The Threat of Literature qua Literature and the Death of Greatness

Mark Zunac

In the spring of 2019 I was awarded a grant from the Apgar Foundation to start a Great Books certificate program at my university. This was a time when we were looking for some more programmatic innovation and an expansion of our course offerings. As such, certificate programs, meant to enhance the student experience and embellish the degree, were added at a fairly steady pace.

The impetus for my foray into curriculum building was little more than a desire to make literature old again. Culturally, we knew we were facing headwinds when it came to literature’s appeal to young people. The digital age has presented significant challenges. But as has been well-documented, many of the wounds suffered by English departments over the last half-century have been self-inflicted.

I saw an opportunity to remind students of what literature—that is, good literature—is meant to do: invite contemplation of big questions and investigate what it means to be human. It would also teach them to recognize and develop standards that could be used to distinguish the icon from the iconoclast, the visionary from the derivative, the transcendent from the base, the genius from the middling.

Such a certificate program would never be compulsory—students who were inclined to take literature classes as they were currently offered could still do so. In fact, those classes that privilege the delineation of authors by race/gender/class would continue to have built-in incentives like the fulfillment of diversity credits, etc. Completing a Great Books program would never be more than a niche curricular option, and it would never be more than a small but sagacious group that took it on. (It wasn’t even that novel; our library, not exactly a safehouse for fascists, has had for almost twenty years a Great Minds section.)

On the department level, I think there was a general recognition that such an effort, if nothing else, would encourage the act of reading and align nicely with our college’s purported commitment to the liberal arts. But those commitments were superseded at the college level by ideological rigidity and curricular tribalism.

The resistance in committee was fierce, and it was, ultimately, unyielding. It was also led by a small cadre of Women’s Studies faculty whose objections ranged from the predictable (the program might unduly exclude marginalized voices) to the trite (the term “Great” is problematic) to the irrelevant (such programs are typically only found at Christian liberal arts colleges). Their influence was outsized—I didn’t get the impression that many others cared much either way.

Having considered and attempted to implement all of the changes requested by this cohort to make the program more palatable, I came to realize that any new programming would have to simply mirror the entrenched curriculum. During my second attempt to pass the program at the college level (the second of about seven administrative hurdles to clear), the meeting agenda also included a new Women’s Studies certificate program. That motion passed quickly and unanimously with nary a question, leaving plenty of time for the inquisitorial posturing that was, in essence, a signal that my efforts would never be more than, shall we say, abortive.

Having had time and a pandemic to reflect upon the experience, I cannot escape the sense that there was a patina of insecurity that infused such robust opposition. A Great Books certificate program would have been innocuous. I suspect there may have been some fear that by elevating certain works and authors as “great,” many, many others would be exposed as tripe. But they nevertheless would not be under any threat.

There may have also been some underlying fear that a return to style, originality, linguistic precision, and ambiguity would render the entire operation as it currently stands merely the rote exercise of the academy’s shopworn unum necessarium, or one thing needful. Shakespeare’s (historic, if not current) popularity can be explained by racism. The idea of a canon can be explained by racism—or colonialism, or patriarchy, or something. The idea that certain works can be said to transcend time, place, and momentary preoccupations can be explained by mythical systems of oppression. But under these rules, everything is meaningless, and the humanities have no purpose. That, perhaps, is driving students out of literature classrooms as much as their smartphones. Or, it could also be the creeping sense that the ancien régime is finding fewer ways to defend itself.

Photo by Panyawatt on Adobe Stock

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