To the Editors:
In his remarks on the Yale Whitney Center symposium on literary theory and the curriculum (“The Academy Debates the Canon,” September 1987), Roger Kimball favorably quotes my observation that one of the panelists, Margaret Ferguson, had failed to address the question of “what she proposed to do with the many people in the academy who happened not to agree with her.” “Nor was anyone” at the symposium going to address that question, says Kimball.
Since Kimball seems to have thought my question such a good one, I was surprised that he too avoided addressing it. What, I wonder, does Kimball recommend be done about those of us professors of literature whose leftist “cynicism” and “devotion to shallow intellectual fashion” fill him with so much disgust? Exactly what kind of institutional action does Kimball want?
I thought I offered a realistic approach in my symposium paper when I argued (in Kimball’s paraphrase) that “we don’t need a consensus . . . to carry on work in the academy; we can agree to disagree.” I suggested that teaching situations might be arranged to foreground philosophical and ideological differences that now go unperceived by students. My point was that, in a situation where consensus on educational goals is hard to come by, it would be sensible to look for ways to bring the disagreements and conflicts over these and other issues themselves into the curriculum where something educationally constructive could be made out of them. Kimball, however, dismisses this suggestion as “a prescription for confusion, guaranteed to muddle young minds.”
It would be interesting to ask some of the “young minds” themselves if they think they need to be protected from exposure to philosophical and ideological conflicts. As I argued in the paper, if anything is “guaranteed to muddle young minds,” it is an arrangement in which students rarely have the chance to determine the stakes in such conflicts because they experience the different positions, if at all, only in separation.
Kimball says that my proposal “purchases ‘pluralistic’ concord at the price of intellectual content.” What I advocate has to do not with “pluralistic concord,” but with dramatizing conflict. I don’t de-emphasize “content,” but argue that content will have to be based on conflict if it can’t be based on consensus. As for my remark that “it hardly matters” what books students read, what I said was that it hardly matters when the students can’t understand the books.
If Kimball has a better alternative than mine, I wish he would come out with it. All he offers here are the usual ritualistic fulminations against those who allegedly reject “the tradition and intellectual principles that have nourished and given meaning to their disciplines” in favor of “blatantly tendentious and ideological” thinking. Alas, it is just such blatantly tendentious and ideological characterizations of opponents which have driven many of those opponents to the conclusion that all characterizations are ideologically determined. It would be fairer to say that the critical schools Kimball denounces have raised important questions about the social functions of the traditions and principles informing the disciplines, questions which bear thinking seriously about even if you don’t always agree with the critics’ answers to them.
To the Editors:
I was for the most part in agreement with the position Roger Kimball takes in “The Academy Debates the Canon,” but I must disagree with him when he says of the six writers invited by Salmagundi to respond to William H. Bennett’s NEH committee report To Reclaim a Legacy that none of them felt inclined to defend the report from Robert Scholes’s attack. I defended the report, quite clearly, I think, albeit putting my defense in an historical context. I cannot imagine anything I have published in recent years giving anyone the impression that I was likely to side with Scholes on this issue, much as I respect his other critical work.
Those readers of the Salmagundi symposium for whom my position was not entirely clear may have less reason to blame me than the fact that there were two E.D. Hirsch’s present: (1) the author of a well-known American Scholar essay to which Bennett, Scholes, and I referred, and (2) one of the respondents in the symposium. This latter Hirsch had, as Kimball points out, distanced himself from everything Bennett’s report stood for. When I wrote my response the second Hirsch had not yet appeared on the scene. I still prefer his predecessor.
John P. Sisk
Roger Kimball replies:
“Dramatizing conflict.” Content “based on conflict.” Yes, it sounds wonderful: so chic, so existential, and so. . . accommodating. But what can it mean? Apart from the undeniable rhetorical value of allowing Professor Graff to be on all sides of any issue, does it really mean anything at all? Despite his protestations to the contrary, I am afraid that the chief thing to appreciate about Professor Graff’s comments, here in his letter and in the symposium paper he read at Yale, is that they spring from a point of view that deliberately forfeits intellectual and moral substance for the sake of a vacuous pluralism. Except for proposing the formal requirement that everyone keep talking, Professor Graff has nothing to say about the truth or value of the ideas in question. Indeed, the very notion that the humanities have something to do with the pursuit of truth is rejected as a dangerously conservative prejudice.
One result of such pluralism—really, it is a kind of intellectual despair masquerading as pluralism—is that all positions come to be viewed as so many ideologies in an intellectual shell game whose only aim is self-propagation. It never seems to occur to Professor Graff that some intellectual positions might be truer or more worthy of transmission than others. Lecturing us about how important it is to keep the discussion going among ideological adversaries, he neglects to ask himself whether cultivating ideologies is the proper business of the university.
Professor Graff’s letter admits that some things are blatantly tendentious and ideological, however—at least he uses those terms to describe my characterization of the Yale symposium on literary theory and the curriculum. Perhaps he would also allow that the symposium itself was a veritable inventory of tendentious and ideological positions. Yet he nonetheless clearly feels that to describe it as such—in other words, to say what really happened—is to commit the unforgivable sin of suggesting that there are more or less objective standards of evaluation.
I have no doubt that Professor Graff is sincere in his desire to help students through the morass of contemporary literary theory. But while he is busy arranging “teaching situations ... to foreground philosophical and ideological differences” (one might have wished that this eager pedagogue had begun by using standard English), students are left with a welter of opposing views and no criteria to distinguish among them. I might also observe that my essay said nothing about protecting young minds “from exposure to philosophical and ideological conflicts.” The point is that in the democracy of ideas and values that Professor Graff preaches the one thing he excludes is the one thing that might help equip students with the critical acumen to discriminate among competing views: an allegiance to the ideal of disinterested inquiry and scholarship. And to pretend, as is fashionable, that such an ideal is somehow as corrupted by parti pris as are the most radical feminist, deconstructionist, racial, or Marxist diatribes is a mark of profound intellectual and moral cynicism.
It is dispiriting to realize that the author of Literature Against Itself, which is admirably frank in its rejection of various modish literary ideologies, should have so thoroughly abandoned the principles that animated his earlier work. The sad truth is that the view that Professor Graff now espouses is not an answer to ideological conflict, as he promises, but a capitulation to it.
I am pleased to hear that Professor Sisk was for the most part in agreement with the position I took in my essay. And I am also pleased to learn that he was inclined to defend To Reclaim a Legacy after all. Did he do so “quite clearly”? Even on re-reading his response, I am afraid that I find it rather opaque. And on the two Hirsches: one might ask what the retractions and qualifications put forward by Hirsch number two tell us about the seriousness and good faith of his much admired predecessor.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 3, on page 82
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