Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

by John Ellis

(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997, 262 pp., $25)

THE TEACHING of literature at the university level has taken a turn for the worse during the past 15 years. Studying language and writing for beauty and the propagation of values that enrich civilization is long gone from most elite campuses, including some Catholic ones. In its place is a new orthodoxy that reduces all literary scholarship to the search for race, gender, and class oppression. Its opponents label this kind of thinking “political correctness,” or “PC,” for short.

John Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has often deplored the decline in standards that has accompanied the politicization of his field. In Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, he subjects these new trends to disinterested scholarly inquiry.

Ellis begins by pointing out that, by and large, PC practitioners are artistic killjoys. “The sad fact is that politically inspired criticism never speaks of the enjoyment or intellectual excitement of literature and certainly not the love of it,” he observes.

Instead political correctness attacks the Western tradition of Great Books, arguing that “studying Shakespeare and Plato can be positively harmful. Shakespeare's plays reflect reactionary attitudes: jingoistic imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia.” This so-called “high culture” is seen as “part of the ruling elite's apparatus for social control.” The Great Books thus “close our minds and make us conform to the ideas of a privileged class of white upper-class European males.”

Ellis traces this rigid, negative view of literature back to the mid-20th century French neo-Marxist, Michel Foucault, who believed that covert relations of power are the driving force in human situations. This results in the “systematic reduction of all social processes” to the “politics of domination.” Hence literature along with many other academic disciplines must become the study of cultural oppression. Foucault also assumed that all knowledge is socially constructed and therefore has no objective reality. This cultural relativism is at the core of political correctness.

Ellis's most perceptive insight is to link fashionable anti-Western PC attitudes to one of the cornerstones of Western tradition—the Enlightenment. Advanced 18th-century political and philosophical thinkers initiated a dramatic departure from the trib-alist assumptions that preceded them by ascribing a common sense of humanity to all persons. “Words like racism, genocide, and imperialism belong in this new context but would be out of place in an environment not imbued with Enlightenment attitudes,” Ellis argues. “When we denounce racism in absolute terms, we are measuring all cultures and all times by a standard that is distinctively modern and Western.” Those literature professors who exalt cultural relativism and non-Western societies “are in fact the most ruthless and uncompromising enforcers of the Enlightenment's cultural revolution.”

Literature Lost ties PC utopian fantasies about the superior virtue of the Third World to Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his idea about “the noble savage.” Rousseau, in effect, denied Original Sin, assuming that man in his natural state is good and that all corruption is derived from society and its institutions. His quarrel was with modern civilization itself which, he claimed, had ruined the human race.

The PC variation of this sees the classics or Western literature separating ordinary citizens from their natural goodness by brainwashing them with racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas. Thus it's the duty of literature professors to undo all this harm by delegitimizing the Great Books.

Ellis believes that “as Marxism is to the economic sphere, so cultural political correctness is to the cultural sphere,” and he compares the abandonment of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake that goes with political correctness to the economic disasters that befell the nations under the control of the former Soviet Empire. Ellis attributes our campuses’ conquest by race-gender-class scholars to the coming into tenure of ‘60s’ radicals and their need of new fields of inquiry on which to build their careers.

As Catholic educational institutions are now part of the academic mainstream, they may be tempted to adopt some PC norms. But to do so would be to undermine the fundamentals on which they are based. For example, Stanley Fish, one of PC's prime literary theoreticians, complains that his campus adversaries are beguiled by a belief in “absolutes.” And another influential PC thinker, Stephen Greenblatt, attacks “the conception of art as addressed to a timeless, cul-tureless, universal human essence.” These and other race-gender-class scholars also argue that objectivity and truth are naive illusions of Western tradition.

Belief in “absolutes,” a “universal human essence,” and “truth” is embedded in all Church teaching. Catholic universities must separate themselves from the Ivy League institutions with which they are now competitive and be a countercultural sign of the times. While remaining sensitive to issues of racism and sexism, they must turn their backs on political correctness and proudly affirm their faith in Jesus Christ and his Church as the starting point of all knowledge. In so doing they will not only be preserving their own integrity, they will also be showing the secular academic culture a way out of the intellectual dead end in which it is now trapped.

John Prizer, the Register's arts and culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.