From Bloom to Kimball to D'Souza, attacks on the liberal arts have been one-sided, argues editor Edmundson, who here invites 12 academics to ``set the record straight.'' The resulting essays and interviews are dispiriting in a ratio of about two to one. Philosopher Richard Rorty does a semiquixotic job of arguing that the absence of philosophic absolutes doesn't necessitate the end of social coherence (``Wild Orchids and Trotsky''), while Edward Said (``Expanding Humanism'') speaks out with high clarity against intellectual repression via religious zealotry. Harold Bloom, too (``Authority and Originality''), is passionate and crystalline in distinguishing between the literary and the political, as is William Kerrigan, who argues in ``The Falls of Academe'' that deconstructionism and other recent literary ``theory'' is not only ``derivative'' but is ``a prescription for mediocrity''; while Richard Poirier shows brilliantly that pragmatic skepticism comes from Emerson in a richly ironic form that makes Paul de Man look feeble and that long predates him. For the rest, however, the case seems dim for renewed confidence in academia. In ``My Kinsman, T. S. Eliot,'' Frank Lentricchia maunders through the subject of ethnic identity, revealing that he has nothing to say--although his piece is a sonnet of tightness next to the protoplasmic amorphousness of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's ``Queer and Now.'' Judith Frank discusses Defoe next to prefab ``issues'' (``In the Waiting Room: Canons, Communities, `Political Correctness' ''); Nancy K. Miller skims the surface of a history of feminism; and Michael Berube, young follower of literary ``theory,'' reveals himself as soaringly jejune. Whether language or ideas are the more penurious here is often arguable, as in Houston A. Baker's case for rap music as the new poetry: ``If today's critic wishes to assume the futurity of the heterogeneous artist and be adequately predictive, then he or she must understand the rap artist as critic and stop chilling with respect to alterity.'' After a few high, clear notes, a swoop to despond.