The Academy vs. the Humanities

AS a retired professor of English who now and again returns to teaching, I am aware that the work I try to do with my students has less and less in common with what is going on in adjacent classrooms. I regret being out of step, but it is too late to break the habits of a lifetime, and in any case I cannot believe that they are bad habits. My class sits around a table reading and discussing the poetry of, say, Yeats, or Donne. My plan is to conduct an inquiry into these bodies of poetry such that every member of the class will know enough about them to understand how they can change and enrich the minds of at least some readers -- even if awareness of temporal distance or ideological difference may cause them to feel out of sympathy with the poets.

For it may well happen that students will keenly disapprove of the known politics or religion of a writer, or seek to discover in his or her work hidden senses of which it might be equally proper to disapprove; and such prejudices may well prevent their actually loving what they read. But they need to learn that excellent poetry may -- in fact, almost always must -- express political, religious, or social convictions they cannot share. If that were not so, we could not read Homer or Dante or T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound without experiencing constant disagreement, tedium, or even disgust. And I must say that it is an enlivening experience to watch a group of intelligent young people habituating themselves to a poet who offers them very little in the way of instant gratification, to see them thinking through a poem for its own sake, without prejudice. Soon their interests may be widened in scope; they may need to find out more about quaint George Herbert, may even want to ask whether and how quaint Emily Dickinson, who is known to have copied out part of one of his poems, was affected by the English poet. Affection and respect for poetry spread by such means. But first must come the recognition of a certain admirable mastery and the perception of some benefit in recognizing it. As to whether students share Herbert's Anglican piety or deplore Yeats's flirtation with fascism, these should be secondary considerations; the direct experience of poetry is what will enrich them. For pedagogues to argue, as in various ways they do, that the political bearing of a work of literature is the most important thing about it -- or that it ought first to be studied as just another document in some historical power negotiation -- is, in my view, a subversion of their calling.
I ADMIT that my approach to literary study is obsolescent. What has taken its place -- the ways of attending or not attending to literature that have replaced the study of it -- is the subject of John M. Ellis's grave and minatory book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Ellis is astonished by and deeply concerned about the extraordinary changes that have come over the teaching of the humanities in American universities (they have been copied elsewhere). He is, of course, not the first commentator to express dismay at what is happening; what distinguishes him is the clarity of his perceptions, and his willingness not merely to deplore the new trends but -- faithful to an academic tradition he believes to be in serious danger -- to subject them to disinterested inquiry. He therefore examines them in as much detail as is necessary to support his view that the thinking behind them is hardly to be counted as thinking at all. And what most alarms him is the consideration that these trends are so firmly established in the academy that they will not fade, as other fads and fashions have faded, but will remain dominant for a ruinously long time.

Ellis has done work of this kind before, notably in his book Since he argues honestly, with all his cards on the table, he can say that in an academy where ideas were taken seriously he could confidently expect to elicit a reasoned reply to his criticisms. But he no longer believes that ideas are taken seriously; the assumption that they should be belongs to a conception of what the university is for that is at present being flouted and abandoned. So he cannot be surprised that criticisms of the kind he makes are as a rule not answered but merely written off as incorrigibly corrupt simply because they are critical of the ruling doctrines. Fundamental dissent is ignored or dismissed; sometimes, and quite disgracefully, it is banned in classrooms.

What dismays Ellis is the extraordinary fact that the very professoriat that a mere generation ago had to defend the humanities against utilitarian arguments is now arguing "against the Western tradition in thought and literature," maintaining not only that "studying Shakespeare and Plato is a superfluous diversion from more serious pursuits but that such a study can be positively harmful." Books formerly held to be liberating are now said to close the mind. They brainwash their readers into accepting a "reactionary ideology, and make [them] conform to the ideas of a privileged class" ("dead white males") whose power-hungry pretensions have finally been exposed. This vicious curriculum must be supplanted by one that acknowledges that the ultimate purpose of all study is political; its concerns must be race, gender, and class. Ellis gently reminds us of Stalin's endorsement of the fraudulent scientist Lysenko, and of the Soviet corruption of biological science. Such things can happen when, there being no academic freedom, political programs take control of the sites of research.

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