Fashionable conservatives like NYT's Ross Douthat love to prescribe solutions to 'problems' in academia. Here's what they get wrong

Fashionable conservatives like NYT's Ross Douthat love to prescribe solutions to 'problems' in academia. Here's what they get wrong
Image via Screengrab / Heritage Foundation.

Fourteen years ago--four before I would enter a PhD program in English--the New York Book Review Classics rereleased a slim novel entitled Stoner that was first published in 1965 by an almost entirely forgotten writer named John Williams. Like many books in the (excellent) NYBRC series, it took awhile for readers to come back to Stoner, but by 2012 when I was studying for my comprehensive examinations in Renaissance poetry, this book by a man who died in 1994 became an unlikely international hit, lauded by some critics as one of the most perfect novels ever written. What defines Stoner, as Williams writes, is the “love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print.”


It’s an unassuming narrative, the story of William Stoner, born to poor Missouri farmers at the end of the nineteenth-century, who through patience and simply working day in and day out ends up becoming a relatively unaccomplished professor of Renaissance literature Columbia University. He dies unheralded and mostly forgotten, still having lived a life dedicated to teaching and to poetry. Stoner’s career isn’t particularly happy, but he bears personal and professional hardship with a stolid midwestern dignity, and though Williams makes clear that the professor isn’t the most promising of his cohort, there is a rightful valorization of the work that he does, and the professionalism with which he conducts himself. Stoner is undeniably, in addition to being about the abstract love of literature, a celebration of work itself.

With some foreshadowing, it was the New Critical close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that convinced the undergraduate Stoner that he belonged in a classroom and not on a farm. “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang/Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, /Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” The poem evokes Stoner’s eventual solitary death, but in a manner far more prescient than Williams could have known. Shakespeare’s words are also a fair summation of what’s happened to the professor’s entire discipline over the last two generations as departments have shrunk, tenure track jobs have disappeared, and the academy has increasingly come to rely upon an exploited underclass of contingent, part-time faculty.

I started graduate education a year before the financial collapse from which the vast majority of this country has yet to recover. Prospects for employment at a college or university were already bad enough in 2007; thirteen years later and they’re practically non-existent. That English departments – and by proxy the rest of the humanities including history, modern language, religious studies, philosophy, and so on – won’t exist in any recognizable form by let’s say 2035, should be obvious to anybody who surveys the figures and who has worked within the academy itself.

The argument of who exactly is responsible for this state of affairs rages on, but New York Times columnist Ross Douthat insists he knows the answer. Part of the Times squad of Bret Stephens, David Brooks, and Bari Weiss--conservatives who are only read by liberals to prove how politically ecumenical said liberals are--Douthat doesn’t have a graduate degree himself. Nor has he (to my knowledge) produced peer-reviewed scholarship, or taught a university class (as anything other than a guest lecturer or as a function of his job as a columnist, I should say). But despite that, he has the hubris that can only be conferred by an undergraduate degree with the word “Harvard” printed on it, and so Douthat recently authored a column prescribing who is responsible for the “thousand different forces [that] are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture.”

Like any column written by Douthat, Brooks, Stephens, or Weiss, what’s so insidious is that they’re often 25% correct – sometimes even 33% accurate! Douthat blames the disciplines themselves for their current predicament – and of course he’s correct. No doubt he’s critical of the lack of class solidarity between faculty and adjuncts, the ways in which professional organizations refuse to advocate for us, and the manner in which the ethic of the business school has infected the entire university.

But of course that’s not what he finds responsible.  As predictably as if he were Alan Bloom writing The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, Douthat writes that the recovery of the humanities relies on a resuscitation of Victorian critic Matthew Arnold’s championing of “the best that has been thought and said.” A resurrection of the humanities must depend “at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.” Which we would all try and do, of course, if there were only any jobs in which to do it.

I know that it’s been fashionable in conservative circles since the 1980s to bemoan the “post-modernist” professor who refuses to acknowledge Shakespeare’s brilliance while teaching comic books, but the schtick has gotten so old that I wish a young fogy like Douthat would learn a new tune. The critical studies professor railing against “dead, white males” is as much a bogeyman of the conservative conscience as the Cadillac driving welfare-queen, but the former remains a mainstay of their bromides, even while Douthat feigns an unearned reasonableness.

So to his prescription, I must answer that of course those who study and teach literature cherish it as a source of value and transcendence, that of course they acknowledge that there are writings that endure because of individual, brilliant qualities, that of course we want our students to be enthusiastic about these things we’ve loved. Nobody spends the better part of a decade getting a PhD in English, or history, or philosophy because they hate English, history, or philosophy (though certainly some of them understandably come to).

