More bad news from the Academy: literary study is being replaced by “literary theory.” This revolution has already occurred at some of the most prestigious institutions (including Harvard, Michigan State, et al.) and now arrives at places like Grand Valley State University, where I have taught literature for half of the university’s 50 years. The school, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has grown rapidly, and we have hired a number of new professors. The new assistant professors are brilliant and learned, but they are all enamored of Theory, and with the help of a group of tenured radicals in the English Department (some of the literature professors and nearly all of the English-education and linguistics profs), have pushed through a fundamental change in the curriculum, against the objections of many of the senior literature faculty. Instead of historical surveys of British and American literature, our majors will now begin with a course in theory—and then end with another one as seniors. This far-reaching curricular revision has come or soon will come to a college English department near you—and will then be adopted in your high school.
There have been theories about literature nearly as long as there has been literature, beginning with Plato and Aristotle. But the ancient theorists all assumed that they were thinking about something that had its own functions and ends, which they might help to explain. When the new professors think of theory it is exclusively more recent ideas they have in mind—Marxist, Freudian, feminist, deconstructionist, post-colonial. As the first two on the list show, the English department has become the place where discredited notions from other disciplines come to die, for few political scientists now take Marx seriously and very few psychologists are Freudians. What these newer theories have in common is that they have taken the capital T away from truth and transferred it to Theory. They are either materialist (Marx and Freud) or relativist (deconstructionist) or political (feminist, post-colonial), but they all assume that the ancestors were wrong and vicious, and must be ignored or denounced. And they are all dedicated to abolishing the canon (the list of what we used to call great authors).
The seasoned professors who oppose this change are almost all political liberals, and they know the new theories well. But they hold to the old idea that literary works have a wisdom of their own that we should try to apprehend–rather than treating those works as mere grist for the theoretical mill. These professors follow the Roman poet Horace, who said poetry should entertain and instruct. In Chaucer’s words, it should offer sentence (significance) and solaas (pleasure). The historical survey courses operate on this assumption, keeping the focus on the great works and helping the students to understand them by placing them in their literary-historical context—rather than by superimposing post-modern ideas on them. (Admittedly, it is not possible to be completely objective, but that is not a reason to abandon all efforts in that direction.) This traditional approach allows the great writers to speak to us, rather than arrogantly insisting that we should correct and admonish them. One of our graduate students recently mentioned to me that she got a poor grade on a paper for one of the theoretical profs because she didn’t “use the literary work to demonstrate the theory.” The student wasn’t even complaining: it is understood that this is exactly the purpose of literature, to be “used” by Theory.
Entertainment and instruction also go by more noble names: Beauty and Truth. The entertainment provided by literature is accomplished by its beauty. This is not an easy term to define, but thinkers from Aristotle on have spoken of beauty as a satisfying wholeness created out of disparate parts. St. Augustine says beauty is a harmonizing of parts in an ordered whole, and St. Thomas Aquinas says beauty involves integrity, a very similar concept. A beautiful work of art creates a sense of unity while integrating a great deal of complexity. The new theorists reject aesthetics entirely. Another of my graduate students, while speaking with a theoretically sophisticated professor at a major university, asked, “Do you ever speak about the beauty of literary works?” The answer: “Sometimes if I have had a few drinks.” There is very little pleasure in literature for those who take these new approaches, or for their students.
Literature instructs us by revealing, in new and striking ways, truths about our world and ourselves. One of the most famous treatises on poetry is Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, written in response to Puritan attacks claiming that all poetry was essentially immoral. Sidney engages the relation between aesthetics and ethics, between the beautiful and the good. Following Aristotle, he argues that poetry reveals universals and is therefore deeply philosophical, deeply true. But he goes farther, asserting that poetry is a better ethical teacher than philosophy, for poetry touches our emotions and moves us to moral action, while philosophy can teach us what is right but not move our hearts to act on that knowledge. This argument is later echoed by Shelley, who says that imagination allows us to experience life from the perspectives of others and is thus essential to love itself. More recently, both Lionel Trilling (a critic of the left) and Russell Kirk (a critic on the right) have used Edmund Burke’s phrase “moral imagination” to explain this ethical end of literature.
The new theorists scoff at such antiquated notions, rejecting out of hand the idea of artistic excellence and adopting the scornful attitude of Pilate: “What is truth?” Before they came forward with their proposal to change the curriculum, the Jacobin professors at GVSU had already altered the survey courses by removing many of the canonical texts. During one of our debates, I asked whether we would not all agree that every English major should read Chaucer. A colleague said she would instead teach Margery Kempe (an interesting medieval Englishwoman who wrote a spiritual diary). When I said that Chaucer was a far greater writer, she replied that all such judgments were “utterly subjective.” (This is just the type of absolute statement that these relativists often make.) Another young colleague has demoted the best writers from her early American literature courses, either excluding them altogether or minimizing the time spent on them to make room for texts that reinforce her political aims. A recent survey of American Literature up to the Civil War spent as much time on Cabeza de Vaca as on Whitman; as much time on Harriet Jacobs (author of a historically significant but artistically negligible autobiographical work, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) as on Herman Melville; as much time on Margaret Fuller as on Emerson. Missing entirely from the course were Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Poe. Some students complain that her course is more like a history course than a literature course, but the English Department brushes these students’ comments aside as wrong-headed and ignorant.
The purposes of the intelligent, well-educated, and well-intentioned young professors are clearly socio-political rather than literary. They belong to the group David Bromwich has called “the new fundamentalists,” and their single-minded purpose is to practice, as he says, “politics by other means,” working to indoctrinate their students rather than acting forthrightly in the political arena. They will send forth English majors who have not read the greatest works but who have all the right attitudes–young teachers and professionals who will know neither the pleasure nor the significance of literature, neither beauty nor truth. Those who teach in the high schools will become, as one of my English Education colleagues proudly put it, “agents of change” in the nation’s educational system. But is this the change we need?
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