Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Politics of Mind: Women, Tradition, and the University

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Politics of Mind: Women, Tradition, and the University

Article excerpt

I have been a member of the Columbia University community for more than thirty-five years, and I can only consider myself to be speaking as what Lionel Trilling called an opposing self, (1) opposed to culture, in this case the culture of the university. Lionel Trilling was the most powerful and honored presence during most of my years at Columbia; as much as anyone, he defined, both for his department and for the wider community beyond it, what he honored as the life of the mind. But history has moved, times have changed, the politics inherent in that phrase "the life of the mind" have emerged. We have come to recognize the degree to which the life of the mind is organized to reflect the politics of mind, particularly the politics of a wholly male-centered culture and university. The numbers of women in universities today, and the whole question of the canon, has come under a scrutiny which Trilling could scarcely have foreseen. It is unfortunate that the very phrase "the life of the mind," which has for so long represented all that was desired from education, and all that women, excluded from education, had come to cherish as an ideal, what Virginia Woolf called "the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge," has become a kind of "buzz word" for something disembodied, unconnected with gender, or race, or the differing cultures and aspirations in our rapidly changing world.

In 1971 at the Library of Congress, Trilling delivered the first Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, entitled "Mind in the Modern World." He spoke of the marvelous "life of the mind" and of how that proud concept was being undermined by, among other things, affirmative action. His deep concern with the threat to the "life of the mind" from affirmative action was phrased in his usually forthright and vigorous way. He called attention to

the silence of our colleges and universities about what is implied for their continuing life by the particular means our society has chosen to remedy the injustice [of inequality]. I have in view the posture toward colleges and universities which of recent years has been taken by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. [It] has responded with its directive that institutions of higher education which receive government funds shall move at once toward bringing about a statistically adequate representation on their faculties of ethnic minority groups and women. The directive does not pretend that this purpose is to be accomplished without a change in the standards of excellence of the academic profession. (2)

Trilling does not deny the importance of the goals inherent in affirmative action, his point is only "that the academic profession does not debate it." "Surely," he continues, "it says much about the status of mind in our society that the profession which is consecrated to its protection and furtherance should stand silent under the assault, as if suddenly deprived of all right to use the powers of mind in its own defense" (29).

Trilling could hardly have anticipated the direction events have taken in this decade: reactionary forces have attempted to consolidate the defense of "the life of the mind" with other objectives, including the promotion of "old fashioned values" and the protection of a narrowly demarked "legacy" or "intellectual heritage," in ways that, I think, he would not have welcomed. Trilling was right in observing that it is the reluctance of the academic community to debate these points which most threatens the life of the mind.

My thesis, then, is that women particularly have a great deal to contribute to the life of the mind in the University, but that they have been prevented from doing so because much of what passes for the life of the mind is, in fact, no more than the politics of mind. The life of the mind is a synonym for what is referred to as the universal--treated, revered, accepted as though it had been engraved somewhere as eternal and unchanging truth. …

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