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Well, he does. And he shares these pungent critiques, and many more like them, in his recent book, Gallimaufry: A Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits. It should be noted that although Epstein is enjoying — or maybe enduring — an unexpected cameo in the national news cycle, it’s not as if he just burst onto the hot-take scene. His publisher, Axios Press, calls him “the greatest living essayist writing in English,” a superlative that rules out a host of worthy contenders, though what’s unquestionably true is that he is among the language’s most prolific. Gallimaufry contains 528 pages’ worth of his musings. His 2018 collection, The Ideal of Culture, is a mere 572 pages. And there is no shortage of other volumes with droll titles for the Epstein completist: With My Trousers Rolled, Once More Around the Block, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, The Middle of My Tether.
For more than two decades, Epstein was the editor of The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. His stewardship there was not without controversy. He wrote the following assessment of feminist scholars in 1991: “The feminists roll on, perpetually angry, making perfectly comprehensible the joke about the couple in their West Side Manhattan apartment who, having been twice robbed, determine to protect themselves, he wanting to get a revolver, she a pit bull, and so they agree to compromise and instead get a feminist.” That, along with an eyebrow-raising line about “dykes on bikes” directed at the feminist scholar Catharine R. Stimpson, prompted Joyce Carol Oates, the novelist, to write that it was an “embarrassment” that Epstein served as editor and that his “resignation is long overdue.”
Overdue or not, he didn’t resign, although five years later he was fired. In his new collection, he blames his ouster on that vague catch-all, political correctness. “As for the reason for my being fired,” he writes, “it had nothing to do with politics, since I made it a point to clear the journal’s pages of all contemporary political content, but to do with my not running any articles in the journal on the subjects of feminism or African-American studies.” That wasn’t because he was necessarily against running such articles, he contends, but because he “wasn’t interested in the clichés on the subject and hoped for work that went beyond standard victimology.” At the time, The Chronicle quoted one professor as calling Epstein a victim of the culture wars (there was one then too) and another as saying he “has been driving people crazy for years.” Take your pick.
Epstein, who is 83, was bemoaning changes in college life, and in the rest of society, long before many of those skewering him on Twitter — or their parents, probably — were born. In his essay “Immaturity on Campus,” he shakes his head ruefully at the fact that, when he began teaching, in 1973, jackets and ties were no longer de rigueur for male professors, and not all female professors wore skirts. Epstein believes that the classroom power dynamic has shifted too far in favor of students, and he traces that trend to asking them to evaluate their professors. “Who ever said that students were in a position properly to judge the true quality of teaching?” he writes. He cites a fellow professor’s decision to bring doughnuts to an early-morning class as a pathetic example of “sucking up,” and hopes the “doughnuts received a strong evaluation.”
Those evaluations helped lead to rampant grade inflation (“somehow the grade of C jumped up to B”). “At the school where I taught, a proudly left-wing teacher was said to give black students automatic A’s as an act of reparation,” he writes. What’s more, some students started referring to professors by their first names, which for Epstein suggested more than a casual, hallway familiarity: “I recall a young female student, on the edge of tears, during an office hour, asking why I had marked up her papers, as she thought, so severely. ‘Jerry [an associate professor in the same department],’ she said, ‘is never so hard on my writing.’ Hmm, ‘Jerry’? I concluded there was a good chance that ‘Jerry’ had been, to use the Victorian phrase, ‘intimate with her.’”
Don’t get him started on college presidents today. Back in Epstein’s time, that office was occupied by scholars of stature like Robert F. Goheen at Princeton or Alfred Whitney Griswold at Yale. Now he can only dimly recall that “the president of Harvard is a woman, or was a woman until recently.” Presidents are no longer the towering intellects of yore, according to Epstein. These days, when college presidents aren’t “hanging with the wealthy in a position of unspoken but obvious subservience,” they are being “photographed in sweaters and neckties surrounded by racially and ethnically diverse students.” It is a sorry state of affairs, he believes, though Epstein expresses sympathy for the diminished institutional leaders. “In our time every university president is a minor-league Ozymandias, within the small compass of his realm a king of kings — and yet a king without any real power to change things that matter.”
It would be unfair to suggest that Epstein’s oeuvre is endless spleen-venting at the supposed failures and absurdities of modern higher education. He can be a witty guide to the work of writers he admires, like P.G. Wodehouse, who also tended to view anything newfangled with a jaundiced eye. He delivers memorably caustic assessments of Susan Sontag (“the great American savant-idiot”) and Isaiah Berlin (after considering whether he was a writer or a scholar, Epstein wonders “if he were either”). He defends the despised typeface Comic Sans and chronicles his own ill-fated forays into facial hair, comparing a mustache he once grew to — brace yourself — a “Guatemalan illegal alien.” He is a man who is not afraid to take an unpopular stance or risk offense while making a crack.
The point is, the Wall Street Journal column wasn’t at all out of character. Epstein is a seasoned observer of the academic milieu, and he hasn’t liked what he’s been observing for a very long time. His mockery of Jill Biden’s degree is entirely consistent with his abiding distress at the “decay of the contemporary university.” He notes with satisfaction that he retired from teaching in 2002, before the rise of smartphones and back when “political correctness was still in its incipient, not yet its tyrannous, stage.” Now he lobs grenades from a safe distance. I emailed Epstein to ask if he was up for an interview about the emphatic response to his column. He replied (from his iPhone) to say thanks but that he was, no surprise, “planning to write something of my own about it.”