"There is an air of last things, a brooding sense of impending annihilation, about so much deconstructive activity, in so many of its guises; it is not merely post-modernist but preapocalyptic." ... ... David Lehman.
Commentary of the Day - November 4, 2005: The Teaching of English May Not be Dead After All. Guest commentary by Nils Clausson.
Since I have been teaching English since 1969, readers of The Irascible Professor may find it interesting to hear, if only as an historical curiosity, my response to Erik Grayson's gentle jeremiad on the decline of English teaching at the expense of the rise of criticism. (Besides, my own irascible rant in these pages provoked the slings and arrows of outraged readers, so I feel I've earned the privilege to do unto others as was done unto me!)
Two minor quibbles before I bring out my big guns: one on Catch-22 and one on Roland Barthes. Grayson faults one of Heller's critics for not considering "the possibility that World War Two and Vietnam may have played some role in the novel's genesis." I was in grades 9 and 10 in 1961, and I can assure Grayson that Vietnam, like the Rolling Stones, was not yet on the political and cultural radar screens. And I would not be so hasty in dismissing Barthes; his Mythologies is a witty, lucid, and brilliant exposure of the myths of modern culture, from Garbo's face to laundry detergent. It is anything but "convoluted." I recommend it highly.
"It seems to me," says Grayson, "that there was a period during which the majority of literary criticism was written by scholars wishing to share their love of a novel or poem with as many people as they could." Not true. This is yet one more example of the Myth of the Golden Age -- a time when English teachers loved literature and taught Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville and (even) Joseph Heller because they loved literature, and they wanted to share that love with their students. I distinctly recall more than one of my professors handing down this myth when I was an undergraduate in the mid to late '60s, a few years after Catch-22 was published.
Long before I became an English major, when the old New Critics were confidently flexing their critical muscles, traditional scholars bemoaned the fact that English professors today (when everyone liked Ike) were interested only in writing articles for trendy new journals like the Kenyon Review, articles that found tension (a Good Thing), irony (a very Good Thing) and ambiguity (ever since Empson, a very, very Good Thing) in Metaphysical lyrics, instead of passing on Great Literature (and a Love of same) to students desperate for the consoling, humanizing messages Great Literature (and Great Lit. alone) could offer them.
Many of the things that Grayson says are quite true -- but there is, I am afraid, nothing really alarming, or even new, in the state of English studies as portrayed in his alarmist critique. It was always thus. Yes, Harold Bloom did say that Catch-22 was destined to fade into irrelevance. Dr. Johnson said the same thing of Tristram Shandy. All that either statement proves is that even great critics sometimes make fools of themselves swinging at an outside pitch lower than their ankles. (Wordsworth wrote some execrably bad poems, too, but he's still in the canon.)
And yes, a lot of dull, poorly written and inconsequential articles get published in English journals. God knows, I've read scores or them. But in my (impressionistic, unscientific) survey, about ten per cent are quite good, and add something new to the study of literature. Grayson points out, quite rightly, that "respectable publishing houses" regularly churn out books of criticism that are not particularly brilliant and that do not "add anything new to the body of human knowledge." The only reasonable response one can make to this indisputable fact is that academic presses are no different from any other institution. The vast majority of "literary" novels published by respectable commercial presses are of dubious value and certainly won't stand the test of time. In a hundred years how many of today's prize-winning poems and novels will be on the syllabuses of English classes (assuming there still are English classes in 100 years)? Excellence is rare.
My aim is not to defend bad criticism, but simply to point out that one judges literary criticism as a discipline the same way one judges wine making: not by the millions of mediocre bottles flogged every year, but by the few thousand good ones.
The same rule applies to teaching. There are few great teachers of literature for the same there are few great opera singers, or film directors, or golfers who win more than one major title. If you had one great teacher in your career as a student you are extremely fortunate.
And, finally, where do people get the idea that English professors are primarily teachers of English literature rather than critics or scholars? No one would entertain for two seconds such a silly idea about chemistry professors. Chemistry departments hire bright young assistant professors not because they might win a teaching award (though some do), but because they might win a Nobel Prize. And English departments hire bright young Ph.D.'s in the hope one of them might write the next Anatomy of Criticism, or Mimesis, or Orientalism, or Structuralist Poetics. Why is that simple idea so hard for those outside English departments to grasp? Northrop Frye, by all accounts, was an excellent teacher, but far more people have read Anatomy of Criticism than taken a class from him. And that's what he's judged for.
©2005 Nils Clausson.
Nils Clausson is an English Professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.
The IP comments: Nils Clausson's counterpoint to Erik Grayson's commentary raises several interesting points. And, there certainly is a place in academia for literary criticism. The IP would even go so far as to agree with Nils that the discipline of literary criticism should be judged by the most brilliant contributions of its practitioners. However, it still seems to the IP that Erik's point was well-taken. Too much effort has gone into mediocre criticism at the expense of better than mediocre teaching.
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