“They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior.” – 40 years of Theory talking to itself
Tradition, history and art were subordinated to a collection of thinkers and arguments that went under the name of “theory”. They provided abstract rules and explanations for how human events unfolded and artistic creation happened. Theory had all the attractions of being conjecture-clean, clever, overarching – but it squeezed the vitality and unpredictability from human achievement like juice from a lemon. Instead of reading classic poems and novels, scholars mastered theories of literature. Instead of learning the details of a historical record, they acquired a theory of historical change. Forty years on, the results are in. Learning has declined and the humanities are an impoverished field. The outcome could have been foreseen, for what is the theory of history and art, or of love, gardening or health, for that matter, compared with present and past realities? But the enthusiasms of the moment were too strong.
It didn’t take long to realise that other idols ruled the graduate programmes. Yes, we read Shakespeare, Hume, Austen and Lovejoy, but what we did with them depended on an entirely different group: the theorists.
Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Paul de Man… they set a powerful agenda for humanistic study. Their work was complex and diverse, but what made all of them theorists was a focus on method. Instead of studying directly the contents of history and thought, they said we should examine the tools of study – terms, evidence, values and practices. Biographers, for instance, aim to record a human life; theorists step back and ponder the narrative structure of that life (or any life), the nature of historical evidence and so on. The sceptical tenor was spreading in schools from Aberdeen to Berkeley to Sydney, and those of us who enlisted out of inspiration had to change our attitude. Theory was hyper-analytical and against common sense, leaving no ordinary enjoyment untouched. The beauty of Keats’s verse, the truth of Nietzsche on herd morality, the heroism of Lincoln… well, you couldn’t esteem such things any more. By their own declaration, the theorists probed the basic elements of language, culture and ego, and to affirm something as conventional as beauty was to be pitiably square and naive.
Some were turned off, but many were intoxicated by the approach. Indeed, it is hard for non-academics to grasp how heady those conversations in the seminars and the student lounge could be. The classic writers were still essential, but the theorists were daring and radical, and the mention of them made the energy level in class discussions jump. If a fellow student spoke about Gulliver’s Travels by borrowing from Swift’s life, one could cite Derrida on how outside materials don’t reveal the meaning of a work but close off multiple meanings to “privilege” just one. Or one could steer the talk towards Lacan on aggression, then apply it to the world of the Houynhnms and Swift’s portrayal of mankind as yahoos. Or one could take a postcolonialist tack and recount Gulliver’s efforts to “go native” (ridiculous, to be sure, but one heard much worse). At that point, the colloquy would turn theoretical, with people taking sides.
Usually, the theorists would win. Traditional scholars fell back on custom and textual evidence, while theorists and their disciples enjoyed the thrill of roguish poses and weighty topics – Derrida on Western thought, Foucault on madness and civilisation, de Man on irony and death. They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior. Think, for instance, how Foucault flattered the student ego. In a series of books, he argued that the freedoms we cherish in bourgeois society, along with the liberal reforms of the Enlightenment, were in fact subtle forms of social control working through heightened surveillance and low-intensity coercions. The compliment this outlook paid to weary junior scholars struggling to find a place in the world was hard to withstand. While the rest of society accepted modern life and muddled through, the clear-eyed minds we fancied ourselves to be understood what was really going on.
When it was a minority endeavour, it functioned as a gadfly, obnoxious sometimes, but useful for testing assumptions. When theory became a dominant habit, it lost its rationale. With nobody around to defend untheoretical positions, it had nothing more to say, no more bunk to debunk. As the numbers of old-fashioned scholars dwindled, theoretical interventions became pointless and predictable. A recent book by another president of the MLA spent pages blaming the poor reading habits of students on the New Critics, figures whose influence waned back in the 1960s. The antiquated target shows how empty theory’s victory was. How many times could you “call into question” a basic assumption or “problematise” a term without sounding like a cliche?
The test of time was undeniable. The simple truth was that the accomplishments of theory mocked its claims. Derrida and the rest spoke in grandiose terms about the implications of theoretical acumen, and their votaries echoed the tone in portentous statements. When de Man declared that “the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations”, his followers repeated it as if it marked a leap in the course of human intelligence. But nobody appeared to benefit from the insight except its practitioners. Theory infiltrated the humanities, theorists found jobs and changed the curriculum, new journals and programmes were founded. But the effect beyond the campus was negligible. A few psychiatrists remained Lacanians, and some architects practised a version of deconstruction, but the influences were scattered. To proclaim theory’s social impact was nothing more than a pretence.
