On the Academic Hostility to Great Literature

In several recent articles at Crisis and elsewhere, I’ve been arguing that Catholic schools should reject the Common Corpse, the newest form of an old and largely successful campaign to banish good and great poems and stories from our classrooms.  I’ve been charged with exaggeration.  Surely things cannot be that bad.  The sky still stretches above us, and the moon is not yet as red as blood.

The critics are right.  Things are not that bad.  They are worse.

It’s hard for me to catch up with the plague, since the school where I teach has been an island of relative health.  It has long been teetering on the brink of Catholicism, and that has helped to keep the plague at bay.  Every member of my department actually loves literature for its own sake, and not just for some supposed political utility—well, almost every member all of the time, and every member at least some of the time.

That’s not because we are good and wise people.  It is partly because our professors are at least fitfully aware of that true sky above us, the one most aptly called heaven, with its call to wonder and adore.  It is also partly because our faculty made a fateful choice more than forty years ago.  On the other side of the river, there’s a notorious college which just at that time had discarded its curriculum.  That was the fad then.  It wasn’t called Common Corpse, because it wasn’t being sold as something to unify a people and provide their children with a core of knowledge, while actually subjugating them to the whims of bureaucrats, technocrats, publishing houses on the make, and giant testing companies, and reducing literature to inert matter to work upon, to acquire what are called, without any sense of irony, “skills.”

No, the fad then was freedom.  “Milton hath not scribbled / Here his graffiti!” I can hear them crying.  Anyway, they told Milton where he and his epic could go, and the professors at my school told them where they and their freedom could go.  The fad there was to go a-slumming with pop culture, rich kids pretending to a proletarianism to which they were not born.  Our decision was to give to the sons and daughters of electricians and construction workers the same riches we had been giving to a very few honors students.  So my worthy predecessors fashioned a two-year-long, twenty credit, team-taught course in the Development of Western Civilization, required of every freshman and sophomore.

What that means was brought home to me again the other day, when I was leading a discussion of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.  We had a visitor in class, a young Catholic professor from a secular college in the Midwest, who had gotten his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.  He told me that he envied the ease with which I could talk about all kinds of things to those students: Scripture, C. S. Lewis, Augustine, Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare all came up in the course of the discussion.  He said he couldn’t do that where he teaches now.  The students wouldn’t understand it, and his fellow professors wouldn’t tolerate it.  He had even submitted for approval a new course on the Bible as literature, arguing that students could never really understand most of English literature without that grounding.  His colleagues laughed him down.

We got to talking, and that’s when I saw again what I’m apt to forget, because it is far from my daily experience.  We are teaching our students things that have vanished elsewhere.  He told me that some of his colleagues had objected to a proposed course that would include such writers as Aeschylus and Thucydides, because they were “obscure.”  It’s rather like an historian objecting to a course on Napoleon and Tocqueville, because nobody’s ever heard of them, and their names are hard to pronounce.  It is like an art professor objecting to a course in, what’s his name, the guy from Venice—Titian.

He told me also that at that fat and famous land-grant university, Wisconsin, the English department boasts only two medievalists.  “We have two medievalists,” I said, “and I’m always grouching that we don’t have three!”  He was surprised and pleased to learn that we have almost as many professors teaching early English literature (eight) as they have there (ten or thereabouts), though our school is but an energetic Water Rat as against that behemoth.

That sent me on a search, to find out what is being taught at my own mater ferox, a small dark hole east of the Delaware River where reason goes to cough up blood, and also at our competitor nearby.

It wasn’t a pretty sight.

When I attended Princeton, it was as Father C. J. McCloskey once described it to me, with a matter-of-fact smile.  It was an evil place.  But stupidity was still far away.  The English department offered only real, solid courses, in genuinely great literature.  And some of them were hugely popular.  Freshman Shakespeare, the course most students took to fulfill their composition requirement (I placed out of that one), was thronged with hundreds of young people who adored the lecturer and actor, Daniel Seltzer.  John Fleming’s Chaucer course had eighty or ninety students in it, many of them not English majors.  Walton Litz’s course in the modernists Eliot, Pound, Frost, and Yeats had to be held in a large auditorium, with the master of ceremonies declaiming great poetry from the stage.  Thomas Roche’s course in Spenser had about 35 students—Spenser!

And now I find that, this spring at Old Nassau, there are only three upper-level English courses with an enrollment of more than twenty.  One is a course in Nabokov (30), cross-listed with Slavic Studies.  One is Shakespeare (66).  The third is a course in junky kid-lit (395).  The department is stocked with people who teach literature as everything under the sun except for literature—gender this and class that.  Even Princetonians seem bright enough to tune it out.  The trash is piling up, and there’s hardly a warm body left to take it to the curb.

