Despite their hostility to most of what has happened in the humanities the past half-century, American conservative intellectuals like to think themselves as the true defenders of the humanistic tradition. Within academia, they have often focused on defending notions of reason and objectivity against the “relativism” and “irrationalism” supposedly introduced into the humanities by modern German and French philosophy. Outside the university, their critiques have pursued narrower political goals, attacking disciplines like English and Comparative Literature as bastions of political correctness and anti-Americanism.
Much as conservative intellectuals long ago stopped confronting any vestige of actual Marxism, it is difficult to find within the diatribes of the movement’s humanities police any awareness of the university as it currently exists, of the humanistic disciplines as they have evolved in the past several decades, or of what truly threatens their long-term survival. The conservative humanities critique, like its Marxism critique, has been reduced to a meme that ripples through an airless, dimly-lit blogosphere, never encountering any light of intellectual engagement.
Occasionally, it breaks through into one of the publications that give conservative intellectuals their veneer of credibility, as in the case of conservative author Heather Mac Donald’s piece in the latest issue of City Journal, recently repurposed as an op-ed in — where else? — the Wall Street Journal.
Mac Donald brings frantic news from the front lines of the academic culture war. Actually, it’s three-years-old news about a curriculum change in the English department at the University of California–Los Angeles. In 2011, UCLA restructured its English major, eliminating required courses devoted to specific single authors. The major previously required courses that focused exclusively on Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton; now students can choose from a selection of courses available in each historical period of English literature, which (of course) includes a heavy dose of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. In addition to three historical literature courses, they must take a course in one of three areas of literary theory, or in creative writing.
For Mac Donald and the conservative blogosphere that has taken up her battle cry, this is a sign of the apocalypse; it is “part of a momentous shift in our culture that bears on our relationship to the past — and to civilization itself.” The great “cornerstones of English literature” have been dismantled and replaced by the political babble of modern literary theory. The change at UCLA was a “coup” that was “particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay.”
Mac Donald goes on to describe her vision of the “historically informed study of great literature” as more or less a worshipful encounter with the glory of the ancients. To study literature is to “converse” and “feel a bond” with “classical authors,” and to “transmit the knowledge of the past.”
Given her alarm about the end of the requirement that UCLA English majors take courses in a prescribed list of single authors, Mac Donald seems to believe that the “cornerstones of English literature” must be approached as demi-gods, as larger-than-life figures who continue to dispense ancient wisdom. Think of the way some evangelical Christians approach the Hebrew prophets or the apostle Paul: they speak across the ages, and the message never changes. A “dialogue” like this, for Mac Donald, is the only way the study of literature can be “historically informed” and avoid an “ideological overlay.”
In fact, studying literature this way — under the rubrics of “Great Authors” or “Great Books” — is both ahistorical and ideological. It treats the author’s oeuvre as a sacred monument that stands outside history, rather than an evolving collection of texts that was shaped profoundly by the society and politics of the author’s time.
Of course, it’s possible to justify using the “author” or the “monument” as an interpretive framework. But literary scholars are trained to recognize that their own interpretive choices have ideological implications; Mac Donald, on the other hand, thinks that people of her political persuasion do their interpreting free of ideology, and that all other approaches are perversions.
The new UCLA English major tries to give students both a thorough grounding in English literary history and exposes them, however briefly, to the methods of contemporary literary study. The new major is in fact more historical than the old: rather than study a rigid list of single authors outside their context, students are required to take one course in each historical period (before 1500; 1500–1700; 1700–1850; 1850–Present). They have more historically-informed options, but are still unable to avoid the major figures of British literature whose imagined obsolescence has Mac Donald aghast.
For example, of the five courses offered in the 1500–1700 period (remember: required), four are devoted entirely to Shakespeare, and one entirely to Milton. A UCLA English major can avoid one, but not both. Thus, it’s easy to assess the veracity of Mac Donald’s claim that “the UCLA faculty [is] now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare.” It’s false.
