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Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am
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Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 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:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

Liberty and Shakespeare, Part One

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Shakespeare, Western Civilization on May 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here on Mises Daily.

In an October 2002 article in the New York Times, “Next on the Syllabus, Romeo v. Juliet,” Adam Liptak investigates the curious if questionable move to install literary texts in law-school curricula. Liptak’s opening lines betray his skepticism:

The fact [that Kafka was a lawyer] got the discussion started on a recent afternoon in a sunny seminar room at the New York University School of Law, where 17 law students and 2 professors gather every week for a sort of book club, for credit, in a class called Law and Literature.”[1]

Liptak’s likening of the class to a book club, quickly followed by his strategic comma usage setting off the phrase “for credit,” implies that, in effect, the course is more about enthusiasm than scholarship. How could the activities of book clubbers, Liptak seems to suggest, merit course credit in professional school? Liptak implicitly raises an even greater question: Does literature matter to the so-called “real” world?

In arguing for the inclusion of humanities courses in law school curricula, law-and-literature professors have had to answer that question. They have convinced professional school deans and administrators that literature is important and relevant to actual problems. The turn to political criticism among English faculty is also a move to show that literature has some practical bearing beyond entertainment or leisure. As humanities programs lose funding and students while law-and-literature faculty, courses, conferences, and journals proliferate, it bears asking whether law-and-literature adherents have done a better job persuading university officials that literature is socially significant.

Nearly every Anglo-American law school offers a course called Law & Literature. Nearly all of these courses assign one or more readings from Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Why study Shakespeare in law school? That is the question at the heart of these courses. Some law professors answer the question in terms of cultivating moral sensitivity, fine-tuning close-reading skills, or practicing interpretive strategies on literary rather than legal texts. Most of these professors insist on an illuminating nexus between two supposedly autonomous disciplines. The history of how Shakespeare became part of the legal canon is more complicated than these often defensive, syllabus-justifying declarations allow.

This essay examines the history of Shakespeare studies vis-à-vis legal education. It begins with early law-and-literature scholarship, which focused on Shakespeare’s history or biography — speculating as it did about whether Shakespeare received legal training or became a lawyer — and concludes with recent law-and-literature scholarship treating Shakespeare as a source of insight for law students and lawyers. Early law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare anticipated new-historicist theory. More recent law-and-literature work, with its turn to presentism, seems in lockstep with current Shakespeare studies. In law-and-literature classrooms, Shakespeare is more fashionable (like a hobby) than scholarly (like a profession). But law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare represents high-caliber work based on interdisciplinary research and sustained engagement with legal and literary texts.

This essay concludes with a note about the direction of the university in general and of the law-and-literature movement in particular. My closing argument is, I admit, tendentious. It raises issues usually raised by confrontational academics and suggests remedies for what William M. Chace has called “the decline of the English Department”[2] or what Harold Bloom has called “Groupthink” in “our obsolete academic institutions, whose long suicide since 1967 continues.”[3] If Chace and Bloom are right about a decline in academic standards — evidence shows that they are at least right about a decline in the number of English majors — then the fate of literary studies seems grim. Nevertheless, Chace and Bloom overlook the migration of literature professors into American law schools, a phenomenon that has not received enough attention.

One aspect of this phenomenon is the migration of students from the humanities to professional schools. I have known students who hoped to attend graduate school in the humanities but quite understandably viewed that route as impractical and went to law school instead. A positive result of this trend is that many law students are open to the idea of law and literature and find luminaries like George Anastaplo or Stanley Fish more interesting than other law professors. The final comments of this essay will address the strange exodus of literary scholars into professional schools, which pay more money and arguably provide vaster audiences and readership, more generous funding opportunities, and reduced teaching loads.

Perhaps more than other literary disciplines, save for cultural studies, Shakespeare studies has moved into the realm of interdisciplinarity, albeit without large contributions from scholars outside of literature departments. The law-and-literature field would have perished without the expertise of literature professors; likewise, Shakespeare studies, if it continues down the path of politics and cultural criticism, will perish without the expertise of economists, political scientists, and law professors, whose mostly non-Marxist ideas, when pooled with the ideas of the literature scholars, might fill out a space for interesting scholarship and redeem the interdisciplinary label. Information sharing is especially crucial for literature scholars who, in order to examine the history of Shakespeare in American culture, have turned to practices and methods traditionally reserved for other disciplines. In this respect, the direction of Shakespeare studies is representative of the direction of the humanities in general.

It may be possible to overcome disciplinary boundaries while recognizing the importance of disciplinary expertise. For understandable reasons, conservative literary critics decry political trends in current literary theory. What these critics ought to decry, though, is the nature of the political trends rather than political trends themselves. What if, instead of Marxist or quasi-Marxist paradigms, literary critics adopted the theories of free-market economics?

