The English Department Virus

By Cheney, Lynne | The American Enterprise, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The English Department Virus


Cheney, Lynne, The American Enterprise


People think that what goes on in college English departments doesn't matter much to the rest of our country. But in fact, English departments have been a primary source of the epidemic of lying currently upon us. In the late 1960s and early '70s, student radicals began moving into English departments, cultivating the idea that there is no truth--and therefore no possibility of untruth. As the radicals gained power and their views spread across the university and through society, lying came to be regarded not so much as a transgression that ought to produce guilt, but as an alternative "construction," a "narrative" with all the legitimacy that the unenlightened attribute to "truth."

The '60s radicals, to give them their due, became skeptics for good reason. The U.S. government had not been truthful about the defining event of their generation, the Vietnam War. Watching officials propagate versions of events designed to protect bureaucratic interests was a lesson in how information and power can be dangerously intertwined. From there, it no doubt seemed a small step to conclude that knowledge and power are always intertwined, that there is no objective truth but only--to quote Michel Foucault, one of the favorite philosophers of the '60s generation--different "regimes of truth."

It was, of course, an immense leap they were making, one that was too much for most philosophy departments, where demand for a certain rigor of thought meant that "postmodernism," as this new creed came to be called, was generally held in low regard. But in departments of English, history, sociology, and art history, postmodern thought was exalted, first at elite institutions like Yale and finally almost everywhere. So much intellectual excitement did the new thinking generate that even law schools wanted to partake. Duke English professor Stanley Fish, who attacked truth with all the fervor of an old-time preacher denouncing sin, was invited to teach at Duke's law school. At Harvard, a law professor auditing a class in the English department explained that lawyers increasingly understood that law was just like literature--a matter of interpretation.

By the 1980s, it was a rare student who went through college without encountering the view that there is no such thing as truth, that the things we think are true are just the "constructs" of dominant groups. Some professors, on the grounds that there is no truth, were unabashedly using the classroom to propagate their political agendas. …

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