LITERATURE LOST: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
By John M. Ellis
Yale University Press. 262 pp. $25

Go to the first chapter of "Literature Lost"

Go to Chapter One




When Politics Goes to College

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 28, 1997; Page X03
The Washington Post

John M. Ellis has written, in Literature Lost, a trenchant if upon occasion bombastic account of how "political correctness" rose from the ashes of the 1960s and a lucid analysis of its effects on academia. Literature Lost is an eloquent, passionate plea for the "wider world" to engage itself with academia and bring it to its senses, lest literature and the arts be trampled beyond recognition by the armies of the alienated professoriat.

This is a closely argued book, but the general reader will rarely find it dense; the exception is a chapter about literary theory, though Ellis is far more comprehensible than any of the theorists whose work he attempts to explain. Otherwise his line of reasoning is clear and the arguments he assembles in support of his broad positions are tight. A professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ellis has spent his life in academia; he knows whereof he writes.

The essence of Ellis's argument -- some of which, to be sure, is familiar -- is that in the space of barely a couple of decades "academic literary criticism has been transformed," from traditional inquiry into the meaning and importance of works of literature and "the profundity of the questions they raised," to an obsession with political power, a conviction that "the universities should have an overtly political function, work directly for social and political change, and inculcate a particular political viewpoint in their students."

This obsession takes various forms: an insistence on reducing every work of literature to race, gender and class; a paranoid sense of victimization and oppression, the victims including the professors themselves as well as those unfortunates whose causes they allegedly espouse; and a vehement hostility not merely to what they see as imperialist America but also to "business and the middle class." All of this got started during the 1960s. What is relatively new, and intellectually calamitous, is that it now dictates the way literature is read and taught in American higher education.

Precisely what literature is, how it is made and what it means, are questions that have been and will be debated for so long as there is literature to be read and studied. It seems a safe guess, though, that most readers of this review -- most "ordinary" readers who seek intellectual challenge and satisfaction from books -- will agree with Ellis's formulation:

"The body of writings we call literature is enormously varied and . . . broadens our experience and deepens our understanding of issues, events and people by helping us grasp their essential shape and meaning. Literature can be thought of as a kind of forum in which the members of a society reflect together and brood upon the many issues that arise in their lives. Inevitably, the thoughts of those who offer the most insight into the most interesting and most enduring issues -- that is, those with an unusual gift for doing so, the great writers -- float to the top and get the most attention. How could it be otherwise? But the collective judgment as to what is most important is the only limitation on the scope of the forum, which means that the diversity of theme, content and viewpoint found in literature is of the essence: only that diversity fulfills the function of literature."

Here Ellis catches the new academic critics in a telling hypocrisy: An academic culture that claims to foster "diversity" within itself and society is implacably antagonistic to literature's diversity, insisting that it can only be read with regard to race, gender and class and has merit only as it advances the academy's ideology. "If we are determined to take from literature only the attitudes that we bring to it," Ellis writes, "it ceases to have any point." But then it may never have had any point for many in the new generation of scholars, for much evidence suggests not that they love literature -- with its unanswerable questions posed with such ardor and eloquence -- but that they "have no real interest in what literature might say, only an interest in what they can use it for."

Here is another of Ellis's arguments: The "still emerging consensus that aggression by one people against another is intolerable and that one people may not subjugate another" -- the consensus that academic radicals claim to press at every opportunity -- is itself the creation of the very Western culture these radicals despise. It is an essential formulation of the Enlightenment, and "the idea of a common humanity was the Enlightenment's gift to succeeding ages." As Ellis puts it:

"The Enlightenment was the beginning of a worldwide cultural revolution that is ongoing, and in this sense we might talk of a spreading European cultural hegemony; but this is not a hegemony that race-gender-class critics can pounce upon and vilify. For they are among its agents: though professing cultural relativism and a solidarity with non-Western cultures, they are in fact the most ruthless and uncompromising enforcers of the Enlightenment's cultural revolution."

For all their agility in debate and for all their impenetrable, indigestible jargon, these critics know surprisingly little. They pontificate about politics, science, criminology and economics, yet few with serious knowledge of these matters are known to read them with interest or respect. Their naivete can be sublime; they seem unaware that the business of civilization "is to find a way to keep human nastiness in check, not to avoid interfering with the natural occurrence of human sweetness," so they inhabit "a fantasy world in which good intentions and moral superiority should be enough to make any society just and to abolish the barriers to equal outcomes." Knowing so little as they do, they are prone to reductionism at every turn, "isolating a single factor among many in a given situation and then ignoring all the others in order to reduce -- and so distort -- a complex state of affairs to that single factor."

To be precise: race, gender and class. These are the near horizons beyond which the critics cannot see. One by one, Ellis examines them, and one by one he destroys them. Feminism, a necessary and legitimate movement, has been sabotaged by academic radicals who make "destructive attacks on the allegedly exploitative character of the traditional family and of male-female relationships," with the result that it "is losing support among men and women alike and is in danger of isolating itself in angry campus enclaves, where its slide into ever greater unreality can continue unchecked."

Race, the most important and troubling question on the American agenda, becomes, "in the upside-down world of race-gender-class scholars," an issue of the moral culpability of "the North Americans who tore their society apart to fight what proved to be the decisive battle in the defeat of slavery, the American Civil War"; the remedy given for inequities that persist is affirmative action, which "encourages people to see themselves primarily as members of a group" and thus encourages "tribal thinking, with all of its destructiveness," and which, alas, prompts Ellis to some rather excessive tirades about a subject that is more complex than he seems to understand.

As for class, these critics' understanding of it is rooted firmly in Marxism, which they are drawn to "because it offers classifications for victim and victimizer, but the fluid structure of modern America looks very different from the rigid 19th-century European class system that Marx made the basis of his political theory." As others have pointed out before, it is no small irony that just as Marx has been so thoroughly discredited by the very countries that bought his whole prescription, he has become the guru of choice in the privileged corners of America where the humanities are taught. But this, alas, merely reconfirms the disengagement of those teachers from anything approximating reality.

Ellis is given, unfortunately, to invective, which is to say that from time to time he gets into the mud with the opposition. But that must not distract us from what he has written, an acute analysis of "a startling decline in the intellectual quality of work in the humanities and a descent to intellectual triviality and irrelevance that amounts to a betrayal of the university as an institution." This, as Ellis correctly argues, should be a matter of the utmost concern to every informed citizen of any political or ideological persuasion. We share "the same vital interest in an academy that makes knowledge and understanding its undiluted focus"; our common culture and the contributions the academy makes to it are placed at risk when the focus becomes political activism instead of intellectual instruction and inquiry.

Jonathan Yardley's Internet address is yardleyj@clark.net.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top


WashingtonPost.com
Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!