that well short of such dire situations there is an intimate, pervasive relationship between what happens in our schools and universities, in the intellectual and artistic communities, and what happens in society and polity.”
Indeed, a number of ideas that originated in academia have found their way into the world of everyday life, such things as Affirmative Action, Political Correctness — in the sense that certain words that offend certain people are taboo — and, most recently, the esoteric movement in our colleges called “deconstructionism.” As an academic pursuit, deconstructionism began with literary and philosophical texts in an effort to show that the text means what the interpreter wants it to mean — drawing on what he or she thinks the writer was thinking and what they know about the political and social background of the writer and the text itself. The idea is to “de-construct,” i.e., take it the text apart and put it back together in a coherent fashion. There is no correct reading of the text, only interpretations. The movement has infiltrated schools of literary criticism, philosophy, and history and has threatened to reduce all academic disciplines to social studies and unintelligible psychobabble. It is a complicated movement, but it begins and ends with the rejection of truth and reality, insisting that both are constructs, made up by readers and interpreters of “texts.”
The grand pooh-bah of deconstructionism was the French thinker Jacques Derrida. When one of the founders of deconstructionism, Paul de Man, was discovered to have been an avowed Nazi who continued to support Naziism even after the Second World War, Derrida joined a number of his fellow deconstructionists in deconstructing the world and words of De Man in an attempt to prove that he didn’t say what everyone knew he had said. They insisted that de Man “proposed not the extermination of the Jews but only their expulsion from Europe” despite the fact that this was clearly not what he had written on numerous occasions. Deconstructionists determine what was written, not ordinary readers like ourselves. We see the words but cannot possibly know what they mean until their meaning is revealed to us by the deconstructionist themselves. In general, as Himmelfarb notes:
“Still another [apologist] reminds us that although many facts about the affair have emerged, facts in themselves are meaningless. ‘It’s all a matter of interpretation, and each interpretation will probably reveal more about the interpreter than about de Man.”
This denial of “facts” and the accompanying denial of anything resembling “truth” has clearly made its way outside the hallowed halls of academe, like a science experiment gone bad, — and moved beyond the reading of literature and philosophy to the “real” world (which is itself a construct, or so it is claimed). We now have a President, for one, who is a master of desconstruction (albeit out of ignorance; I doubt that he ever heard of Derrida!), a “gaslighter” who is intent on convincing us all that black is not black and white is not white — unless he tells us otherwise. The crowd at his inauguration was the largest on record because he and his minions say so — and despite the photographic record and the testimony of those actually in attendance.
As an academic exercise deconstructionism has done little more than turn off would-be English majors who would rather read exceptional literature than read theories about those books written by so-called experts within their fields. It would therefore appear harmless, a fruitless exercise for academics that makes them feel important. But it is not harmless, as we are now becoming painfully aware. Ideas do have consequences and we are forewarned to keep on our guard: join the ranks of the “Unregenerate Prigs” who insist that there are such things as truth and reality — independent of all of us, even those who insist it is only they who are in the know.