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Part Two: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 16, 2016 at 7:00 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

AM:  In your essay “Conservatism, Liberal Education, and the Promise of the Humanities,” one of two essays you contributed to the edition, you state, “There is a broader philosophical conflict at hand between the very principle of academic freedom, encompassing the rights of individuals to engage in scholarly inquiry and espouse contrarian views, and policies currently governing campus discourse.”  What do you mean by this?

MZ: Quite simply, the state of campus discourse is, by its very essence, incompatible with the rights of faculty – and students themselves – to engage in the search for truth. When conduct, particularly verbal conduct, can be reported and penalized through mechanisms designed to “protect” students, we might sense that something much greater is afoot. If such fundamental rights as speech and due process are curtailed – as I feel they have systematically been on today’s campus – then we are no longer interested in educating an informed and responsible citizenry. The great irony in this is that even as faculty and administrators maintain the conceit that students must confront dissonant viewpoints, the viewpoints that qualify are limited and selective. Therefore, I think the fear of faculty to approach teaching or research from a conservative angle, or even to introduce conservative arguments in the context of intellectual debate, is very real. Some things are better left unsaid, especially when tenure, promotion, or funding are on the line.

On the other hand, the concept of academic freedom has been so narrowed as to apply almost exclusively to members of the faculty. The dearth of conservative faculty in the humanities and social sciences makes it difficult to determine the degree to which this privilege might be invoked as a defense against charges of offending progressive student sensibilities. The case of Marquette professor John McAdams that I discuss in the book is not promising. It is fortuitous that the demands of students to be protected from certain ideas are often in harmony with the ideological makeup of the faculty. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the freedom claimed by a largely progressive professoriate is not afforded to the student body, which labors more under the onerous regulations governing speech and conduct.

Aside from being able to report the utterance of harmful words, students have very little stake in academic freedom’s fundamental premise, and their rights have ceased to be part of the conversation on classroom conduct. I don’t count the imposition of trigger warnings and the creation of safe spaces as really striking a blow for freedom or the intellectual pursuit. Faculty might be able to proselytize under the banner of academic freedom, but students have little recourse when scholarly inquiry descends into partisan demagoguery. It speaks volumes that today’s campus will often charge conservative student groups for added security at their events in anticipation of disruption and unrest. The campus in this case is refusing to guarantee what is essentially the safety of free expression. It has been said that the greatest beneficiaries of a political and ideological monoculture are conservative students, who are consistently challenged to refine their arguments and confront opposing viewpoints. But that’s perhaps little compensation when those arguments are preemptively dismissed and delegitimized by an institution unwilling to entertain them. Some critics have been ambivalent about either the extent of curricular politicization that exists on today’s campus or its impact on students. I don’t think either can be overstated.

AM:  The question I hear a lot—and in different contexts—is “what can be done?”  Do you have an answer to that question in light of what you’ve just said? 

MZ:  To answer that important question I would probably qualify some rejections to otherwise bad ideas. Federal funding should not be tied to the amount of money students can be expected to earn upon graduation. However, at some point students must be expected to see some material returns from the meteoric rise of tuition and administrative costs. We have seen an intense regulatory push directed exclusively at for-profit colleges over the last eight years. The question of value in higher education is a good one, and perhaps it shouldn’t only be asked of these for-profits.

Also, while the idea has been floated, I do not believe in any kind of affirmative action for conservative professors. However, departments conspicuously lacking in conservative faculty members might take steps to acknowledge the intellectual costs of such insularity and promote viewpoint diversity, a concept propounded by groups like Heterodox Academy, the National Association of Scholars, and the John William Pope Center. These are not conservative organizations but rather ones that care deeply about the state of discourse on today’s campus and how it adversely affects learning.

Furthermore, while we must heed Michael Oakeshott’s warning not to “suspend conversationality for a politicizing counterrevolution,” a more robust rejection of identity’s preeminent place in in the classroom might restore some dignity to the learning process. It is not atypical for composition students, for example, to be assigned anthologies that are promoted as much for the racial, ethnic, and gender identifications of their authors as the dynamism of their prose or the enduring legacy of their ideas. No doubt many of the essays in these collections are worth modeling and are deserving of study, but not because of predetermined genetic variables. Having students read essays by Max Beerbohm, John Ruskin, or Evelyn Waugh – all the while ignoring their “privilege” – might inadvertently put the focus of the class on prose style, rhetoric, and stylistic precision.

