Note to English teachers: Get Real

By , 3 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been contemplating posting these reflections for many months, but a post over at FWFL reminded me how I got on this subject to begin with. The author of that blog, Colin Clout, is a literature graduate student with a broadly postmodernist approach to the study of culture, an approach that pervades much of the academy these days. I crassly summarize this approach as

1. It’s impossible to know, 100%, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Hamlet or why Napoleon invaded Russia. Even if these men kept diaries, they might have lied. Therefore it’s intellectually unconscionable to ask such questions.
2. You and I may today find many patterns in this writing that Shakespeare did not intend or could never have thought of especially since words in the English language, or any other language, have changed over time, and since language is imperfect and manmade anyway. Indeed, an old book can be about some newfangled concept if I, reading it today, am reminded of a newfangled concept. Heck, it could be about anything so long as somebody thinks so.
3. It is intellectually admirable to constantly expand the set of interpretations, even if some of them have seemingly weak ties to the historical or social context in which books were written, paintings painted or political speeches delivered, or even to the social context in which those books, paintings or speeches were read, seen or heard. It is sinful to attempt to establish which meanings matter most at any particular time. The more subversion you contribute to the debate, the better you have performed. To quote Mr. Clout directly, ”What is the relevance, the importance of humanities? What is the functionality of the academy?…[It is] in questioning the need for functionality.”
In conversations with Mr. Clout, I have said that my problem with this school of thought is not only that I disagree with its main tenets but also that I find it socially pernicious. I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.

Once upon a time, indeed until after World War II, most university education was in the humanities: young propertied men went off to prestigious Ivy-covered halls to read Chaucer and Cicero, and their professors helped them understand, specifically, how those texts might inform their future decisions as businessmen or statesmen or generals.

That very functional approach to the study of culture was undone during the Cold War, by academics who wanted to make sure that smart people did not choose to help the government or the corporation, since (these thinkers determined), those were more or less corrupted institutions from which the academy was meant to offer a retreat. They argued that they were preserving young minds from a dehumanizing bureaucracy, but I wonder if there isn’t something dehumanizing about the separation of the mind, of academic intellectual endeavor, from the person, a social being embedded in the political and economic contingencies of a specific historical moment.

The moment academics in the humanities rejected the social for the psychological is, coincidentally or not, the moment public education grants shifted from the right brain field to the left. If Mr. Clout and his peers are worried about financing their profession, they might start by reconsidering their ideology.

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3 Responses {+}
  • Edmund

    “I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.”

    Ah, yes, of course! So once we have had one good researcher of culture determine for us, beyond a reasonable doubt, what a certain work of literature or episode in history *meant* and what everyone thought about it, we’re golden. Case—or should I say, window into culture—closed.

  • Joel Rodgers

    I sympathize with and share your frustrations, Preppy McPrepperson. (Great name, btw.) What you’ve described is actually a long-standing division in the humanities between (some form of) “historicism” and “Theory.” As you’ve suggested, historicizing an author presumably allows us some access to his or her intention for writing, and literary critics still use methods of rhetorical criticism in order to pursue these meanings. Stanley Fish is the certainly an antithesis for this approach, since he’s infamous for promoting textual instability and a reader-response school of “interpretative communities.” Historicism, however, can equally pre-empt potentially exciting and productive “conversations” with the author and the text (to use Mortimer Adler’s expression).

    That said, like Edmund, I’m not convinced that appealing nostalgically for a by-gone age of cultural gate-keeping is very productive. It’s myopic, and I suspect based on wishful-thinking about how education works. Postmodern/poststructuralist thinkers have raised some vital problems with classical ideas of a liberal education, and they deserve to be addressed; otherwise, we can hardly claim that we’re honestly committed to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. The problem is less with postmodernism or historicism (or academic conservativism) than with the adherents to each. Some postmodern thinkers feel utterly comfortable with declaring the absolute statement, “There is no Truth,” while believing utterly in and advocating for fundamental human equality… a Truth, dare I say, complete with capital.

    Anyway, if you’re really interested in these debates about education and postmodernism, you should read some of the articles in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. Some of the contributors provide very intelligent responses to theory (and some of them do not). Another book to read would be Humanism Betrayed: Theory, Ideology, and Culture in the Contemporary University by Graham Good. Good’s description of how theory went wrong is apt, but I find him too nostalgic in appealing for the good ol’ days when Northrop Frye dominated the theory scene. One of the best chapters from Good’s book is excerpted in Theory’s Empire as well.

    I could go on with recommendations, but I don’t want to bore you. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time thinking about the very problems you’ve raised.

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