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.

The tone of Ellis's book grows darker as he progresses, but his comments on the now generally accepted emphasis on the paramountcy of the political bearing of literature are calm enough: It is a simple logical error to start from the indisputable fact that everything has a political dimension and arrive at the proposition that politics is always the most important dimension. This erroneous belief has resulted in the reduction of criticism to a single quest for the defining political sense. The acceptance of Foucault's reduction of history to a conflict of powers, so that the purpose of Foucauldian critics is merely to seek evidence of oppression, also depends on a logical error. It is held to be axiomatic that all knowledge, being socially constructed, has no objective validity -- though the knowledge on which this belief is founded is silently excluded from the censure. Professors who are willing to admit that they care very little for literature (it is now quite usual for some of them to do so) will seek in it the one thing that interests them, a political content of which the significance is predetermined, thus committing what Ellis calls "the fallacy of the single factor." They take away from the object of study only what they bring to it.

THE foundation of Ellis's critique is a conviction that we owe our relative intellectual and social happiness (now under threat) to the gradual achievements of the Enlightenment, a still uncompleted project. Political correctness itself would have been impossible except as the product of a historical process that the politically correct despise. Life without enlightenment is nasty and brutish, yet it is the natural condition; utopian fantasies about the superior virtue of the Third World should be examined in the light of the fate of all such primitivist fantasies, all denials of the intellectual and social progress achieved in the despised Western tradition. Women in particular should ask themselves whether life in societies that settle their ethnic problems by genocide, use mass rape as a means to power, practice female circumcision, and so on, is really preferable to life in a society that may be far from perfectly just but is certainly a lot further along the way to justice.

Ellis grows more polemical when he deals with such thinkers as Fredric Jameson and Stanley Fish and, not least, with feminist critics (he regards this expression as a contradiction in terms, on the grounds that true criticism doesn't have a single-approach label attached to it). The idea that one should hunt through literature for evidence of oppression, as the "race-gender-class" critics do, is disgusting to him. Ellis claims that Jameson, a great force in the modern academy though of less importance outside it, can find excuses not only for the Nazi sympathies of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man but also for the massacres instigated by Stalin and Pol Pot, and can announce that the New Deal and Nazism were in some respects much the same thing. He is capable of such an absurdity as announcing that the "visual is essentially pornographic." He "appears," Ellis says severely, "to lack any moral sensibility"; and his influence "derives neither from the power of his argument nor from the moral force of his position but only from his having furnished what seems to those who use it a serviceable underpinning for the victim-centered criticism that has overtaken university literature departments."

As for feminist critics, it seems that the single-issue approach has become so dictatorial that feminist professors can require their students to make a formal declaration of unquestioning adherence to the cause before admitting them to a class in which dissent is forbidden; a male professor can be charged with harassment merely for presuming to criticize feminist colleagues; and the Modern Language Association of America might well endorse such actions. Of course, Ellis is not opposed to the economic and social advancement of women, made possible by historical change and progressive enlightenment, but he is hard on the indiscriminate and vacuous condemnation of "patriarchy" as the agent of female victimization. Using the idea of patriarchy in this way actually restricts the intellectual freedom of those who profess to believe in it, he thinks. Worse nonsense inevitably follows: for example, the application of feminist ideas to science, with a concomitant condemnation of all male science (the Principia Mathematica has been called "Newton's Rape Manual"). If you can believe that all sexual intercourse is rape, you can believe anything. Well might Ellis say that "the feminism typical of campus women's studies has little credibility among the general public."

This gap between campus race-gender-class theory and the interests of the larger world has some importance. It is perfectly possible to hold that the position of women and ethnic minorities has improved within living memory without suggesting that further improvement is unnecessary. In fact, most of the intelligent population off campus probably does take that view, and would not accept that since the time of prehistoric utopia we have lived under conditions in which Western women suffer intolerable oppression at the hands of patriarchal males. Certain conformists apart, intelligent men and women are likely to see all this as a rootless academic fantasy, mimicking on a smaller scale Mao's Cultural Revolution (which Jameson is willing to defend). Fortunately, it has no victims aside from the occasional unlucky male who speaks his mind. Yet the effects are still serious; the humanities are corrupted in the academy, the institution intended to do society's purest and most serious thinking for it. Again and again Ellis convicts the revolutionaries of ignorance and bad faith, the undoing of enlightenment.

HE sees little prospect of early change. In the graduate schools there are many who prefer this kind of militancy to literature (even if they acknowledge that the word still means something); and there are also those who see race-gender-class criticism as the only kind that will get them a job. A few years ago I was invited to a conference organized by the graduate society of an American university. The students ran the conference themselves, choosing a visiting speaker and arranging a program of many short papers based on current research by members of their own and neighboring schools. Three years ago most were on identifiably literary topics. Looking at the program of the 1997 conference, still announced as having to do with "English," I see that there are papers on such topics as the gendering of popular morality in certain nineteenth-century novels, the cultural politics of domesticity in a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mother in the Holocaust, Toni Morrison's feminized historical epic, and so forth; even a talk on Milton's Chaos is titled "Politics of Representation." There is hardly a trace of anything that promises disinterested critical inquiry.

Several of the speakers in this program are known to me as lively and intelligent students whom one would look forward to having as colleagues a few years on. But they have decided, with the connivance of many of their professors, that there is no future in literature. Like their mentors, they will use their jobs in English departments for nonliterary purposes, and they will train another generation to do likewise. So, as Ellis says, they will join the party that mostly confines its researches to the support of pre-established opinions. They will teach economics, politics, law, medicine, sociology -- almost any subject except literature. Usually they will lack any serious professional training in those alternative subjects, and will be justly disregarded by scholars who have it. They will become "late" Marxists when the world at large has been forced to abandon Marxism; they will describe doctors as exploiters and oppressors of women; and so forth. Or they will desert the academy in understandable disgust.

Ellis reasonably describes this prospect as an "intellectual catastrophe." There have been fads and fashions before, and they have passed; but this one has resulted in the creation of new, self-perpetuating university departments and has packed existing departments with sympathizers. He does take heart from a few signs that some have lost their nerve, sanitizing their vitae and editing out some audacities and follies before publishing their books. And it is true that the power of the race-gender-class ideologues is virtually limited to the campus; but the harm is still great. Do you want these people to teach your children?

It is possible to accept most of Ellis's argument without endorsing it all. His attack on affirmative action is not essential to his case, and depends too much on his conviction that the provision of "high-quality" public education is such that affirmative action is unnecessary and counterproductive: public education, he believes, is affirmative action. The abolition of all other forms of affirmative action is about the only reform he proposes, though he also thinks that deans should forbid the use of class time for purposes of propaganda rather than the pursuit of disinterested knowledge. Of course, it will be alleged that he himself, whether consciously or not, has a political program. But he is surely right to say that instructors should not use their classes to convert students to their own political and social agendas.

A better hope lies in literature itself, for it has powers that a remnant of intelligent readers will always acknowledge and support. The same readers will despise the prefabricated and jargon-ridden language of their contemporaries. It might take time for them to make a difference -- generations, perhaps. But Ellis himself dwells on the quite sudden and unforeseen onset of the changes he deplores; one can hope for another turn of the wheel. Perhaps the practitioners of race-gender-class criticism will grow discontented with their sterility and, not wishing to seem dull and ridiculous, seek to regain contact with the fine things, and the sane people, they have exiled from their conversation. But one has to agree that it doesn't, at present, seem very likely.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; The Academy vs. the Humanities; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 93 - 96.