April 29, 2008

Higher education’s crisis of confidence

William Deresiewicz has called literary criticism ?a profession that is losing its will to live.” Faculties are shrinking, professors are warning students away from graduate school, and the twenty-first century has yet to produce a public intellectual of Harold Bloom or George Steiner’s stature. In short, university English departments are in crisis.  It must be Tuesday.

Whether English departments are teaching the right books is, as always, up for debate, but the fact that they are emptying is not. Anthony Kronman, author of Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, has seconded Deresiewicz?s observation that universities are teaching undergraduates with more of an eye to future employability than to the meaning of life, a set of priorities that has been unkind to humanities departments. The canon wars have cooled down, but the question is not ?Who won?? but ?Who cares??

The Blame Relativism First choir has good instincts?political correctness is destructive, novelty is an idle pursuit?but setting conservatism’s rhetorical sights on moral and cultural relativism only returns attention to a topic with which liberals in academia are, for the most part, bored.  The battles of Closing of the American Mind have faded and new ones arisen, and in this round of the fight apologists like Kronman pose a greater danger to their side than overzealous multiculturalists.  To spend so much energy explaining why literature and philosophy are worth four years? study indicates some anxiety about the answer.  After all, business and engineering professors rarely take the time to justify their departments; they assume their students understand that a high salary is directly correlated with ability to purchase goods and services.  The benefits of literature and philosophy are less material, but men no more need to be convinced that wisdom is desirable than that love is, or power, or happiness. To presume that students need to be talked into believing literature matters supposes that this is an open question, when really neither side of the canon wars ever doubted that literature was important enough to be worth the fight.

If the problem with literature and philosophy departments is that they no longer occupy themselves with big questions, better that Deresiewicz and Kronman should use their expertise in the humanities to offer new and compelling answers than that they should reinforce their profession’s crisis of confidence by addressing their arguments to a small, skeptical minority.  As any writing seminar will teach you, “Show, don’t tell.”

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