The fact that other people started this conversation doesn't mean it's not one we should be having. Do we really know what we're doing when we teach literature? If so, why do I have so many graduate students who -– even after doing classes, exams, and even dissertations with me –- don't quite know what it is they should be doing? Why did I myself feel this way throughout graduate school? Moreover, are we doing the best job we can with our undergraduates? What are we training them for?
More closely: It is often assumed unproblematically that key goals in the English classroom are to enable students to 1) do close readings, 2) think analytically and critically, and 3) write persuasive arguments in support of their ideas. But all of these are actually things that should be defined more carefully than they usually are, and probably also questioned and contested. What does a close reading consist of exactly? Is there a philosophical or ethical reason why students should do them? And what is an argument exactly? Why is it so devilishly difficult to get students to develop and sustain them? There are also often contradictions between what many literary scholars say they 'believe' about literary analysis and interpretation (along the lines of the death of the author), and what they actually profess in the classroom.
These are all honest questions. Even if we are doing things pretty well, I feel it might be important to periodically re-ask fundamental questions to see if we can come up with new answers that might enable us to do better. The fact that the occasion for the debates on literary studies is often some attack or other from outside the academy (or even inside, see Mark Bauerlein's work) shouldn't bother us excessively. I find what some non-academics have said about the state of literary studies today to be indispensable . (Scott McLemee is a good example.)
On encouragement from John Holbo, I recently read the first 50 pages or so of Gerald Graff's book Clueless in Academe (it is the section that is available online). Graff is a senior English professor who has taught at Northwestern University, and is currently (I believe) at the University of Illinois-Chicago as a Stanley Fish recruit. Holbo argues that Graff conflates the Crisis in the English Department with a broader putative crisis in Academia as a whole. For the purposes of argument, I'm willing to accept Holbo's claim that Graff's observations apply more to literary studies than to other fields. The thoughts that follow apply to English, and probably not Philosophy or History, where the issues may be similar but not quite the same.
I should point out that Clueless in Academe seems to be a kind of sequel to Graff's Beyond the Culture Wars, where he argued that the way to deal with the Canon Wars is to go 'meta', and teach the debate itself. Some of Graff's thoughts on the contestation of the Canon are reprised in the opening pages of this book as well, in the interest of promoting the value of Argument for its own sake. Graff gives the anti-Canonists (or Multiculturalists) credit for energizing the field with fresh texts, but implies that the defenders of the Canon have a point, too, when they suggest that multicultural literature may be as inaccessible to today's freshmen as Shakespeare. Thus the emergence of Cliff's Notes as well as 'download a paper' availability to Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, etc. Morevoer, accessibility and relatability are fine, but can't they be stepping stones to aesthetically challenging literature? Or even: why not keep a strong emphasis on formal questions as well as the question of aesthetic value while discussing postcolonial/multicultural texts? (That is my own favored solution.)
The bottom line for Graff is, students don't come to college caring about these issues. They aren't especially passionate about literature, or academic conversation in general; they don't know how the codes work. I agree with Graff that it can be instructive to incorporate recent public debates over Value into our curriculum, but I think leaving it just at that is probably a little pat. In fact, there are usually many more questions with which students can be directly and personally engaged than that of “why is this book in this course?” or “Is this any good?” And it's a little idealistic to assume that if students are comfortable taking on Allan Bloom or bell hooks, they will be well-prepared later in life to do the same with Dawkins and Gould, Bhagwati and Samuelson, etc. "Argument" is not everything, not by a long shot.
If we approach these questions without rancor, it's possible to say that in the Canon Wars both sides have won. The Canon is still widely (even universally) taught, but many new things have entered in. Close reading (in the New Critics' sense, no less!) is still universally important, but other ways of thinking and reading are also valuable. The accomplishment of great writers is generally respected; the only thing that seems to have permanently gone out is the idea that the English literature classroom is a space for a kind of Ritualistic Author Worship.
Thus, there's no 'what's in, what's out' these days: Everything is in. And that's the problem, though it's a different kind of problem. Graff suggests (a little obliquely) that the looming danger to literary studies these days isn't so much Political Correctness (whether Conservative or Liberal!) but rather the fact that curriculum and pedagogy has become somewhat incoherent through its very tendency to omnivorousness. Most English departments are overflowing in quality texts that are assigned to their majors. There is a glut of 'coverage' (even as we constantly worry whether we are doing enough), but hardly anything by way of structural conversations that link different periods together into a coherent image of literary history, or that integrate fundamental questions about literary studies or literature. Sometimes these conversations are introduced in introductory courses on literary theory, but more often than not those courses too are 'coverage' courses, which summarily run through the major keywords (jargon) in literary theory without actually interrogating them all that deeply. Instead of assigning endless impenetrable essays on Deconstruction, Marxist Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Gender Construction, it might be more sensible to assign a couple of things, also assign an accessible 'summary' essay (“Deconstruction for Beginners”), and then say, up-front: Is this true? Do you believe this?
