Postmodernists hate the democracy of the dead. They hate the reality. They presumably also hate the phrase, coined famously by G.K. Chesterton. All those dead white males, pshaw!
Writing as I do here for a web site that bears the name of one of Chesterton's books, it would not behoove me to overlook a particular academic phenomenon that has recently come to my attention. Not that I would otherwise have overlooked it. Indeed, twenty years ago, when I was fighting the wars of the liberal arts with a (metaphorical) claidheamh mor in the English and Philosophy lounges of Vanderbilt University, the only thing that would have stopped me from blogging about it in a white heat was the minor historical fact that blogs did not yet exist. Still, a number of professors and fellow students would have gotten an earful--either as patient, sympathetic listeners or as perpetrators. That despite the fact that I had no strong contacts with the History department.
I have recently learned from sources that professors in the History department of Western Michigan University proscribe the use of the expository present tense in writing about historical personages, authors, or ideas. In other words: According to these professors, students are not supposed to write something like, "Aquinas famously tells us in his Summa Theologiae that 'the existence of God can be proved in five ways[.]'" Or "Moreover, though Aquinas regards the human soul as subsistent, he does not think of it as a substance in an unqualified way, but rather as a kind of incomplete substance[.]" These are two sentences taken at random from the pages of Ed Feser's Aquinas. The philosophers among my readers could of course cite hundreds, nay, thousands, of sentences like them from works in philosophy, where the expository present is (last I checked) still ubiquitous. Even, perhaps especially, when referring to people who are dead.
But in the new historical mode, all of that is o-u-t. Aquinas, rest his soul, is dead. Let the dead bury their dead. Those who wish to talk about him, if we must talk about him, should keep the coffin lid firmly nailed down and the Angelic Doctor firmly boxed into his own period. The very notion of the Great Conversation, where "he being dead, yet speaketh," where mind meets mind maugre the little barriers of time and space, is anathema.
It's not that I didn't understand in the abstract the way that the postmodern and historicist mind works. I just hadn't previously heard of the diabolically clever method of trying to insure that the concept of the Great Conversation never occurs to students: Make sure that they never write, "Aquinas argues..." or "Aristotle claims..." or "Berkeley holds..." Chronological snobbery is now made visible in language. Lex orandi, lex credendi. If Aquinas, Aristotle, and Berkeley are allowed to speak to us now, we might have to take them seriously. If we write only, "Aquinas argued," "Aristotle claimed" or "Berkeley held," we can keep Aquinas, Aristotle, and Berkeley safely at arms' length. They were, after all, merely men of their times.
Since I prefer to end a post like this with concrete suggestions, here are a few, of different types:
--We should find out how widespread this pernicious nonsense is. If you think your Christian alma mater is the greatest thing since sliced bread and you contribute, find out if their humanities departments are destroying the concept of the Great Conversation and take that into account in your alumni giving decisions. "Commandment IX" on this page contains a bit of weird historicist pedantry that comes all too close to the proscription just described, though it does have one small loophole.
--Teach your children about the democracy of the dead and the conversation across time. Teach them how exciting it is. Arm them against people who would try to force them to write without using the expository present. Tell them you'll be proud of them if they resist. Tell them why this is important.
--Ditto for your students if you are a teacher at any level of education.
--If you know that some other department in your institution has professors who push this, tell students that you will back them up if they resist. You can be especially effective doing this if, e.g., the student is a major in your department and professors in your department encourage the expository present, or you are an outside member on the student's thesis or dissertation committee.
--Never, never think that things like this are trivial.