Reason editor Nick Gillespie reports on a panel entitled "English Studies and Political Literacy":
The University of Chicago's Kenneth Warren emphasized the role of pre-college education, even as he gently chided moderator [Donald] Lazere for subtly equating "political literacy" with agreement on a particular political agenda. Lazere argued that instructors shouldn't shy away from politics in their classroom, because "literature can't be studied independent of political literacy." In fact, he said, they should bring in a wide array of sources, including The Nation and The Weekly Standard, where appropriate or relevant. That's all well and good. . . .
No, that isn't "all well and good." The notion that "literature can't be studied independent of political literacy" is bullshit. It's this idea that's brought ruin upon "English Studies" to begin with. It's just another way of trivializing literature, making it subservient to politics or culture or history or whatever. What other academic discipline has to endure this kind of marginalization, even on the part of those who belong to it? What would political scientists say if it were asserted that in order to understand politics one must first know poetry? Is it the case that, say, microbiology "can't be studied independent of political literacy"? Why is it only literature that can't be allowed its own autonomy, its own integrity as a subject that might be studied for its own sake and might provide its own kind of knowledge?
I am just old enough to have gone through graduate school before "English Studies" became entirely a hostage to political advocacy. I can attest that many of my fellow students were apolitical, at least as far as their approach to literary study was concerned. Some had decided to study literature precisely because it was removed from the hectoring insistence of political debate and required no political "literacy" in the sense this term is being used by Gillespie and the participants in this panel--i.e., they were free to ignore the inanities of politicians and other self-appointed cultural savants. Few of these students had any trouble separating politics from the study of Medieval drama or 18th-century fiction. Now we're being told it's necessary to consult The Weekly Standard in order to appreciate Wordsworth and Coleridge?
That Gillespie would so readily agree that political literacy is a necessary prerequisite to the study of literature only underscores the fact that conservative and libertarian critics of the academy are not opposed in principle to the politicization of academic literary study. They'd just prefer that the propoganda disseminated to college students be of the right-wing rather than the left-wing variety. Gillespie quotes Mark Bauerlein on the "diversification" of literary study: "Bring in a little less Foucault and a little more Hayek. Some Whitaker Chambers to go along with Ralph Ellison." Wrong again. Get rid of both Foucault and Hayek. Neither of them belong in literature courses. Pair Chambes with Ellison if you're interested in postwar intellectual history, but leave out Chambers altogether if you're teaching postwar American literature.
According to Gillespie, "Bauerlein also pushed for instructors to provide students with an American identity that is positive. 'Often the identity students get is too negative,' he said. 'We need not uncritical patriotism, but some line of argument about American history that students can espouse while criticizing other elements.' That sort of positive feeling would, he argued, make it easier for students to want to become engaged politically and civically." This is where the transformation of literary study into another mode of "political literacy" gets us. Left-wing "scholars" want to indoctrinate students with a "negative" view of American history, while their right-wing counterparts want to cultivate "positive feelings." A pox on both.