I have a new essay at Jacobin on the controversy erupting in the conservative blogosphere over UCLA’s changes (three years ago) to the structure of its English major. While that may seem like an obscure topic for a lengthy disquisition, the article I’m responding to, from the conservative City Journal, reiterates some persistent, pernicious myths about the purpose and future of the humanities. Most people in academia consider these to be arguments so clichéd they’re not worth responding to, but their prevalence and seeming “common sense,” I think, make them worth a detailed response.

Despite their hostility to most of what has happened in the humanities the past half-century, American conservative intellectuals like to think themselves as the true defenders of the humanistic tradition. Within academia, they have often focused on defending notions of reason and objectivity against the “relativism” and “irrationalism” supposedly introduced into the humanities by modern German and French philosophy. Outside the university, their critiques have pursued narrower political goals, attacking disciplines like English and Comparative Literature as bastions of political correctness and anti-Americanism.

Much as conservative intellectuals long ago stopped confronting any vestige of actual Marxism, it is difficult to find within the diatribes of the movement’s humanities police any awareness of the university as it currently exists, of the humanistic disciplines as they have evolved in the past several decades, or of what truly threatens their long-term survival. The conservative humanities critique, like its Marxism critique, has been reduced to a meme that ripples through an airless, dimly-lit blogosphere, never encountering any light of intellectual engagement.

Occasionally, it breaks through into one of the publications that give conservative intellectuals their veneer of credibility, as in the case of conservative author Heather Mac Donald’s piece in the latest issue of City Journal, recently repurposed as an op-ed in — where else? — the Wall Street Journal.

Mac Donald brings frantic news from the front lines of the academic culture war. Actually, it’s three-years-old news about a curriculum change in the English department at the University of California-Los Angeles. In 2011, UCLA restructured its English major, eliminating required courses devoted to specific single authors. The major previously required courses that focused exclusively on Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton; now students can choose from a selection of courses available in each historical period of English literature, which (of course) includes a heavy dose of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. In addition to three historical literature courses, they must take a course in one of three areas of literary theory, or in creative writing.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

8 Responses to Conservative Intellectuals and the Politics of Literature

  1. danallison says:

    You write that, “It treats the author’s oeuvre as a sacred monument that stands outside history, rather than an evolving collection of texts that was shaped profoundly by the society and politics of the author’s time.”

    Of course, there’s no possible way a writer could have any access at all to a timeless or transcendent truth, is there, David? Shakespeare and Milton are really no different from the ignorant bronze-age goat herders who made up the Bible, are they?

    • David Sessions says:

      It depends on the sense in which you mean “timeless” and “transcendent,” but yes, I’m very skeptical about the possibility of either. I think there are certain views of truth that could get you to a kind of transcendence or timelessness, and I find those views plausible. But there is certainly no such thing as timeless, transcendent truth in the ideological sense most conservative Christians mean it.

  2. Rob says:

    A few related but not connected responses–not to Heather MacDonald’s editorial but to the general themes of your critique here and in the Jacobin–from the perspective of someone teaching and studying in a so-called “public ivy,” i.e. a large flagship school that likely offers an education marginally better than the one offered by UCLA but likely not as rigorous as, say, Harvard.

    1. I won’t wade into the debate danallison intends to rehash regarding the status of the “canon” and its repository of “timeless truths.” I will say this, however, as someone who dedicates quite a lot of time and effort to his pedagogy: if given the choice between teaching students a coherent canon of texts that ostensibly teach timeless truths and a smattering of “trendy” texts that scrupulously feature representatives from the requisite proportion of ethnic minorities, women, and other “underrepresented” groups primarily for the purpose of historical and/or literary and/or cultural critique, I’m going to go with the former every time. Which course is going to enrich a student’s life more? The one where we read 12-15 Shakespeare plays in search of what the bard might have to tell us about our souls, the nature of evil, the human conditions, etc.? Or the one where we read 3-5 Shakespeare plays followed by abundant critical texts in which we seek to uncover the presence of the holy trinity of race, class, and gender in Shakespeare’s works or, worse, engage in “new historicist” readings or, even worse, indulge the withering follies of deconstruction* or, worse still, seek to critique Shakespeare’s self-loathing homoeroticism/sexism/classism/racism? That is, I hope, a rhetorical question.

