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, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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