Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free Trade in Ideas

In one of my past lives I taught English literature. Those times are long gone, but I have not lost my love for literature and still follow my former profession's progress, or better, regress.

According to Prof. William Chace, English literature has fallen on hard times. It has entered a "slough of despond" and has no idea of how to get out of it. Link here.

Chace outlines some of the causes in his article, but I am struck by the role played by radical theorists. Professorial followers of critical theory and deconstruction have sacrificed literature on the bonfire of their theoretical pretensions.

Radical professors did not believe that literature might teach us something. They did not believe that some works were better than others. Instead, they denounced the canon as a social construct, and proclaimed that Shakespeare's greatness lay merely in the fact that a lot of people were saying that he was great.

But if this is true, why not study the literary qualities of comic books?

There was no such thing as intrinsic literary value. There were different vested interests that had promoted certain writers and downplayed certain others because they wanted to remain in power.

Placing themselves at the vanguard of the culture wars, English professors then decided that literature was valuable only as a vehicle to propagate their theories.

Literature had nothing to teach them, so they set out to teach literature a lesson.

The countercultural theorists devised a new mission for literature. They would not bother to offer access to its wisdom; they would use it to indoctrinate.

They had learned from their advanced theories that their job was to exercise power over young, impressionable minds. They would help ensure that these young people could never become cogs in the capitalist imperialist hegemony.

Given the reality of tenure, the most enlightened administrators could do nothing about it.

Combining tenure with the power to grade, the professoriat felt that it had escaped the discipline of the marketplace. They could do what they wanted when they wanted as they wanted and no one could stop them.

Except perhaps the free market. Regardless of what anyone thinks, markets are real. No matter how much people try to manipulate them, markets pass judgment on your plans and schemes.

Professors won their academic battle, but, as Chace reports, they are losing the war. Students have been abandoning humanities courses in droves, drawn inexorably to business, finance, and other subjects that offer more useful skills. I dare say they they are also drawn to courses where they feel that their work will be evaluated fairly, objectively, and impartially.

It is not merely the market for English Ph.D.s that is drying up, but anyone who suffers the indoctrination that Humanities programs are trying to ram down student throats will quickly find himself to be socially dysfunctional.

Use the language of critical theory or deconstruction in a job interview and you will be headed straight for the unemployment line. Apply these disciplines to personal relationships and you will will have fewer of them.

The anarchy that critical theory has sowed in your mind will take over your life.

As Chace describes it, theoretical heterodoxy has produced a situation that can only be described as intellectual anarchy. No one knows what literary studies are. There is no high concept that can be used to define, organize, and advance the field.

In Chace's words: " turns out now that everything is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture.... Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and declasse."

And also: "... no one has come forth in years to assert that the study of English ... is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that."

How can the problem be solved? Chace offers some excellent suggestions. Obviously, he wants to return to a time when students learned how to appreciate the aesthetic and philosophical qualities of great literature.

But he also wants English departments to offer more practical skills. He wants them to emphasize composition, to teach students how to control their language. His goal is to show students how to express a thought with clarity and concision.

Beyond that Chace wants students to study rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Rhetoric teaches the importance of knowing how to formulate a thought in the way that is most likely to make it interesting, entertaining, or persuasive to other people.

Students should learn that there are many different ways to express one thought, and that each way is likely to produce a different response. This is, after all, a fundamental social skill.

For outsiders these proposals may seem modest to the point of commonplace. And yet, precious few English professors owe their careers to their mastery of English prose style. Most gained their tenure by propagating the right ideas in unintelligible prose. Fewer still have ever studied rhetoric.

Given the habits instilled by critical theory and deconstruction far too many professors have become masters of double talk. If you wade deeply enough into the arcana of critical theory and deconstruction you will see that its adepts make an effort to render everything ambiguous and confused. These theorists traffic in so many terminological shibboleths that their thought is unintelligible to anyone outside of their small coterie.

People who cannot write a coherent English paragraph are hardly qualified to teach composition.

To take the most obvious example, Berkeley professor Judith Butler, a paragon and an icon to the critical theory crowd, is routinely cited
as one of the worst writers in the English language.

As for the gentle art of rhetorical persuasion, why would academics give up their power to indoctrinate in favor of allowing their students the freedom to agree or disagree.

Why learn how to persuade when you can force people to parrot your viewpoint?

With any luck William Chace's article will be prophetic. Perhaps the simple fact that the free market of ideas is rendering English literature obsolete will spur the profession to re-examine its pretensions and return to its former greatness.


Meridith said...

I wonder if the publishing industry also plays a role in the hard times that have hit English literature--particularly contemporary English literature. They're just not publishing "literary" novels the way they used to. They increasingly follow the Hollywood model of putting all their money behind what they hope will be the big blockbuster best-seller, at the expense of new novelists and novelists who write great fiction but fiction that only appeals to a "narrow" (by the publishing industry's standards) audience. I realize the publishers are driven by what sells, but at the same time, it seems like they've relinquished their duty to publish great contemporary literature--even if it appeals to a narrow audience--in order to make a buck.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is would think, given your constant disparagement of people who "live their lives as if it were a story," you would be applauding the collapse of English Departments. You would think you would be ecstatic that young kids are not interested in "introspecting" over literature, but demanding practical answers to their lives. Isn't the flight away from English somewhat like the flight from "therapy culture" (as you constantly describe it), towards something more eminently practical, like Coaching? This is truly a contradiction. I wonder how you would explain it?