An Anti-Progressive Syllabus
The first anthology of criticism I read in college was a low-budget volume edited by David Lodge entitled 20th-Century Literary Criticism. It was for an undergraduate class, the first one that spotlighted interpretation and opened a window onto graduate topics. A year later, this time an M.A. student at the University of California at Los Angeles, I took a required course on literary theory, with the anthology Critical Theory Since Plato (1971) edited by Hazard Adams. In a seminar not long after we toiled through Critical Theory Since 1965 (1986), edited by Adams and Leroy Searle, and another class selected Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies (1989), edited by Ron Schleifer and Robert Con Davis. After I left graduate school, more literary/cultural criticism anthologies appeared along with various dictionaries and encyclopedias. The process seems to have culminated in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (ed. Vincent Leitch et al), whose publication in 2001 was momentous enough to merit a long story by Scott McLemee in The Chronicle of Higher Education that included the remark, “An anthology stamped with the Norton brand name is a sure sign of the field’s triumph in English departments.”
For McLemee to speak of “stamping” and “branding” was apt, more so than he intended, for every anthology assigned in class carries institutional weight. From the higher floors in the Ivory Tower, anthologies may look like mere teaching tools, and editing them amounts to service work, not scholarship. But while professors may overlook them except at course adoption time, for graduate students just entering the professional study of literature and culture, anthologies serve a crucial guiding function. Students apply to graduate school in the humanities because of their reading, the inspiration coming usually from primary texts, not critical works -- Swift not Barthes, Austen not Bhabha. They go into English because they like to read novels, or history because the past intrigues them, or philosophy because they want to figure out the great questions of life. Soon enough, they realize that joy, appreciation, moral musing, and basic erudition don’t cut it, and the first year or two entails an adjustment in aim and focus. The discourse is more advanced and specialized, critical and ironic. New and exotic terms emerge -- “hyperreal,” “hegemony,” “postcolonial” -- and differences between contemporary academic schools of thought matter more than differences between, say, one epoch and another.
Fresh students need help. What the anthologies do is supply them with a next-level reading list. The tables of contents provide the names to know, texts to scan, topics to absorb. In spite of the radical and provocative nature of many entries, the volumes mark a canon formation, a curriculum-building activity necessary for doctoral training. Plowing through them is not only a course of study but also a mode of professionalization, a way to join the conversation of advanced colleagues. As tutelage in up-to-date thinking, they strive for coverage, and to help young readers take it all in, they arrange the entries by chronology and by different categories. The Norton, for instance, contains an “Alternative Table of Contents” that divides contributors up by 42 classifications including “The Vernacular and Nationhood,” “Gay and Lesbian Criticism and Queer Theory,” and “The Body.”
As a poor and insecure 25-year-old in the mid-80s, I slogged through the selections one by one, and I thought that completing them would acquaint me with every respectable and serious current thread in literary and cultural thinking. But when I look back at them today, the anthologies look a lot less comprehensive. In fact, in one important aspect, they appear rather narrow and depleted. The problem lies in the sizable portion of the contributions that bear a polemical or political thrust. These pieces don’t pose a new model of interpretation, redefine terms, outline a theory, or sharpen disciplinary methods. Instead, they incorporate political themes into humanistic study, emphasize race/class/gender/sexuality topics, and challenge customary institutions of scholarly practice. When they do broach analytical methods, they do so with larger social and political goals in mind.
The problem isn’t the inclusion of sociopolitical forensic per se. Rather, it is that the selections fall squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum. They are all more or less radically progressivist. They trade in group identities and dismantle bourgeois norms. They advocate feminist perspectives and race consciousness. They highlight the marginalized, the repressed, the counter-hegemonic. And they eagerly undo disciplinary structures that formed in the first half of the 20th century.
Reading through these titles (in the Norton: “On the Abolition of the English Department,” “Enforcing Normalcy,” “Talking Black,” “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” etc.), one would think that all decent contemporary criticism stems from adversarial leftist impulses. There is nothing here to represent the conservative take on high/low distinctions, or its belief that without stable and limited cultural traditions a society turns vulgar and incoherent. Nothing from the libertarian side about how group identities threaten the moral health of individuals, or how revolutionary dreams lead to dystopic policies. The neoconservative analysis of the social and economic consequences of 1960s countercultural attitudes doesn’t even exist.
And yet, outside the anthologies and beyond the campus, these outlooks have influenced public policy at the highest levels. Their endurance in public life is a rebuke to the humanities reading list, and it recasts the putative sophistication of the curriculum into its opposite: campus parochialism. The damage it does to humanities students can last a lifetime, and I’ve run into far too many intelligent and active colleagues who can rattle off phrases from “What Is an Author?” and Gender Trouble, but who stare blankly at the mention of The Public Interest and A Nation at Risk.
