Leftist Nostalgia for Academic Standards

Peter Wood

Terry Eagleton, the British literary theorist, and probably the best known living exponent of Marxist interpretations, is now 68 and seems to have entered a period of reassessment. He is by no means abandoning his stance as an adherent to the political left, but judging by the interview with him by Alexander Barker and Alex Niven in the current issue of the Oxonian Review, he has considerable misgivings about where the turn toward theory in literary studies has landed us:

I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries… I just don’t see that any more. Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost.

More on Professor Eagleton’s discontents in a moment.

On June 1, UCLA announced the results of a faculty vote on a proposed new requirement. According to The Daily Bruin, the College of Letters and Science faculty voted down, 224 to 175, a proposal for a “Community and Conflict in the Modern World” requirement. The proposed general-education requirement would have forced undergraduate students to take courses heavily weighted towards ethnic studies and oppression-themed examinations of historical topics. The proposal was accompanied by a listing of sample courses that would meet the new requirement. These included: “Introduction to American Indian Studies”; “History of Asian Americans”; “Introduction to Chicana/Chicano Studies”; “Interracial Dynamics in American Culture and Society”; “Work, Labor, and Social Justice in the U.S.”; and “Introduction to Women’s Studies.”

This is the second time the UCLA faculty has voted down a proposal for a diversity general-education requirement. A similar proposal was defeated in 2004. That time, 19.7 percent of the eligible faculty members voted. The new vote drew 30 percent of the eligible faculty. The vote was conducted by secret ballot.

Tim Groseclose, the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA, posted a blog in which he interprets the lopsided vote (56 to 44 percent) as a repudiation of the low academic standards in the departments that would have benefited from the new requirement:

Although I was shocked by the results, one of my liberal friends lectured me why I shouldn’t have been so surprised. “I know you think UCLA is just a bunch of knee-jerk leftists,” he explained. “But a lot of those leftists are actually academic conservatives.” By the latter phrase he meant people who value high standards and rigor in teaching and research.

While few people will say it, nearly everyone on college campuses understands that the “studies” classes are not very rigorous; nor do they have high intellectual standards.

This opinion may sound perilously close to the third rail upon which Naomi Schaefer Riley reclined herself in her Brainstorm blog, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” But neither Professor Groseclose or his unnamed “liberal friends” appear to be calling for eliminating anything in the curriculum. They just aren’t very enthusiastic about adding a requirement to boost enrollments in a sector of the university that they regard as not very demanding. Perhaps Groseclose’s most pointed comment is,

No one in the history of mankind has ever said, “Darn, I made a D in Chicano studies. I guess now I’ll have to major in chemistry.” In contrast, lots of people have said the opposite.

Back to Professor Eagleton. Literary criticism, in his view, may be as dead on its feet as clog dancing, but he sees no connection between the declines in close reading, responsiveness to literary form, and moral seriousness, on one hand, and his career spent promoting the intellectual vagaries of “theory” on the other hand. Eagleton may be “appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem,” but he sees this fracture as the result of “the media,” postmodernism, and “changes in general culture.” Yes: “it might be ironic that someone like myself who partly initiated high theory in this country should then be bewailing the loss of the close reading tradition,” but that’s a misimpression. “The great theorists were very close readers, from Hartmann to Jameson, to Kristeva, to Derrida, who was for some people too close a reader.”

I don’t find this deflection all that convincing. How many students have returned from a study of any of these theorists with a more finely tuned sensitivity to the moral depths or heights of great literature? Few, in my experience. Literary theory is mainly about the intellectual vanity of the theorists, not the genius of the poet, the beauty of the literary achievement, the insights in the human condition, or the craftsmanship of the writer.

Be that as it may, Eagleton in his interview has some other surprising expressions of dismay about the contemporary academic scene. He says that, “Most people I know in academia want to get out,” and that this represents “a new situation.” He attributes the unhappiness of the (British) professoriate to the “the neo-managerial ethos” among the students, an attitude he characterizes as “absolutely hideous,” because it brings to an end the centuries old tradition of “the university as a center of critique.”

Eagleton also inveighs against “attempts to make culture stand in for religion.” He declares that:

no symbolic system on earth has had religion’s power, pervasiveness, depth. Whatever you think of religion I think that’s just a fact. Not always a fact to be celebrated by any means, but I think it’s a fact. Culture can’t hold a candle to religion.

That may seem an odd conclusion for a self-professed Marxist, but perhaps not all that big a distance from his early days. Eagleton mentions that, “I started, when I was at Cambridge, as a left-wing Catholic, in the heady days of the Vatican Council.”

I put the UCLA vote nixing a new diversity requirement and the interview in which Eagleton laments the decline in “close analysis of language” and literary sensibility as rhyming instances of a new trend. Stanley Fish may have gotten here first in his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, in which he poses as a critic of the politicization of the classroom after spending a career expediting the advance of every form of identity politics on offer in academe. In the UCLA case, a faculty that Professor Groseclose characterizes as overwhelmingly left-of-center (by a margin of 100 to 1) shunts aside a pretty routine effort to advance the cause of “diversity.” In Eagleton’s case, a fierce proponent of the context-is-everything school of literary criticism awakens to the reality that generations of students are now deaf to literature and prefer “neo-managerialism” to the ideological critique of capitalism.

What’s happening? We might think of it as a surfeit of success on the part of those who championed “cultural studies” and relativism in the humanities. They won the institutional war, much of which was fought by dismissing the importance of all curricular standards and capturing students with not-so-rigorous courses centered on progressive political themes. Many faculty members who were not actively involved in promoting this curricular dilution passively approved it. Voting to establish a Chicana/Chicano Studies program or accepting that “theory” would henceforth be a major part of an English-department curriculum seemed to them fairly harmless ways to promote progressive values.

The bills for these innovations are coming due. Students everywhere are deserting the humanities in favor of business-degree programs—“neo-managerialism”—and those who remain behind in the “studies” programs and the remnants of the old humanities departments are—all too often—not performing at very “high intellectual standards.”

The result is cognitive dissonance. No one who favored the progressive multiculturizing of the humanities curriculum or who attacked the tradition of close and respectful reading of first-rate literature to advance instead the sociology of books cares to admit he made a mistake. The blame lies vaguely and mysteriously elsewhere—on the media, or on “culture” itself. Still, when the demolitionists who led the revolution survey the rubble, they aren’t happy. Leveling monuments was fun while it lasted, but the blank and barren field now stretching to the horizon isn’t fun at all. There is an ersatz seriousness in pushing for ever more of the same: more identity-group studies, more multiculturalism, more theory. And some will stick with the program. Presumably the 44 percent of the voting faculty at UCLA who were in favor of the “Community and Conflict in the Modern World” requirement were sticking to the program.

But the deeper seriousness of which Eagleton speaks has gone missing, and a growing number of faculty members are weary of the whole thing. They are, by secret ballot in one place, by open declaration elsewhere, trying to chart a return to meaningful academic standards. That’s an innovation that bears watching.

This article originally appeared on June 12, 2012 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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