Recently, I was invited to join a class discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a local International Baccalaureate (IB) high school class. For many years, I taught the novel in my Advanced Placement course, and in 2007, I published a volume on teaching Atwood’s writing.
During the discussion, one very bright and engaged student eagerly noted that Atwood evokes elements of communism in her novel. The use of the term “communism” prompted me to offer a gentle reframing—that the student probably was recognizing elements of totalitarianism, elements often blurred into the mainstream American pejorative use of the word “communism” (see also “socialism” and “Marxism”).
This is an important moment, I think, in understanding how academia works: Language and the teasing out of ideas are often laborious, if not tedious. While teaching first-year writing especially, but in most of my courses, I stress that college students need disciplinary awareness—how each discipline functions and why—and typically emphasize that academics are prone to carefully defining terms, and then holding everyone to those precise meanings.
Political, media, and public discourse, however, tend along a much different path. Language and terminology are treated with a cavalier disregard for meaning. Misusing a term or making a false claim is quickly glossed over before railing against the initial false claim.
Because of that gap between academia and the so-called real world, some educators and scholars call for the importance of public intellectuals grounded in academia. Public scholarship, however, remains controversial within the academia and tends to be received with disdain and condescension by politicians, the media, and the public.
It is at those last two points that I want to emphasize why Sam Fallon’s The Rise of the Pedantic Professor has been so eagerly embraced by some in the academy and many in the public sphere. At its core, Fallon’s argument poses this:
To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.
These public humanities scholars, Fallon argues, “tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps,” and are failing their mission with “academic literalism.”
In the traditional norms of the academy, Fallon’s charges reinforce arguments that scholars should remain (somehow) above activism and public engagement, often expectations for being apolitical, objective, or neutral. Fallon also is providing ample fodder for politicians, the media, and the public who marginalize professors and scholars as merely academic, pointy-headed intellectuals making much ado about nothing.
As an educator, scholar, and writer, a career spanning four decades, I have strongly rejected both of these norms, and I have increasingly recognized that public work by scholars is far more important than our traditional scholarship, which is often behind paywalls and read by only inners, if at all.
I think that the gap between the academy and the public not only can be bridged in terms of how we navigate language and ideas, but it must be bridged—especially now that we have entered post-truth Trumplandia.
The bright IB student mentioned above is a typical example I confront in all of my students, and throughout public debates, especially social media.
While I absolutely recognize that academics can be pedantic, so precise that all meaning and discourse are rendered meaningless to day-to-day existence, I believe Fallon is making a serious mistake of extremes: Academics have obligations to their disciplines and the public, but their public discourse must always remain in any scholar’s lane while balancing the norms of disciplinary discourse with public accessibility.
Do some academics fail at this tightrope act? Of course.
But words matter, and starting with jumbled terms and meanings serves no one well. The public academic is poised to slow down debate while also clarifying what exactly we are saying in terms of cultural ideologies and public policy.
Doesn’t it seem important to confront that a significant numbers of voters in 2016 angrily voted against Obamacare while themselves benefitting from the Affordable Care Act—casting votes grounded in a garbled and self-defeating state of not knowing what terms mean?
Doesn’t it seem dangerous for one political party to drum up fear of infanticide, when infanticide isn’t occurring? Wouldn’t this country benefit from a fact-based (even literal) discussion of women’s health and reproductive rights, prenatal care, and abortion?
I find it troubling that all throughout formal education from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education, we hold students to higher standards of discourse than we do politicians and the media.
I also have little patience for people who cannot accurately define “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism,” but feel compelled to reject these ideologies with unwavering certainty.
It seems, in fact, that no one can be too literal when most public discourse wallows in the mud of being both wrong in the use of language and dishonest in the ideologies and arguments being made for promoting public policy that directly impacts how any of us navigate our lives.
If we need more evidence, the rising public responses to the new tax codes pushed through by Republicans and Trump offer a jumbled and disturbing picture.
Many tax-paying U.S. citizens have a weak understanding of taxes, one oversimplified as the “refund” (let me nudge here: this isn’t any different than oversimplifying and misusing “socialism”).
Many in the U.S. should be angry about the new tax code, but most complaining about the consequences of those changes are doing so in ways that are lazy and simply flawed.
If we backed up this outrage over lower tax refunds, we could have a much more substantive and possibly effective discussion about payroll deductions (most were reduced under the tax changes, thus people received more money per check over the year, which itself would lead to lower refunds), tax burdens among different income brackets, and the needlessly complex industry of preparing and submitting our taxes.
Not unrelated, Republicans have misrepresented calls for 70% marginal tax rates for the very wealthy (about 16,000 Americans out of 127 million households)—again an effective strategy because most people do not understand the literal (and tedious) reality about how marginal tax rates work.
And this brings me back to Atwood’s novel and the class discussion.
Much of Atwood’s work as a writer is about language, the use of language to control and the possibility of language to unmask, to liberate not only ideas but people.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few select women control other women through language manipulation. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….
We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)
But it may be more important here to emphasize Atwood’s examination of how Gilead came about. Offred explains about her life before Gilead:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)
This is a novel about people being cavalier about language and thus about the human condition. This novel is a call for the dangers of not being literal enough.
Humanities professors wading into the public debate and their “dull litanies of fact” are simply not the problem facing us today.
Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?
O, hell no, and beware anyone who would argue otherwise.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.