Adherents of law and literature unwittingly have carved out an approach to literary studies that jettisons Marxism and quasi Marxism but that retains civic goals. Law and literature cuts across labels like “conservative” and “liberal.” It demonstrates how professional or vocational studies are incomplete without teachings in liberal arts. At a time when antitraditional, quasi-Marxist ideologies have taken over graduate programs in literature, and when humanities funding and enrollment are wanting, the burgeoning law-and-literature courses offer an avenue for restoration of literary study with a civic focus. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 23, 2012 at 4:53 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following book review originally appeared here in the Fall 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Humans are not automated and predictable, but beautifully complex and spontaneous. History is not linear. Progress is not inevitable. Our world is strangely intertextual and multivocal. It is irreducible to trite summaries and easy answers, despite what our semiliterate politicians would have us believe. Thinking in terms of free-market economics allows us to appreciate the complicated dynamics of human behavior while making sense of the ambiguities leading to and following from that behavior. With these realities in mind, I applaud Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox for compiling the timely collection Literature and the Economics of Liberty, which places imaginative literature in conversation with Austrian economic theory.

Cantor and Cox celebrate the manifold intricacies of the market, which, contrary to popular opinion, is neither perfect nor evil, but a proven catalyst for social happiness and well-being. They do not recycle tired attacks on Marxist approaches to literature: they reject the “return to aesthetics” slogans of critics such as Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, and John M. Ellis, and they adopt the principles, insights, and paradigms of the Austrian school of economics. Nor do Cantor and Cox merely invert the privilege of the terms Marxist and capitalist (please excuse my resort to Derridean vocabulary), although they do suggest that one might easily turn “the tables on Marxism” by applying “its technique of ideology critique to socialist authors, questioning whether they have dubious motives for attacking capitalism.” Cantor and Cox are surprisingly the first critics to look to Austrian economics for literary purposes, and their groundbreaking efforts are sure to ruffle a few feathers—but also to reach audiences who otherwise might not have heard of Austrian economics.

Cantor and Cox submit that the Austrian school offers “the most humane form of economics we know, and the most philosophically informed.” They acknowledge that this school is heterodox and wide ranging, which, they say, are good things. By turning to economics in general, the various contributors to this book—five in all—suggest that literature is not created in a vacuum but rather informs and is informed by the so-called real world. By turning to Austrian economics in particular, the contributors seek to secure a place for freedom and liberty in the understanding of culture. The trouble with contemporary literary theory, for them, lies not with economic approaches, but with bad economic approaches. An economic methodology of literary theory is useful and incisive so long as it pivots on sound philosophies and not on obsolete or destructive ideologies. Austrian economics appreciates the complexity and nuance of human behavior. It avoids classifying individuals as cookiecutter caricatures. It champions a humane-economy counter to mechanistic massproduction, central planning, and collectivism. Marxism, in contrast, is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive–in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an age in which, quite frankly, we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely products of culture or otherwise culturally underwritten. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices, for better or worse, affect lives, circumstances, and communities. (“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously remarked.) And communities themselves consist of multiplicities that defy simple labels. It is not insignificant, in light of these principles, that Michel Foucault late in his career instructed his students to read the collected works of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Bioethics From a Legal Perspective

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Communication, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 6, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Last fall, I was assigned to teach a course called “Health & Medicine.”  Because I know little about health or medicine, I was concerned.  The subject of the course was writing, so I decided to craft a syllabus to facilitate classroom discussion and textual argument.  Here is the course description as stated on my syllabus:

Forensic discourse is one of three forms of classical rhetoric as defined by Aristotle.  It focuses on the relationship between language and law.  This semester we will explore forensic discourse in the context of health and medicine and consider the relationship of law to such issues as physician assisted suicide, surrogacy, cloning, informed consent, malpractice, and organ transplants.  Readings on ethics and philosophy will inform the way you think about these issues.

Your grade will not depend on how much you learn about law, but on how you use language to argue about and with law.  Because the facts of any case are rarely clear-cut, you will need to understand both sides of every argument.  Your writing assignments will require you to argue on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants (or prosecutors and defendants) and to rebut the arguments of opposing counsel.  You will develop different tactics for persuading your audience (judges, attorneys, etc.), and you will become skilled in the art of influence.

During the semester, your class will interview one attorney, one judge, and one justice sitting on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

My students came from mostly nursing and pre-medical backgrounds.  A few were science majors of some kind, and at least two were engineering majors.

The students were also at varying stages in their academic progress: some were freshmen, some were sophomores, two were juniors, and at least one was a senior.  Throughout the semester, I was impressed by students’ ability to extract important issues from dense legal readings and articulate complicated reasoning in nuanced and intelligent ways.

I thought about this “Health & Medicine” class this week when I came across this article published by the Brookings Institution.  The title of the article is “The Problems and Possibilities of Modern Genetics: A Paradigm for Social, Ethical, and Political Analysis.”  The authors are Eric Cohen and Robert P. George.   Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis and an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions, and a fellow at the Hoover InstitutionRead the rest of this entry »

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