Fighting Lit’s Culture Wars Again?!

Rembrandt, "The Student"

Rembrandt, “The Student”

Note: I’ve moved Sports Saturday to Tuesdays for the NFL playoffs (here’s the last one), but if you want to read past posts where I blog on Peyton Manning against the New England Patriots–they meet again tomorrow–here are two: the first compares the Manning-Tom Brady battle to that between Hector and Achlles; the second sees Manning as Sherlock Holmes pitted against Coach Belichick/Moriarty.

In case you thought the culture wars of the early 1990’s were over, occasionally they flare up again, as they did in a recent Wall Street Journal column. According to Slate’s Rebecca Schuman, opinion writer Heather MacDonald recently went after the UCLA English Department for ending its single author requirement (in Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare) and replacing it with (in Schuman’s words) “some breadth requirements that include perspectives on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, transnationalism, and—gasp—creative writing.” (Thanks to Rachel Kranz for alerting me to the Slate article.)

Schuman goes on to attack MacDonald for her myopic view of literature. Although I critiqued Schuman a couple of weeks ago for what I thought was an awful post on student essays, I agree with her this time. Here’s her account of the article:

What happened at UCLA,” [MacDonald] explains, “is part of a momentous shift that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself.” The new major has fallen prey to the “characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics.” Academics today have no interest in bowing down before Chaucer’s greatness (you know, Chaucer, who never wrote about class). Instead, “the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.”

I haven’t read the WSJ column because it is behind a paywall, but this passage sounds like a rather tired attempt to gin up the glory days of Lyn Cheney and Bill Bennett. In those days, conservative attacks were more frightened temper tantrums than factually-based assertions. For instance, although the Cheney-led National Endowment for the Humanities complained that Shakespeare was being replaced by politically correct contemporary authors (Alice Walker always seemed to be the one mentioned), a survey of English teachers conducted at the time revealed that Shakespeare was being taught as much as ever. I’m sure that’s still the case.

Give college professors credit for figuring out other ways to get Shakespeare into the curriculum than through single author classes. I’ve taught first Midsummer Night’s Dream and now The Tempest in my British fantasy literature class. I teach As You Like It in my nature-themed Introduction to Literature course. Shakespeare is the only author who gets two lengthy works in my early British Literature survey (Twelfth Night and King Lear). Just as theater directors are always looking for new ways to make Shakespeare fresh, so are English teachers.

Schuman takes apart MacDonald’s contention that professors no longer teach the timelessness of the classics. As she points out, literature has always addressed the very specific concerns of the day:

Mac Donald… chides the literary disciplines for losing “timelessness” in favor of contemporary critique. Timelessness? Anyone who has taught Dante’s Inferno (as I just did to my freshmen) knows that every canto contains some now-opaque reference to Dante’s personal enemies, or Pope Boniface VIII, or that timeless political party the Guelphs.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which I also just taught to my freshmen), much of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is devoted to rousing debate about Jovinian, whose views on marriage got him excommunicated from the Church in that timeless year that everyone remembers: 393. And do you know what play was written largely to placate his audience’s new fascination with all things Scottish? Shakespeare’s Macbeth—which, again, I just taught to my freshmen,

Because listen. No literature, if it’s any good, is timeless. Ever. It is of its time—and, in order for students to be at all interested in reading it, it is of ours as well. That does not make it “timeless.” That makes it nuanced.

According to Schuman, MacDonald complains about literature professors who read class or gender into the works. But it’s not just we who are interested in these issues. For class, think of Shakespeare with Malvolio, Fielding with Tom Jones, Thomas Gray with the country churchyard, Blake with the chimney sweep, Wordsworth with Lucy, Dickens with Oliver Twist.

By showing how literary works engage with their time periods, English teachers emphasize they are more than dusty museum pieces, which is how students often regard them at first. We don’t want our students to genuflect before Shakespeare but rather to see him as intimately engaged with the deepest issues of our lives. Teaching him historically is one way to do that.

And by the way, I suspect that if MacDonald were to tell me the literary works that she likes best, along with something about herself, I could show her that she was reading them through the lens of her own concerns. “Canonicity,” the study of how works have entered and dropped out of the canon, shows that each generation has, for understandable historical reasons, its own preferences. King Lear was not always revered as much as it is now. Nor were Shakespeare’s sonnets. And as for Milton, check out how T. S. Eliot goes after him

What MacDonald may really be objecting to is a caricature of leftist literature professors. She thinks we have preset political agendas and use literature as a way to indoctrinate our students into our thinking. Maybe that’s how conservatives work. But literature, when made to dance to an ideological tune, is a dead thing, and what literature teachers want is for the works to sing to our students. When our classes experience literature as a living thing, we feel we have accomplished something worthwhile.

While it’s useful to argue with MacDonald just to clarify what we literature teachers are about, I must repeat that her complaints seem like a quaint relic of a previous generation. The big academic fight facing universities at the moment is the conservative attack on science itself and also on the social sciences. Recently I read that the conservative Koch brothers not only want to endow an economics chair at Florida State but also sign off on  the person picked, which presumably would mean the right to nix professors who don’t buy their theories of free enterprise. A slight modification to UCLA’s English requirements seems like rather small fry in that battle.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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