the imaginative conservative logo

booksMore 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?

Books discussed or mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
19 replies to this post
  1. Ben, there was an old English prof, back in the early '70s who warned us that English Departments were going to become "Technical Writing" departments one day. Have these souls looked too long into the abyss? Mordor has its minions among us. Who can "study" literature and not be carried away by the beauty, and being carried away, not long to pass it on to others? It's frightful to think of souls impervious to Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, being the guardians of our repositories of same.
    Thanks for fighting the good fight of Samwise and Frodo. And thanks for a guided tour of Purgatorio and Paradiso.

    • Marc: “Mordor has its minions among us”? “Thanks for fighting the good fight of Samwise and Frodo”?

      Squabbles in the English Department at Grand Valley State University are equivalent to an apocalyptic battle for the very soul of humanity: if that’s the sort of pretension that a classical education produces, I’m glad I didn’t get one.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ben. And thanks for taking on this fight. Perhaps your story will inspire others to promote the careers of good young conservative scholars who will fight for Truth rather than allowing the muddle headed liberals to take every department without a shot being fired.

  3. Nice post, Ben. One thing that has not been clear to me, however, is the honesty of these theorists, especially in "non-tier 1" schools. In other words, are they "true believers", or are they simply trying to ape the more prestigious schools thinking that that's where the money is? My experience, going back almost 20 years, was the latter. At new faculty orientation, the President of the university stated very baldly that we were only going to keep our jobs if we brought in funding; everything else – teaching, research, service – was secondary. As a colleague re-affirmed to me, an employee must simply do what the institution demanded. If it meant turning out widgets, we turned out widgets; if sprockets were the product of the day, we turned out sprockets. In private discussions, I was never really sure what my colleagues believed. Bottom-line thinking prevailed.

  4. My condolences, Ben! A current grad student in Classics recently shared her deep disappointment about the complete lack of study of literature, replaced by a focus on socio-historical context or the validity of manuscripts, dominated by the professors very special (and therefore uncriticizable) interests.

    Are there English programs that you would recommend, where students will be welcomed who want to study literature?

  5. I too would like to know if there are English programs where students of literature can thrive.

    My college sophomore daughter sent me this link to your post, Ben, to supplement her descriptions of frustrating college "literature" classes. She had planned for years to major in English literature, but now it seems she will change her major, in order to protect her love of literature.

    All you have written here is truth, with just one tweak: these "agents of change" are already in our high schools. For 17 years I taught honors level English courses, mythology and creative writing in two public high schools, watching year after year as newly graduated, certainly well-educated teachers brought into the classrooms exactly the behaviors you have described. Their instructional methods drive away most of the sensible and intelligent students, who reason that if literature has no more to offer it is of no value. But the methods of these theorists do draw a crowd of students eager to be told they were right all along not to read their assignments, and even more right to be disrespectful and dismissive of the greatest writers and thinkers of Western society. Theories are very popular among those who lack knowledge.

    These agents of change are in place in all departments now. Our schools have turned away from the difficult task of teaching Truth, because by default the identification of Truth makes clear the lies.

  6. Louise writes, "Their instructional methods drive away most of the sensible and intelligent students, who reason that if literature has no more to offer it is of no value."

    Very true. As I have argued in an article that should be out any day, the best allies of business schools, corporate capitalism, and all who chase after "dreams of avarice" are the western Marxist literary theorists of the academy. The occasional student will be stimulated by such things to become a professor of "feminist poetics" etc., but most students conclude that, if reality as a whole, and so including art and literature, is just a trifling squabble for power as Foucault and company argue, then the most prudent policy would be to cease the studying of the humanities and to "go get yours."

    I would argue literary works only gain in beauty and truth when taught in the context of philosophy and theology; indeed, I do not teach them any other way (that's why I don't teach in an English Department). While I assent to your emphasis on the literary historical dimensions of English courses, I would suggest those dimensions were easy prey once most academics lost sight of the purpose of the intellectual life as fundamentally an erotic journey to see God.

    But of course teaching literature in a truly humanistic context, as I do, is a far cry from teaching it in the slough of theory.