If there is no actual threat to the study of Shakespeare in the reorganization of the UCLA English major, what provoked Mac Donald to pen 3,600 furious words on the subject? Perhaps it’s to be discovered in her long, deliberate quotations of literary jargon, presented to her non-academic readers as lurid documentation of a plot to overthrow “actual English literature.” This is a representative passage:
[The] UCLA English department — like so many others — is more concerned that its students encounter race, gender, and disability studies than that they plunge headlong into the overflowing riches of actual English literature — whether Milton, Wordsworth, Thackeray, George Eliot, or dozens of other great artists closer to our own day. How is this possible? The UCLA coup represents 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.
Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin. Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the US; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.
There are legitimate critiques to be made of some of the “obsessions” of American literary studies of the past three decades, but it’s obvious that what really irks Mac Donald is the fact that literary studies are political, rather than merely aesthetic.
Why might that be? Could it be that the scholarly study of literature — the theoretical examination of its constitution, its presuppositions, its exclusions — inherently leads to a political awareness that isn’t amenable to conservative ideology? Could such study lead to an uncomfortable confrontation with the cultures the West has systematically excluded and oppressed, complicating what Mac Donald calls the “drama of Western civilization”? It hardly seems an accident that conservatives like Mac Donald, faced with a challenge to the triumphal story they want to tell about Western civilization, want to break with literature’s rich history of political engagement and insist it should now be exclusively concerned with aesthetics and longing for the past.
In Mac Donald’s case, we don’t have to guess — her political panic is extraordinarily evident. As she states explicitly in her opening lines, the stakes she sees in the humanities go to the heart of the political existence of modern Western civilization. If that civilization becomes too critical of its past, gets too concerned with justice, it threatens its own survival.
The effort to repurpose literary study as an encounter with aesthetic wonder and ancient knowledge, but not political critique, has a very specific politico-theological goal. Note the reverence with which Mac Donald describes her sacralized vision of English literature: “overflowing riches,” “aesthetic wonders,” “loving duty.” She wants sacred texts that tell of a good history, a great civilization, that proclaim its glory and demand ongoing allegiance to its virtues:
Every fall, insistent voices should rise from the faculty lounges and academic departments saying: here is greatness, and this is your best opportunity to absorb it. Here is Aeschylus, whose hypnotic choruses bear witness to dark forces more unsettling than you can yet fathom. Here is Mark Twain, Hapsburg Vienna, and the Saint Matthew Passion. Here is the drama of Western civilization, out of whose constantly battling ideas there emerged unprecedented individual freedom and unimagined scientific progress.
It’s clear from this startling agitprop what Mac Donald means when she says that literature should expose us to the “radical difference of the past”: she means a mythologized version of the past — i.e., not the one that includes, say, the radical difference of those whose stolen labor built the economic infrastructure of a large section of our country.
Like that of her fellow ideologues, Mac Donald’s preferred version of the “Western drama” is one where “individual freedom” and “scientific progress” are uncontested legacies, where their attendant ugliness, degradation, and exploitation remain shoved to the margins. There is no reason the marginalized voices of English literature can’t be read alongside Shakespeare and Chaucer, but Mac Donald wants the canon sealed off from the discoveries and complications of history, prevented from uttering anything but fossilized platitudes to a civilization in crisis.
It’s deeply ironic that a writer who claims to be so committed to learning from history could be so incurious about the knowledge the English discipline has added to our arsenal for understanding the questions that press upon us most deeply as individuals and citizens. Thanks to English scholars, we constantly discover new ways to tear away the blinders of the dominant and the present and try to encounter what we have missed for decades or even centuries.
Those discoveries can make us a better civilization, but they require, like all scholarly inquiry, an openness to the future. Conservative humanities handwringers like Mac Donald care neither about the future nor the past. Since, in their view, we have little to improve upon, it’s no surprise they want to turn the rich history of literature into nothing but aesthetic propaganda for an unexamined present.