BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Roger Kimball, author of "Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education." Why do we need a book like this?
ROGER KIMBALL, AUTHOR, "TENURED RADICALS": Well, primarily because our higher education is in a state of crisis. I think that many colleges and universities we have a situation where politics has insinuated itself in the most fundamental way into the teaching of the humanities, and it's a situation that not only college students, but their parents, alumnus, trustees and common citizens must take very seriously if they care about the future of education and our culture.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
KIMBALL: I went to school as an undergraduate at Benington College in Vermont and as a graduate student at Yale University.
LAMB: What years?
KIMBALL: Let's see. I guess I graduated Benington in '75 and was at Yale from '76 until in 1983 as a graduate student in teaching.
LAMB: Did anything that you wrote about here happen when you were in school?
KIMBALL: Oh, yes. It's this is not entirely a new phenomenon. I would date its primary origin to the 1960s, although I think we've seen in recent years an acceleration of the trends that I've described in this book. The institutionalization of radical feminism, of deconstruction, of ethnic politics of a very radical sort I think has gotten a lot more steam as it has become institutionalized in the curriculum. Obviously we don't have students marching on the ramparts anymore. What we have is professors who assimilated that radical ideology teaching classes. We have deans who agree with that radical ideology forming curricula. We have provosts and presidents who agree with that radical ideology shaping the future of our education.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite professor that you remember at Benington?
KIMBALL: Yes. And someone who would be absolutely opposed to the radical trends that I've described in this book.
LAMB: He or she wouldn't favor what's happened?
KIMBALL: No. He is appalled as I am at what's going on in higher education.
LAMB: What did you like about him, and can you -- want to name him?
KIMBALL: Claude Fredericks. He was my Greek tutor at Benington. I majored in philosophy and classical Greek. He is a very cultured man with a wide appreciation of world literature; understands that teaching and learning is not a political matter but is, you know, something that involves the individual going out of himself or herself to meet ideas that are very different from the cliched ideas that we are bombarded with in the marketplace and on TV and popular novels and so forth.
LAMB: What was your major in Benington?
KIMBALL: It was philosophy and classic Greek. It was a double major.
LAMB: Why do we really care about what happened in Greece and with the Greeks?
KIMBALL: Well, because we can't really understand ourselves, we can't understand our own civilization and our place in it unless we understand what made us, and a large part of what made us is the Greco-Roman tradition. That's not the only thing. There were other elements as well, but that's essential for being an educated person and understanding where we came from.
LAMB: You used the word earlier, deconstruction.
KIMBALL: Yes. That's...
LAMB: What's that mean?
KIMBALL: That is a very popular literary theory which in essence and I'm simplifying, but in essence holds that language is so imperfect as a means of communication that it never really gets outside itself. It never really reaches reality. It's self-referential in the deepest sense, and so it tends to be associated with a very radical skepticism, sometimes nihilism, and it's very popular in the academy and in one version or another has become a dominant factor in the teaching of the humanities, not only in literature, but also in history, even in the law where we're told that the laws really don't have anything to do with justice, they're really only about power elation's and that sort of thing. So it's a very corrosive ideology, I believe.
LAMB: What is a humanist?
KIMBALL: Well, obviously it's a term with a long and very complex pedigree going back to the Renaissance. I think today in the sense which I would use the term, it's someone who has respect for the important traditions that have made us; someone who views education and culture as precious and fragile inheritances that must be preserved, and the best way to preserve them is to study them in a dispassionate, which is not to say uninterested and committed way.
I think that many of our so-called humanists, professors of English or philosophy and so forth today, are anything but humanists. They tell us about the end of man, the end of the human. They're interested in -- they think they've gotten to the truth when they've uncovered as much untruth as possible. The place of radical skepticism and nihilism about human relations, about the achievements of our culture is business as usual in the academy today, and I think it's something that anyone with an interest in culture and an interest in the future of our civilization has to take very seriously and be alarmed about.
LAMB: What is nihilism?
KIMBALL: Nihilism is the belief that nothing matters, that we are puppets to power relations, that all of the traditional things that we thought gave meaning to life are actually frauds. And the nihilist -- his interest in learning about things is really to expose them, to demythologize, to debunk. A nihilist is someone for whom values are a kind of hypocritical codification, shall we say, that has been imposed upon us from above.
LAMB: Where's the term come from?
KIMBALL: It comes from the Latin term nihil, meaning nothing. It's a very, very aptly named term, I think.
LAMB: Do you believe in God if you're a nihilist?
KIMBALL: No. I think by definition a nihilist is someone who programmatically does not believe in God, but loves to talk about what dupes other people are if they do believe in God or have any spiritual commitments of any type.
LAMB: You're managing editor of The Criterion?
KIMBALL: The New Criterion, yes. It's a monthly review of the arts and culture based in New York City.
LAMB: Who buys it?
KIMBALL: Well, a lot of our enemies buy it to find out what's wrong with themselves, I suppose. But a lot of artists buy it, university libraries buy it, people who are interested in what's going on in the cultural scene, both in New York and other places.
LAMB: Who do you consider to be your enemies?
KIMBALL: Well, people who programmatically try to distort the truth; people who attempt to sell blatant trash as high art; people who -- well, I shouldn't say as art -- people who would deny that high art is a cogent term or that it's to be preferred in the realm of culture to something that's either trivial or trashy; people who espouse a virulent left-wing politics. Those are some of our enemies.
