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Literature Lost

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

John M. Ellis
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Literature Lost
    Book Description:

    In the span of less than a generation, university humanities departments have experienced an almost unbelievable reversal of attitudes, now attacking and undermining what had previously been considered best and most worthy in the Western tradition. John M. Ellis here scrutinizes the new regime in humanistic studies. He offers a careful, intelligent analysis that exposes the weaknesses of notions that are fashionable in humanities today. In a clear voice, with forceful logic, he speaks out against the orthodoxy that has installed race, gender, and class perspectives at the center of college humanities curricula.Ellis begins by showing that political correctness is a recurring impulse of Western society and one that has a discouraging history. He reveals the contradictions and misconceptions that surround the new orthodoxy and demonstrates how it is most deficient just where it imagines itself to be superior. Ellis contends that humanistic education today, far from being historically aware, relies on anachronistic thinking; far from being skeptical of Western values, represents a ruthless and unskeptical Western extremism; far from being valuable in bringing political perspectives to bear, presents politics that are crude and unreal; far from being sophisticated in matters of "theory," is largely ignorant of the range and history of critical theory; far from valuing diversity, is unable to respond to the great sweep of literature. In a concluding chapter, Ellis surveys the damage that has been done to higher education and examines the prospects for change.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14419-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    This book is about the great changes that have taken place—and are still proceeding—in humanistic education and learning throughout the English-speaking world, though they are most advanced in America. This is a matter of great social importance. From elementary school through university, literature and history are two of the most significant aspects of the education of young people. The effect of a profound change in the way these subjects are taught and in what teachers are trying to achieve in teaching them is therefore far from trivial—especially when part of the purpose of this change is to...

  5. 1 The Origins of Political Correctness
    (pp. 12-32)

    What we now call “political correctness” may seem to be nothing more than a modern fad, and one that will pass, but to see it only this way is to misunderstand it.¹ Its particular shape may be specific to our time, but its basic impulse is one that recurs regularly in the history of Western society. Herein lies a deep irony. Those in the grip of this impulse are critical of the Western tradition and define themselves by their opposition to it, yet the impulse itself is so much a part of the Western tradition that the attitudes it generates...

  6. 2 The Diversity of Literature
    (pp. 33-59)

    The most striking thing about the new prescription for the study of literature is how very specific it is. Traditionally, literature has been considered to have an educative social function, though one conceived in general terms: it has been thought to help develop a richer understanding of human life and to train the mind. But critics who have determined views about what is wrong with our society—namely, its oppressiveness with regard to race, gender, and class—believe that readers should be concerned with those three aspects of society above all others. They are convinced that their triad of issues...

  7. 3 Gender, Politics, and Criticism
    (pp. 60-88)

    In the previous chapter I argued that politicized critics ignore the diversity of literature and treat all kinds of writing in the same way. They attempt to justify this reduction in the content of literature by insisting that some issues should take precedence over others. This approach enables them to say that even if a variety of issues are present in literature, we should turn our attention to those that are the most important. And the most important are those with political content—that is,their issues. These issues actually subsume others, for, as Fredric Jameson puts it, “everything is...

  8. 4 The Academic Politics of Race
    (pp. 89-114)

    Race is another central ingredient of new-style campus studies in the humanities. It enters into scholarship in literature and history in a number of ways, but the common thread is an insistence on the white European’s mistreatment of other races. There is an intense focus on a limited number of specific historical events: the enslavement of blacks in North America; the disruption of the peaceful lives of the New World Indians by Europeans who took their land; the imperial expansion of Europe beginning in the Renaissance; and the colonial administration of Third World countries. Moral indignation over these episodes becomes...

  9. 5 Class and Perfect Egalitarianism
    (pp. 115-139)

    Human life is a complex and diverse phenomenon. The number of factors and values at work in any human situation is always so large that no single factor or concept is likely to give one an adequate understanding of it. The conceptual framework that race-gender-class critics use for their analysis of human situations is therefore discouraging because of its narrowness. The basic analytical tool is the concept of oppression, which is used equally for race, gender, and class. There is far more to human life than oppression, and it is never clear why that is the only issue we must...

  10. 6 Activism and Knowledge
    (pp. 140-159)

    Most of us who teach and do research in universities and colleges still think of ourselves as part of an institution that serves the society around us in a nonpartisan way; if political considerations were to drive either teaching or research, results that proved politically useful in the short term would crowd out more fundamental thought. This assumption is now challenged by race-gender-class scholars who argue that all scholarship is implicated in social philosophies of one kind or another and that honesty demands an open admission of this. Political engagement should be neither resisted, they say, nor apologized for. Because...

  11. 7 Power, Objectivity, and PC Logic
    (pp. 160-180)

    It is time to look at the typical habits of mind and patterns of inference that are at work in the arguments we have examined. We might call them, collectively, PC logic. Race-gender-class scholars evidently believe that their thought is highly sophisticated and that this sophistication leads them to subtle and complex conclusions. Where others have a naive faith in objectivity and truth, for example, they are able to demystify such notions and demonstrate the covert dominance of power in human affairs. Yet nothing could be further from the truth than this belief; PC logic is not an ascent to...

  12. 8 Is Theory to Blame?
    (pp. 181-203)

    Many people blame theory for the present malaise in literary studies, and there is some empirical support for this view: the now predominant race-gender-class criticism is generally laden with theoretical jargon, and the critics seem less interested in considering what literary works have to say to us than in applying a particular theory to them. But it would be wrong to deduce from this that theory is the source of the problem. What is wrong here is not theory butbadtheory.

    Theory is unavoidable, and for reasons that are more compelling than the currently popular notion that some dark...

  13. 9 How Did It All Happen—and What Comes Next?
    (pp. 204-227)

    The change that has taken place during the past twenty years in the study of the humanities on college campuses has been bewildering. Even with hindsight, it still seems utterly improbable, and anyone predicting this future course of events in the early 1970s would not have been taken seriously. One can imagine the seemingly ironclad case that would have been made against so absurd a prognosis, for the direction that humanist professors have taken seems to negate everything that makes their life attractive and every reason that society might have to support their work.

    The life led by professors of...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 228-230)

    Disputes between different ways of approaching literary criticism have been common enough throughout the history of the field, just as arguments about the theory and practice of other academic disciplines have been. Seen in this light, the arguments I have made might seem no more than a normal part of academic life, business as usual. Yet something is lost if we put this recent controversy on a par with, say, the often sharp disputes between the New Critics and the Literary Historians, substantial positions both. The analysis developed in this book, if correct, points to something more serious: a startling...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 231-256)
  16. Index
    (pp. 257-262)