Still, theory’s influence in the university has been enormous. Even among people who’ve pulled away, certain axioms remain a matter of principle – for instance, the notion that sexual identity is a social construct with no biological determinants. In the absence of support from the outside world, theory has become an insider activity. And with the anti-theorists routed long since, all theory can do is rehearse the arguments made 40 years ago, the same interpretations and same conclusions. The pretexts change – Milton yesterday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer today – but the outlook doesn’t.
Professors have profited from theory for a long time, and they’re too comfortable and invested to have second thoughts.
The arrogance was self-defeating, of course. Theory couldn’t sustain the humanities by itself, and the exhilaration that brought us into the habit struck outsiders as a self-congratulatory joy carried out in an affected tongue. With the public estranged from our practice and with younger scholars not replenishing the reserves of knowledge, the humanities are a guild imploding. Theory is dead, but it has taken something much more valuable with it: higher learning.
Dean Dettloff: Wow. I feel as though you’re already performing this kind of intimacy-therapy on me in this interview alone! The themes of renewal you trace are neither bound to psychological experience nor public consciousness, though they deal with both. You clearly have a heart for interpersonal relationships and societal healing, which seems to bleed into your philosophy of education and a desire for these kinds of ideas to reach a public audience instead of staying within the academy. Would you discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?
Edward F. Mooney: “Intimacy-therapy” captures something about teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the ideal gets lost in the bustle about stiff “learning objectives,” about generating knowledge for the social-industrial-military complex—the specialized research university as a knowledge-generating machine. In my view (I’m in a decided minority), the best education is paternal, avuncular, maternal, fraternal, “sisterly” — where (Platonic) “care of the soul” is front and center. You and I in this blog can discover (and rediscover) the truths of “intimacy-therapy” in the company of other mentors: Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Nishitani, and countless others you feature for us.
…But the humanities ought to have care of our souls, so the loss of an articulate expression of this in that section of the university is especially unsettling. I think a certain ideal has been abandoned. I’d hesitate to share my enthusiasm about this ideal of intimacy with my colleagues, say in a department meeting where the dean has put pedagogic practice in the spotlight. This is what I could expect:
“Professor Mooney, what are you saying! That you throw a book out to a class and wait to see what happens? No lectures, no tests on information acquired, no honing of necessary skills? We pay you for encouraging free-form emotional response ?”
You have yet another part to your question that’s more difficult to answer. You ask me to “discuss the way these sensibilities have shaped your role as an educator, both in the academy and outside of it?” What makes it difficult is that it assumes I have a grasp of my sensibilities, a grasp of what underlies my love of Mozart or canoeing or Thoreau. But I want to say that I just am certain sensibilities whose provenance is dark or shaded, and whose agency now, in the life I articulate, is also dark or dappled at best.
The despotism of theory and careerism – Slackers, the humanities, and understanding the difference between laziness and leisure
[This addresses a piece by Lee Siegel that I posted earlier. Sometimes I roll with conservatives.]
Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.
There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.
As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”
The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” …
…They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.
Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.
There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.
Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.
One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginations were, once again, filled with “real books.”
The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”
The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.
…In that moment, teaching literature as an investigation of life’s enigmas struck a deep collective chord. Majoring in English hit its zenith, yet it was this very popularity of literature in the university that spelled its doom, as tendentious pedants of various stripes accelerated the academicization of literary art.
In contrast to the effects of World War II, the purposeless bloodshed of the Vietnam War made all authority suspect. That was when teaching literature acquired an especially intense ideological fervor, when university radicals started their long (and fruitless) march through academic institutions armed with that fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” And that was when majoring in English began its slow decline. The rest is today’s news.
Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.
Trilling was exasperated by the absurdity of teaching morally subversive modernist works in the morally conventional precincts of a university, to the point where he somewhat hysterically exaggerated what he called the “force and terror” of modernist literature (there is terror in Syria, not in Gide). But he was, after all, a college teacher, and he was not able to see that the classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.
But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.
So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.
The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. ****They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.****
Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.
