Has teaching objective truths become inconvenient?
Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada, rocketed to fame in 2016 after taking to the air waves to trumpet his refusal to use the gender-neutral pronoun one of his students requested he use.
This expectation would rest on Burston’s unsparing critique of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and, especially, Friedrich Nietzsche, who are Peterson’s bêtes noires. With something less than precision, Peterson labels this heterodox group “cultural Marxists” whose works were used to undermine the traditional university and serve to found the ‘post-modern university’ more committed to grievance than the search for ‘truth’.
Burston also agrees that it is no good thing that liberal arts faculties are top heavy with left-wing professors. Further, Burston criticises the fact that in some American universities, “pseudo-judicial proceedings . . . convened to adjudicate allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault” are a “grotesque mockery of justice because they lack due process (in some cases the accused does not even know the ‘evidence presented against them’)”.
Then, the Toronto-born Burston uses sociologist Don Carveth the way a football player would a reverse pass and shifts our attention to the fact that, ironically, the crisis in the liberal arts, the loss of faith in evidence has led not to any sort of liberation but, rather, has unknowingly furthered the corporate agenda now dominating many North American universities.
Generalising from his field, Carveth writes, “under the hegemony of neo-liberalism, the displacement of truth values in psychoanalysis” has proceeded apace as: “Genuine critique has not been welcomed.”
Towards the middle of chapter seven, after showing that Peterson’s claim to being a “Classical Liberal” is risible, Burston shows what Peterson’s call for the slashing of liberal arts budgets looks like in the real world. Citing declining enrolment, university administrators hire only part-time faculty, freeze tenured faculty’s salaries, slash operating budgets and research funds.
“But the money, and – lo and behold! – the revenues directed away from the humanities and social sciences (and the fine arts, eg painting, music) invariably end up in the budgets devoted to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines, the salaries of the rapidly multiplying cohort of assistants and associate administrators, and the budgets and salaries of sports coaches,” some of whom in the United States earn millions of dollars. Money also goes to public relations professionals whose task is to ‘boost the university’s brand or image’”.
Burston’s trenchant critiques of thinkers like Althusser are central to understanding what’s gone wrong with North American universities. Liberal arts professors have used Althusser and Nietzsche to undermine the traditional mission of the university, the search, however flawed, for ‘truth’. These same thinkers have served to found the ‘post-modern university’, more committed to grievance, rooted in Romantic views of the self as the primary intelligible unit, than rational inquiry.
Althusser convinced the generation I am part of (I entered university in 1976) that reading Freud meant reading Lacan. But, Lacan’s version of Freud, Burston shows, was “never a serious or scholarly endeavour”.
Often Lacan attributes ideas to Freud that he never said. The specific examples need not detain us, for, what’s truly important is Burston’s willingness to state baldly that objective truths exist: Freud did or did not say what Lacan says he did. The same is true for recording Lacan’s anti-Semitism, which wasn’t discussed when I was in university but which Burston shows is in his texts. Facts matter.
Many will bristle at Burston’s characterisation of left-wing authoritarianism and its dalliance with anti-Semitism and also try to dismiss that of both Hamas and Hezbollah. Burston is to be commended, however, by pointing out the contradiction that far from being “progressive”, both are “unabashedly misogynistic, anti-gay and anti-democratic”.
Before anyone dismisses Burston, who does nothing to hide being Jewish, for being an apologist for Israel, he is equally hard on Benjamin Netanyahu, who put the lie to the belief that a right-wing Jew was close to a contradiction.
Burston homes in on Peterson’s “quite wobbly” understanding of those he calls “cultural Marxists”. For all their errors, Burston argues, Marxists believe in “progress” in the sense that society can be remade into a classless society. Post-modernists like Nietzsche or more recently Jacques Derrida eschewed such a teleological view of history. “Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions,” wrote Nietzsche in 1873 in a line I quoted a number of times in literature essays.
Drunk with such power, my professors and I missed that in his first work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche argues that slavery is necessary for the creation of high culture, while in The Genealogy of Morals (1887), perhaps his most quoted book, he divided the human race into “birds of prey” and “lambs”, which now makes me wince.
Which leaves the question, since Peterson rejects post-modernism, does he erase this difference or, perhaps, side with the lambs? Rule six in his book, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”, may sound like a “folksy flourish”, but it chills Burston: most of us manage to bumble through life without our closets let alone our lives being in “perfect order”.
Burston rightly links this rule with Peterson’s statement in a New York Times interview that “the people who hold that our culture is an oppressive hierarchy . . . don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence”.
Burston doesn’t let the modal verb “might” blind him to Peterson’s point, one eagerly embraced by corporate lenders and administrators who look back on (a mythical view) of the 1950s and hardly suggests that Peterson has any doubts about the legitimacy of today’s hierarchies.
Witches and dragons
Parts of Burston’s book are heavy going. Fortunately, he livens his discussion of notoriously difficult writers like Lacan and Theodor Adorno with witty asides. Peterson, however, moves him to being incredulous.
In one interview, Peterson said, witches “do exist. They just don’t exist in the way you think they exist … You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s like, yes they do – the category of the predator and the category of the dragon are the same category. It’s a superordinate category. It absolutely exists more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious.”
To say that witches exist is not fake news. Rather, Burston declares, it is “manifestly absurd”. To say that dragons exist “is utter nonsense”.
Against Peterson’s bombast and faux erudition, recalls the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, whose The Great Code: The Bible and Literature became the surprise best seller of 1981. Frye “spoke (and wrote) with genuine authority” and it was his deep learning first to become an Anglican minister and then a professor of literature that led him to being “a genuine liberal, who took strong stands against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid”.
Frye’s example leads Burston to believe that education leads 1) not to quiescence but to seeing how the world can be made better because 2) genuine inquiry leads not to division into ever smaller group identities but, rather, to understanding the common humanity of men and women.
* Daniel Burston, Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University, London: Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-3-03-349202.