LAMB: Are you a virulent right-winger?
KIMBALL: No, I'm not.
LAMB: What are you?
KIMBALL: Well, I used to think of myself as a liberal, but I've been told that that's not the case. I guess the term that's usually applied is neoconservative, which I think Irving Crystal once defined as a liberal who's been mugged by reality. I suppose that sums it up pretty well.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
KIMBALL: In Cape Elizabeth, Maine, just south of Portland.
LAMB: How did you get interested in Greek philosophy?
KIMBALL: Oh, I suppose probably in high school I became interested in philosophy. I went to a Jesuit high school in Maine and had a little bit of philosophy there and sort of pursued it in college.
LAMB: If you've got a free night, nothing to do and you want to -- you've got time to read a good book, what will you pick up?
KIMBALL: Well, it's true that I do sometimes pick up Plato or Aristotle, not as often as I should. Very rarely do I pick up a contemporary novel. Usually I will read or re-read an older novel that -- Trollope, Dickens, something like that. That I find that very entertaining.
LAMB: Who's your favorite philosopher?
KIMBALL: Immanuel Kant.
KIMBALL: Well, I believe that he was a philosopher who really helps us understand not only the way we think about the world, what knowledge is, what truth is, but is also a philosopher that emphasized, to my mind in a very productive way, the virtues of freedom and understood very clearly that freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility, and that to pretend that you can have freedom without responsibility and duty is a pernicious illusion.
LAMB: Any other philosophers you follow?
KIMBALL: Well, I've been influenced, I suppose, by many philosophers: by Plato, by Aristotle. -- I mean, everyone who -- we all are, whether we know it or not. I suppose Schiller's contemporary -- I'm sorry, Kant's contemporary Schiller is someone who I also think of as very important to my thinking because of the way in which he discussed art and the importance of art and the aesthetic, modifying some of the theories of Immanuel Kant.
LAMB: Do you ever have any theory at all as to why you or anybody gets interested in this kind of thing and holds onto it for the rest of their lives, vs., would you say, an overwhelming majority that if you ask them who Immanuel Kant is they wouldn't have a clue?
KIMBALL: Well, they probably have heard the name. There's no reason why the man on the street should be intimately acquainted with the works of Immanuel Kant; however, I think a college graduate ought to have read something of Kant's. I think his education or her education is incomplete without that.
Why one gets interested in it, I think it's a multiplicity of factors. It's probably something -- native inclination. Teachers, I think, are very important, the teachers you have, especially in high school who can awaken your curiosity in these matters, and in college. More students than I can count have been turned off from philosophy, from literature, by a bad teacher, and I think if we paid more attention to teaching, especially at the secondary level, we'd find that more people were interested in the great heritage that's made us what we are.
LAMB: This book is published by -- show the audience what it looks like -- Harper and Row. It sells for $18.95. Who do you think will buy this? Or who is buying it, that you know?
KIMBALL: Well, certainly a lot of academics are buying it.
LAMB: Making them mad?
KIMBALL: I think it's making them quite angry. I think a lot of parents are buying it; people who are interested in what they're spending $20,000 or $1,000 or more dollars a year on. I think college administrators are buying it, and people who are outside the academy but who are interested in culture, who are interested in what's going on and want to see whether things are really bad as they may have suspected from the news that's been leaking out from -- not only from my book but elsewhere.
LAMB: How do you know that this is going to make people mad? Has anybody come up to you in this process?
KIMBALL: Oh, sure. Well, it certainly made some of the reviewers angry. I've gotten many letters; many of them supporting me, but a fair share of angry responses from academics. I've lectured around and have been called a fascist, for example, for some of the views that I put forward here. I think that the main thing is that to understand this, that these champions of freedom and pluralism are only interested in -- excuse me -- supporting those values insofar as it's insofar as you agree with them about what freedom means and insofar as you agree with them about what pluralism is. If you show any signs of dissent, then they very quickly retreat to calling you all sorts of names, like a reactionary fascist, conservative, that sort of thing. Those are all epithets -- negative epithets in their vocabulary.
LAMB: "Tenured Radicals." What does tenure mean?
KIMBALL: Well, the title is an attempt to blend together two things that we don't normally think of as going together. Tenure is an academic institution which secures someone's employment for life. It was instituted in an effort to protect academic freedom, freedom of expression, to foster diversity of opinions on campus. Radicals means in its root meaning it means root, something that goes to the very essence of whatever subject we're talking about. And in this case it means a political radical, someone who, in the deepest sense, feels that his culture, that the tradition that he has been entrusted with to pass on, is corrupt and needs to be overthrown. So what we have here is a very unusual situation of people who are guaranteed employment for life, who are seeking to undermine the very thing that they're supposed to be championing and protecting.
LAMB: Have you ever been a college professor?
LAMB: You ever been tenured?
LAMB: Do you ever want to be tenured?
KIMBALL: Well, I thought at one point in my life that I would like to devote myself to scholarship and writing and reading about these things into teaching, but I soon discovered that the academy was not the place for someone of my interests and predilections.
LAMB: Is it because you didn't have a chance at being tenured because of your views, in your opinion?
KIMBALL: No. I don't think so. I was interested in more -- I write about a great many subjects. The academy has become very specialized recently, so if you're not going to be -- it's specialized very early and very intensively, it's extremely difficult to get tenure at any but really sort of rather far-flung institutions, and I wasn't interested in going far afield from New England.