In “Moby-Dick,” Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, declares that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Soon, if all goes well and literature at last disappears from the undergraduate curriculum—my fingers are crossed—increasing numbers of people will be able to say that reading the literary masterworks of the past outside the college classroom, simply in the course of living, was, in fact, their college classroom.
In this context, purveyors of liberal education, including the humanities departments in leading universities, have not done a very good job of articulating the value of what they do.
So for a variety of reasons, I think there is, as you say, a legitimation crisis, and it’s up to us to be more persuasive about why liberal education matters. It’s a difficult task because we’re in a cultural moment where quantifiable metrics of assessment, correlations between inputs and outcomes, are all the rage, and it’s very hard to quantify the effects of liberal education. How do we assess when it works? Should we measure the income of graduates of a college with a liberal arts curriculum versus the income of graduates who have taken an exclusively technical curriculum, and thereby draw some conclusion about which is the better or more worthy institution? Any kind of reductionist thinking along those lines is dangerous, but it’s also tempting and increasingly widespread.
We don’t want to be a society where things we can measure are going in the right direction while things we can’t measure are going in the wrong direction. I try to argue in my book that the college classroom at its best is a very good rehearsal space for democracy. It’s a place where students learn to speak with civility, listen to each other with respect, learn the difference between an argument and an opinion, and most important, perhaps, learn that it’s possible to walk into the room with one point of view and walk out with another—or at least with some fruitful doubt about the perspective with which you began.
I think everybody, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, can agree that those are qualities we could use more of in our public discourse. We need a citizenry that can tell the difference between a demagogue and a person trying to make rational arguments about complicated problems. I think there’s good reason to believe that when college works as well as it can—and it certainly doesn’t always—it’s an institution that contributes to the general welfare in this way, among others.
So there’s an argument for liberal education as essential to citizenship. But in any conversation like this, we should also try to be clear what we mean by “liberal education.” It can be confused with a certain kind of very traditional curriculum, whose virtues I happen to believe in; it can be understood as meaning exclusively the humanities, but it should be obvious that the benefits I’ve just been describing can also be derived from, for example, the study of science.
It would be a travesty, a disaster, if the kind of education I’m talking about were to become restricted to the coddled and privileged and denied to everyone else. That’s the whole point of the argument for access. We don’t want to become a society where a small handful gets this elite education, and everybody else is tracked into a vocational program of one sort or another. There’s no reason why the two can’t go together.
At the same time, College is written in defense of a specific mode of higher learning that Delbanco values and wants to see prevail: the humanities regarded as a practice of soul-making, a secular encounter with the possibility of transcending the particular view of the world you happen to have acquired through the accident of being born in a particular kind of body in a given society at a certain time. He quotes a remark from Emerson’s journals about the teacher’s effort to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”
This isn’t just a plea for the humanities to keep its place at the table, though College is certainly that. Nor is Delbanco exactly making an argument for the liberal arts as the medium through which new, socially critical ideas can take hold and be propagated, a la Dewey—despite his clear belief that an education that has not produced an accountable, critical mind has failed. Rather, he’s concerned about the deeply anti-democratic implications of what is happening—the undoing of Emerson’s vision of scholarship and serious discussion coming down from the ivory tower and joining the fray, rather than polishing the manners of a happy few.
I die a little each time a fellow professor justifies our enterprise by saying, as Professor Greenberg does, that the liberal arts will help you succeed, “even flourish,” in the marketplace. It seems odd to say it’s worthwhile to contemplate Thoreau or Jesus or the French Revolution because doing so will positively affect your bottom line.
Indeed, I think it might not be such a bad idea to warn students that exposure to the liberal arts could make them unfit for the kind of work the marketplace values most highly. As if in compensation, however, humanistic learning may also make them indifferent to the kind of success the marketplace has to offer.
Ashland, Va., May 2, 2012
“At present research focuses on the scholarly virtues: accuracy of reference and care in drawing conclusions. These are valuable because they counteract our normal sloppy thinking. However, there are many more qualities of thinking: grace, charisma, intimacy, spontaneity, wit, depth, simplicity, grandeur, warmth, openness, drama, intensity and generosity. [emphasis mine] These vital and passionate qualities are linked to the power of ideas, the ways in which ideas get inside our lives and come to matter in everyday existence.” – John Armstrong as quoted here.