Then I turned to our transriparian rival.  It was even more dismal.  Here is how the English department advertises itself to the world:

Our department fosters the [is there a particular one?] open [as opposed to closed?] understanding of literatures and cultures in English [can you have a culture in English, in English?]. We promote original [not plagiarized?] work on new questions of history, criticism, theory, and analysis [what is a question of analysis?]. We invite practices of reading and writing that challenge the ongoing creation [challenge it to what?] of knowledge in our fields. English is among the largest undergraduate concentrations at [Crayola], and graduates of our Ph.D. program are recognized for their scholarship across the globe. Our nonfiction writing program opens up [with a Swiss army knife?] the [which one?] useful [as opposed to useless?] diversity [why not plain old variety?] of styles and modes of writing.

Sure, allowances must be made for slovenly ads.  But this is typical stuff.  If you want to know what the Common Corpse looks like under the skin, here is a good cadaver.

Meanwhile, my visitor suggested that I hunt down what one of my old professors had to say about the Ivy League where he had spent his professional life, as compared with what one genuinely Catholic college had to offer.  Here, first, is the advertisement for that Catholic department of English (emphases original):

A tradition of thought extending back to Milton, Sidney, and Aristotle holds that literature imparts wisdom. With respect to the kind of wisdom that governs human conduct, poetry promotes a grasp of reality superior to other ways of knowing in its combination of immediacy, lucidity, practicality, sensitivity to refinements, capacity to shape the affections, and adequacy to the whole.

This conviction guides literary study at every level of the curriculum pursued at the University of Dallas. The program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers.

Those folks can write.  Perhaps it is because they have read?

I am surer than ever that Milton and Donne and Tennyson are not making it into your child’s schoolbooks, because the professors who teach the people who teach your children and who write their textbooks do not esteem them.  Will your child be introduced to the great heritage of English literature at Space Cadet High?  Hardly, when that same literature has been shelved at George Jetson University.

Here is what my great and wise professor, Robert Hollander, had to say about the University of Dallas.  Let his words ring in your ears, American bishops whom I want so badly to love and to follow in the fight for things both human and divine, and who so often let me down:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

Teachers who love the humanities should be able to say something like that about every Catholic school and college in the country.  Corpses are good to study, not to emulate.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Abbé Henri Brémond, the mystical theologian and literary critic begins his essay « Prière et Poésie » [Prayer and Poetry] with the question, “Can we learn – in any real sense of the word – to swim?” His answer? “It would seem not. To swim is to abandon our foothold, once for all, and that act of confidence can neither be taught nor commanded. It is the water itself which, by bearing us up, justifies our confidence in it.” So it is with poetry. “In the course of the normal development of man,” says Bremond, “there occur moments in which the discursive reason gives place to a higher activity, imperfectly understood and indeed at first disquieting, self-abandonment to which is justified by a confused presentiment, an expectation of one knows not what delights.”

    As with poetry, so with prayer. Not for nothing does he quote the English poet, Coventry Patmore, “All realities will sing; nothing else will” and the French philosopher, Joseph de Maistre, “Reason can but speak. It is love that sings.”

  • droolbritannia

    Years and years ago – a ‘career’ ago – I studied English Language and Literature at both UC Berkeley and the University of Oxford. Before graduating Berkeley and moving on to specialize English Renaissance and Reformation literature (thesis on Milton), I had to study the classics of western civilization (Greek and Roman literature), the Bible as literature (at Berkeley, remember), English literature from Chaucer through the 1940s (I managed to avoid Beowulf, but not – alas – Spenser), courses in the novel, the history of English drama, English Renaissance poetry (dazzling)…

    In terms of the sheer brilliance and enduring influence and inspiration of the instructors, Berkeley was vastly superior to Oxford. Only about twenty years after graduating UCB (and teaching college-level British and American literature in a Central European country) did I realize that my finest professor there seems to have been teaching Shakespeare ‘on the surface,’ but underneath it all was repeating the same, life-changing lesson: there is objective truth in the world – yes, my relativist students, even about literary texts. Our task is to identify it and demonstrate its truth to others. It took me years to realize the passion for truth that he both touched and inspired in my heart. It is my constant refrain in teaching American literature to college students: ‘Our job is to find what is TRUE about these texts, and to demonstrate it using evidence from the text. Everything else is opinion; and opinions are trash.’ Or as my old professor used to say, ‘Nobody cares what you think, except your mother and your wife before you marry here.’ (What we care about is what is demonstrably TRUE.)

