Political Correctness and Teaching Literature
Thread poster: Kim Metzger

Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 01:58
German to English
Oct 20, 2003

There was a time when there was almost nothing more important to me than reading literature and reading about literature. I still read good books when I find the time, but I haven’t kept up with the state of literary criticism and the teaching of literature.
Today I read an article in the local Guadalajara English-language newspaper and would like to share some excerpts of it with you.

US critic awarded Mexican literary prize
Literary criticism should be shorn of repeated fashionable attempts to politicize it. That is the primary premise, in the view of many Latin Americans, regarding the wide-ranging work of prominent and controversial United States critic Harold Bloom, who October 12 won Mexico’s prestigious Premio Internacional Alfonso Reyes 2003.
Other authors awarded the Alfonso Reyes Prize include Octavio Paz, Andre Malraux, Argentina’s venerated fabulist Jorge Luis Borges and Mexico’s most acclaimed living author Carlos Fuentes.
Bloom is that significant cultural anomaly that appears only once in a great while: a best- selling critic. Author of 30 books of critical analysis such as “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” “The Western Canon,” and “How to Read and Why,” he occupies endowed chairs at both Yale and New York University.
Yet he must vex a good many, if not most, of his academic colleagues. For Bloom is not the cup of tea for noisy MTV generation students of maimed attention spans, nor those grownups teaching literature in most universities who, Bloom charges, “resent” literature. He has said in one interview that such professors “resent difficulty. They resent the discipline to which they … apprenticed themselves.” Such people – “inappropriately” in the position of opening the gates of the revelatory world of literature to students – seem to “believe their function is to address the admittedly terrible plight of people trapped in the inner cities of America, the eroded wastelands of our decaying farm belt …shouldn’t be teaching literature. They ought to become social and political and economic activists, devoting their lives to serving the poor.”
But he believes they don’t care for that level of commitment. “I am one of the few professors at Yale from a working-class background” – a Bronx-born son of an immigrant Jewish garment worker. “And I can smell a hypocrite in these matters from a considerable distance.”
The purpose of literary criticism, he explains with unornamented precision, is “to make what is implicit in a book finely explicit.” And the reason why we should read, he tells us, is both convincing and impelling. Reading, he writes, is “the most healing of pleasures,” for it both returns us “to otherness,” expanding our emotional identification and intellectual perception beyond ourselves, while making us “wholly ourselves” in new, more profound ways. He writes wisely that the basic thing “the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.” – Allyn Hunt, The Colony Reporter

I'd be interested in hearing your opinions about how literature ought to be taught.
Kim


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Berni Armstrong  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:58
Member
English
+ ...
Literature in a bubble? Oct 22, 2003

Hi Kim,

while enjoying the two Bloom books I have read so far ("Western Cannon" & "The Closing of the American Mind") - I am rather more from the Left-Wing tradition he so obviously despises.

When teaching literature I think it is criminal NOT to place the book under study within its social context. The context of ITS times - not ours.

I certainly do not stress to my students the lack of Political Correctness in a work. However, I do make them aware that certain issues we take for granted today either were not seen as issues at certain historical moments, or else were viewed from quite a different angle. I also try to make them aware of issues which we (for the most part)no longer see as isssues - such as "Damnation" and the "Loss of our Immortal Soul"... Issues that seem to puzzle many of my students and seem as remote as the old puzzle for medieval monks: "How many angels could stand on a pin?"

Bloom's attempt to stress universality and quality is well argued, but, whether he likes it or not, we are all political animals and these issues cannot be conveniently swept under the carpet.

Comparing issues then and now can also provide a useful handle into a book for students today. The issue of Lear dividing his kingdom may seem remote, but if we imagine Saddam (in his "glory" days) as Lear and his hated sons as Goneril & Reagan. (Inventing a nice daughter who loves the humanity in her Daddy)... Then the power struggle in "King Lear" can be made more immediate. Students suddenly see the relevance of an issue they had already mentally filed under "Historically Quaint".

In short, I suppose I am stressing that Literature cannot be taught in a bubble IMHO.

Anyone else got any thoughts on this one?

Cheers,

Berni


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Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 01:58
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Teaching literature Oct 23, 2003

Hi Berni,
Thank you for your interesting thoughts on the subject and your Lear-Saddam analogy. Unlike you, I haven’t read Bloom’s books, so I’m not in a position to evaluate how far he goes in “sweeping issues under the carpet.” I have followed discussions about political correctness in US universities, though, and have the uneasy feeling that too many professors seem to think it’s more important to deal with political and social issues than to teach their subjects. I was struck by Bloom’s argument that too many lit profs in the US are focused on social and political issues at the expense of literary works themselves. I’d rather walk away from a class on Shakespeare with a deeper understanding of how he achieved his magic and what he can tell us about life than with the status of women during the Elizabethan period, for example. I love women and have two daughters, but when I decide to study feminism, I will pay for a history or social studies class. I think his main argument is that university literature students are being shortchanged.

Of course, one must also distinguish between teaching literature to students whose native language isn’t English or to high school students versus university students majoring in English.

