Critical Thinking and Cultural Literacy: Or, Is Unmasking Shakespeare Productive Cultural Work?

Ok, a slightly lame way of doing the blog entry today, but I spent a lot of time commenting on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at the Chronicle today, so I thought I’d just copy some of that and expand just a bit on what I had to say there.

In sum, Bauerlein makes the argument that the arguments in favor of critical thinking as a raison d’etre for literary study are really only half the story for professors in the humanities, and perhaps especially in English. The other half is that we need to pass on an appreciation of a cultural tradition.

As a department chair, I’m used to giving the usual run-down on critical thinking in making arguments for English studies. They generally sell well with provosts and deans because they both seem to comport with traditional practices of the humanities while at the same time being a marketable skill to discuss with skeptical external constituencies. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that the humanities are the only place to get critical thinking skills. What, they aren’t doing critical thinking in the hard and social sciences? I think we sometimes assume that because different fields investigate different data sets, they are therefore not developing critical thinking. What is an economist doing but attempting to think critically about received wisdom as applied to sets of data in the economy?

Thus, I fully appreciate, while not going all the way with, Bauerlein’s argument that the humanities have to be about familiarizing students with a substantive subject matter and understanding its active or potential value in the world and for themselves. In my own terms, I think that English studies, especially, has to be more than a critical project; it has to be a constructive project as well.

My comments on Bauerlein’s blog were as follows:

I think the comments above that suggest an exclusive identification of literary or humanistic studies with critique has become strangely vacuous are right on the mark. And, in reality, it’s not clear that critique per se has changed very much over the course of the last two or three decades. This is because critique must always have an object of its attention and is therefore always dependent on some kind of received culture.

In an older form of literary study, criticism meant not simple-minded passing on, nor simple-minded tearing apart, but critical evaluation. That is, what is worth passing on, what is worth reading, and for what reasons? The literary academy and the humanities more broadly have almost entirely defaulted on this particular task because to make an affirmative act of construction is to lay oneself open to the, I guess, humiliating preference for deconstruction or other forms of political critique.

In our curriculum I teach both the courses on literary theory and a course on book reviewing, and in both attempt to get students to think in concrete and critical ways about what’s worth reading and why. I have to say that students find the classes incredibly important to them. Far from feeling like the web—with its massive democratization of product and opinion—has done away with the need for discussion of value, they really find it an important question. Why should I spend my time with this book rather than that book? With Mark Bauerlein’s blog instead of Moby Dick? These are theoretical questions, critical questions, and questions that involve themselves in the construction of traditions and cultures rather than simply critiquing them.

In my own view, I think the current explosion of textual matter on the web—whether blogs, or online fictions, or newspapers, or e-books—has created a critical situation very similar to that which existed after the invention of the printing press. In a certain sense, the invention of the press changes the function of criticism. Prior to widely accessible print and the expansion of both reading audience and authorship beyond the narrow confines of the clerisy and aristocracy, criticism more or less existed to catalogue and discuss the characteristics of good writing. This was not, properly speaking, an evaluative project. Things that were published and preserved were, by and large, already considered good. “Criticism,” such as it was, was more a taxonomic affair, describing the goodness that was already known to exist.

After Gutenberg, criticism became the task of defining what, out of the immense amount of material on hand that could be read, really should be read. What was worth preserving? What things being produced by the new class of writer/readers deserved a status similar to that of the ancients as worthy of being preserved? To some degree, we are still at the dawning moment of that part of the internet revolution. What is really worth reading? Even, what is really worth writing? Is a blog worth doing? Is it real writing or is it conversation. Is real thinking going on, or is it ephemeral. To some degree popularity sites like Technorati or Digg that try to apply the democratic impulses of the web to blogs and the like are trying to serve an evaluative function. The wisdom of crowds applied to the function of criticism. Will this work for the long term? I have my doubts. There’s always been a tendency to try to insist that “best-sellers” are those things that are really valuable, but their value hasn’t been sustainable for more than a generation or two. I suspect that we are still working out the function of criticism at the present time. What shape will criticism take? How will we decide what is worth reading and writing. How will we decide what being written—or perhaps we should now simply say, “being produced—on the web are the kinds of things that should be passed down to our children as we attempt the inevitable human activity of forging a common culture.

After a variety of comments for Bauerlein with varying levels of vitriol in play, I followed up on a comment that made the argument that we need to be teaching things that students are comfortable with, but also things that sting them with their unfamiliarity.

My response:

Tim, I wonder in this day and age whether reading almost anything longer than a blog will be, for many students, a de-familiarizing and unsettling experience. That is, one doesn’t have to buy in to all the hype about a reading crisis to recognize that the nature of reading is changing, and the ability to read extended and complex texts has been eroding among college graduates.

Because we are so habituated by our own reading practices and training, we often make deeply flawed assumptions about what students will find de-familiarizing. And, to be honest, we often default to simple-minded notions of unfamiliar cultural content. “De-familiarization” first developed among formalists as a conception of how literary language served to shock readers from their comfortable linguistic frames of reference. On that score, I think we often find that contemporary students find reading much of anything “literary” at all to be unfamiliar, defamiliarizing, and unsettling. Especially so in poetry, but in a different register in long novels and plays they no longer even bother to try and read. Rather than experiencing the sting of defamiliarization in Shakespeare’s Tempest, students are quite as likely to go get the Sparknotes so they can pass the test and even write their essays.

In this kind of reading context, it seems to me that discussions of how to upset the cultural applecart on the basis of whether folks read Shakespeare or not are increasingly arcane and disconnected from cultural realities in which long form reading is taking place. While I agree that the task can’t be a simple passing on of received tradition, I think the cultural situation does call for engaging students with the question of why certain forms of reading may be valuable, and thinking through what texts might be worth the time required for reading them. In other words, the philosophical conception of “The Good” surely can’t be “Whatever has always been.” But it also surely can’t be, “Whatever I decide might make my students talk in class,” or “Whatever an individual wants it to be.” To go this route is, I think, to give up on the question of “The Good” entirely, something I think most students are still unwilling to do.

This is something I find repeatedly in play among literary intellectuals. It’s almost as if we are so hermetically sealed within the discourses and practices of our discipline that we can’t conceive of a world where the fact of reading a book might be uncomfortable or unfamiliar for students. When I raise this problem at conferences, I repeatedly have professors reply by saying “Everyone I know reads.” I want to say “Duh. You work in an English department.”

This fact, I think, calls in to question some of the basic premises of the canon wars that preoccupied folks at Duke while I was there as a grad student in the late eighties and early nineties. In the world that we are entering and are now in, people who read literature as an important part of their cultural lives are a distinct minority group that all have more in common with one another regardless of ethnicity, sexual identity, religion or gender, than they do with other members of their various identity groups—at least insofar as reading is concerned. That is, reading books, and reading literature especially, marks them out as different, as Other from the culture they inhabit–whether we are thinking of an ethnic, a national, a religious or a sexual culture. We need to recognize that we are quickly entering a world, and are already in it, wherein the simple fact of reading Moby Dick or Shakespeare will be a stinging act of defamiliarization that unsettles the cultural life of students.

This doesn’t mean that Bauerlein is right that we need to be passing on a received tradition—though I think students value that more than we sometimes realize. But it certainly does mean that we have to be involved in a constructive project and not simply a critical project.