LAMB: How does tenure work?
KIMBALL: Well, it has become a kind of parody of the process that it was first intended to embody in the sense that it's become very routinized and it's become a means of ensuring a conformity of opinion rather than diversity of opinion. Typically a young professor will get a one- or two-year contract and then another two- or three-year contract and then come up for tenure after a certain number of publications and so forth, and the guidelines are very rigorously set down. But and behold, it turns out that only those -- or mostly those who share the ideology of their colleagues, who are -- after all, are sitting in judgment over them, actually get tenure, so that -- I don't want to overstate the case, but far from merit being the only criterion, I think that ideology has more and more come to play a role.
And indeed, not so long ago the Supreme Court enshrined that role by saying that if any of a wide number of perceived victim groups and any member of a wide number of perceived victim groups felt that they had been unfairly denied tenure because of their sex, race, whatever, they could automatically appeal, so that the criterion more and more is shifting to political things rather than intellectual accomplishment or pedagogical skill.
LAMB: You wrote about that decision. It was in 1990, this year.
KIMBALL: Yes, I guess it was, earlier this year.
LAMB: Written by Justice Blackmun.
KIMBALL: That's right.
LAMB: And you suggest that because of that decision, that the records that are kept on the university campuses about professors would be available for people to see if they didn't get tenure?
KIMBALL: Well, the one of the dangers is that the process of confidentiality by which tenure decisions are usually made can now be violated if there's any question of discrimination. But what this means, of course, is that it will become harder and harder for professors to give their candid opinion about a candidate if they know that what they write might be available for public scrutiny.
LAMB: "Tenured Radicals" is the book, "How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education," by Roger Kimball. And in the book, Roger Kimball, you write about -- you keep mentioning three people. I must have read it 10 times and you mention them in a group: Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney and Bill Bennett. And you keep saying that those three people get under the skin of your tenured radicals. Why?
KIMBALL: Well, I keep mentioning those three people because the enemies of tradition keep mentioning them. I think that all three have contributed a great deal to our understanding of the plight of the academy today.
LAMB: When you say academy, what are you talking about?
KIMBALL: I'm talking about colleges and universities that's...
LAMB: Any college and any university. Higher education.
KIMBALL: Yes. I use that as a -- yes. I am mostly concerned in this book with the top echelon of our colleges and universities because it is those institutions I think that set the pace, that are models for other institutions, and it's those institutions that are the intellectual leaders, or should be the intellectual leaders, most concerned with passing on the tradition that has made us what we are.
LAMB: OK, let me ask you about the three. Would you tell us who Allan Bloom is?
KIMBALL: Yes. Allan Bloom is probably known to most of your viewers as the author of "The Closing of the American Mind," which is an indictment of the spiritualness of higher education today.
LAMB: Did you like that book?
KIMBALL: Yes, I did.
LAMB: And you point out a couple times that he's a Democrat.
KIMBALL: Yes. That's because he's widely perceived as conservative if not, indeed, reactionary, so I thought and often described as Reaganite. So I thought it would be -- just to set the record straight -- it might be useful to mention that fact.
LAMB: And he's at the University of Chicago?
KIMBALL: He is indeed.
LAMB: Is he tenured?
KIMBALL: Oh, indeed. Yes. Yes. He's not, however, a tenured radical. At least not in the sense in which I suppose to hold a conservative position these days on any educational matter is itself a sort of radical position, so in one sense, I suppose he could be said to be a radical.
LAMB: By the way, have you ever seen figures on the final number of "Closing the American Mind" books that were sold?
KIMBALL: Yes, I have. I believe it sold somewhere in the neighborhood of a million copies altogether.
LAMB: Did that -- does that surprise you that...
KIMBALL: Yes, I think it was a tremendous surprise. I'm always reminded of The New Yorker cartoon where there's a huge stack of the book and the bookseller is advising potential customers -- said, "Oh, I haven't read it, of course, but it's a great book." And I think many people bought it and did not read it, but I think that the -- the great success of that book shows that there is a -- that Bloom hit a nerve; that people really are interested in the academy, in matters of education and what's happening to their children in college. Are they being taught what they should be taught? Or -- and he showed very graphically that in many instances they are not. And people are understandably very, very interested in finding out about that.
LAMB: Lynne Cheney.
KIMBALL: Lynne Cheney is currently the chairman of the Humanities Endowment. She is very concerned with these issues and has written and spoken out very well, I think, on them. She is in general, I would say, on my side in this issue.
LAMB: A Republican and a conservative?
KIMBALL: I actually don't know what party she's in. I assume, since her husband is the secretary of defense, that she probably is Republican, but I don't actually know.
LAMB: And finally, the third member is Bill Bennett.
KIMBALL: Yes. Mr. Bennett was chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities before Lynne Cheney, and then went on to become secretary of education under President Reagan and is currently the so-called drug czar. I think he, together with Allan Bloom, did more than anyone to spark sort of national interest in this -- in these issues, mostly by a pamphlet that he released when he was jointly authored, but that, under his leadership, when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
And I mention these people as frequently as I do in the book because, as I say, they, the academics who they attack have just been apoplectic about the criticisms that have been launched against them. And so it's -- I'm interested, in a sense, not so much in what they have to say individually, but just as instances of the way in which the sort of dominant trend in the academy today brooks no criticism.
