At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education
by R. V. Young.
ISI Books, 1999, 2004. 211 pages.
There was a time when academia and the scholarship it produced stood as sentinels around Western civilization. Both treasured it, defended it, and promoted its strengths and virtues. Then a series of slight and nearly imperceptible shifts took place during periods like the Progressive Era, and the values of Western civilization were questioned and then attacked.
First this happened in private, but then in public, and an erosion of academia and scholarship ensued. Yet there was still a predominantly Western bent to education and to the mental paradigms it produced.
Enter the 1960s, and what had been imperceptible became egregious; what had been spoken privately began to be propagated from college and university lectern after college and university lectern. This was both a harvest of seeds sown in earlier times and the sowing of new seeds now being harvested by deconstruction-driven professors and scholars in academia. It is also a harvest for the justices, politicians, and religious leaders who have been trained in the classrooms and by the ideas these professors promulgate in their books.
This is where Professor R. V. Young’s At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education falls like a hammer on deconstructionism’s glass house. Young ably shows the reader how leftist academicians have slowly but surely moved their students away from objectivity and meaning via a war on words—part of a greater war on literature. In the place of objectivity, those in academia have posited a subjective “meaning begins with me” mentality that allows every student to find his or her own meaning in every word, even if the meanings found are antithetical when juxtaposed with the reality they purport to describe.
Young’s thoughtful approach to this problem begins by looking at paradigms and pedagogical styles that have marked education throughout the years. He then shows how deconstructionists have turned these various pedagogies upside down.
For example, Young begins by looking at New Criticism and its approach to education and reality, as characterized by men like T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate. Young explains that New Critics saw the world for what it was and recognized that literature “transcends the particular biases and individual purposes of its author, the immediate expectations and assumptions of its original (or any other) readers, and the political trends and socioeconomic circumstances of its era.”
The worldview of the New Critics was predominant in education in the United States during the thirties, forties, and fifties. And Young points out that it even held sway during the sixties, albeit under relentless attack.
Young shows that deconstructionists sought liberation from the worldview of New Criticism, much as liberalevangelicals sought liberation from orthodox Protestantism during the days of J. Gresham Machen, an early twentieth century Princeton professor and Presbyterian theologian. New Criticism was too constraining, and the view of reality as something fixed and external was far too oppressive. The key to overthrowing Eliot’s worldview was to empty Eliot’s words—and the pages of literature Eliot valued—of their meaning.
In other words, deconstructionists do just that: they deconstruct. They tear down what they have no means of building back, and what they have no intention of building back.
For deconstructionists, a work by William Shakespeare has no greater or more enduring value than any postmodern work written by an average writer in the twenty-first century. This is because deconstructionism is a great leveler. By deconstructing and removing the meaning of every word, deconstructionists render all books alike, making them blank slates onto which people can project their own meanings. Although appearing to be egalitarian, in knocking down “privilege,” in fact such methods establish a form of tyranny. With no sure meaning, people are left adrift, and politics and law become mere games of power, with no appeal to enduring principles possible, because none is recognized.
Thus, there is no message carried from generation to generation, no lessons learned or rites upheld. Rather, each generation creates and abides by its own messages and lessons. (Who needs rites anyway?)
The rhetorical acrobatics on display in the effort to demonstrate that nothing can be demonstrated, that signification is an insignificant exercise, discloses a revealing picture of the contemporary academic circus.
And because these rhetorical acrobatics bleed over into jurisprudence, politics, and religion, nothing is safe from the meaninglessness they project.
This is why the First Amendment can mean freedom of speech for certain groups—atheists, deconstructionists, and hard-core liberals—while meaning something else entirely for other groups—Christians, conservatives, and strict constructionist judges seeking to adhere to the words the Founders wrote.
This is also why the Second Amendment is often presented as having been true for a time, but not for our time: dismissed as a right for a day gone by, invalid for an era the Founders could not have foreseen. In short, it meant something in 1791, but it means nothing now. This is the same reason abortion can be so readily found in the Constitution by those trained in deconstructionism. It’s why the separation of church and state is “constitutional.”
Os Guinness tells a story in Time for Truth that dovetails perfectly with Young’s book. It’s a story about three umpires: one premodern in thought, one modern, and one postmodern. Writes Guinness:
The first umpire says, “There are balls and there are strikes, and I call them like they are.”
“No!” exclaims the second umpire, “That’s arrogant. There are balls and there are strikes, and I call them the way I see it.”
“That’s no better,” says the third. “Why beat around the bush? Why not be realistic about what we do? There are balls and there are strikes, but they ain’t nothing till I call them.”
In Guinness’s analogy there is a progression from pitches being what they are (premodern), to pitches being what we perceive them to be (modern), to pitches being nothing until we pronounce them so (postmodern). Yet as bad as the postmodern position is, it is head and shoulders above deconstructionism.
A deconstructionist can’t say, “There are balls and there are strikes,” because neither balls nor strikes exist unless the deconstructionist decides they should (and even then they don’t exist in any real sense, but are mere constructs in the deconstructionist’s mind).
Such people are at war with the word—they are at war with words—and they live lives dedicated to altering reality. The problem, of course, is that reality is not easily altered. Therefore, when this literary theory bumps up against what is real, we witness a tension not unlike the tension we currently feel in our political climate, our judicial climate, and the climate of our academies.
Young has a written a book for the ages. As I held it in my hands, I felt I was holding dynamite a wiser man might use to tear the left’s edifice down, allowing the people to live and learn and worship freely once more.
This book is as necessary as it is profound.
AWR Hawkins holds a PhD from Texas Tech University, and is a senior opinion editor and writer at Alliance Defending Freedom.