I studied literature in the 1970s when the emphasis was on literary analysis.
One professor, John M. Ellis, an Englishman, influenced my thinking more than anyone else. His emphasis was on what the text actually says. Although in his book he discusses literary criticism, I think his arguments apply to teaching too.

He speaks of two main groups of questions posed in connection to literary theory. “Should the object of literary analysis be the philosophy of the work and its ideas, for example, or just the form of their presentation? Should we be concerned with the artistic composition and style of the work, or with its content ….? With its aesthetic value and structure, or its ideological or social value?

“… ‘formalists’ are usually said not to be concerned with context, but only with the literariness of the text, while ideologists or historical and biographical contextualists are said to be concerned with the content of the text.”
“In a certain clear and elementary sense, there is no doubt that a formalist position is incorrect if formalism is taken to deny that we are concerned with what the literary text says in the way that we are concerned with what any other piece of language says. So far, the ideologists are right, and (certain kinds of) formalists wrong: we must be concerned above all with the content of the literary text. But in practice the case is reversed: “formalist” critics have usually been more closely concerned with the content of a text than the ideologists…. The formalist critic has often been doing something that antiformalists seldom do: he has been looking very closely at precisely what the text says in all its details. The antiformalist has usually been satisfied to abstract a fairly superficial “content” or ideology and then to limit meaning of the text even more by referring it to the context of its origin.”

“What, finally, are we to make of the common demand, most commonly made by Marxists, that literature serve an ideological purpose? In so far as this is part of the dispute in which the socially committed are on one side, and the formalists and aesthetes on the other, I have already dealt with it as a misconceived opposition: a mode of apprehension is not sensibly to be contrasted with what is apprehended. What should really be contrasted here is a kind of social relevance that goes to an immediately felt, particular social problem, as opposed to social relevance of a much broader kind. If an immediate particular social need is pressing enough, one may indeed try to enlist the aid of everyone and everything in sight. If one is convinced that society needs rapid and fundamental reshaping … there is nothing inconsistent in demanding that literature help to promote this; in a rainstorm one might shelter under a parasol, and at Dunkirk pleasure boats were used to rescue soldiers. But nothing is derived from such incidents about the normal function of parasols, pleasure boats, or literature. When the immediate local needs are past, literature will still continue to function socially as before in a variety of ways, some of which are probably known already and others still to be discovered.
John M. Ellis, The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis

I think Bloom is saying we are doing our students a disservice if we place all the emphasis on social and political issues at the expense of “what the text says” and how great writers create their magic.

Best wishes, Kim


[Edited at 2003-10-23 23:15]


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Roomy Naqvy  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 12:28
English to Hindi
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Bloom-ing Oct 23, 2003

I wanted to write a reply to Kim... then Berni wrote... I'll still write; just next 2 days or so.

In brief, Harold Bloom of The Anxiety of Influence and the later Bloom are really different.

Will elaborate later.


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Berni Armstrong  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:58
Member
English
+ ...
No politics please, we're academics :-) Oct 24, 2003

Hi Kim,

I hope I didn't give you the impression that I advise teaching literature as part of some kind of political crusade. Far from it!

I do stress the way the magic is achieved. But try to balance that with an examination of what was being said and why the author was interested in that theme at that moment in time.

I mean that you can examine some Elizabethan sonnet and destructuralize it to death - but if your student is not aware of some basic facts of Elizabethan life, such as the prevalence of "the pox" - then many of the subtle references to contemporary images of pox sufferers - contrasting with the pleasures of physical love - may go over the student's head and half the meaning of the poem has just been lost.

"King Lear" may be universal, but its power struggle themes and supernatural considerations do not always strike a chord in young 19 year old minds. Giving them a modern "handle", while stressing why the theme was of interest to the author in his time, illuminates the work for me, not betrays it. A purely structuralist approach does reveal the skeleton behind the flesh. But when concentrating on the skeleton, it is easy to forget that "dead men tell no tales"

Looking forward to your comments on this Roomy,

Cheers,

Berni


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Kim Metzger  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 01:58
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Politics and Literature Oct 24, 2003

Hi Berni,
While waiting for Prof. Roomy to weigh in, I just wanted to say in the meantime that I'd take a lit class from you any time. You make it sound like fun.

Kim


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Roomy Naqvy  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 12:28
English to Hindi
+ ...
Bloom..... Oct 29, 2003

Kim Metzger wrote:

Hi Berni,
While waiting for Prof. Roomy to weigh in, I just wanted to say in the meantime that I'd take a lit class from you any time. You make it sound like fun.

Kim


Harold Bloom is a major name.

Anxiety of Influence was certainly an analytical work.

The Western Canon was more descriptive and survey based. Very informative, yes. But what else?

The difference between the early Bloom and the later one is of an analytical critic becoming a homogenesing thinker. That's a problem.

The liberal humanist school:: It might be interesting to contrast Bloom with Erich Auerbach, specifically his book Mimesis.


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Political Correctness and Teaching Literature

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