LAMB: Are you an absolutist in the First Amendment?
KIMBALL: No, I'm not.
LAMB: How do you deviate?
KIMBALL: Well, I guess, I believe that the First Amendment was written to ensure freedom of political speech primarily, and that to apply it to other really quite different issues is to court danger. For example, to invoke the First Amendment to protect pornography, I think, is a debasement of what the First Amendment was about. I'm not a legal scholar, so maybe I'm on shaky ground there. But I'm -- this is not to say that I would support censorship, even of pornography, but I think that it's a debasement of what the First Amendment was intended to do, to apply it to that way.
LAMB: What I was really getting at is: Do you think that on a college campus that the students should be able to hear, in lecture series or whatever, any thought that any person would want to lay down?
KIMBALL: Yes. Yes, I do. And, in fact, I think that the widespread recent trends on our campuses to limit free speech, that is to say limit free speech that offends the reigning liberal ideology in the academy, is a very worrisome trend. And this is one instance, at least, where I am on the side of the ACLU and looking with great skepticism and alarm at campuses across the country that have enacted this so-called anti-harassment legislation which, as one student at Stanford said, "Well, it may not be in accordance with the First Amendment entirely, but then I'm not so sure that it should be, because after all, we're out to show the world how we should really live. We're out to make the world a better place." There's a kind of moral self-righteousness involved in what's going on in this respect that I think is very worrisome indeed.
LAMB: You mentioned that your favorite philosopher is probably Kant?
LAMB: Would that be a favorite philosopher of most neoconservatives?
KIMBALL: No, probably not. I'm not really -- I think that neoconservativism has really a very disparate set of origins, and I think if anything distinguishes them it's really their diversity. And -- I mean, it's not as if it's a monolithic movement where there's a sort of agreement about everything. It's quite the opposite, I think.
LAMB: OK. Tell me -- help me with this then. If you're a conservative ... let's just divide the world, just for talking purposes, into conservatives and liberals. If you're a liberal, who are the philosophers that -- name more than one -- that you probably like in history?
KIMBALL: Well, yes, I think here we have to introduce one wrinkle because, as I said earlier, I used to consider myself a liberal, but have been told that I'm not because, you know, the traditional liberal would say, "We want a society where one important value is equality of opportunity. We don't want to legislate equality of condition." I think that's an old-fashioned liberal position. "We want a society where advancement is on the basis of merit, not on the basis of gender or race." That's an old-fashioned liberal position. These positions are now under attack, not only in the academy but in our society at large. They're considered to be reactionary positions. So I feel as though I have sort of stayed in one place, and the culture, especially academic culture, has moved really quite noticeably to the left.
I mean, traditional philosophers that have underpinned liberalism are, you know -- Locke is a very important one, John Locke, the English philosopher. In his social philosophy I think he had a lot to teach us. He is one of the architects -- philosophical architects of our Constitution. And indeed Immanuel Kant is a liberal, you know, in -- in most respects. So -- but not by today's standards, you see. It's because words like freedom and when it's conjoined with duty and responsibility, that's very suspect to our new liberals.
LAMB: Where do people like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates fit in all this?
KIMBALL: Well, it's -- you know, it's -- of course, you're going back over 2,000 years. You have, you know, vastly different social conditions. You know, people will tell you if you support the teaching of Plato or Aristotle, that they advocated slavery and so forth and, "Wasn't this terrible?" But, of course, that's to import our very different values now back into, you know, the distant past. I think that they, between them -- the three of them -- they virtually defined all of the philosophical questions with which we are still struggling.
As another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, said, all philosophy is really a series of footnotes to Plato. And I think that's true. It's -- we really are all footnotes, in one sense or another, struggling to confront these questions, many of which don't have answers, but they define who we are as human beings, struggling in the world to understand ourselves and others.
LAMB: Let me try something out on you based on what -- some of the things you said in your book. I recently talked to a college student who was studying the judicial system and one of the assignments that this student got was to read the book "Presumed Innocent" and then, as a class, go see the movie.
KIMBALL: Yes. Well, I think that's really a terrible waste of money. It would be interesting to calculate how much it cost for that class. You know, if it was -- if this school cost $20,000 a year and you have so many classes a year, so I wonder how much that cost. I mean, any student who is intellectually alive and curious is going to go see the movies. They are going to go and read popular novels. We don't go to college to have the prejudices of the sort of dominant culture around us reinforced. We should go to college to learn about things that are different.
I mean, the word education means, in its etymology, to lead out from. I think that the demand for relevance is really misplaced. It should be turned the other way around. We should ask not is Plato or Aristotle -- not are they relevant to my experience, but rather, Is my experience up to Plato or Aristotle?' I mean, after all, that's what education is about. It's learning about something more, to go outside of yourself, to gain a wider, deeper perspective. You don't do that by studying the texts, as they do in some colleges, of MTV or watching movies or, you know, reading trashy novels. I think it's a fraud on the students.
LAMB: Let me try something on you, and I don't know whether I can articulate this very well, but some people feel and some -- I don't know what that word means, but I've heard this or we've talked about it or I've read about it -- that the difference between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is that somebody saved all of Jefferson's papers and Madison's were burned. Is there a chance that in history -- there could be somebody out there in history that could be a lot smarter than, say, Kant, but their papers weren't saved? And why should we follow Kant and not the other person, and why should we follow Jefferson and not Madison? That all of this that you're saying in the past is based on whether or not somebody thought enough of what they said to save it.