    *I’ve read quite a lot of Derrida, as well as Foucault et al., and I think both thinkers offer brilliant insights. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about how profoundly and increasingly silly their appropriation in American humanities departments has become.

    2. The article you link in the Jacobin article claiming that the humanities have “discovered” an embarrassment of riches, allegedly producing “meaningful knowledge” and “relevant insights,” when they abandoned the pursuit of real meaning and truth in texts in favor of chattering endlessly about disabilities, gender, race, postcolonialism, etc., etc.–in short, identity politics–is masturbatory bullshit. Whether that “turn” is the root of the decline in contemporary humanities departments is another debate, but humanities scholars who are seriously invested in this turn need to come off it. Any ordinary citizen who had the misfortune to attend an average panel at an average humanities conference couldn’t be blamed if he henceforth advocated the entire defunding of public universities (or least humanities faculties)–and it’s not because the average citizen is a philistine.

    3. Here’s the real meat of what I wanted to say: at my university, it’s quite true that if a student wishes, he or she can likely get a solid education in the classics/canon/timeless truths/Western civilization/whatever you prefer to call it. It’s possible to delve into a robust reading of Homer, Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and so on–the “best that has been thought and said.” But there are at least four enormous problems with the approach inaugurated at UCLA–and that was much earlier inaugurated at most other American universities:

    i. The university no longer offers a “universal” curriculum (cue all the standard critiques of the “multiversity,” which I won’t rehash but which actually make a fair point). In practical terms, the decay of a standardized curriculum cashes out in the form of too much choice for undergraduates. Sure, a focused, pre-oriented freshman could purpose to wedge into his four years of college a robust reading of the classics. Or he could take all the English courses in “The Wire as Social and Literary Criticism” or “Inscription and Alterity in Poe” or “Intersectionality and Trans/de/reconstructed Vaginas in Late Victorian Pulp Novels.” I’m 100% certain that course labels like these fulfill the requirements listed in UCLA’s new catalogue.

    Guess what? The latter absurdities are almost always easier than rigorous readings of, say, Plato or Chaucer. It’s well-known at my university that any course involving gender, race, ethnicity, etc., is going to be a joke in terms of rigor and difficulty. Which is the aimless 18-year-old freshman more likely to take? And of course, he can only make these choices after navigating all the obligatory courses that have been designed by administrators and PC department chairs–at least three credits in “cross-cultural studies,” at least six in courses the “expose” contemporary racial and gender problems, etc.

    So yes. If a student wants to read Plato (a choice that’s only going to be available to those with educationally privileged backgrounds such that they know in advance who Plato is in the first place; everyone else will be victims of the fact that they no longer have a pre-prescribed curriculum that requires them to be acquainted with Plato, e.g.), he or she can. Or not. At my university, there are literally scores–if not hundreds–of courses that fulfill the university’s vague humanities requirement. One–one–of those courses includes Plato. At a university of 40,000 students, only a single course includes Plato. And of course, in this orgy of curricular choice, there are still gaps due to the dearth of a centrally designed, goal-oriented curriculum. In literally no course at my university will a student have the opportunity to read St. Thomas Aquinas–the most important philosopher in a period at least 1000 years long.

    ii. You of all people should know that course catalogs do not reflect the courses that are actually offered. To turn again to my current university, the political science catalog promises a course in “Ancient and Medieval Political Thought” that features in-depth readings–not historicized, not identity-politicized critiques–of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, and others. Guess how many times that course has been offered during my five years here? In a couple of weeks, meanwhile, I’ll be interviewing for a job in a political science department that promises courses in political theory that run the gamut from Homer and Aeschylus to Hobbes, Nietzsche, Marx, and (ugh) Rawls. That department hasn’t had any faculty on staff who could teach any of those courses for several years. And this university is a major research institution at least as large as UCLA.