Finally, it should remain up to students to choose their colleges carefully. There are a lot of alternative institutions that have placed the pursuit of knowledge above all else. The market for this kind of place is strong, and those charged with administering higher education could do very well to take notice.

AM:  At one point in the book you mention a “multicultural canon.”  I’m interested in this phrase because I’m interested in canonicity and the idea that there are certain works that are more influential and important than others within a given tradition, and even that certain traditions may produce works that are more influential and important than works produced by other traditions.  You often here people dismiss the idea of a canon but urge the reading of certain texts.  It seems that any support for a program of reading necessarily entails a view of the canon, however different that might be from prevailing consensus.  At a time when English departments are struggling to maintain stable and uniform curricula, and the notion of a canon has become unpopular, what does it mean for a work to be canonical? 

MZ:  While the idea of a canon has become unpopular, it still exists in every department that embraces the multicultural ethos of the university. And it is equally as narrow as the one it sought to replace and far more intransigent. Like so many revolutions, the spirit of canon reform was swept away by a radical zeal to destroy foundations necessary for, in this case, literature’s survival as part of a college curriculum. To me, literature is universal and it has the potential to speak to a common humanity. In short, it should be valued for its own sake and for its cultural status as an expression of artistic endeavor. It has intrinsic value, and its success lies in part on historical continuity – on its relationship to what came before it. In the book, I mention T.S. Eliot’s “historical sense,” the idea that tradition must be defended against forces that would destroy it out of hand. I think that in many ways this has happened. Today’s literature has become so balkanized as to render impossible the continuance of any sort of shared cultural value system. To that point, I would also argue that an English curriculum consisting predominantly of identity-based literature (African-American, Native American, Women’s, Latinx, etc.) can in no real way be considered diverse. As it is, those who might turn to literature for the truth it tells, for its contemplation of ideas, or for its linguistic execution have been in retreat.

I’m not sure anyone would make the case that the traditional canon was never fluid or that it hasn’t contained glaring omissions. It has, and they should be rectified. But whereas critics in the past denounced the traditional canon as the product of “institutional tastemaking,” today’s demands for courses that aim to represent some unique, singular experience are guilty of the same thing. A canon is necessarily foundational. It isn’t, however, necessarily exclusionary, and an inclusive canon should be exactly that. This is a very long way of saying that a canonical work might be one that embodies an idea or an epoch, or one that masterfully portrays the psychological depth of a character in crisis. There are many divergent opinions as to this question, and I don’t consider myself an authority. But my vision is this: surely others have treated the same subjects as, say, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Saul Bellow. We just have to be able to say that few have perhaps done it better. The reader may take his (or her) pick as to what authors deserve special consideration. The point is that the literature’s function and its success as a work of art are what we consider first and foremost. I think that case can be made, and reinforcing the idea of great literature – asserting its very existence – may benefit our discipline greatly.

AM:  If a student were to ask you for 10 writers you believed every person must read before he or she dies, who would they be?

MZ:  This is a question every literature person longs for, and at the risk of inevitably short-changing some, here is my list, in absolutely no particular order: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Saul Bellow, and Vladamir Nabakov.

 

Part Three coming soon….

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A Few of My Favorite Things, 2014

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Film, Humanities, Literature, Novels, Poetry, Politics, Writing on December 12, 2014 at 7:45 am

Allen 2

I sat down this week to consider my reading habits over the last year and to make reading goals for next year.  As I did so, I started making lists, and I thought I’d share three of them.  Here, in these lists, are fourteen of my favorite writers, magazines or journals, and books that I read in 2014.  I thought about adding a film category, but I grew disenchanted with films this year.

My favorite writers for popular magazines and journals:

I place these names in no particular order; this is not a ranking.