  7. This is sadly accurate. My classmates sneer at me when I talk of beauty. And many (most!) do not read for pleasure. Many do not even do their course reading, because with Theory they have a preset reading.

  8. Dr. Lockerd: I’m very fond of literature and not fond at all of theory, though I don’t see anything wrong with teaching Margery Kempe instead of Chaucer; in any case, I read, as you suggest, for entertainment and enlightenment, and I have found those in all sorts of books that aren’t on anyone’s required reading list. I agree that literature ought not be reduced to the uses of critical theory, but my experience in school–we’re talking 45-50 years ago–was that every teacher had an agenda for every book assigned; “entertainment” was secondary at best, and “enlightenment” had to fall in line with what the teacher (or the Teacher’s Guide) prescribed.

    The “classics” and the “Great Books” have been (and apparently still are for some) something of a cult, and since I tend to resist “cult think,” I’m all for deviating from the traditionalists’ political correctness which insists that we have to read Chaucer and Dante and Milton and Keats and Whitman or we cannot possibly consider ourselves “educated”. Substituting one cult for another isn’t an improvement; but those who cling to the older cult can console themselves with the knowledge that postmodernism, deconstructionism, and critical theory: these too shall pass.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Mr. Shifflet (and everyone else in this post). I’m afraid that you are right in saying that we lit teachers tend to minimize the entertainment part of the old Horatian formula of “entertain and instruct.” I myself try to emphasize the sheer pleasure of the reading by joking with my students that reading this doesn’t even count as homework, since they would be doing it for fun anyway; or by simply stopping after speaking a few lines from one of our readings and saying something like “That’s good, isn’t it? Don’t you wish you had written that?” But I admit I quickly go back to my explication of the ideas in the work. I do think that the two (beauty and truth) are inextricable at a profound level, and that was the point of my piece.

    Where we might disagree to some extent is on the question of the canon. Perhaps there is something cult-like in our insistence on reading the greats, but I don’t think it finally makes sense to call it a cult. First of all, we are not saying that one should only read the greats–reading for pleasure is where all reading should begin. The great books are not established in their greatness by some committee of traditionalists: rather, they have become established by the repeated pleasure millions of people have taken in reading them down through the ages. As Samuel Johnson says, the great books are those that “please many, and please long.” Or again he says that “no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem.” The canon is not fixed forever: it grows as new writers join it. It is not a cult but a big quarreling book club, in which the members argue with each other about the relative greatness of their favorite writers. Yet over time some remain.

    Curriculum is a zero-sum game, since there is only so much time for teaching. That’s why we fight about curriculum. To spend a few minutes on Margery Kempe could be a good thing, and I have included her from time to time, but to teach her instead of Chaucer is just silly. Who would claim that reading her is more entertaining than reading Chaucer?

    Thank you, Mr. Shifflet, for your reminder that the theory craze too will pass. In fact, there are already a number of books and articles entitled “The End of Theory,” or words to that effect. Unfortunately, even as this fad is dying out in many places, it is being institutionalized in others, including many high schools. Still, I trust that common sense will reassert itself in time.

    • Ben, I’m not sure if you’re even still reading these comments, but I appreciated this quite a lot. I was fortunate to graduate from a “traditional” English department and a traditional Russian department. I read and absorbed all of the wonderful works that you mention and then some. I studied literary chronology, mythology, world literature, African American literature, and even LGBTQ literature through the lenses of beauty and truth, rather than the lens of “Butler says X, so Dorian Grey means Y.” That is, if one ever gets around to mentioning ol’ Dorian these days. I was passionate! I came to adore the way language could be manipulated into art that speaks about the world. I also *learned* about the world and how to help others explain the world to themselves. And I enjoyed my study so much that I chose to go off to grad school and pursue a PhD in Russian. Well … too bad they didn’t have a sign that read “Abandon all hope …” I was blindsided.

      All those things I learned about the world through the study of literature? Yeah, everyone in grad school told me I was wrong. Even though these folks hadn’t read what I had read and were quite proud of that fact because: OMG DEAD WHITE MEN! Indeed, grad school taught me that the only way to be taken seriously as a humanities scholar these days is to always view a black woman eating a banana as a racist, post-colonial rape narrative. Um … maybe she’s just hungry? Cultural studies and comp. lit. seem to seek problems where they don’t exist, and attempt describe those non-existent problems into existence. Not to mention the moronic pseudo-science of it all (Sokal Affair?).

