Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Mark Edmundson tells it like it is

On current tendencies in liberal arts education:

The analysis of great works now often takes place beneath the auspices of Narcissus. The student is taught not to be open to the influence of great works, but rather to perform facile and empty acts of usurpation, in which he assumes unearned power over the text. Foucault applied at industrial strength is an automatic debunking agent. But the process leaves the student untouched, with no actual growth, just a reflexively skeptical stance that touches the borders of nihilism. Such activity, prolonged over the course of an education, is likely to contribute to the creation of what the philosopher James C. Edwards calls "normal nihilists." Normal nihilists are people who believe in nothing (except the achievement of their own advantage), and we may be creating them in significant numbers by not counting the ethical costs of our pedagogy. "It's easy to be brilliant," Goethe said, "when you do not believe in anything." And it's easy, too, to be brilliantly successful.

The sense of superiority that current liberal arts education often instills rhymes with some of the least creditable trends in our culture. It rhymes with a superior and exploitative relation to the natural world, with condescension to the poor, with a sense that nothing in the world matters unless it matters to Me. . . .

What's missing from the current dispensation is a sense of hope when we confront major works, the hope that they will tell us something we do not know about the world or give us an entirely fresh way to apprehend experience. We need to learn not simply to read books, but to allow ourselves to be read by them.

And this process can take time. Describing his initiation into modern literature, into Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and their contemporaries, Lionel Trilling writes: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate." "I bored them," says Trilling. Given the form of literary education now broadly available, it is almost impossible that a student would say of a group of books, "I bored them." No, in the current consumer-driven academy, another word, differently intoned, would be on the tip of the tongue: "Booooooring." We professors have given our students the language of smug dismissal, and their profit of it is that they know how to curse with it and to curse those things that we ourselves have most loved and, somewhere in our hearts, probably love still.
Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (Bloomsbury, 2004)

comments: 2

Anonymous said...

A friend pointed me to this post and it hits home with such force that I'll probably be buying _Why Read?_ very soon. In the English dept. where I teach and study, it sometimes seems that literature has become little more than theory's handmaiden...what the work says or teaches or offers is unimportant in itself. What counts is whether it illustrates a philosophical principle or lends itself to a certain kind of theoretical reading. And so often, perhaps necessarily, the theory tells us that the text is at the mercy of these readings, becoming anything or nothing, being reshaped to fit our needs or perspectives. This sometimes makes for a frustrating environment, and it's good to know I'm not alone in that frustration.

Michael Leddy said...

Edmondson's observations helped me understand my resistance to the formulaic essay strategy, the "[insert adjective form of name or noun] reading of [insert name of work]." For me, that formula involves precisely the sort of "usurpation," as Edmondson calls it, that makes the literary work subordinate to a critical "approach." My hunch, Anonymous, is that many people in English departments share your frustration.