What follows is a guest post by Patrick Fessenbecker.
In a recent column in The New York Times, Ross Douthat contends that English professors aren’t having the right kind of arguments. Reflecting on the analysis of the decline of the humanities in a series of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education over the last year, Douthat makes a familiar diagnosis: the problem is that we literature professors no longer believe in the real value of the objects we study. Engaging Simon During’s account of the decline of the humanities as a “second secularization” in particular, Douthat argues that secular attempts to defend the humanities will fail just as surely as secular attempts to defend religious ethics and norms did: it doesn’t work unless you really believe in the thing. Correspondingly, the debates literary scholars are having about how to expand the range of texts and subjects we teach are premised on a basic mistake about what such an expansion involves. As he puts it:
This should, by rights, be a moment of exciting curricular debates, over which global and rediscovered and post-colonial works belong on the syllabus with Shakespeare, over whether it’s possible to teach an American canon and a global canon all at once. Instead, humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between “dead white males” and “we don’t transmit value.”
In other words, we ought to be in the business of considering how our conceptions of value and their application should change as scholars recognize the incredible cultural wealth inherent in the diversity of the world. But instead we’re caught between reactionary conservatism and nihilistic critique. Continue reading