KIMBALL: Well, I think there's two things to be said about that. One is, I certainly would support the effort to -- historical research to resuscitate neglected authors, thinkers who have been unduly passed over. I think that's marvelous. If we discover a female contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote even better plays, I'm all in favor of that. That's terrific. But, unfortunately, we have -- being mere mortals, we have to deal with the tradition that we have. I think it actually is unlikely that there was another philosopher around the time of Kant who came up with the same ideas and so forth but, you know, I suppose it's a metaphysical possibility, but it's merely a metaphysical possibility.
Our task, as citizens of the United States in the late 20th century, is to deal with, you know, history as we have it. If it's true that all of Madison's papers were burned and so forth and so on and he might have been a bigger influence, well, how do we know that, A, and, B, if they are, they are. There's nothing we can do about it, so we have to work with what we've got.
LAMB: Well, I guess what I was getting at and the thing that you've been most criticized about is criticizing those segments of the academic society that want to focus on women's studies or black studies or anything other than the white male historical figures that get all the attention. Why not?
KIMBALL: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think that it's a caricature of what I recommend doing to say that I want to study only white males. I mean, somebody I would put at the very center of an English curriculum, for example, is Jane Austen, who I think is one of the greatest novelists that we have. I mean, the sad fact -- I guess it's a sad fact, is that, throughout history, most of the important authors that is to say, the people who have created the intellectual tradition that we're dealing with -- most of them have been male. Now you can say that's a terrible thing, you can deplore the social and economic conditions that made that a fact, but it is a fact, and pretending otherwise is not going to change that fact. And if you want to criticize the tradition, that's fine, but you first have to learn about it.
And I'm all for reading women authors. I think if you study Japanese literature, you have to read "A Tale of Genji," Lady Murasaki. I mean, George Eliot and so forth and so on. Was there a playwright writing around Shakespeare's time who -- female who is as important? No. And, you know, digging up some third- or fourth-rate female playwright and pretending otherwise is, again, a fraud on the students. It's a waste of time and money and it's pushing an ideological agenda in a place where it doesn't belong.
LAMB: What's so great about Shakespeare?
KIMBALL: Well, I think, you know, that he is someone who was able to show in a very concrete, immediate and gripping form the vast panoply of human experience. Not only English-speaking peoples, but around the world -- or at least around the European world, Shakespeare is held as a kind of epitome of -- of the highest dramatic art. He was able to show so many human characters engaged in very passionate immediate circumstances, and in a way that is both moving and beautiful. I mean, what makes any great literature great? I mean, Shakespeare, in a sense, had it all, it seems to me.
LAMB: Is there a chance that somebody in this century could have written great books or movies or fiction or whatever and could be just as talented as, say, somebody like Shakespeare was?
KIMBALL: Sure. Of course, there's also the problem, though, as Samuel Johnson once put it, talking about Milton and Shakespeare -- I believe it was Milton and Shakespeare, that, you know, priority means something. When somebody does something first, it stands as a model, in a way, so that it's unlikely that they would have the same sort of effect, partly because Shakespeare's been around for 400 years; his phrases have infected -- or affected the way we think about things. He's become part of the language. If someone were to write a series of plays that were just as brilliant, just as moving, just as immediate, just as funny, touching, as Shakespeare now, he would have to wait a long time before his effect could really be fully felt.
LAMB: "Tenured Radicals" is the book and Roger Kimball is our guest. This is in your bookstores. Back to the tenured thing. Once you're tenured, what does it mean? What kind of freedom do you have as a college professor?
KIMBALL: Well, generally, tenure is a contract between you and the university that you will be given lifetime employment for rendering your services as a professor. In most places you can be relieved of tenure only for gross moral turpitude or if there is some very radical shift in the structure of the university so that, for example, the whole department were abolished.
LAMB: What is gross moral turpitude?
KIMBALL: Well, that's I guess that depends. You know, it's common, I think, for professors to cavort romantically with students these days, so I guess that doesn't count, but I'm sure that -- oh, I don't know, child molestation might do it, that sort of thing.
LAMB: Is it possible if you're a tenured professor that you can basically do
nothing but show up and still keep your job?
KIMBALL: Oh, yes. In fact, it's regular. I mean, that's -- I myself have been very lucky in my teachers I've had, both at Benington and at Yale, a string of very devoted teachers. But the professor who receives tenure and then sits back and does virtually
nothing is, you know, a blight, really, on the...
LAMB: And there's no way for the university to move him?
KIMBALL: Not without very expensive lawsuits. Universities don't even attempt to get rid of people with tenure anymore because when they've tried it's cost them too much.
LAMB: Can a university get rid of tenure period?
KIMBALL: It would be a tremendous fight, and it would be very difficult, I think, in this day and age to do so. It would probably, all things considered, be a good thing.
KIMBALL: Well, I don't -- who has the guarantee of lifetime employment? Why do professors really need that? Is our culture so monolithic and has free speech been limited to such an extent that we have to worry about having tenure to protect free speech? I don't think we do. That's the reason for tenure, and, as I say, I think it's, by some insidious process has turned into an institution that has really required conformity -- intellectual conformity. It has not fostered diversity. I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a university without tenure and see what happened. You know, in the businesses of this country we don't have tenure. We serve at the pleasure of our superiors, generally. What makes university professors so special? Why should they be given this special dispensation?
