WHY COLLEGE KIDS ARE AVOIDING THE STUDY OF LITERATURE: Why is it, Prof. Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern University asks In the new issue of Commentary, “that students are choosing to study economics or chemistry rather than literature?…Could it be that the problem lies not with the students but with the professors themselves?”
A few years ago, when I was talking to a group of students, one of them asked why I teach the books I do, and I replied simply that they are among the greatest ever written. 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. If this sounds exaggerated, let me cite the most commonly taught anthology among literature professors, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Its editors paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called “cultural studies,” which has set the critical agenda:
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.
In other words, what used to be called masterpieces are worthy of study only insofar as they fit into a liberationist program, and no further. If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. 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.
In universities, this approach often leads to teaching documents instead of literature. Or perhaps cultural theory itself, taught pretty much without reference to the cultural documents in which it is supposedly grounded. Or perhaps second-rate literary works, which are a lot better than great ones either as documents or as providers of simple political lessons. At Northwestern, our engineering students have room in their schedule for perhaps two humanities courses, so—just think of it—a professor chooses to expose them not to great writers such as George Eliot or Jane Austen but to second-rate stuff or, still worse, some dense pages written by philosophers such as Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault.
In each of these interest-killing approaches—the technical, the judgmental, and the documentary—true things are said. Of course literature uses symbols, provides lessons in currently fashionable problems, and can serve as a document of its times. The problem is what these approaches do not achieve.
They fail to give a reason for reading literature.
Read the whole thing; it’s a beautifully written essay. Having destroyed the study of history by transforming it into an endless litany of soul-crushing racial, sexual and class-oriented grievances, a form of study that historian has dubbed “Black Armband History,” I’m not at all surprised to see a similar approach now ruining literature as well in academia.