This is a one-sided education, and the reading list needs to expand. To that end, here are a few texts to add to this fall’s syllabus. They reflect a mixture of liberal, libertarian, conservative, and neoconservative positions, and they serve an essential purpose: to broaden humanistic training and introduce students to the full range of commentary on cultural values and experience.
- T.E. Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism” (first published 1924). This essay remains a standard in Anglo-American modernist fields, but it seems to have disappeared from general surveys of criticism. Still, the distinctions Hulme draws illuminate fundamental fissures between conservative and progressive standpoints, even though he labels them romantic and classical. “Here is the root of romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get progress,” he says. The classicist believes the opposite: “Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organization that anything decent can be got out of him.” That distinction is a good start for any lecture on political criticism.
- T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). Eliot’s little essay remains in all the anthologies, but its central point about the meaning of tradition often goes overlooked. Teachers need to expound why tradition matters so much to conservative thinkers before they explain why progressives regard it as suspect. Furthermore, their students need to understand it, for tradition is one of the few ideas that might help young people get a handle on the youth culture that bombards them daily and nightly. They need examples, too, and the most relevant traditionalist for them I’ve found so far is the Philip Seymour Hoffman character (“Lester Bangs”) in the popular film Almost Famous.
- F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (U.S. edition, 1952). Most people interested in Hayek go to The Road to Serfdom, but the chapters in Counter-Revolution lay out in more deliberate sequence the cardinal principles behind his philosophy. They include 1) the knowledge and information that producers and consumers bring to markets can never be collected and implemented by a single individual or “planning body”; and 2) local customs and creeds contain values and truths that are not entirely available to “conscious reason,” but should be respected nonetheless. Such conceptions explain why in 1979 Michel Foucault advised students to read Hayek and other “neoliberals” if they want to understand why people resist the will of the State. We should follow Foucault’s advice.
- Leo Strauss, “What Is Liberal Education?” (1959). For introductory theory/criticism classes, forget Strauss and his relation to the neoconservatives. Assign this essay as both a reflection on mass culture and a tone-setter for academic labor. On mass culture and democracy, let the egalitarians respond to this: “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.” And on tone, let the screen-obsessed minds of the students consider this: “life is too short to live with any but the greatest books.”
- Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals (English trans. 1957). Aron’s long diagnosis of the intellectual mindset remains almost as applicable today as it was during the Cold War. Why are Western intellectuals “merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines”? he asks, and the answers that emerge unveil some of the sources of resentment and elitism that haunt some quarters of the humanities today.
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992). First formulated just as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Fukuyama’s thesis sparked enormous admiration and contention as the interpretation of the end of the Cold War. When I’ve urged colleagues to read it, though, they’ve scoffed in disdain. Perhaps they’ll listen to one of their heroes, Jean-Francois Lyotard, who informed people at Emory one afternoon that The End of History was the most significant work of political theory to come out of the United States in years.
- Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (1995). With the coming of the Bush administration, the term neoconservative has been tossed and served so promiscuously that reading Kristol’s essay is justified solely as an exercise in clarification. But his analyses of the counterculture, social justice, the “stupid party” (conservatives), and life as a Trotskyist undergraduate in the 1930s are so clear and antithetical to reigning campus ideals that they could be paired with any of a dozen entries in the anthologies to the students’ benefit. Not least of all, they might blunt the aggressive certitude of political culture critics and keep the students from adopting the same attitude.
- David Horowitz, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey (1997). Many people will recoil at this choice, which is unfortunate. They should not let their reaction to Horowitz’s campus activism prevent them from appreciating the many virtues of this memoir. It is a sober and moving account of America’s cultural revolution from the moral high points to the sociopathic low points. At the core lies the emotional and ethical toll it took on one of its participants, who displays in all nakedness the pain of abandoning causes that gave his life meaning from childhood to middle age. Students need an alternative to the triumphalist narrative of the Sixties, and this is one of the best.
Professors needn’t espouse a single idea in these books, but as a matter of preparing young people for intelligent discourse inside and outside the academy, they are worthy additions to the syllabus. Consider them, too, a way to spice up the classroom, to make the progressivist orthodoxies look a little less routine, self-assured, and unquestionable. Theory classes have become boring enough these days, and the succession of one progressivist voice after another deadens the brain. A Kristol here and a Hayek there might not only broaden the curriculum, but do something for Said, Sedgwick & Co. that they can’t do for themselves: make them sound interesting once again.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.