By Theory Possessed

By Tolson, Jay | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

By Theory Possessed


Tolson, Jay, The Wilson Quarterly


My father offered few words on the state of the world, but the few he volunteered were usually shrewd. I remember, in particular, what he used to say about college tuitions - "The more you pay, the less you seem to go."

Alas, my father didn't know the half of it. It was not merely that steeper tuitions bought less time. They also bought less content. A grossly oversimplified history may help explain.

Beginning in the mid-1960s or thereabouts, a revolution occurred in the liberal arts curricula of many of America's elite universities. This revolution consisted of a gradual but ineluctable movement away from substance toward theory, away from the empirical data of a field of studies (whether facts of history or works of literature or philosophy) toward ideological readings of the data. The theory of choice during these tumultuous years was a variety of neo-Marxism, usually served up with a dose of psychoanalytic theory, a la Herbert Marcuse. It was bracing stuff, and made a young sophomore feel pretty damn smart about the world. It was also one of the things that made so many members of the baby boom generation close to insufferable.

Some conservatives look back on this academic vogue as part of a vast left-wing, or even communist, conspiracy, but it wasn't that at all, unless the communists were even clumsier than we now know them to have been. No, this early flowering of the theory craze was far too incoherent and dreamy to serve any purposefully subversive political end. What it really represented was an attempt to forge a humanist countercultural religion on the ruins - or what were perceived to be the ruins - of American liberalism.

To be sure, the 1960s were too quick to declare the death of America's liberal creed. It had not really died. It was - and remains - in ill health, having cut itself off from the religious traditions that once tempered its worst traits - its selfish individualism and its spiritual aridity. But if liberalism was not dead, it looked as though it was, and the perception of its demise, compounded by acute social crises at home and an unpopular war abroad, was enough to propel many of the brightest on a search for new meaning, a search that in the academy found its outlet in vaguely Marxist theorizing.

During the 1970s and '80s, the theoretical menu expanded and diversified, accommodating a number of special-interest or grievance-group agendas (e.g., feminism, environmentalism) as well as a flurry of Continental intellectual fashions, including structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction. But a vaguely Marxist dissatisfaction with America - racist, sexist, fascist "Amerika" - remained the unifying theme, the dressing for theory's crazy salad, which was now truly the staple of a liberal arts education.

And a very lean cuisine it was. It was practically unseemly to mar its pristine unclutter with ugly little facts. So, for example, a student in history might still be introduced to the broad historical narratives in the obligatory survey courses. He or she might read of a battle here, a treaty there, the causes and consequences of the Thirty Years War or the Taiping Rebellion. But such matters were handled as expeditiously as possible in order to leave plenty of room for theory. Here one learned not only to question, decode, or deconstruct the various narratives or discourses framing the highly problematic factual base, but inevitably to accept as axiomatic that most facts and narratives themselves belonged to a suspect "master narrative" that served only to prop up the hegemony of white Western males.

Theory itself was not the villain. There is something of value in even the most mandarin of theories, something that pushes the mind to consider facts in a different light. More to the point, there is no escaping theory. We theorize to make sense and to create order. Because it is essential to knowledge - if not, as some extremists claim, coincident with it - theory certainly has its place at the advanced stages of study. …

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