LAMB: Can't you -- I know you can hear the professors sitting out there listening to you saying, "I'm glad that bird isn't in charge of my university, and I didn't have any -- he'd get me out of there because of his political views alone."
KIMBALL: Oh, well, of course. Oh, well, I don't blame him. Well, see I hope I wouldn't, but you can't blame someone who has tenure for not wanting to give it up. That's -- I mean, purely self-interest. You can't -- I wouldn't expect them to be on my side on that issue. And I think it's a complicated issue because, you know, there was a time that, you know, these were real issues, that freedom of expression on our campuses was threatened, and I think it's threatened now from the left. I think that there is a kind of intellectual conformity of opinion in our campuses and, you know, colleges and universities that is almost monolithic. I mean, if you just look at the political persuasion of your typical college academic, it's something like 90 percent Democratic.
LAMB: You write about Stanford, and the president of the university, Kennedy...
LAMB: Don Kennedy. And Bill Bennett got into that one. Do you want to
review what happened out there?
KIMBALL: Well, yes. Well, I think the reason the Stanford controversy generated so much controversy, more heat than light, perhaps, is that it was taken as an exemplary instance of what was going on all over the country. Here you have a great university that is really one of the -- you know, one of the foremost universities in the country, and they had a series of courses designed to introduce students to the great works of Western civilization. Under great pressure from both faculty -- certain faculty members and certain student groups, they decided to scrap this series of courses in favor of one that was designed to institute the new multicultural ethos of the late '80s and '90s, a kind -- a course where, instead of, you know, reading Plato, one would read or watch movies about Navajo Indians. Instead of reading John Locke, one would read the revolutionary terrorist Frantz Fanon, that sort of thing.
This is not to say that there were also some traditional books in the course, as well, but the bias of the course was very clear. It was, as Jesse Jackson said, leading some students chanting there, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go." It was a deliberate attack on Western culture and the values that it embodies. And Bennett made so much of it because it was, I think, a frightening prelude to what we see at many other colleges and universities around the country.
LAMB: Why isn't Jackson right? Why -- what's so good about Western culture?
KIMBALL: Well, Western culture is good in any number of ways. One is, politically and socially it's been the culture that -- pre-eminent among world cultures, has worked for the freedom of the individual, dignity of the individual. It's the culture, among others, that has -- pre-eminent among others that has been economically the most powerful. Capitalism, a Western invention, has been the greatest economic engine in the history of the world. It's a culture that has produced monuments of literature, of art, of philosophy. It's, I think, very much worthy of preservation.
And the, I think, unthinking animus against Western culture in our colleges and universities is something that is comic in a way, because these are beneficiaries of the Western tradition who, in any other tradition or most other traditions, wouldn't be allowed to voice criticism of their dominant culture, and here are sort of doing so in a kind of play-acting way. But it's also deeply and disturbingly ironic, because they don't seem to realize that the achievements of our culture are achievements and they're fragile and can be disrupted and undermined in ways in which they would not like at all if what they advocated really came about.
LAMB: If Western culture is so good and so important, why did it take minorities and women so long to get the same rights that white males had?
KIMBALL: Well, I mean -- but, you know, it's a product of Western culture that now they do. And I'm not saying that Western culture is perfect. I'm not saying that there aren't lots of problems, that's there's not discrimination in this country still. There is. I mean, that's a fact. I mean, the real question is: Why was it that here first that they got these rights? I mean, you know, we're dealing with an imperfect universe. And you know, utopian thinking, say, "Well, gee, couldn't it be perfect someplace else?" Well, where else are you going -- compared to what are we criticizing Western culture? Compared to a fundamentalist Islamic regime? Would women prefer to be there? I don't think so.
And so, you know, when we raise these questions, it's always a comparative matter. We have to say: Compared to what is -- are we criticizing Western culture? I'm not, by the way, suggesting that we should go blandly on and not criticize what's going on around us. I think we have to engage in a continual process of criticism and challenging -- you know, trying to make our culture better than it is. But the way to do that is not to throw out the achievements that we have made.
LAMB: Are you advocating inclusion of a certain number of Western philosophers and artists and all that, and exclusion of the Fanons that you mentioned earlier? I mean, what is it -- is there something you don't want taught?
KIMBALL: No -- well, here it's partly a practical matter, but there are other considerations, too. The practical matter is that college education lasts four years. You have so many hours to read, to think, to study, and you have to pick and choose among, say, 1,000 candidates of things, maybe more. You can't read all of those things, so you pick what, in the judgment of people who have been studying and thinking about these things, are the most important things to study, read and think about. And that obviously leaves out a lot.
But I think that the real question is, for these students who are devoting themselves to this, what is the best? That's what you want to give them. Now we might disagree about certain things, but actually I think most people would agree that on this list of the best, Plato comes, Aristotle comes, Shakespeare comes, Dante comes. You know, it's not a not a difficult process there. There are some questions around the edges. If -- you know, if we have time, we'll read this or that or the other thing.
Now I believe that Frantz Fanon belongs not in a course on Western civilization, but perhaps a sociology course about terrorism or a history course about -- you know, about African independence. That's a separate issue and, of course, then he should be taught then. But to institute him in as a kind of integral part of a course designed to introduce you to what Western civilization's about seems to me to be, again, a fraud on the students because there are other things that are more important, and be a blatantly political move on the part of radicals to insinuate that the Western tradition is sort of fundamentally corrupt.
