Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dumbed Down: Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties and the Erosion of Academic Standards

I have to confess that I cannot stop thinking about Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush which I reviewed here. I wouldn't mind so much if some Joe Schmo found a publishing house willing to accept such a poorly researched, superficial manuscript. I value freedom of speech and I believe that everybody should be able to express their ideas, no matter how silly and uninformed those ideas might be. What bothers me so much about Framing the Sixties is that the author of this disgrace of a book is an academic who published it with an academic press and who evidently believes that it qualifies as a piece of research. We can whine as much as we want about the corporate model destroying academia, but what can we expect when so many academics sell themselves out in this egregious way just to make a quick buck?

Believe me, I am not one of those people who think that if a book sells well it cannot represent a legitimate scholarly contribution. Far from it. I admire Terry Eagleton who writes books that sell without sacrificing academic rigor in the slightest. But, of course, in order to do what Eagleton does, you need to have his beautiful writing style, his great erudition, and his brilliant capacity to construct an argument. When those skills are lacking and you are still dying to make yourself some money, you can do what Bothmer has done in Framing the Sixties. The recipe is simple: find a catchy topic, interview some famous people, quote them abundantly with no attempt at analysis, and market your book aggressively. And the most important ingredient: avoid any argument or line of thinking that is not entirely superficial. Your own words should only serve to introduce quotes and provide very loose links between them. (Seriously, a more honest title for this book would be A Bunch of Quotes from Semi-Famous People I Met.)

Another thing that is so frustrating in the disturbing tendency that Framing the Sixties represents is the author's belief that name-dropping is an excuse for an absolute lack of standards. From the very first pages, Bothmer makes it clear that since he has managed to interview former aides to Reagan and Bush, he should be allowed to lower the level of his discourse as much as he wants. In his introduction, he states openly and unashamedly that he chose to exclude the opinions of women and African Americans just because he doesn't find these segments of population to be very relevant*. It is mind-boggling how something like this can pass for academic research. Can I now write in my book that I decided to analyze only the novels written by redheads just because I believe that nobody else is relevant? Since I haven't talked to any celebrities, I guess not.

So we have university presses that are turning themselves into vanity presses by charging for publishing and that print substandard scholarship just to make some money. We have academics that put out anti-intellectual swill that breaks every rule of responsible and rigorous research also just to make some money. We have college administrators who expect faculty to leave behind their scruples and imitate Bothmer's unashamed struggle for money and fame. And then we have students who observe all this and lose faith in their teachers, in their colleges, in academia, and in anything that claims to be even remotely intellectual.

Of course, Bothmer will claim that those of his colleagues who reject his blatant anti-intellectualism are simply jealous of his success. I have heard this argument from other money-hungry academics who are incapable of producing quality research and sell themselves out as a result. For this kind of people, "success" is always measured in money and tawdry fame among the unenlightened. It's hard for them to see why their colleagues see them as losers.

* The shocking thing is that the Left has now adopted this book as its own, giving it rave reviews and doing everything to promote it. This tells us a lot about what American Left stands for.

No comments: