Before I left high school, I read most of what was then deemed “great” literature. One teacher, whose name eludes me but he was very animated, taught an English class on Shakespeare where we read a dozen of his plays, more than a dozen sonnets, and engaged in lengthy discussions of whether there really was a person named Shakespeare and, if not, who wrote the works under this name.
In the process, there were lessons in critical thinking, but make no mistake, this was about Shakespeare’s content, his words, themes and ideas. It was never said aloud, but a well-educated person read Shakespeare. As I went off to college, I never considered a future in the humanities, but whatever I did, wherever I ended up, I would have a working knowledge of Shakespeare, as well as a list of great English and American writers from Twain to Austen.
These writers are now considered anathema, remnants of our colonialist history of promoting “dead white men,” even if some were women, in the European fashion, at the expense of “others,” whether from darker continents or more relevant to the world occupied by students shut out from elite education.
Not only did these dead white men suck up all the air in education to the exclusion of other, just as worthy if not more so, writers, but they perpetuated our culture. Our toxic culture. And those who considered Shakespeare dead made sure he stayed that way.
The package’s title is a single word, “Endgame,” and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are “befuddled and without purpose.”
The package is a bundle of essays at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In some respects, it reflects the focus of those who, unlike me, chose to make humanities in general, literature in particular, their future. They chose poorly.
A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation or recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.
This can’t be chalked up to one reason, no matter how much easier that would make it to explain. Sure, students are told STEM is where the jobs are, so major in STEM, even if that’s far too simplistic to be useful. But even a well-rounded mechanical engineer should be able to quote A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over the past generation, unfortunately, shoving literature down student’s throats as part of their requirement distribution was too value-laden. Who were scholars to decide what was good literature, after all?
This is not a dead belief in the humanities; I know many professors, most of them political liberals, for whom it is essential. But it is a contested belief, which is why the other key essays in the Chronicle package stage an argument on exactly this subject — with Michael Clune of Case Western insisting that the humanities must offer “judgment” on what is worth reading, and G. Gabrielle Starr and Kevin Dettmar of Pomona answering that no, humanists can only really “teach disciplinary procedures and habits of mind … we model a style of engagement, of critical thought: we don’t transmit value.”
Rather than making students read “great” literature, and thereby teach students that some literature is great and other less so, is it best left in the clammy, grubby hands of children to decide for themselves? But even if that’s what they claim to do, to not “transmit value” but “model . . . critical thought,” the fact is that they very much “transmit value,” only not the value of literature that has sustained us for centuries, but of the fashionable sort, largely dictated by the marginalized identity of the author and subject matter of obscure lives and the banal feelings of protagonists.
A wag might suggest that the “critical thinking” aspect of this literature is the ability to string together jargon to manufacture a rationalization of why incomprehensible gibberish is literature at all. But the authors aren’t “dead white men,” and the subjects are characters that have been largely ignored throughout European literature. That doesn’t mean they’re of any value now, but the mere fact that their stories weren’t told before is reason enough to gush.
No doubt there are authors who have been overlooked, ignored and marginalized, over the centuries who wrote great literature but were of the wrong gender, color or class to rise to the top. But then, not all “dead white men” survived the scrutiny of generations, and not all trendy literature deserves room in your head either. The difference is that great literature, like Shakespeare, could have been popular for a moment and then faded away, but it didn’t. The new literature has yet to prove its staying power.
And the irony is that the very forces that have undermined strictly Western and white-male approaches to canon-making have also made it easier than ever to assemble a diverse inheritor. This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it’s possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between “dead white males” and “we don’t transmit value.”
Douthat loses his direction here. Great literature isn’t the product of debate, but something that arises organically, over time, after years, decades, centuries, of being tested and either embraced or put on the shelf. And if we leave it to the student, the unwashed, the least knowledgeable person in the room, to decide for themselves what literature has “value,” then we’re doomed to whatever is trendy at the moment, because what else would we expect?
Escaping that dichotomy will not restore the academic or intellectual worlds of 70 years ago. But the path to recovery begins there, with a renewed faith not only in humanism’s methods and approaches, but in the very thing itself.
A well-educated person is a well-read person, regardless of whether his day job is writing code or arguing law. But will there be any Shakespearean scholars to transmit the value of this dead white man in a generation? No man will woo his love with Sonnet 18 when Shakespeare is forgotten.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In its place, what will there be?