LAMB: Let me try this on you. If you had a choice of the Bible or the teachings of Buddha, would you want the students to have only the Bible, only the teachings of Buddha or both?
KIMBALL: Well, I would in a perfect world, I'd like to have them have both. I think that in our culture the Bible has been, you know, incomparably more important. The cadences of the King James Bible affect everyday speech. They're strewn throughout our literature. They have formed the way we think in the most fundamental possible way. The teachings of Buddha have not. You know, I'm all for reading about the Buddha. I think it's -- I mean, you know, any educated person should know something about the world religions. In this culture, the dominant influence, though, is the Bible, not the teachings of Buddha.
LAMB: Let me see if I can try this on you. OK, in the Middle East there's lots of problems, and we've had nothing but bad relations with Iran for the last 12 years. The Koran, the Islamic teachings, all that area -- wouldn't it be more use to us to study the pro -- that religion and why they're acting the way they're acting over there in the Middle East, vs. the Bible ...
KIMBALL: No, I don't think so, because I think that it's important for us to understand who we are first. I mean, if we're talking about literature courses and so on. I mean, I think actually that one would gain less insight into the Islamic personality by studying the Koran, than by studying the actual political development of Iran now. I think it's -- you know, that's not to say I don't think we should read the Koran. Sure. I mean, why not? It's an important book. And Islam is an important religion. But I think that, you know, our first task is to understand ourselves before we attempt to, you know, sort of go further afield.
LAMB: You live in New York City.
LAMB: What do you think of it?
KIMBALL: Oh, it's the best of times, the worst of times. It's, you know, it's a great city, but it's a city plagued with very serious problems that seem to be getting worse.
LAMB: If you have a free moment, and music is your interest, where would you -- what would you listen to? Where do you go?
KIMBALL: Well, one could go to Carnegie Hall. There's often good concerts there.
LAMB: But what kind of thing do you choose, based on your interests and your background, your studies?
KIMBALL: Well, I suppose my interests are primarily in two things: chamber music and early music. Those are my two main interests in music, so...
LAMB: Who are your favorites?
KIMBALL: Well, I'm very quite passionately interested in people like Jeanne Demessieux, who is a very early composer. I love string quartets, you know, going much later: Hayden and that sort of thing. Mozart is probably, maybe my favorite composer is Mozart.
LAMB: If you've got an afternoon to go look at art, what would you go for? If you had any choice, anywhere, what kind of art would you look at?
KIMBALL: Well, my tastes there are pretty wide, I guess. I mean, I suppose my absolute favorite painting is 17th-century Italian paintings. The Met has a marvelous collection.
LAMB: And we talked earlier about what you would read. Who do you think writes the best -- who's the best -- who are two or three of the best writers right now, that you know of, in anything? If you had to go pick somebody based on their writing talent, who would you pick?
KIMBALL: Novelists, you mean?
LAMB: Yeah, anything. Just writers. Who does good writing?
KIMBALL: Well, it's a tough question, isn't it? I'll leave myself out, of course.
LAMB: No, put yourself on top. That's fine.
KIMBALL: Well, actually, if I had more time to think about it I might come up with different candidates, but since I'm just reading a new book by his, there's a Polish philosopher named Leszek Kolakowski, who -- English is probably his 10th language, but I think he writes extremely well and very trenchantly and very movingly about subjects of great importance. He teaches at the University of Chicago and is well worth anybody's time, I think. I'm not terribly fond of, sort of, our contemporary fiction, so I wouldn't pick a fiction writer.
LAMB: Anybody that writes for a newspaper that you read all the time, daily newspaper, do you think?
KIMBALL: Well, I can't say that any of our daily papers really the quality of the reporting or the opinion pieces really seems to me to be absolutely first-rate.
LAMB: Going up, down? Do you see a trend?
KIMBALL: Well, I think, actually, if you compare, say, The New York Times today to what it was even 15 years ago, the quality of reporting about cultural matters, anyway, has taken a precipitous drop. The range of reference, the kind of knowledge that could be assumed on the part of the audience has taken a very noticeable drop. I mean, it's actually quite stunning to go back and read the art page at The New York Times, for example, in the early '70s, as late -- as , you know, recently as then and compare it with what's going on now. I mean, the change is like night and day. The seriousness with which our cultural matters were addressed, the quality of the writing, the kinds of subjects that were addressed, the range of intellectual interests -- it was vastly superior then to now.
LAMB: What about television? You spend any time watching it?
KIMBALL: Well, I did as I was growing up. Alas, I do not have a television at the moment, so I don't very much.
LAMB: How long have you not had a television?
KIMBALL: Since I moved to New York, so I guess since 1983.
LAMB: And you think you're better off by not being able to watch TV?
KIMBALL: No, unfortunately one of the liabilities of living in New York is that apartments are very expensive and I have a very small apartment, so I don't have a television -- not by design. You know, I can imagine having one. It's just I don't find it indispensable to my daily life.
LAMB: Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is where you grew up?
LAMB: What did your parents do?
KIMBALL: Well, my father worked for my grandfather, who had a business that was located primarily in Cleveland, Ohio, and my mother was a housewife.
LAMB: When did you find yourself first getting interested in all things intellectual, like...
KIMBALL: In high school was the...
LAMB: But what was the reason?
