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Criticizing Cornell By Kendall Clark


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In The New Republic's Notebook (TNR) last week, we find an entry called "Go West":

It should be no surprise that Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, recently asked Professor Cornel West to get serious about his scholarship. Summers, after all, is the rare university president who cares more about academics than fund-raising; and West's activities of late -- spending more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work -- could not have sat well with him. But West has responded to Summers's reasonable request by raising the issue of race...West, of course, loves to mau-mau; and the confrontation with Summers was simply too good an opportunity to pass up. In an effort to raise the stakes, West is now threatening to leave Harvard for Princeton. So the question is: Will West continue to do nothing at Harvard? Or head south to do nothing at Princeton?

There are several curious claims here. First, it comes as a great surprise that Larry Summers is seen as prioritizing academics over economics; it would come as a great surprise to learn Summers prioritizes anything over economics, including human life. Summers was, after all, a Treasury bigwig when he suggested, infamously, in 1991, that the first world export pollution to the third world, as a matter of economic rationality, since the harms to economic productivity caused by pollution's ill-effects on worker health were cheaper if borne by third world economies, given the lower cost of worker wages. His appointment to the Harvard presidency was bitterly protested by some members of that community, but to no avail.

What's even more curious is the TNR lauding Summers for valuing academics over economics while, in the next breath, it lauds him for attacking Professor Cornel West for not teaching often enough. Many institutional activities constitute the "academics" which, it's claimed, Summers values so highly, and explicit classroom instructional time is merely one such activity. But hectoring well-paid professors about the amount of time they spend on explicit classroom instruction is stereotypically a bottom-line concern. While there seem to be other things going on here, TNR's laudate of Summers is incoherent.

Turning from Summers to Cornel West, philosopher and professor of African American Studies, TNR bashes West for supposedly ganging up, with Jesse Jackson, to harass poor, defenseless Harvard. West is perhaps the most well-known African American academic, and he's spent the bulk of his career engaged in real world political and social issues. Like other well-known academics, West is not afraid to take public stands on issues of importance.

TNR, however, following (or leading?) the shock troops at National
Review
describes West's political activity as "mau-mauing", which is the
way National Review and Pat Buchanan characterize West, too.

Though the word seems to have originated, according to Thomas Wolfe's reportage, anyway, among African American activists of the 1960s, it's only used now by Whites to denigrate African Americans who struggle politically.

But why, one might ask TNR, does West "of course" love to "mau-mau"? Is it some essential part of his nature? Does he do it compulsively? Is it, TNR seems to believe, just a "black thing"?

Given that African American activists no longer speak this way about themselves, and given that the far right dismisses and belittles and mocks them in exactly this way, TNR puts itself on very shaking ground by using the highly racialized "mau-mau" term to describe West.

But maybe it's not so shaky if we give up the idea that being a TNR liberal means having any interest in or commitment to political and social equality for African Americans?

The entire passage stinks of racial implication.

As interesting as the racial alliance between National Review, Pat Buchanan, and TNR is the shocking ignorance of the modern American university displayed in its attack on West. Does TNR really not know that one of the goals of becoming an academic star is so that you can teach less and do other stuff more? Every academic star of West's caliber spends less time teaching than engaging in one or another of the many activities that constitute the university as a social institution: research, grant-seeking, program - or discipline-formation, interdisciplinary conferencing, book or journal editing and writing, dissertation supervising, administrative work, and so on.

All of which is an ordinary expression of the standard university reward system. One of the ways universities reward or lure academic stars is to promise lighter teaching loads. The number of hours one spends in
the classroom is a perfectly ordinary chit in the reward system. Even non-star academics negotiate for less time in the classroom in favor of doing some other kind of academic duty or task.

The degree to which West teaches or does other things is a function of his employment contract with Harvard, the extra-contractual perks West manages to secure (by negotiating with his department chair, the relevant deans). If he's violated that contract, the debate would be taking place in those terms. Whether West chooses to record a hip hop CD during a year long medical leave -- to battle cancer, no less -- from Harvard or not is, strictly speaking, an issue in which only Harvard and West have any real standing. But if doing so violated neither Harvard policy nor West's contract, why is Summers hounding him? And why is TNR joining the National Review in amplifying that hounding?

One difference separating West from other star professors seems to
be his public criticism of the Democratic Party machine after Bill Bradley withdrew from the 2000 presidential race; criticism which included West speaking for both Al Sharpton and Ralph Nader. Apparently for the very conventionally-minded Larry Summers, having anything to do with Sharpton or Nader is a high crime. And if politics has nothing to do with Summers' public attack on West, why West and why now?

Further, criticizing West in terms that suggest he lacks scholarly seriousness is just plain dumb. TNR clearly -- if Leon Wieseltier's attack in the early 90s is any indication -- hates West and his politics, just as clearly, in fact, as West is hated by the National Review and Pat Buchanan crowd. However, making the case that he's not serious about scholarship is damnably hard.

What West has done a lot of at Harvard is popularize his scholarly work, which is a good thing unless you find the idea of a leftist African American professor reaching a larger audience with his critical ideas troubling. His critics retort that he hasn't published a book with a university press since 1989, trying to draw some sign of his lack of scholarly integrity from that fact. But every ambitious academic yearns for a popular audience. Non-university press books not only reach a bigger audience, they reach a different kind of audience, too. There are few academics who wouldn't like to see commercial publishers promote their work, no matter how technical or obscure; West's work is neither technical nor obscure but is accessible and critical.

So in addition to all those other non-teaching institutional activities which academic stars are forever running after, we can add popularizing. The American university has always needed and found popularizers. And it's often rewarded the really good ones. Cornel West is one of the good ones. Choosing to spread critical ideas about race, politics, economy, and power seems like a very good thing, especially if that makes those ideas more likely to be considered by young people, those who lack the privilege of formal education at Harvard, and so on. That Pat Buchanan, National Review, and Larry Summers attack West's kind of academic work is to be expected. It's another sign of how far rightward TNR has moved that it aids and abets them.

Kendall Clark can be contacted at kendall@monkeyfist.com


Kendell Clark

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

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