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It used to be said that inside every composition teacher a literature teacher was struggling to get out. This rueful witticism alluded to the sheer tedium of teaching composition well: close readings, minute fussing over detail, knocking predictable habits of illiteracy and stupidity while somehow resisting the debilitating encroachment of a crotchety temper. Sort of like raising kids, come to think of it, and academia has never been heavily populated with people suited to that calling.
In the past, then, some comp teachers would give in to the temptation to blow it off by assigning poems and short stories and asking students to relate their “feelings” about this or that character or theme or setting. If they learned little about writing, the students at least learned some literature.
In the early seventies, though, literature started being displaced by literary theory, and gradually the trends and pretensions of literary theory seeped into composition classes: a whole new way for comp teachers to blow it off.
As one might expect, each trend or set of trends — being trendy — did not last long. In the seventies, theorists blathered about “process” and the students’ right to their own language. In the eighties, the chaotic self-expression of the seventies gave way to deconstructionism, with its curious notion that the self is a fiction; group writing and “peer counseling” became the rage, and traditional notions of voice and coherence in writing became cultural artifacts.
In the nineties, with the stage set by the nihilism of deconstruction, multiculturalism entered, braying its obsessions over race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and postcolonialism. Writing classes have now become studies in oppression (the “School of Resentment,” in Harold Bloom’s phrase), with English teachers doing amateur hour in sociology, anthropology, cultural history, economics, political science — anything but literature; almost everything except the art of writing well.
IF YOU THINK I EXAGGERATE, sample the last several issues of College English, flagship publication of the perennially trendy National Council of Teachers of English. Not only will you come to admire my restraint, but you will gain intimations of things-to-be, as the academic drones inevitably tire of multiculturalism. The prose in College English is woolly and gnarled, of course, the cardinal rule of composition theory being little sense delivered with zero sense of style. But the titles alone suggest approaching trends.
To be sure, some of the multicultural obsessions are not going away soon: “Theorizing Queer Pedagogy in English Studies after the 1990s.” New trends, however, are afoot: “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships Between Discourse and Environment.” And among the new trends, it looks as if the comp theorists will be adding philosophy to their list of incompetencies: “Living Out Loud within the Body of the Letter: Theoretical Underpinnings of the Materiality of Language.”
Then too, there will be factions and retrospectives and attempts at redefinition. Henry Giroux, guru of oppression pedagogy during the nineties, appears to be going out of fashion under feminist suspicion of phallocentric insensitivity. Yet the theorists press on toward new horizons. A breathless credit line describes one reviewer as “currently writing a book on debasement, engaging switch points between black and other queer connections to anal economics, miscegenation, stone butch wounds, and the brain’s prophylactic relations with the dead.” Cutting-edge stuff, possibly on the way to a unified field theory of bosh, and no doubt generously subsidized by the grants culture of liberal academe.
How did all this happen? Among dozens of essays and books deploring the nonsense over the past generation, one conjecture keeps popping up: the theorists have no real passion for the printed word; they write badly and think foolishly because they hate reading.
Writing in defense of traditional literary criticism, Berkeley’s Robert Alter (The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age) speculates that the dominance of theory, with its “bristling conceptuality empty of an experiential ground in reading,” may be the consequence of “the unprecedented expansion of the American university system that took place during the sixties.” With the population explosion in academia came “intellectual disorder” amid hollow and frantic career hustling. This seems to me a decent man’s way of speaking an unpleasant truth: that academia is now crowded with people of middling talent, loose morals, and sinuous emotional problems.
“In practice,” an eccentric Jesuit professor of philosophy once said to us in an undergraduate seminar, “academia is a small slice of hell: the only place on earth where everybody hates everybody.” That was almost forty years ago. He was a charismatic teacher, given to hyperbole in his jokes about the publish-or-perish ethos and the serpentine culture of tenure. I recall how we laughed over his expansive bluntness; none of us knew he was being prophetic.
Perhaps some measure of gratitude is owed to the composition theorists for dropping the last pretense of virtue and thus exposing academe in all its petty, vagrant, abusive, blithely destructive imbecility. As Hercule Poirot says in a flash of recognition: “Ah yes, mon ami, there is evil under the sun.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online