Gracy Olmstead

Brad Birzer

George Scialabba (not as prolific this year)

Gerald Russello

Mark Bauerlein

Stephen Cox (UC San Diego)

Justin Raimondo

Joseph Epstein

Micah Mattix

Julie Baldwin

Bruce Frohnen

Jeffrey Tucker

Paul Gottfried

William Deresiewicz

My favorite books:

This is an eclectic mix. Genre has not factored into my decision. I enjoyed these very different books for very different reasons. Some are new; some aren’t. They’ve made the list because I liked them more than the other books I read this year.

Washington Square by Henry James

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop

Collected Poems: 1952-1993 by W.S. Merwin

Common-Law Liberty by James R. Stoner, Jr.

The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt

The Morality of Pluralism by John Kekes

The Institutes of Biblical Law by R.S. Rushdoony

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Literary Criticism: From Plato to Postmodernism by James Seaton

Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe by Jeffrey Hart

The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson

My favorite popular magazines and journals:

This list was easy; I read every piece these publications run. I do not miss a single essay, article, or review in these outlets.

The American Conservative

The New York Times Book Review

Chronicles

The Freeman

Mises Daily

Pacific Standard

LewRockwell.com

The Imaginative Conservative

The University Bookman

Reason

The American Spectator

The New Criterion

First Things

The Front Porch Republic

Are Lawyers Illiterate?

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, Imagination, Law, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Webster’s defines “intelligent” as “endowed with intelligence or intellect; possessed of, or exhibiting, a high or fitting degree of intelligence or understanding.” This modern understanding of “intelligence” as an innate disposition or propensity differs from earlier understandings of the word as meaning “versed” or “skilled.” Milton, for instance, in Paradise Lost, calls the eagle and the stork “intelligent of seasons,” by which he meant that these birds, because of their experience, were cognizant of the seasons.

The older meaning of “intelligent” has less to do with native endowment than it does with gradual understanding. The older meaning, in other words, is that intelligence is acquired by effort and exposure rather than fixed by biological inheritance or natural capacity: one may become intelligent and is not just born that way; intelligence is a cultivated faculty, not an intrinsic feature.

Because of the altered signification of “intelligent,” we use today different words to describe the older meaning: erudite, knowledgeable, informed, traveled, educated. These words seem to us more palatable than their once-favored predecessors: civilized, polished, cultured, genteel, refined. I myself prefer words like “lettered” or “versed” that imply a knowledge of important books and the humanities generally.

The most apt term in this regard is also the most butchered in the current lexicon: “literate.” Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing assumption, “literate” does not simply refer to an ability to read. According to Webster’s, “literate” means “instructed in letters, educated; pertaining to, or learned in, literature.”

Not just to read, but to read well and widely—that is how you become “literate.” Accepting this traditional meaning, I question how many lawyers are or can become literate.

In the 1980s, Ithiel de Sola Pool, a professor of communications and media, determined that the average American adult reads approximately 240 words per minute. At that rate, it would take a person around 2,268.36 minutes (or 37 hours, 48 minutes, and 21.6 seconds) to read War and Peace, which comes in at 544,406 words. If that sounds encouraging—ever wanted to read War and Peace in a day-and-a-half?—consider these offsetting variables: reading at one sitting slows over time; attention span and memory recall are limited; the mind can be exercised only so much before it requires rest; people cannot constantly read for 2,268.36 minutes without going to the restroom or eating or daydreaming, among other things; a healthy lifestyle entails seven to nine hours of sleep per day; large portions of the day are spent carrying out quotidian operations, including showering, cooking, brushing teeth, commuting to and from work, getting dressed and undressed, answering phone calls, reading emails, cleaning, filling out paperwork, paying bills, and so on. Pool, moreover, was not using a text like War and Peace to gather his data, and his subjects were not writing in the margins of their books, taking notes on their laptops, or pausing to engage others in critical conversations about some narrative.

The National Association for Legal Career Professionals has estimated that lawyers at large firms bill on average 1,859 hours per year and work 2,208 hours per year. These numbers are more troubling in view of the fact that large law firms require their attorneys to attend functions with clients and potential clients, time that is neither billable nor considered “working hours.”

