Satirizing academia is almost too easy. The overeducated eccentrics on the faculty behave like ornery children or horny teens. Student radicals occupy administration buildings, demanding higher wages for the dining hall workers, along with higher quality sushi in the dining hall itself.
From Kingsley Amis in the 1950s through Richard Russo and Francine Prose in recent decades, novelists have gleefully exposed the disparity between lofty scholarly ideals and the absurd, often humiliating realities of campus life.
The latest in this line of wits is Julie Schumacher, a professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota. Her 2014 “Dear Committee Members,” starring the irascible English professor Jason Fitger, was the best campus satire in years, winning the Thurber Prize for American Humor. In “The Shakespeare Requirement” she returns to Fitger and to the slings and arrows he suffers at Payne University. Schumacher’s latest goes into the question of why Fitger (or anyone) would devote his life to academia in the first place.
Schumacher gives Fitger plenty of reasons to give up on higher education. He is the chair of the English department, but his office has no air conditioning. He can’t remember his computer password, and Tech Help won’t answer his calls. Neither will his ex-wife, an administrator in the law school. (That novel about his affair was a big mistake.) Worst of all, he must win his colleagues’ unanimous approval for a departmental “Statement of Vision.”
As Fitger is aware, these documents are usually a “formality, essentially meaningless.” But not this time. Without a vision statement, his department will have no budget, and without a budget it will be at the mercy of the villainous economist Roland Gladwell. In charge of Payne’s “quality assessment program,” Gladwell plots to eliminate English, art, music and any other “redundant or unprofitable programs. As for the thin-skinned faculty and students whose tender feelings might be hurt by a lack of inclusiveness: let them beat their drums and sing their victims’ songs.”
To fight such a monster, Fitger needs his department to rally around him. Unfortunately, unanimity is as rare in the English department as it is on sports talk radio. Schumacher surrounds Fitger with a troupe of zany colleagues, including a post-colonial theorist with “a view of the classics that stank of disdain,” a Victorianist who dresses like a Brontë sister, and an ancient, hidebound Shakespearean who refuses to vote yea without an explicit Shakespeare requirement. The meeting on the vision statement descends into chaos, and the campus newspaper, followed by the national media, mistakenly concludes that tenured radicals are trying to ban the Bard of Avon.
The novel isn’t quite as funny as its predecessor; it might be if it weren’t so plausible. In a case of life imitating art, the conservative activist Charlie Kirk recently suggested that Stanford no longer offers courses on Shakespeare. (It does). Even liberals these days gasp at campus “political correctness,” which is supposedly turning their children into Maoists. Everyone seems ready to believe the worst about higher education. In this context, some of Schumacher’s characterizations — like the feminist who rants about “phallocentric hegemony and the necessary demise of the Anthropocene” — border on ugly stereotypes, or worse, clichés. Of course, satirists have always exaggerated for effect, and they are under no obligation to be nice. But the best satire often comes from a place of wounded idealism. Jonathan Swift cared about Irish babies — that’s why he accused the English of (metaphorically) eating them. Satire can do more than tear things down. It can also reveal the author’s dearest values. Does “The Shakespeare Requirement” hint at what’s important to Schumacher?
Enter Angela Vackey, a bookish freshman. Although her subplot at first feels superfluous, it moves to the center of the story after her unplanned pregnancy. Should she carry to term? Marry the father though she hardly knows him? For counsel she turns to her academic advisor: Fitger. He doesn’t know what to do, either. Instead they look to the heroes and heroines from their class on “Narratives of Adventure” — plucky Mattie Ross from “True Grit,” upright Jim Hawkins from “Treasure Island.” They discuss fiction as if it somehow held lessons for their lives. “That was what Angela loved about books,” she realizes. “That she could live within them and through them, that she could imagine her own life playing out over hundreds of pages.” Moments like these never show up on cable news or the internet, but they happen. Every day.
Schumacher’s satire turns out to be a sneaky apology for her and Fitger’s profession. And she’s right. No matter how exasperating life on campus becomes, for those who want to live within books and through them, it’s still the place to be.
Paul W. Gleason is an instructor in the religion department at California Lutheran University.
Doubleday: 320 pp., $25.95