The minimal qualification for teaching literature should be the ability to read. Rebecca Schuman’s attack on my recent Wall Street Journal article on humanistic learning (adapted from a longer essay) suggests that even that qualification is now optional.
Schuman, Slate’s education columnist and an adjunct literature instructor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, summarized my essay thus: “Mac Donald . . . chides the literary disciplines for losing ‘timelessness’ in favor of contemporary critique.” She then expends considerable rhetorical energy arguing against the notion that literature is “timeless,” asserting instead that any great work is necessarily caught up with issues of its time. The only problem is, I never used the word “timelessness” or any of its cognates. I am at a loss as to how she came up with the phrase or even the idea that I was arguing for the “timelessness” of literature as against, presumably, the innocuous proposition that literature is inevitably grounded in its particular moment of creation.
My thesis was rather just the opposite: in contrast to the narcissism of today’s identity studies, the humanist tradition was founded “on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past.” The Renaissance humanists were attracted to Classical Rome precisely because it differed so much from their contemporary Rome, with its papal intrigues and corrupted Latin; they were acutely aware of historical change and developed the seminal methods of textual scholarship to overcome the effects of time on historical and literary sources. It is instead the contemporary identity theorist who lacks an appreciation for the specificity of the past, determined as he is to expound on his own or others’ victimhood rather than lose himself in a world that may not mirror his narrow obsessions.
Schuman’s predilection for substituting her own words and ideas for those on the page is relentless. As I recounted in my article, in 2011, UCLA replaced the requirement that students takes courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton with the mandate that students take courses in such categories as Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies and Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies. Schuman facetiously paraphrases my characterization of this change as “nothing less than truth-and-beauticide.” If the literature profession possesses a core competence, it is an understanding that language matters (and in the case of great literature, that it matters profoundly). I never used the word “truth” in my article, nor would I ever do so, believing as I do in the unavoidable multiplicity of interpretations when complex meaning comes into play. (I plead guilty to using the word “beauty,” however—apparently a conservative weakness when invoking Mozart or the Saint Matthew Passion.)
But Schuman has no use for the actual language on the page when she can simply plug in her standard anti-conservative tropes. Like all defenders of the current academic scene, Schuman accuses me of exaggeration and distortion. Not to worry, she says: all this “neo-conservative pearl-clutching” about the demise of traditional learning is just “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And if the country’s literature faculty were not attending the annual Modern Language Association conference, she says, they, too, would let me have it.
Funny she should mention the MLA. Let’s see how much that organization’s concerns support Schuman’s claim that the literature profession remains dedicated to the close study of literature, rather than political play-acting. This year’s conference theme is “Vulnerable Times.” MLA president Marianne Hirsch explained the concept a few months ago: “The Presidential Forum [one among many panels on the topic] will theorize vulnerability’s complex temporalities. Discussing embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed, forum participants will expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change.” Not much about literature there. It is unclear what “climate” and “reparation” have to do with tracking the emergence of the novelistic narrative voice, say. What is clear is that “forum participants” possess a remarkably inflated notion of their own political efficacy.
President Hirsch explains further: “The sessions associated with Vulnerable Times promise to illuminate how the textual, historical, theoretical, and activist work we do as teachers of languages and literatures has been and can be mobilized to address social and political problems, whether urgent and immediate or persistent and recurring. They promise to engage the aesthetic as a space of vulnerability [sic] and as a practice that engages in resistance.” Given students’ abysmal ignorance of a basic literary canon, even an approved multicultural one; given as well students’ vanishing capacity to write a clear sentence, the only “activist work” that should engage “teachers of languages and literatures” should be cramming as much knowledge of great writing as possible into students’ heads. “Address[ing] social and political problems” is a ludicrous diversion.
The MLA statement bulges with similar gems of pretentious politicking. Why bother to mess around with the locus amoenus topos when you can take on “globalization” and “minoritization”? In the meantime, literary knowledge is disappearing. A chaired professor of French and the humanities wrote me in response to my piece: “In 10 years there will be nobody left who can teach the Western canon. Emory [for example] replaced their Renaissance, 18th century, and 19th century specialists with three post-colonialists.” Ph.D. programs have cut drastically back on the foreign languages that they require of their graduate students and on the depth and breadth of the actual literature that students must absorb. Theory courses, on the other hand, abound.
Schuman speculates that UCLA eviscerated its English major because it is “tough to teach” and to take single-author courses. In fact, the coup occurred because the younger faculty demanded that their identity- and politics-based specializations be reflected in the core major requirements (how else guarantee warm bodies in such courses?). Their demand was presented to the rest of the department as virtually a fait accompli. (Schuman’s explanation is absurd on its face: Any Milton specialist who can’t handle teaching a course on Milton is in the wrong profession. And any English major who can’t handle taking a course in Shakespeare or Chaucer is in the wrong major).
Schuman soft-pedals as well the nature of the change at UCLA. The recent curricular shift was “minor,” she says. Really? Imagine the opposite scenario: UCLA junks its requirement that students take identity-based courses and replaces it with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The reaction would be swift, severe, and probably national in scope: UCLA would be accused of silencing the “voices” of the oppressed in favor of the white patriarchy. Moreover, the curricular change does more than merely “giv[e] students a choice to take a course on Queer Literature since 1855,” as Schuman claims. UCLA students always had that choice, but they weren’t taking advantage of it to the satisfaction of the junior faculty. And contrary to Schuman, UCLA does not require any “historical literature classes” in “Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton.”
Is Schuman content with a situation in which a Columbia student rails against having been asked merely to listen to Mozart because Mozart is a dead white male? Where might that student have picked up that attitude if not from the academy and its offshoots? Whiteness studies, black studies, feminist studies, and queer studies are not a fever dream of the “neocons.” For decades now, students have been taught to search for an echo of their own “voices” in the books they read and to reject those works that they believe “exclude” them, a remarkably narrow approach to the arts. I don’t want to hear my own “voice” in what I read; it bores me. (And pace Emerson, I don’t recognize my own “rejected thoughts” in works of genius; those creations transcend anything I could possibly conceive.) Why not revel in the far more eloquent and surprising “voices” of Dreiser, Beerbohm, or Wells, for example, whose understanding of human passions and ability to craft sentences of stunning beauty and precision far outstrip our own?
Schuman concludes by revealing the unbridgeable abyss between the academic hothouse and the outside world. Purporting to turn the tables on academia’s critics, she maintains that it is they who are playing the victim card: “their gesture [of criticism] is itself a triumphant coopting of the very manufactured, hyperbolic narratives of oppression they oppose.” Huh? Is Schuman admitting that academic “oppression narratives” are “manufactured” and “hyperbolic”? Who knows? Moreover, her purported gotcha is without any logical grounding: To criticize a trend is not, in itself, a claim of victimization. Schuman then suggests the real motive for concern about the humanistic tradition: “It’s the Manhattan Institute against a rising tide of literate poors who dare question the politics of privilege.” Schuman thus confirms the adolescent political pretensions that she claims conservatives are simply making up.
More remarkable are Schuman’s twin beliefs that precious academic theorizing is liberating the “poors,” per some Freirian fantasy, and that the Manhattan Institute is threatened by such a development. It’s hard to imagine a greater sign of how cut off from reality the academy is. Nothing in the critiques of academia, including my own, over the years have even hinted at this absurd class-warfare scenario. Yet Schuman can imagine no motive other than allegedly beleaguered class privilege for lamenting the loss of the scholarly, loving study of great art—perhaps because she and her peers have never engaged in such an activity.