If there are around 8,760 hours in a year, and if a healthy person spends about 2,920 of those sleeping, there remain only around 5,840 hours per year for everything else. If “everything else” consisted of nothing—nothing at all—except reading War and Peace, then a lawyer at a large law firm could read that book about 154 times a year. But of course this is not possible, because no person can function as a machine functions. Once the offsetting variables are accounted for—and I have listed only a few that immediately spring to mind, and these for people with no families—it becomes apparent that it is nearly impossible for a lawyer to read more than about four lengthy or difficult books each month, and only the most diligent and disciplined can accomplish that.

Numbers can lead us astray, so let us consider some anecdotal evidence—my own testimony—which suggests that most lawyers are illiterate, or perhaps that lawyers have to try really hard to become literate or to avoid losing their literacy.

I am a lawyer, one who considers himself literate but increasingly in danger of becoming illiterate the longer I remain in my chosen profession. My hope is that literacy stays with you, that if you “frontload,” as it were, you can build a wide enough base to allow for slack in later years.

In 2013, I made an effort to overcome the time restrictions of my job to read through several canonical texts of Western Civilization. For the most part I undertook a book a week, although, because of scheduling constraints, I read what I took to be the most important or most famous sections of the lengthier books and volumes such as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work that would require years of study to fully appreciate. I found myself, on many Thursday evenings, reading so rapidly to finish the text at hand that I could not enjoy myself or absorb the nuances and complexities established by the author.

Reading only one book a week when you are intelligent enough to read more is shameful and disgraceful, the sacrifice of a gift. During graduate school, I could read five or six books a week and can recall more than one week when I read a book a day. But each day I spend working as a lawyer, I am less able to digest the books I consume and to consume the books necessary for intellectual nourishment.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to refer to a choice to forego options or to pursue the benefits of one course of action rather than another. The cost of becoming a lawyer is giving up literacy or making its attainment more difficult; the gain, in theory, is a higher salary and financial stability. Whether the gain neutralizes the loss depends on one’s preferences. I myself would not trade for a million dollars the opportunity to read Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Aristotle or Santayana.

To achieve the admiration enjoyed by lawyers, other professionals must do their jobs several times better. Happily, this is not a high bar. That is why people prefer the company of doctors. It is not that lawyers are incompetent or unskilled; it is that they do not put their faculties to good use. All people think, but it is only by degree and by the object of their thought that the literate are distinguished from the illiterate. To put their minds to humane use would improve lawyers’ reputations considerably and call into question that axiom popularized by one of Dickens’s characters: “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

The way I see it, you can spend all your life billing clients and pushing paper under great stress, by investing your talents and resources in prospects that yield no intellectual returns, or you can spend your life establishing high standards of reason, understanding, and creativity by studying the most important and influential works that humans have produced through the ages. You can spend all your time transacting business, prosecuting and defending lawsuits, and preparing briefs and memoranda, or you can cultivate discernment and understanding. The options are not mutually exclusive: I have overstated to draw a sharp contrast, but the point remains.

Do not misunderstand me: working hard and earning profits are not only good and healthy activities but personally fulfilling. Yet they must be supplemented with humane contemplation and the private study of important ideas. Industry and innovation are requisite to a high quality of life, a robust economy, and human flourishing—and they make possible the time and leisure that enable some people to create great art and literature. Not everyone can be literate, and that is a good thing.

It is just that many lawyers never learn to live well and wisely, to place their seemingly urgent matters into perspective, or to appreciate, as Aristotle did, the virtues of moderation. This failure is directly related to lawyers’ neglect of history and philosophy and to their suppression of the moral imagination that works of good literature can awaken. This failure, as well, puts lawyers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to spiritual, moral, and intellectual pursuits. As Mark Twain quipped, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Lawyers are illiterate, most of them anyway. Trust them to handle your real estate closings or to manage your negligence claims, to finalize your divorce or to dash off angry letters to your competitors, but do not trust them to instruct you on plain living and high thinking. There are exceptions—Gerald Russello and Daniel Kornstein are two—but generally lawyers are not to be consulted on matters of importance to the soul. For those, we have good books, and with luck, the people who write and read them.

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