    Every so often my eyes wander to the shelf of books I no longer have time for — Paradise Lost, the works of Shakespeare, dear old Chaucer, John Donne, not to mention Dante, the great 19th-century novelists (how Dickens can sketch a character!) — and a little flame is kindled for a moment in remembrance of my old, first love.

  • Steven Jonathan

    Brilliant Dr. Esolen! And spot on!
    It is funny, but truly the world does not believe you and now even otherwise good men are falling away from truth. It is as you say, worse than you can say. The public schools are cesspools with floating platitudes that seem somehow to dispel those deep seated misgivings that must rise to the surface now and again and give pause to even the most ardent ideologue.

    • poetcomic1

      Isn’t Dr. Esolen the best? I can’t figure out why – yes I can! He is not contentious, he doesn’t contend with the subject matter at hand he LOOKS at it….. hard.

  • Dan

    I had occasion recently to flip through Santa Clara University’s course catalog and it was a real eye-opener. It is not just that the university had a women’s studies program or that there were some “gender studies” courses — that I would have expected. It goes far beyond that. The women’s studies program has commandeered the entire curriculum, apart from the hard sciences. Under the category of “women’s studies” there are virtually no courses. Instead the “women’s studies” part of the catalog refers you to the many “gender studies” courses that are dispersed throughout the History, English, Religion, and various social studies departments. All the students — not just the women’s studies majors — are given a thorough going indoctrination into feminist ideology. And this is at a so-called “Catholic” university. The roof is caving in.

    • TheAbaum

      What has been happening and happening for a long time is that “higher education” is nothing but indoctrination.

      • Art Deco

        That was David Frum’s 1994 thesis, and it’s not all that plausible. The insularity does not help, but institutional cross-subsidy is more consequential than public subsidy. The problem is now (and Allan Bloom would would have told you was 50 years ago) at its most severe in the humanities, which receive little in the way of directed subsidies (though, of course, benefit from general subsides).

        A different line of inquiry would ask how the intelligentsia came to conceptualize itself as a caste apart from the larger society and how our political conflicts came to be one of competition between the word-merchant element and the rest of the elites (with working people recruited as auxilliaries on either side). Alvin Gouldner, Stanley Rothman, and Thomas Sowell have written on this.

        You see a great many of the same attitudes across a spectrum of occupations: the mental health trade, academe, the news and entertainment media, now the legal profession. Subventions to higher education cannot explain a great deal of that.

        • TheAbaum

          A different line of inquiry would ask how the intelligentsia came to conceptualize itself as a caste apart.

          A privileged position at the public trough is a part of it.

          • Art Deco

            It antedated that, though. M.S. Adams of UNC – Wilmington has offered that the terms of employment in academe tend to modify the composition of labor inflow, inducing a bias toward people with an allergy to competitive employment. The midpoint of the advent of tenure systems was in the 1920s.

            In The Hollow Men, Charles Sykes offered an account of Dartmouth’s governance (or the lack of it). The hollow men in question were the institution’s trustees, who were often stupefyingly uninformed about institutional business and inclined to let the faculty trash the place. I believe at one time trustees were much more self-confident and hands on. Certainly having self-regenerating boards with nominating committees has been a facility for turning places into sandboxes for the faculty and administration.

            • Glenn M. Ricketts

              Another thing that explains part of this phenomenon is the institutionalization of the Bloomsbury Set, the highly affluent, super-cool Bohemians who were so influential in pre-WWII Britain, and whose attitudes have gone mainstream among many academics since the late ’60s.

              That outlook – usefully described by Daniel Bell in “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism,” and by Christopher Lasch in “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” – is now so mainstream that you’ll encounter it among most K-12 teachers, highly conscious of the fact that they are “educated” and also very, very cool, far, far above ordinary mortals. They undoubtedly haven’t read Pope, and if they did, this couplet would likely elude them:

              All fools have still an itching to deride,
              And fain would be upon the laughing side.

              I think that captures it, though.

              • Tony

                Thank you, Glenn — and that is a brilliant couplet. Is it from his Essay on Criticism? As usual, though, Pope nails it. And I have to fight, even here, against the lust for belittling great works of art and poetry.

                • Glenn M. Ricketts

                  Sorry Anthony, I should have indicated that yes, it is from the Essay on Criticism. Believe it or not, I’ve actually managed to slip the Essay into my Introduction to Political Science class, in the interest of better writing. You do what you can. eh?

    • John Byde

      That is the name of the game, Dan. The IB programme does this and it sounds a good idea: looking at broader, overarching themes, not getting bogged down in narrow subjects, etc. HOwever, in reality it means that the propaganda spreads right across the curriculum.

