When I was in my mid-20s (quite some time ago) I started down the path that would have led to a PhD in English literature and then, after what would probably have been a lengthy job search, to an academic position. Circumstances at the time caused me to change my mind, and I went into a completely different line of work. I can’t say I’ve regretted the switch, but I do sometimes take a wistful look back at that fork in the road and wonder how things might have turned out if I had taken the other one.
I know what I thought I was aiming for. There’s a portrait of it in Jeffrey Hart’s affectionate memoir of Mark van Doren in the May issue of The New Criterion, and it initiated in me a bout of nostalgia for the world I had expected to enter. You’d really need to read the whole piece to get a good sense of what the intellectual atmosphere was like, and what Van Doren himself was like, but here’s an important passage:
No one then doubted that there were such things as great writers, nor that they could be named. Part of the classroom drama thus consisted of [Van Doren] measuring himself against such writers, and inviting the students to join him, everyone trying to rise somewhere near those peaks of intelligence.
This was the tone and atmosphere of literary study in the academy for a large part of the twentieth century—from, say 1920 or so until sometime in the ‘70s. It seemed to me in my youth, and still seems, a noble thing. From my present vantage point as a Catholic I see some deficiencies: it was an officially secular atmosphere, and it showed a tendency to turn literature, according to Matthew Arnold’s prescription, into a replacement for the religion which was now considered intellectually untenable. Men like Van Doren looked to literature for answers, or at least the nearest thing to answers which they believed might be available. They may have expected too much of it but they contemplated it from a posture of humility. They were there to learn from the classics and to help their students do so, and if the students did not wish to learn it was never supposed that it was because the classics were not worth learning.
From what I hear, this world has been lost not just to me but to all, swept away by the hostility of the cultural revolutionaries who came to dominate the academy, or at least the humanities, after the 1960s. Not long ago I ran into a young woman who was the close friend of one of our daughters when they were in their teens. I was pleased to hear that she was working on a doctorate in English. But my heart sank when I asked her what her area of interest was: “gender studies.”
There’s nothing wrong with looking at the situation of women as it’s reflected in literature through the centuries, or picking out the relationship between the sexes as an aspect of a great work worth studying. But one would have to be very naïve to believe that the term “gender studies” means anything so straightforward and unobjectionable. Just as in the struggle for racial justice “states’ rights” and “civil rights” carried quite a bit of very specific significance beyond their literal meanings, so “gender studies” and related terms mean something considerably more specific than “the study of gender.”
Gender studies is only one of the attitudes and prejudices that turn the study of literature upside down, making it a tool with which people holding an obscure but deep resentment for the world that made them can batter away at Western (read Christian) culture. Where someone like Jeffrey Hart under the tutelage of someone like Mark Van Doren felt himself judged by the classics, the prevailing (or at least common) attitude now seems to be that it is we who sit in judgment on the classics: they are to be put on trial, interrogated but not allowed to speak, found guilty, and their alleged crimes used as a stick with which to beat the Euro-American past and, more importantly, those who see themselves as being in continuity with it.
These pathologies get a lot of publicity, but I wonder how dominant they really are. I’m sure the old mode of encountering the great books is still alive in at least a few corners here and there. Great scholars and critics have always known themselves to be less than the books they studied. Mark van Doren had this kind of humility. Our practitioners of what might be called in general resentment studies try to make themselves greater, and in so doing have made themselves considerably smaller than even their predecessor critics.Pre-TypePad