- - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It’s official: It’s spring, when an anxious young man’s fancy (and a young woman’s, too) seriously turns to thoughts of college. High school seniors are checking their emails or looking for the envelope that’s a little fatter than a single-page rejection letter. An acceptance letter is happy news for the young people, but it’s terrifying news for the family pocketbook.

The class of 2018 has its dreams — and not all of them are happy dreams.

Cost estimates for elite universities run to $70,000 a year. It’s not clear what that buys. The fortunate seniors are tweeting celebration messages to their friends, and their parents are trying to figure out how to pay for that good fortune.

Administrators at Duke University, one of the top 10 schools in the authoritative U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities, are humiliated by the news that one of their students became a porn star to pay her tuition bills. After she was “outed” by a male student, she wrote that “I wear my Scarlet Letter with pride.” Well, at least she’s read one Great Book.

Yale is nervous about a new biography of Paul de Man, a star of the professoriate of the 1970s and ‘80s, who influenced a generation of critics who “deconstructed” literature. The man who is identified with the “Yale school of criticism,” as it turns out, was a Nazi collaborator in Belgium during World War II, and wrote essays for Nazi newspapers and magazines that championed Hitler’s view of “degenerate art” and its accompanying anti-Semitism. He wrote that Jews “have always remained in the second rank,” and liked the idea of deporting them to a colony isolated from Europe, which would not have “regrettable consequences.” Certainly not for him.

While much of this was uncovered four years after de Man died in 1983, he was widely eulogized in academia, and the new biography, “The Double Life of Paul de Man,” by Evelyn Barish, is embarrassing to the scholars, so called, who spread his theories. His apologists must now defend against accusations of bigamy, forgery, embezzling and lies that were hidden in his past. But how did such a man land a place in such elite university positions and in respectable publications in America?

“I think one must also recognize that he espoused some of the anti-Semitism endemic to the European bourgeoisie,” writes Peter Brooks in The New York Review of Books,” observing that he had close friendships with Jews. Some were his best friends, no doubt. While initially shocked by the revelations, one of de Man’s colleagues in the New Republic wrote that his articles weren’t so bad, not as other “vulgar anti-Semitic writing” of its day. That says something, I guess.

Defenders of Paul de Man always sound as though they’re reflecting the criticism he espoused, which teaches that analysis of language and literature cannot serve truth because truth cannot be known. A Freudian might find de Man’s appreciation of Nietzsche’s past as “so threatening that it has to be forgotten,” a self-serving description of his own behavior. He always managed to keep ahead of the police (he was found guilty of fraud in absentia in Belgium in 1951), even managing to die before he was exposed in America. His method of literary analysis is now in decline, but his use of obfuscating language, nihilistic and obscure, continues to infect covens on certain campuses.

No one ever said brilliance makes you smart, or that influential people are more ethical than farmers, seamstresses or Chevy mechanics. But de Man’s theories have had the malignant affect of destroying the authority of the canon in the humanities. English departments have yet to recover.

It won’t be easy to overcome politically correct “isms” that continue to dominate the teaching of literature in universities with their neo-Marxists, feminists and lingering “boa-deconstructors.” African-American studies has been elevated above the Greek and Roman classics, and “multicultural studies” have triumphed over the culture of the West. Harold Bloom, whose 1994 book, “The Western Canon” attempts to hold the line against the “balkanization” of literary studies, tells the Paris Review of one telling incident. At the end of a lecture to the Yale faculty on the originality of Shakespeare, a professor rose with an observation. “I don’t really understand why you’re talking about originality,” she said. “It is as outmoded as, say, private enterprise in the economic sphere.”

Disappointed and dispirited, Mr. Bloom nevertheless thinks such poisonous politically correct criticism will pass. But maybe not. The latest danger lurks in the Internet, where quotations taken out of context mislead the unwary, and replace reading the originals altogether. The latest trendy abbreviation is tl;dr — too long, didn’t read. The fortunate class of ‘18 will have much to overcome.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.