Intellectual life in today’s America is in a calamitous state. When a justice of the Supreme Court can believe that the Constitution allows us all to define and create who we are, something is very, very wrong.
Forget about the marketplace of ideas. Forget about democratic deliberation. Thanks to the school systems and the media, young people today have a totalitarian mindset, one where, if you don’t hold to the correct viewpoint you do not deserve to exist.
Camille Paglia has said that American college students have minds like jello. She did not mean that they think the wrong things but that they do not know how to think at all. Worse yet, she has said, they know nothing. They have never bothered to collect the information they would need to formulate a rational judgment.
Their minds have been filled with the latest in politically correct propaganda and they are terrified to deviate from the party line, lest their GPA and their future prospects suffer. They know how to deconstruct any and all cultural products, from literary texts, to advertisements to piles of garbage… the better to identify culturally deviant elements.. but they do not know to learn from any of it..
They do not know that in practicing deconstruction they are participating in a pogrom. They are helping to cleanse our collective minds of Judeo-Christian cultural influences. They are blissfully unaware of the origin of this practice.
They are like the little people who work at the propaganda ministry, who happily and mechanically perform a task whose import they ignore.
So, Johnny and Janey have minds like jello. And yet, many students have caught on to the ruse. They are avoiding literature courses like the proverbial plague. They are being drawn to STEM subjects and finance because once numbers enter the picture it is more difficult to pass off propaganda as fact. In a STEM course they might learn something. In a literature course they will suffer mental abuse.
University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum is alarmed. She fears for the future of our Republic. What will become of us if students continue to flee literature courses?
I have not read her new book on the subject, but I would add that I have occasionally expressed my doubt that professors of literature are even teaching literature any more. And I doubt that many of them know enough to do so. The hard truth is that many of them were hired for reasons that had nothing to do with their command of Shakespeare and Milton.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, Nussbaum herself is a thoroughly serious classical philosopher. Her opinions on why students are fleeing literature smack of warmed-over leftist analysis, but she brings a considerable depth of knowledge to her writing and, one imagines, to her teaching.
Northwestern University professor Gary Saul Morson has replied to Nussbaum. Since his courses on the nineteenth century Russian novel always attract hundreds of students, he has earned the right to assess the state of the teaching of literature.
Morson summarizes Nussbaum:
The danger Nussbaum is highlighting “goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government.”
When a writer invokes the insidious progress of a cancer, you know she hopes to forestall the objection that there is little visible evidence to support her argument. What is this cancer threatening democracy and the world? Declining enrollments in literature courses. Her book is titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
As her title indicates, Nussbaum arrives at the same self-serving answer. Students are interested in profit and therefore care only about pre-professional degrees. Another answer popular among literature professors is that students spend so much time on Twitter that they have the attention span of a pithed frog.
Surely, there is cause for alarm. But why don't professors cop to the obvious fact? As fewer students take courses in literature the job market for literature professors is drying up. One suspects that in many places it already is.
Frankly, if these professors are no longer teaching literature, then their jobs should disappear. The marketplace is a funny thing. Even those who not believe in it must follow its judgments.
Nussbaum, being a good liberal thinker, blames it on capitalism and the free market. And yet, capitalism did not spring forth fully formed from the subterranean depths a couple of decade ago. In the old days, when students were flocking to literature courses, capitalism was alive and well and functioning.
But, in the old days professors used to teach literature. Such is no longer the case.
Literature is special because it, especially drama, the epic and the novel creates worlds. The worlds it creates might resemble the real world, but they are not real. The characters it creates might resemble real people, but they are not real.
Morson echoes a point that I made in my book The Last Psychoanalyst:
Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.
Readers who mistake theater for reality are vanishingly rare, but almost every reader spends time wondering what she would do if she were to find herself in the same fix as the characters she is reading about. Would we wonder about being in the circumstances of words on a page?
Most people understand at a basic level the difference between real and make-believe. They understand that real people are not fictional characters and that the real world is not a fiction.
But, most people also make plans based on an anticipation of what other people might do. Policy planning at all levels is based on possible reactions and possible outcomes. Planning for our future involves imagining the kind of life we would have and the kind of person we might become if we choose one course and not another.
It’s not so much about telling us that we would necessarily become like Hamlet or Anna Karenina, but that the possibility exists and ought to be considered.
All of these calculations require imagination, the kind the literature teaches.
People are not fictional characters and do not live in a fictional world. This means that a real detective might solve a case by simply checking a fingerprint or a DNA sample. It might lead him to someone whom he has never suspected. If such were to happen in a detective story, if, after practicing the fine art of inducing a theory from the facts, the writer brought in a character no one had ever heard of and declared that this character was the killer, we would find the fiction lacking and disappointing.
Real detectives are not required to remain within a coherent narrative. Their job is to function within the fictional world. And yet, it happens that we all encounter people who function as though they were fictional characters living in fictional worlds.
Life does not imitate art, but certainly some people think it does and act accordingly.
As I mentioned in my book, anyone who undergoes Freudian psychoanalysis will find himself faced with the choice between becoming like Oedipus or becoming like Narcissus. To choose the one or the other, or even both, determines the way one is going to conduct one’s life.
Once you become a fictional characters and you discover that the real world will not make accommodations for your choice you are going to need to find an alternative world, often the world of a cult, where people will accept you as a character and will agree to live in the same fictional world as you do.
Literature is not pure entertainment and it is not propaganda. Great literature, like great art, does not tell you what to think. Most often, it dramatizes moral dilemmas and shows what happens when a character chooses one or another way to approach the dilemma. It is not so much about telling people what to do as about showing what happens when a specific character makes a choice within a specific world that runs by its own rules.
Of course, today’s literature professors are far more interested in teaching their students what to think than how to think. This affirms the value system that the professors hold dear and forecloses the possibility that students might learn to think differently.
Morson describes this well:
The second most common way to kill interest in literature is death by judgment. One faults or excuses author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today, by which I mean those standards shared by professional interpreters of literature. These courses are really ways of inculcating those values and making students into good little detectors of deviant thoughts.
“If only divorce laws had been more enlightened, Anna Karenina would not have had such a hard time!” And if she had shared our views about [insert urgent concern here], she would have been so much wiser. I asked one of my students, who had never enjoyed reading literature, what books she had been assigned, and she mentioned Huckleberry Finn. Pondering how to kill a book as much fun as that, I asked how it had been taught. She explained: “We learned it shows that slavery is wrong.” All I could think was: If you didn’t know that already, you have more serious problems than not appreciating literature.
But this represents an insidious form of moral narcissism:
This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?
Once a professor decides that we have nothing to learn from great authors, students will naturally be penalized if they act as though they have learned something.
If education involves indoctrination, there are other than literary ways to communicate politically correct ideas. Art will count as one among many cultural products that can be used to indoctrinate students.
Professors who have mediocre minds have brought literature down to their own level:
Later one of my colleagues told me she experienced the thrill one hears when a taboo is broken, because it has been orthodoxy among literature professors for some three decades that there is no such thing as “great literature.” There are only things called great literature because hegemonic forces of oppression have mystified us into believing in objective greatness, whereas intrinsically Shakespeare is no different from a laundry list or any other document.
Morson adds this point from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism:
Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.
Obviously, this is neo-Marxist analysis. The catastrophes that Marxist policies have visited on the human species do not register:
The language of “production, circulation, and consumption” is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.