Nothing is as annoying about the hateful New York Times as their constant attempts to earn their conservative credentials by ridiculing the long-haired, Derrida-reading elite hippie professors. This newspaper is especially virulent against the scholars of the Humanities, which is understandable since we are overwhelmingly progressive in our politics (as opposed, for example, to our colleagues in sciences, many of whom are, for some incomprehensible reason, very conservative and even vote Republican.) Recently, The NY Times joined the campaign to destroy the institution of tenure in this country. The Times can't fail to realize that the destruction of tenure will mean the end of any respectable system of higher education in the US. Of course, if that happens, this newspaper can expect a huge influx in subscribers, since the level of stupidity in this country will sky-rocket.
Today, The New York Times decided to attack the scholars of literature, ridiculing us and presenting us as complete losers who have no idea what we are doing. Some paid gun from the University of Chicago wrote a piece called "In Defense of Naive Reading" where he makes a series of completely disingenuous claims about the way literature is supposedly taught in universities. These completely spurious claims are enough to make the helicopter parents who read the paper flip out and go on a perennial "What is our children learning?" rant.
So here are some statements the author of the essay makes:
1. Too much theory is being taught in college literature courses. According to the author of this piece, we expose our students to the endless lithany of "psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies." Now, this is just a lie, pure and simple. There was an explosion of interest in literary theory that occurred in late 70ies and early 80ies. This all came to an end, though, over 20 years ago. After the huge progressive gains of the 70ies, American society shifted dramatically to the right. A strong push to turn away from theory originated in Ivy League universities in the mid-eighties. Today, this de-theorizing tendency has won a resounding victory. (If you want to argue with me about this statement, try mentioning the word "deconstruction", or even worse, "feminism" in a literature class at Yale. Then, we can continue this discussion. As somebody who has tried writing a doctoral dissertation that mentioned - just mentioned - reader response criticism and cultural studies at an Ivy League school and paid the price for trying to do it, I can tell you that the author of the NYTimes piece is either a complete dufus or a liar.)
For those who want an informed (and a beautifully written) account of this turn away from theory, I highly recommend After Theory by the amazing Terry Eagleton who, unlike the author of the NYTimes article, is a world-famous scholar of literature.
2. Professors of literature still haven't figured out how to evaluate their students' work. If that were true, as the author of this offensive article suggests, we should all be fired on the spot. Or at least have our tenure taken away because we obviously have no idea what we are doing. Of course, Robert Pippin has no idea what he is talking about. His claim that there is an "absence of any consensus" on "whether the student has done well or poorly" demonstrates a profound ignorance of our field of knowledge. Pippin could have talked to any of the excellent scholars of literature on his own campus, who would have enlightened him on our methods of evaluation students. A small hint: using the clumsy expression "the fact that" twice in such a short article and creating an argument based on false assertions would have earned him a grade of C- in any of my courses.
3. The last accusation that Mr. Pippin (I'm not trying to be offensive to the guy, that's his real name) wages against professors of literature is that we are on the verge of applying voodoo science in our classrooms: "One already sees the “application” of “results” from the neurosciences and evolutionary biology to questions about why characters in novels act as they do or what might be responsible for the moods characteristic of certain poets. People seem to be unusually interested in what area of the brain is active when Rilke is read to a subject." Why we should waste time on reading Mr. Pippin's delusional visions is left unexplained in the article. There is also no explanation for who these mysterious "people" he mentions are. Of course, they sound like complete quacks, and I wouldn't want them in my field of knowledge. The only problem is that they are a figment of Mr. Pippin's over-active imagination. Nothing like that is happening in the field of literary studies. For some reason, though, the author tries to make the impressionable readers of The Times believe that the field of literary criticism is filled with quacks who apply brain measurements to the work of Rilke.
Mr. Pippin ends his rambling and weird article with an attempt to provide a "good" analysis of a work of literature. What's truly funny, though, is that his reading is heavily indebted to psychoanalytic theory, which has been outdated for about 30 years. This reminds me of Moliere's immortal character, M. Jourdain, who had no idea he was speaking in prose. Mr. Pippin should realize that in his attempts to berate scholars of literature he looks just as ignorant and foolish as M. Jourdain.