      You know what’s most disappointing, though? In my graduate program, no courses were taught in Russian. And why would they be? Everything we read was theory. It was essentially comparative literature. We read and conducted ourselves in English, discussing French and German theorists and applying their theories to a Russian cultural tradition. That is, if we ever got to the actual application. My classmates had all come from English-taught “Russian cultural studies” and so most of them hadn’t even read the most important writers of our field — and certainly not in the original Russian. I had the advantage being the only student in the department whose Russian had been tried and tested by studying Russian literature — taught in Russian! How on EARTH can a person become a scholar of a non-English-speaking cultural tradition without having an intimate knowledge of that language?

      It’s so grim in the modern languages and national literatures these days. Cultural studies ironically ensures that the “target languages” are taught without a target. Language courses are language courses and cultural studies courses are theory courses, and ne’er the twain shall meet. People are graduating with PhDs in Russian without having read Tolstoy. PhDs in French without having read Moliere. PhDs in German without having read Goethe. (EW! Dead white men!) … And I exaggerate not! But guess who has the best shot at tenure-track positions? People who know a lot less than I do about Russian language and literature but who can twist the meaning of flowers on Russian toilet paper into some sort of post-whateverist narrative of white heteronormative dominance.

      Thanks again for your piece. It was quite refreshing.

      • Americans are generally rather poor at languages. Go to continental Europe or Israel, and see how many languages a person can use in a day. WE can go thousands of miles and still hear our own language spoken as the native language, but try that in western Europe. We hear someone speaking another language, and some of us think “go home”. This cultural arrogance is hurting us.

  10. As a former teacher in a classical Christian school, and as an author of a book on education, I appreciate this. I guess I’m a double barreled shotgun myself, as I have both a Bible school diploma (and PLENTY of theological reading under my belt) AND three degrees in chemistry, with both preaching and university teaching under my belt. I find that thinking is one of the most important things that we can do, yet it gets limited under today’s educational follies. Our universities are becoming more and more Marxist and less and less places for free thinking and the passing on of western intellectualism. This is just one more example. People have been removing their children from the public school system and paying for private schools out of their paychecks or homeschooling out of their schedules. There’s already talk of home university schooling. Now we can see why.

  11. The antidote to all such questions is simply to read. Using Theory or Canon as a sort of editor for our own reading diminishes us, it stops the basic work of poetry from happening — this encounter the poet seeks to make with us. We read to become generous. Sometimes God does speak through a poet; some times the heart breaks; sometimes what we find is one sharp image:

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

    William Carlos Williams

  12. Fifteen years ago I went to dinner with a highschool English teacher and he brought along another English teacher friend with him. I’m an Electrician (female)so I wasn’t really in the loop on current teaching practices; but I am a reader and when the conversation got around to books, I mentioned that my favorite author is William Faulkner, my friends friend wrinkled up her face and I said “what, you don’t like Faulkner”. She replied, “He’s a dead white male” Me: “uhhhhh SO?” I had never heard of that before, I naievely said “you shouldn’t be teaching children, with that attitude”. Needless to say the conversation went down hill.

  13. Thank you so much for this article. As a scholar about to enter the job market, I’ve been disillusioned with literary theory as I find most of it presupposes things I don’t believe in. I’ve been searching for an approach to teaching literature that doesn’t devalue conservatism. This article has gone a long way in helping me get out from under the interests of theory. I would love to have more tips on teaching literature from a more balanced perspective.

  14. The purpose of several types of education today is not to teach people how to think, and to appreciate our heritage, but rather to force a new type of thought on us, political correctness. It’s the new agenda, and it will turn us into parrots rather than thinkers. They’ve already done it with history, and it seems that literature is the next land to conquer. Remind your students of this, and they might not be so gullible. Better than that, ask them if they really want to be controlled by other people like that, to be cannon fodder for somebody else’s movement. They just might wake up.

Leave a Reply