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Literature Lost

John Ellis questions the future of literature

By Jon Sanders

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March 01, 1998

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities; John M. Ellis; Yale University Press, 272 pages.

Probably no discipline in the American university has been as debased by political correctness as the study of literature. English departments, especially, have born the brunt first of deconstructionist theory and more recently, of the race, gender, and class oriented criticism that has led not only to a repudiation of the traditional canon, but to the questioning of virtually every intellectual and pedagogical premise that shaped the profession until about a generation ago.

In most English departments, the generational schism runs deep between those older faculty who were trained in New Criticism and close textual analysis of the Anglo-American canon of great writers, and younger, more radical faculty, who are deeply and often irrationally committed to the use of nontraditional literature as a vehicle for social change. In Literature Lost, John M. Ellis offers a thorough and detailed analysis of the consequent “cultural wars” and their impact on the status and future of literature in the academy. His conclusions are troubling to anyone who values intellectual objectivity in the classroom or who believes in the moral and ethical power of great literature to uplift and inspire.

A new Rosseauism

Ellis views the new literary radicalism as a revival of the Rosseauist attack on Enlightenment values, but the extent of the current transformation of literary study raises serious questions about the intellectual viability of the humanities in many institutions for the foreseeable future. Far from being a new idea, political correctness actually represents “a recurring impulse in Western society — one with a discouraging history.” Rosseau’s egalitarian ideals led after the French Revolution not to a utopia in France but to Robespierre’s reign of terror, and the same pattern was repeated after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. But the current onslaught of political correctness could not have come at a worse time for American students, who are already discouraged from reading by excessive television, the anti-intellectualism of popular culture, and declining public school standards.

The power of Ellis’s analysis lies in his unmasking of the logical fallacies inherent in much “PC” thinking, and though his analysis might not persuade the radical feminist who rejects rationality itself as “patriarchal oppression,” it is essential that the underlying irrationality of race, gender, and class theory be exposed. It is also essential that the American public understand the profound threat to academic freedom inherent in political correctness. Though PC has been much criticized by journalists and has not gained much popular acceptance, it is firmly entrenched in the academy, and its influence there may have indirect effects on the future of American democracy.

Anti-Foundationalism

Under the “anti-foundational” rubric, the race-gender-class critics have overturned virtually all of the dominant assumptions about the nature of literature. Any aesthetic or stylistic criteria of excellence are dismissed as “elitist.” Literature is not meant to educate or uplift; the past has nothing to teach us but imperialism, colonialism, and oppression of non-Europeans. There is no reason to prefer Shakespeare over Alice Walker. Teaching the traditional canon of “dead white male” authors may be harmful to minorities or women. Criticism is not about the content of a work, but about implicit questions of power relations and domination. Instead of expanding the study of literature, however, PC critics narrow it to a single set of issues and deny literature its separate and independent status as art. They make the simple, logical error of assuming that because all literature does have a political dimension, that dimension must always be the most important concern. In pursuing their arguments against opponents, PC critics often resort to ad hominem arguments, either/or fallacies, oversimplification, the fallacy of the single factor, conspiracy theories, and other logical fallacies. What unifies them is their anti-foundational epistemology: radical skepticism, nihilism, and sophistry about the status or attainability of any absolute values or knowledge. Any attempt to apply critical standards to literature is dismissed as foundational thinking. For “social constructionists,” all knowledge is socially created and has no objective validity. In place of an older generation of faculty who taught primarily out of a love of literature, many younger faculty frankly express their contempt for literature per se and admit that their interests have nothing to do with literature itself but with bringing about social change. Far from promoting critical thinking in the classroom, many PC critics actually stifle it. Some feminist critics have gone so far as to require students to sign a formal declaration of acceptance of feminist values before being admitted to a course in which intellectual dissent is forbidden. These trends have so altered the profession of literature that many English departments are divided primarily on the degree of their members’ radicalism: on whether to teach the traditional canon from a radical perspective or to replace it altogether with a PC canon.

Solutions

Given these disheartening trends, what is to be done? The tenured radicals of the Sixties are firmly entrenched, and despite Frank Lentricchia’s mea culpa in the September/October 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, there is little evidence that things will change. But it is important to publicize these changes within the profession of English, especially to trustees and alumni who need to know what is happening within their institutions.

New professional organizations — such as the National Association of Scholars and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics — can offer a counter-voice to the ideological excesses of the Modern Language Association. The passage of California’s Proposition 209 and recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action may help restore a belief in meritocracy and individual excellence rather than group entitlement.

But more than anything else, a strengthening of public education and a healthy skepticism about intellectual fads and trends within the profession will help restore sanity and balance to the humanities and help them regain a sense of their traditional mission and purpose within a liberal arts education

 


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