(This article originally appeared on March 11, 2013. We are reposting it in honor of Tom Wolfe who passed away on Monday.–ed.)
Perhaps there was a time when great writers were welcomed in academia and appreciated the time they spent there. This isn’t that time. “Today in the Great Recession, the liberal arts are kind of like a pleasure dome,” best-selling journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe said at a dinner sponsored by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). “Very seldom are universities asked the question, ‘What are the liberal arts?”
Wolfe’s career as a novelist dates back three decades, but he has been a professional writer for more than a half century. Wolfe’s first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, set records on the New York Times bestseller list. “Today, many people with their doctorates cannot find jobs, particularly if they majored in gender studies,” Wolfe said. “Who’s going to pay you to study gender?”
As Wolfe showed in his best-selling novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, he does not approach colleges the way believers do their churches.
“We took the idea of the campus from Great Britain but why?,” Wolfe asked rhetorically. “Have you ever been to Penn State?”
“It’s a four-day trip, by plane.” Wolfe remembers wryly, which is how he recalls many things, such as his trip to Harvard to address the graduating class there several decades ago. “There before me I saw a lot of sneakers, including finger sneakers—one for every digit,” Wolfe said at the NAS dinner at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. “There were mosh pit t-shirts and baseball caps worn front, backwards and sideways.”
“There were short pants, a lot of them on adults. I grant you that I care a lot more about clothes than most men and I write more about clothes,” he conceded. “I identify a lot with Balzac who wrote about furniture and what it said about people.”
“I wanted to say, ‘Do your parents know what you’re like?,’ but I didn’t.” Clad immaculately in his trademark white suit, Wolfe does indeed care more about being sartorially correct than politically incorrect. “In the Great Recession, there is not enough money to satisfy the whims and needs of students and universities,” he avers.
He offered a suggestion similar to one proposed by the late Russell Kirk, who in turn was widely acknowledged as one of America’s leading conservative intellectuals for four decades until his untimely death in 1994. “My idea is a two-year college instead of four,” he said. “Of course, most of that will be remedial but of course we wouldn’t call it that.”
Wolfe spoke on March 2, 2013, his 82nd birthday. “I’m so tired of being called an octogenarian,” he said. “I tell people it’s just something I do at night.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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