KIMBALL: Well, the Jesuit teachers that I had, I think. They first introduced me to Milton, for example, to Descartes -- Rene Descartes, the great French philosopher. I started reading Latin then, and so forth. It was really the influence of my teachers in high school who awakened what intellectual curiosity I have.
LAMB: So it was strictly the high school experience and the teachers did have a significant impact.
KIMBALL: Yes. Indispensable, I would say.
LAMB: The reason I ask you all these questions is -- whether or not -- I want -- leading up to whether or not you think we're the whole in this country -- based on your book here, "Tenured Radicals," if it's having an effect, in your opinion, on the country that everything is in decline.
KIMBALL: Well, one doesn't want to be a gloom merchant and say, "Gee, everything is worse now than it used to be," even if that's true. I think we're making progress in some areas, in technology and so forth. But I think that any dispassionate observer who compares what's going on in the cultural realm now to what was going on, you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago, it's very difficult not to conclude that we're in a period of decline and probably decadence.
I mean, take the recent -- to move out of the academy for a moment -- but the recent kind of brouhaha over people like Karen Findley, the performance artist who smears herself with chocolate and so forth and dances around the stage naked and sort of mouthing lots of politicized slogans -- is that high art? Should that be supported by taxpayers' money? Is it a curtailment of free speech to say, "Well, no. This shouldn't be"? You know, I believe that -- absolutely in Karen Findley's right to do this. I also believe that it's garbage and should not be supported by taxpayers' money.
In our colleges and universities the insinuation of politics, the trivialization of the curriculum where people watch movies and read popular novels, rather than studying the monuments of civilization -- I think this is a decline. It's a sign of decline, it's a sign of lack of seriousness about culture and about what intellectual achievement means, and that's something that people should be very worried about.
LAMB: What, in your opinion, should every college student have to take in school?
KIMBALL: Well, we would spend the rest of the show if I were to start giving a list.
LAMB: We don't have much time, so let's try it.
KIMBALL: Well ...
LAMB: Let's -- I mean, give me some -- that they have to take. Should they all have a foreign language?
KIMBALL: Yes. In a liberal arts college, I think a foreign language is indispensable.
LAMB: If you're studying engineering, should you have a foreign language?
KIMBALL: Yes. I think an educated person should study a foreign language. It doesn't mean that he or she has to become proficient in it, but I would say that -- we're talking about a four-year liberal arts school, even if the student majors in engineering, yes.
LAMB: What about history? What kind of history?
KIMBALL: Yes. Well, I think that we certainly should have American history. I mean, our ignorance of our own tradition is appalling, and I think that some kind of -- for students who are not majoring in history, some kind of survey of, you know, of the Western tradition from Greece and Rome through the Renaissance -- European history -- is indispensable.
LAMB: What about philosophy?
KIMBALL: I think that probably at least one course in philosophy should be taught, and that would be kind of an introduction to philosophical problems that could be historically based, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and trying to understand the kinds of problems that they articulated. Or it could be oriented around specific problems and deal with a wider sort of bunch of philosophers scattered throughout history.
LAMB: Should any college or university offer black studies, lesbian studies, women's studies, all those things that you get upset about? Should that be an offering anywhere?
KIMBALL: Well, I would -- I'm against departments in those things, certainly, and -- which is not to say that I don't think we shouldn't study women's literature or black literature. I'm very much worry about those kinds of labels, though. I think that they are meant, of course, to empower these groups. I think they wind up -- to use a term that t hey often use -- "ghettoizing" them, because I suppose I'm an old-fashioned integrationist. I believe that, you know -- that what matters most is our common humanity, not our gender or the color of our skin, and I think that, you know, to focus on something like women's studies or black studies is to threaten to cover over that thing, and I think it tends to be divisive rather than liberating.
LAMB: I don't know if this is fair, but if there were somebody that you would pick to sit in that chair that has the direct opposite point of view that you have, but intellectualizes all that, who would that be? I know you mention a number of them in your book. Who do you like on the other side that you'd like to debate on this subject the most?
KIMBALL: Well, that would be a lot of people. I mean -- say, Stanley Fish, somebody I talk about in this book; Frederic Jameson, a colleague of his. They both teach at Duke. They both, I'm sure, would disagree with every syllable that I've uttered in the course of this hour. Barbara Hernstein Smith, another colleague of theirs at Duke -- these are all people I mention in my book would also disagree with every single syllable. I mean, the list is quite long, actually, among academics. I have my fans, but also many enemies.
LAMB: If we were to do this in 20 years from now, do you think you would -- well, from your point of view, would you be winning or losing more than you are now?
KIMBALL: Well, I'd hope that I'd be winning more, but one reason ...
LAMB: What do you think -- why?
KIMBALL: Why? Well, I think it's up for grabs. I think one reason I wrote this book is I don't think the situation is hopeless, but I think that people have to begin to understand what really is going on in colleges and campuses across the country, and, you know, stand up and take notice of it and try to change it. And I think they can.
LAMB: Last question. Other than buying your book for $18.95 that Harper & Row put out, called "Tenured Radicals," what can anybody watching this do that they want to have some impact and agree with what you've said?
KIMBALL: Well, let's talk about parents. I think a parent should look very closely at what the -- their children are studying in colleges and they should look at the syllabuses, ask what the teachers are teaching and, you know, they might find themselves in for a rude surprise.
LAMB: Our guest for the last hour has been Roger Kimball. This is his book: "Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education." Thank
KIMBALL: Thank you.
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