    In short, that UCLA includes courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and so in their catalogue means almost nothing. And consider, as I noted above, how a required course in “literary criticism”–even one focused on Shakespeare–could be fulfilled by one of the monstrosities I parodied above (“Queering Shakespeare” or what have you).

    iii. Even if UCLA does offer these vaunted courses on a regular basis and even if a majority of students are required to take them, we’ve said nothing regarding the method in which those course are taught. I said a bit about that above. Suffice to inquire: how often do professors in those courses affirm to students that these texts–indeed, more than most other texts–teach us something profound and meaningful about our human condition and about the world into which we find ourselves thrown? I would take a guess myself, but I’d rather not end my weekend on a depressing note.

    iv. Ultimately, the “proof is in the pudding”–enrollment numbers. That is, if these courses are even offered, how many are taking them? That single course on Plato at my university? It’s been shoved away into an obscure “liberal arts program” that is housed in no particular department. Students are not encouraged to seek out this program–it’s a “distraction.” Where a typical lecture course could have 500-1000 students in it, this solitary course on the great works of the Western political tradition (another course in the same program covers the literary classics–which themselves aren’t covered in the English department) features 70 students during a good semester. So, out of a vast university of 40,000 students, about 70 (or 70*4=280) are assured of receiving any kind of education in the texts that I am hoping you, too, would agree are the greatest and most important (Derrida and Toni Morrison are great, but if given the choice between that and Plato…).

    More proof in the pudding: I teach upper level seminars in political philosophy. Presumably, if your hypothesis were true, my students should typically have a basic, if not advanced, grasp of the core texts, concepts, questions, and ideas of the Western tradition. Nope. I am continually astounded by the vast cultural, philosophical, and literary illiteracy of my students. I won’t elaborate on this point, but my senior students certainly aren’t paragons of refined education. They’re the products of the sort of disaggregated curriculum UCLA is now implementing.

    Anyway, apologies for the length and scattered character of my remarks.

    • Patrick Sawyer says:


      Well said. I appreciate your comment. You stated, “More proof in the pudding: I teach upper level seminars in political philosophy. Presumably, if your hypothesis were true, my students should typically have a basic, if not advanced, grasp of the core texts, concepts, questions, and ideas of the Western tradition. Nope. I am continually astounded by the vast cultural, philosophical, and literary illiteracy of my students.”
      My experience is similar. I teach at a public university of about 20,000 students. My students routinely reject ideas (ideas often grounded in Western philosophy) they know nothing about. They have a faint acquaintance with a flawed caricature of a certain position but little else. When faced with an accurate articulation of what they think they have rejected (in order to foster authentic critical thinking) they often experience a strange mix of befuddlement and liberation.

    • David Sessions says:

      Rob, don’t have time to respond at length, but good comment, and I agree with a whole lot of it. One of the issues I had to leave aside in my Jacobin piece was that I actually don’t believe undergrads need to be taking a bunch of courses in literary theory before they’ve read any books; like you, I’d prefer they learn the canon first (the Big Lie of the reaction to Derrida/Butler/et al being that they want to destroy books, when in fact they know the books better than Heather Mac Donald ever will.)

      One random thing I’d throw out in response: while the lack of required courses or common curriculum probably plays a part, too, I wonder if your students are ignorant in part because undergrad is too short a time for anyone to learn much of anything, no matter how good the program. Even if you read some good books in high school and your 4-ish major courses in college, it’s not enough to be familiar with much of anything in the way that is required as a graduate student. Perhaps the brevity of undergrad itself is an argument for more classics, less theory.

    • Christopher Hazell says:

      The thing I don’t get about “the cannon” is this:

      There are more great, essential books than anybody could possibly read in one lifetime.

      Why is it necessary for an English Major to have a grounding in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton, but not, eg, Poe, Twain, or Melville?

      Is there really some empirical basis for determining which of the infinity of great authors are indispensable and which aren’t? Because we have to dispense with some of them.

      I’m not arguing, incidentally, that all authors are of equal worth and value; I’m arguing that even if you were to dedicate yourself only to those authors whose influence and art rivals Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, you would have to spend a lifetime and in the end you still wouldn’t understand them fully.

      So who narrowed the field down to Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer, and why those three?

      PS – My kneejerk reaction is that Poe will give you more insight into humanity than Plato.

  3. Barnslayer says:

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  4. GFY says:

    The Issues That Really Matter

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