  • poetcomic1

    “Their attitude is a spontaneous expression of naturalism or, or to give it its old name, which is its name for all time, paganism, into which society ceaselessly tends to fall back because it never completely left it.” – Frank O’Malley’s syllabus

    The utilitarian future will not end in a chic and modern Utopia. It will end in sacrificing babies to make the crops grow.

  • John

    Well said, Dr. Esolen. This is serious. Now, what do we do about it?

  • Charles Ryder

    Of all the colleges I visited with my four kids, the University of Dallas was by far the most impressive of the lot. The three classes we attended as part of the tour were outstanding. In one of them, a Cistercian gave a wonderful gloss on Faulkner’s “The Bear”. Alas, Dallas couldn’t compete with the Big Apple and my son opted to go to the “Jesuit University of New York”. And so, the Christmas before last, I gave him the Iliad and the Odyssey.

  • cestusdei

    In the local HS they are reading The DaVinci Code. The teacher says it is great literature. I tried to have it removed, but so far have failed. They do allow students who object to read Milton. Allow…?

    • Tony

      Oh my … that certainly is worse than I’d imagined. The man is an illiterate bigoted incompetent twit… I should dig up and post my parody song about Ol’ Dan Brown. What’s scary is that there’s a teacher so ill-educated that he or she would actually think that that garbage is filet mignon.

  • Art Deco

    One question I would like answered. Why is their a Catholic college in this country which does not have the local bishop or provincial as its trustee? I would think institutional auto-destruction would have at least been retarded by the accountability of the administration to bishops and provincials.

  • John Byde

    If you think Common Core is bad, Doc Esolen, just wait until you see the spiritually parched desert that is the International Baccalaurate. It’snot just English but every subject on the curriculum that is levelled down to diversity, eco-propaganda and other one-world claptrap. The only answer is the few islands of sanity such as your school and homeschooling.

  • James_Kabala

    I had a student quote “The Dream of the Rood” today. (The context was that she made a not-entirely-successful attempt to compare it to William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, but it was impressive nonetheless.) Interestingly, if you check the English courses at my school’s website (you can e-mail me if you want the link), the 100 and 200 courses sometimes have strange names or descriptions (one is datedly named after a nineties TV show), but suddenly the 300 courses are nearly all standard things like “The American Novel to 1914″ and ” Shakespeare: The Histories and Comedies.” That seems to be a bit cart before the horse, but at least they get the good stuff in the end.

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  • musicacre

    Wow! Spot on! Thank you Professor Esolen!
    It’s so great to have someone describe so perfectly the elephant that has been in the living room much too long! I knew what I was was avoiding when we decided to homeschool many years ago, but unfortunately that didn’t remedy the the dismal choices we had here in Canada for university level literature. My children chose professions that almost completely left out literature except the slight nod in the first years. It seems you can attend university and end up a “technician” in your field, instead of the universally older accepted view of what a university education imparted. I would dare to say broadness, after having proper exposure to the great literature. When they’re headed for music, accounting, or engineering, it’s hard to persuade them to study the humanities first. And, as you so eloquently explained, an authentic course is hard to find. Have you ever thought of doing an online version?

  • AugustineThomas

    Leftism ruins everything.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    When I was taking English literature courses at San Francisco State University in the late 70s toward an M.A., we read all these once standard works. I was even permitted to write my M.A. thesis on Tolkien. Ten years later, when I was considering going back to get a Ph.D. in English, I could not even recognize the canon of literature which had suddenly appeared.

  • D.S. Thorne

    Hear, hear! Those of my generation with the unquenchable thirst for great books and thoughts must toil in isolation. The institutions have failed us – at least to the extent that we have not demanded them to give up the goods. Whenever I did find we a professor of the old school, I grabbed on with hoops of steel!


  • John Uebersax

    Right on! Catholic universities are making a huge error by following the pattern of corporate secular universities.

  • aquinasinstituteparent

    I think Prof. Esolen stretches his point in taking his alma mater to task for now having smaller class sizes in Chaucer and the like. Princeton has purposely limited class size (because it CAN). Further, I took a 2 minute glance at Princeton’s English and comparative lit offerings and found The Bible as Literature, Aristotle, plenty of Shakespeare and the Great Books, etc. With all due respect to Dallas and Providence, Princeton certainly goes far beyond a Common Corpse curriculum. Crisis Magazine readers also should be aware that Princeton offers a thriving and strong Catholic presence, daily Mass on campus, the Blessed Sacrament in the historic chapel (in a side chapel), weekly activities and challenging theological discussions.

    • Art Deco

      And it’ll only set you back 50 k a year.

