Ten linked essays from public intellectual and professor Robert Boyers that elegantly and fiercely address the most relevant and controversial ideas of the day—from identity and privilege to appropriation and diversity—and advocates for loosening the straightjacket of the new liberal orthodoxy.
Written from the perspective of a liberal intellectual who has spent a lifetime as a writer, editor, and college teacher, Robert Boyers’s book is a precise and nuanced insider’s look at shifts in American culture—most especially in the American academy—that so many people find alarming. Part memoir and part polemic, an anatomy of important and dangerous ideas and a cri de coeur lamenting the erosion of standard liberal values, Boyers devotes chapters to such subjects as tolerance, identity, privilege, appropriation, disability, and blaming the victim. And then he asks why it is that many educated persons are today more committed to “safe spaces” and “comfort zones” than to the kind of debate that was once a hallmark of the liberal imagination.
Why, Boyers wonders, is the hunt for heresies and so-called “micro-aggressions” a more routine feature of contemporary academic life than the patient analysis of difficult ideas and challenging books? What has brought us to a moment when students are often encouraged to emerge from their studies efficiently indoctrinated with “correct” views that they have not adequately considered or mastered? Can the university continue to do its proper work by creating an us versus them orientation, underwritten by enemies lists and fueled by a sense that no dispute may be tolerated to the current consensus?
A movement to scrub university campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause students discomfort has gained momentum over the past decades and is now slowly becoming institutionalized across the country. In The Tyranny of Virtue, Boyers maintains a conviction that liberalism itself is in crisis, and that the attempt to understand the ordeal of a venerable liberal intellectual can illuminate the roots of the crisis. The end result is a finely tuned work of cultural intervention from the front lines.
Robert Boyers is editor of Salmagundi, professor of English at Skidmore College, and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He is the author of ten previous books and the editor of a dozen others. He writes often for such magazines as Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation, Yale Review, and Granta.
“Robert Boyers writes in the great tradition of Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Susan Sontag: a powerfully persuasive, insightful and provocative prose that mixes erudition and first-hand reportage, combativeness and sympathy, moral vehemence and humor. From his vantage point as longtime editor of the preeminent journal Salmagundi, Boyers has been in close contact with every seismic shift in literary, intellectual, artistic and academic quarters in recent decades, and for those of us who may require guidance, here is our guide.” —Joyce Carol Oates
“Robert Boyers has written a probing meditation on his experiences within the left-liberal cultural bubble, including his own college, where he has been a formidable presence for decades. He trenchantly challenges assumptions, slogans and nostrums of those excessively certain and proud of their ‘wokeness.’ I found The Tyranny of Virtue to be instructive and inspiring.” —Randall Kennedy, Michael Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University