Unfortunately, the professors aren’t teaching literature appreciation, they’re teaching literature, and contemporary literature study demands an understanding of critical theory, not just close reading. You won’t get anywhere in grad school – let alone as a professor – without an ability to apply critical theory. Faced with doing a disservice to English students who are planning to be something else (lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, or baristas) or to those who are planning to become graduate students and professors, they favor the ones who have a chance to follow in their own footsteps.
Dave is more or less correct that "contemporary literature study demands an understanding of critical theory," but this is not because "they’re teaching literature." It's because literary study has become a self-reflexive discipline, a course of study about literary study, not about literature as such. You could say that this is unsurprising, even inevitable, given the imperatives of disciplinary study and scholarship in American universities, and you would be at least partially correct. But more about this below.
Dave links to a post at the blog Uncertain Principles that asserts the following about "theory-free" literature classes:
You could argue that this would be doing a disservice to students, that it is impossible to claim to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship without having at least some acquaintance with critical theory. And you'd be right.
Again, what I find most telling about this formulation is that denying students access to theory would impede their ability "to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship" (emphasis mine). The almost unconscious assumption is that to study literature in modern American universities is perforce to study the scholarship on literature, to become familiar with what others who have devoted themselves to the study of literature have written about the study of literature. (In fairness, it should be said that Dave goes on to question the use of theory in undergraduate literary courses, ultimately to take a position on how literature might be taught to these students with which I am entirely comfortable; it is precisely the unconscious assumptions behind the language employed in talking about theory, however, that I want ultimately to emphasize.) In many ways, what is now called "theory" is just what passes for the established mode of "literary scholarship."
There was a time, of course, when "literary scholarship" meant not theory in particular, but a wide range of approaches to literature, most of which were understood to be useful in helping us to understand literary works, to be ways of enhancing our ability to finally return to "literature itself" and read it with greater comprehension and enjoyment. But before discussing further how the one conception of scholarship mutated into the other, I want to quote Scott Esposito's gloss on this whole debate:
Dave's answer is "literature without theory" but he realizes that this approach is complicated by the fact that all readers are informed by various experiences and historical knowlege of some sort. In other words, none of us can be "tabula rasa" when reading a book. That means that anyone teaching literature will have to deal with a group of conflicting assumptions. If you don't steamroll/mitigate these assumptions with theory then what do you do?. . .
. . .Are we approaching this text as an aesthetic experience, watching how the words link and interact as one would the brushstrokes of a painting? Or are we approaching this more interpretatively, trying to teach tools to get at a meaning? I suppose we can always just answer "both" and say both approaches are worth teaching, but I'd doubt if that would mitigate argumentation.
Although Scott is also agreeable to the notion of "literature without theory" for undergraduates, his words as well bear the impression of some of the current presumptions about the relationship between literature and theory. One is that "none of us can be 'tabula rasa' when reading a book." This is unexceptionable in itself, but as I pointed out in a recent post, very often this otherwise harmless truism is used to assert further that such experiences and knowledge themselves constitute a "theory," that all reading of works of literature is preceded by a preexisting theory of literature and of reading itself. As I said in that post, I think this is a trivial argument mostly undertaken (not by Scott) to squelch all discussion about possible alternatives to theory as a way of orienting oneself to works of literature.
The second is less a presumption about theory than an altogether unexamined assumption about how we become acquainted with literature in the first place: Scott speaks of his two broadly defined approaches to reading literature as "worth teaching." Certainly we can think of the way we come to value reading works of literature as, broadly speaking, something that is learned, but in this context "teaching" means teaching literature as part of an academic curriculum. And, in my opinion, this underlying premise that literature is something to be encountered through the formal study such a curriculum imposes, that "literature" is somehow first and foremost a subject of academic study, needs to be reconsidered.
Perhaps the place to begin such a reconsideration is simply to remind ourselves that "theory" itself is a by-product of the transformation of the English department into the academic department assigned to "study" literature in the first place. And we should also remember that the establishment of literature as a reputable subject of academic study is still a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature courses were not offered on any reliable basis until the 1910s and 1920s, and really they were not consolidated into a coherent course of study widely availabe in American colleges until after World War II. Furthermore, it was under the aegis of "criticism" that literature was finally accepted into the curriculum, not as a self-evidently viable object of study in its own right. (For a further discussion of this history, see Gerald Graff's Professing Literature.) Before the advent of criticism (by which the focus of study was to be the development of critical thinking and its application more broadly), "English" was at best the discipline otherwise occupied with "philology"--literally, the study of the language.
It so happened that the dominant critical approach to literature in the 1940s, 50s and 60s became the New Criticism, a method of "close reading" that had the happy consequence of focusing the student's attention on the formal qualities of "literature itself," but it was surely inevitable that this critical method would come to be supplanted by others, since, again, the goal of studying literature was to develop critical approaches to literature, not to admire it for its intrinsic worth--although, again, New Criticism did seem to encourage this respectful attitude.
It also happens that New Criticism is a critical approach for which I have a great deal of sympathy, although I also have problems with its unstated ambitions--for many of the New Critics literary study was intended to become through its respect for "the text" almost a substitute for religion--and a number of its practices--the general New Critical disdain for writers such as Wordsworth (the Romantics more generally) and Milton, for example. But in my opinion the most destructive legacy of New Criticism has been the process it initiated whereby Critical Methodology became all-important, inevitably leading to the creation of new methodologies deemed superior to the preceding ones, finally leading to the installation of "critical theory" as we now know it as the sine qua non of literary study. As a result, we have been led to forget: Before there were departments of literature and literary study, there was no literary theory as such. Writers and readers got on perfectly well without it.
Certainly there was literary criticism before the English department became first its guardian and then its warden. But to call the critical writing of Samuel Johnson or S. T. Coleridge or Henry James "theory" is merely to engage in denotative game playing. Critics such as these (who for the most part were poets and fiction writers themselves) wanted to explain what was at stake in the reading of poetry and fiction, and they had their opinions about what was good or bad in their fellow writers, but they hardly thought of criticism as largely about itself, as a contribution not to the appreciation of worthy literature but to the perpetual shifting and expanding of critical methodology.
To return (at last) to the posts at Conversational Reading and Word Munger. Theory is important, indeed indispensable, to "those who are planning to become graduate students and professors." And undoubtedly "anyone teaching literature will have to deal with a group of conflicting assumptions." But these things are true because, essentially, becoming a literature professor, not advancing the cause of literature, has become the primary objective of the graduate student, and because teaching literature has come to be much more about teaching--that is, professing a point of view--than about the works of literature being taught. Those works are still around, waiting for such readers as are willing to take them for what they have to offer. But in this regard, curious readers would be much better served by reading, say, literary weblogs than by giving much thought to what literary theory is all about.