      • andrew

        I read recently that Princeton is the cheapest school in the country in terms of graduating debt load (around $5K average) — it seems Princeton is able to offer loads of financial aid because of their large endowment. I know Yale is trying to follow suit.

    • James Kabala

      If it is true that class sizes have been capped, that does change things. But Art Deco probably has the better point!

    • Tony

      Excuse me, but that isn’t quite right. Did you notice that there were 395 students enrolled in the Youth Fiction class? And 66 in Shakespeare? It’s the precepts that are limited to a certain number of students (if indeed there are still precepts at all). There are courses offered, but not many students seem to be signing up for them. And many of the courses I took when I was a student there no longer exist. You can put it this way: in the Princeton that I knew, which was already a very dark place, there were NO stupid or trash-filled or politically oriented courses in the English department; and literally hundreds of Princetonians who were not English majors took courses in real literature, every year. That is not the case now.
      I’m aware of the thriving Catholic presence at Princeton. I’m deeply grateful for it; but my article here was on the teaching of the humanities, and specifically literature…..

    • Michael Pakaluk

      Here are courses I found on offer in English for the Fall. These are the bulk of the courses, not odd exceptions:

      Music from the Hispanophone Caribbean
      African American Literature: Origins to 1910
      Clues, Evidence, Detection: Law Stories
      Seminar. Types of Ideology and Literary Form: Pornography, Gender and the Rise of the Novel in Europe
      Satire: Mockery and Reform from Aristophanes to South Park
      American Cinema
      American Comics’ Film and Television Review: The Princeton Buffer
      The Female Literary Tradition
      Queer Theory
      Topics in Postcolonial Literature: Postcolonial Cities
      Arts & Humanities: Essential Tools For Environmentalists

      I agree with Dr. Esolen that the list is a symptom of something that exists *in the institution*, even if some good courses are offered. (Universities should education qua institutions.) I disagree that daily Mass and a Catholic fellowship can compensate, from the point of view of an education.

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  • boobtuber06 .

    The ivy leagues, for a long time, have departed from imparting wisdom as their priority and rather adhered to merely being stepping stones for the ruling class…

    • Art Deco

      Higher education in general is a labor market sorting device, and not a very efficient one. Allan Bloom suggested a generation ago that there was no cause to keep youngsters for four years if there was no conscientiously designed core curriculum to follow for two of those years. He was right. Baccalaureate degrees should be abolished in favor of briefer and focused courses of study and paper-and-pencil occupational tests restored.

    • Richard Moorton

      Exactly right, and the kids know it. When I was finishing up my spring course on warfare in antiquity in an “elite” liberal arts college, one of my best students, a poised and well-dressed young woman who was a senior, slammed her books down on her desk at the end of class and said for all to hear “there! I’m graduating. Now I have my ticket to the middle class.” I had often thought of my school as just such a place and almost fell over laughing at the podium. “At last,” I said, “someone has said it out loud.”

  • CharlesOConnell

    It’s interesting being old in this time, wondering if I’ll die before the world as we know it comes crashing down. Either way, I won’t be around for long. https://scontent-a-sjc.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-frc3/t1.0-9/1964770_10202293659841032_1616970335_n.jpg

  • Montague

    …Scary, because I’m hoping (eventually) to be a Professor of Medieval Lit… and the classics department disappeared from my school less than a decade before…

    • John200

      OK, I’ll bite on the obvious bait. What are you doing in that school? Maybe you should transfer, like, immediately if not sooner, eh?

      The number of schools where you can study Medeival lit is shrinking. But if you are good, you can get the faculty to take an interest in you before you apply for admission. Then everything gets easier. If you are talking grad school, they might just be able to find a fellowship and tuition waiver to help you get going in the field.

      I wish you the best — we need scholars in your area. Christopher Dawson told me so, C. S. Lewis is right there alongside him, and Cardinal Newman says the same. Let us know, every now and then, how you are progressing.

      • Montague

        Monetary concerns for one – graduate school is more important for getting the PHD credentials, and the money here is excellent.

        Thankfully, there’s a private Christian school right by (New Saint Andrews) where I can drop by for some solid classics discussion. And it might even be a good thing that I came to a school without a classics program, if only to inject a bit of classics back into the place (admittedly, only if God works a miracle – but someone’s gotta try).

        Also, one of my professors from last semester asked me to teach one of his classes a lesson on Dante – please pray I present it well >_< (providentially, it's right after Easter)

        I thank God for your concern. I'll try to keep things updated on this tiny bit of the "University Front." God bless!

    • Tony

      You can still get a fine education in things medieval at the U of Toronto. Check it out.

      • Montague

        Thanks for the heads-up! (:

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