Erin O’Connor says some very interesting things in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. They’re things I’ve been thinking for some time myself.
But almost everyone agrees with the astounding premise that it’s reasonable to use the freshman reading program to stage a political debate…On both sides of the debate, a book’s politics are assumed to matter more than its scholarly merit or literary quality…The tacit assumption by both liberals and conservatives that Chapel Hill’s summer reading program is more about politics than about reading should give us pause. We ought to be asking what it means to read opinionated works as either a confirmation or negation of identity — but instead we are fighting endlessly about whose identity gets top billing when readings are assigned.
Just so. One of the things that has soured or curdled or at least altered my leftist views or commitments – I still have them, but they tend to be hedged about with sighs or snarls or rolled eyes these days – is just that claustrophobic idea that politics is the only way to think. That if one is not thinking politically one is not thinking at all, and then that politics boils down to identity politics. What a deadly combination. First, come up with a radically diminished impoverished and in many ways regressive idea of what politics is about, and then make everything be about (that version of) politics. Then run absolutely everything in life through that dreary wringer and see the result: we’re not allowed to read Shakespeare or Austen any more without getting an endless turgid point-missing lecture on their failure to be as right-on about Colonialism or queer theory as we are. Yawn.
Yes, they are exposing the program’s considerable liberal slant, but only on the way to revealing their own embarrassingly impoverished concept of reading…Both liberals and conservatives should remember that there is no book worth reading that is not somehow partial to something, and that there is no education worth having that does not involve exposure to partialities other than one’s own.
And even that there are partialities that have little or nothing to do with politics, especially with politics in the narrow boring parochial sense in which we’ve taken to defining it.