Graff has also some interesting answers to the anti-intellectualism that has such a strong historical hold in American culture. For Graff, societal anti-intellectualism correlates closely to the plague of academic over-specialization. The impenetrability of academic writing heightens the problem of anti-intellectualism, as it is a barrier both to students and to lay readers who have an interest in our subjects. But Graff contends that the problem isn't as bad as many people think. We live in an era dominated to an unprecedented extent by Geeks, he suggests. Even if Al Gore lost to George Bush, the fact that such a Huge Geek even came close (Adlai Stevenson lost in a landslide to the Bush-esque Ike Eisenhower 50 years ago) suggests a sea-change in American attitudes about its public figures. And academics have a surprisingly relatively healthy, dialogical relationship with the public sphere (or at least some parts of it) for the most part -- sort of like the dialogical relationship between bloggers and mainstream journalists.
But it's more complicated than Graff allows. America has become much more respectful of a kind of 'technocrat' intellectualism (Dick Cheney, also, is hated, but respected). But the old anti-intellectual bias is as real as ever when it comes to forms of knowledge that apparently can't be instrumentalized or monetized. Literature, the Arts, and Philosophy, are still routinely dismissed, except when the issue is money (how much money has Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling made), or scandal is involved.
I think we see this even in the Blog-world, in the divide between current events-oriented blogs like Juan Cole, Crooked Timber, and Daniel Drezner, and more esoteric, artsy blogs like Pseudopodium. The former are certainly quite academic (everyone involved is in a tenure-track job somewhere), but they cross over and gain a wider readership because much (though certainly not all) of what is discussed is potentially instrumental knowledge of use to policy-makers, talking head pundits, and Op-Ed writers. But that isn't a slight on them, in the least. I agree with Graff that the burden is on humanities scholars to show we they too are the right kind of 'geek'. But that might involve rethinking what we do in the classroom, and how we conduct academic conversations.
Aesthetic Value vs. Use value: Soft Utilitarianism
Let me end with a gesture towards a sort of synthetic theory that I just came up with, admittedly the least well-thought out of the ideas I'm developing here. Ultimately I might try and rework it into some kind of essay, so any thoughts or feedback from people on the viability of the idea of the 'soft utilitarianism of literature as a pedagogical tool' would be appreciated.
The Canon Wars question and the Social Relevance question come together in literary studies around the question of the Usefulness of the text, which can also be called the Educative Value of the text.
I find it increasingly difficult to reject the criticism that the humanities is useless on the basis that works of art are by definition intentionally, Sublimely Useless (that's Kant's idea, isn't it? Also Oscar Wilde's, as I recall). There has to be more to it than simply shrugging our shoulders at the technocrats who run things (including, in most cases our own universities). The dominant principle of utility can be accepted, but reworked so as to better explain (and defend) the value of literature in an era of multiculturalism, pop-culturalism, and instrumental technocracy.
I think that good Art is useful for a particular kind of educative function, which need not mean a crude idea of 'social improvement'. I mean that reading literature (especially in a classroom) is most interesting when readers expect to learn something about themselves or the world along the way. A John Updike story about a man trying to come to terms with the failure of his marriage and the failure of his divorce is educative in the sense that it aims to make a point about the difficulty in finding independent meaning or emotional stability in the contemporary world. George Eliot's novels, and even Joyce's Ulysses in a certain way of reading it, are also educative. Eliot's Middlemarch is an argument about the limits of individualism (especially as it relates to women). And Joyce's novel is perhaps an argument about reconfiguring the idea of family away from blood and legal status (marriage, paternity) and towards a voluntaristic idea of affinity. If presented that way, students might well be able to say, “this relates to me, I can learn something from this that will help me in my life, and make me a smarter person.” If presented as merely a virtuosic display of literary power and imagination, however, it means a little less.
Not all literature, of course, would fit this bill, and a serious problem in my theory is what one would do with more esoteric, 'problem' texts. Would I want to teach Dada? Would I want to teach Gertrude Stein? [Not too terribly likely, these days, I must admit] But I was teaching Rushdie in the fall, and at a certain point I had to step back from my presentation of the disjunctive world views he presents in The Satanic Verses, and comment at what seemed like a very advanced kind of incoherence. It is and it isn't, both of these contradictory things are true (Farishta is insane, he is the Archangel Gibreel/Gabriel). And if you don't accept it, you should probably just walk away from this book. I said something to that effect, but I was shocked to find that even as I said it, I didn't really believe it. Or: I believed it, but I felt that it somehow isn't particularly interesting to say something like that. What do I expect my students to do with that information? How does this further my desire to encourage them to produce evidence-based arguments about the text?
Other avant-garde writers are less troubling along these lines. I think Virginia Woolf does meet the educative/useful criteria in a certain sense (perhaps as a philosopher of absence... or the metaphysical dimensions of gender...). [There's much more that could be done with this]
If my utilitarianism (currently very soft) becomes stronger, I may find myself teaching more George Eliot and less of the aporetic Rushdie. I might also tend towards some more aesthetically flawed 'middlebrow' and 'upper middlebrow' texts that I've hitherto thought weren't exactly what I should be teaching, because of other values they might espouse -- ethical, historical, political. For instance, I've been envisioning a course on Novelists Who Write History comprised of historical fiction as well as literary non-fiction (Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land, Eduardo Galeano's Century of the Wind). But the incidental learning of history or politics is probably a more narrow kind of utility than the kind I think literature in general can provide.
[See also Dr. Crazy on this issue.]