Nobody invests the better part of their youth in such research and teaching just so that Douthat can tell them that their professional failures are a result of just not loving their discipline enough. That critical, theoretical, and pedagogical consensus over the past few generations have rightly concluded that the job of the humanity’s isn’t mere enthusiasm, but also critical engagement with those texts – for both good and bad – speaks to the anemia of Douthat’s own education. Douthat, who has apparently never heard of the scientific method, writes that “no other discipline promises to teach only a style of thinking and not some essential substance,” as if learning how to rationally and critically engage with the world should be some afterthought to remembering that Shakespeare knew how to turn a phrase (I’ll cop to finding his phrase “essential substance” as being unclear--I suppose he means facts). Critical analysis of text has been a mainstay of humanistic inquiry since biblical exegetes first analyzed scripture; it runs through the humanists of the Renaissance, the philologists of the nineteenth-century, and the New Critics and formalists of the Modernist era. It’s hardly something made up at a Berkeley faculty meeting.

Douthat’s pining for a purely aestheticized type of non-inquiry owes much to a certain segment of Victorian criticism, but it’s hardly defined the discipline for its whole history. Nor is the idea that being able to critically engage texts, historical events, or philosophical ideas as independent from whether or not you personally derive aesthetic pleasure from them particularly radical. It’s been a mainstay of the civitas humanitas since before the Enlightenment, whereby the study of literature, history, and philosophy wasn’t just an instruction in connoisseurship, but rather training in how to be a citizen. I’d propose instilling civic engagement is precisely what the “politicized” teaching and research that Douthat bemoans is trying to do.

Unlike cultural warriors of the past, Douthat makes shallow gesture towards the academic jobs crisis, he alludes to the fact that he’s aware of economic austerity that’s gutted humanities departments. But like all culture wars masters of the form, Douthat’s conservative politics make it impossible for him to properly name the actual culprits of what happened to the humanities. Jacques Derrida didn’t kill the English department – Milton Friedman did.

With some accuracy, albeit of the straw-man variety, Douthat argues that today it should be “easier than ever to assemble a diverse inheritor” of the old canon. I’m assuming that when he was at Harvard, he must have encountered those rightful diverse inheritors of the canon, because what we’ve been doing in the Renaissance literature classroom for thirty years is precisely that – teaching Shakespeare alongside Amelia Lanyer, John Milton with Aphra Behn. Like a teenager who asks why nobody has told him about the Beatles before, Douthat acts as if it’s some great insight that “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” – but that’s precisely what we’ve been doing all this time. 

He writes that “humanists have often trapped themselves in a false choice between ‘dead white males’ and ‘we don’t transmit value,’” but this is only the situation within his own reactionary fever dream. Douthat’s prescription is as helpful as asking a person with an illness to just stop being sick, he tells us that the “path to recovery begins… with a renewed faith not only in humanism’s methods and approaches, but in the very thing itself.” May I suggest a humbler solution? The path to recovery of the humanities begins with actually funding the humanities, with hiring and paying people to teach and write about it, with making sure that its interests are not completely overlooked by universities more concerned with the NCAA, administrative pay, and making sure that students have the full “college experience.” That proposal might make the trustees of universities squeamish though, and they after all vote for the same political party which Douthat is a member of. Better just say that professors don’t love literature enough.

Because the humanities do matter, the false choice that Douthat gives between aesthetic appreciation and critical analysis is to the detriment of both. Stoner wouldn’t have been as popular as it was if its sentiments didn’t move so many of us, graduate students who talked about the novel as if it were samizdat. What’s beautiful about Stoner is the character’s love of literature and of teaching. What’s inexplicable to us about it is that he’s actually able to have a job doing those things. Douthat may pretend that this is a spiritual problem, but the bare ruined choir of the academy wasn’t emptied because of insufficient faith, but rather because the money changers have long been in charge of the temple. It’s a spiritual problem only insomuch that all economic problems are at their core spiritual. Pretending that the disappearance of the English department has always been an issue about liberal professors attacking Western civilization is, with apologies to Borges, a bit like watching two bald men fight over a comb.

The fact is that there is no excess in teaching critical analysis – in an era of increasing political propaganda and weakening democratic bonds it’s estimably necessary. We teach how to critically read culture – including movies, comics, and television – not because we don’t acknowledge the technical greatness of a Shakespeare, but in addition to it. Contrary to Douthat’s stereotypes, there’s not an English professor alive who doesn’t understand Shakespeare’s technical achievements when compared to lesser texts, but we understand that anything made by people is worthy of being studied because it tells us something about people. That is the creed of Terrence when he wrote that “I am human and I let nothing which is human be alien to me” – no doubt Douthat knows the line. Did I mention that he went to Harvard?

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