Tom Wolfe’s [pictured] latest novel, I am Charlotte Simmons, misses the top-down politically correct ambience in higher education today but catches some of the spiritual drift among collegians in his tale of college life, experts on the subject concluded.
Wolfe’s dire outlook on today’s youth led him to miss what Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosophy professor and a well-known critic of contemporary feminism, thinks is the real problem on college campuses—the lack of intellectual diversity among faculty. College students arrive on campus and find a “faculty that is distinctly strange and intellectually not up to the challenge.” She noted that, although admission to top colleges is becoming increasingly difficult, students are increasingly culturally and historically illiterate. The university, according to Sommers, is “afflicted by faddish postmodern doctrines that waste students’ time.”
She panned Wolfe’s book as unrealistic and untruthful, at the Independent Women’s Forum panel discussion. “Foolish is almost too kind,” she said. Wolfe “finds only lust, envy, [and] corruption” among students who are “too busy with studies, building their resumes.” Sommers remarked that data concerning this generation of college students frequently cast them as more conservative than previous generations. Today students “rebel by being better.”
Also on the IWF panel, John Derbyshire of the National Review spoke on a subject that has been largely glossed over by critics in favor of the book’s sexy and provocative content: human nature. “We have moved from the age of physics and the age of biology,” Derbyshire said, commenting on the book’s discussion of sociobiology and neuroscience. The book presents a view of human behavior that has become commonplace in society: that human behavior has become an inborn trait of a person, not simply action done by a person. Wolfe presents a world where, as Derbyshire summed it up, moral functions have become biological functions.
What Wolfe gets right, according to David Brooks of the New York Times, is the “moral climate of the age.” Today’s top students, despite being more qualified than previous generations of students, are unequipped to “conduct morally serious reasoning.” Students are “given no vocabulary for moral reasoning.”
Michael Dirda, the book critic for the Washington Post, took on Wolfe from a literary standpoint. Dirda found the content of the book disturbing—“I never wanted to have to think about it again,” he said—but lacking from a literary perspective. Dirda believes that the book straddles two genres—documentary and satire. While the book could succeed in one of the two, Wolfe can’t have it both ways. Wolfe’s depiction of the modern university is too extreme to be documentary. Dirda characterizes Wolfe’s portrait of the university as “a brothel attached to a sports arena.” And, Wolfe’s novel is too sermonistic to be considered satire. According to Dirda, Wolfe is an “unpermitting scold” and I am Charlotte Simmons is a “rant against youth in the modern world.”
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.