Bruce Robbins on Bérubé

Bruce Robbins in the Valve on Michael Bérubé and liberalism.

Could I try out one view of Michael Berubé’s book I haven’t heard mentioned? Sure, he’s speaking for academics in the humanities and social sciences whom non-liberals would properly see as liberal. And sure, these people (myself included) are a majority in our departments. But do they see themselves as liberal? Maybe on the phone at home, when reluctantly answering some pollster’s questions in a tongue they know to be alien. But at work, I don’t think so. In literature departments (I teach in one) “liberal” is more often than not a dirty word.

For example, Berubé’s liberalism means secularism. But secularism is by no means English department dogma. On the contrary, the big fashion these days is to declare oneself post-secular; it’s everywhere. This unbending to religion should not be a surprise. After all, the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on. You can still get more or less automatic assent, if not necessarily wild cheering or a reputation for originality, by rising to denounce any of that rationality’s assumptions or moving parts. Remember, Nietzsche is still the biggest philosopher in this neighborhood. Not a democrat, and not a liberal.

No, I’m not crazy about this. But there are sides of the deep anti-liberal bias in English departments that I have more time for. The active discussion about Burkean conservatism where I live–and you should know that there is one– centers on whether Burke wasn’t after all the true leftist, given that the people to his left never had the qualms he had about British imperialism and that his version of agricultural organicism, though it didn’t stop him from welcoming enclosures, certainly offered a better defense of India than anything else in the British public sphere.