Didja Drop Your Compass?

One remark in this CHE piece on learning to hate literature in order to get a PhD in it particularly caught my attention. It’s so expectable and yet so odd.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest. They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays…It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects. When I asked about that, one said, “If I wanted to be a politician, I’d major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I’d major in sociology.”

Well exactly. Exactly. How terribly odd it is that Thomas H Benton (presumably not that Thomas H Benton, nor that one either) is surprised that none of his students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive for studying literature. Why would they? Why on earth would they? What is the connection? Why, on earth, would someone who is fired up with a commitment to social justice or to a political ideology sit down with a beer and a dish of cashews to ponder what kind of advanced degree to get, and come up with – literature? Literature? Why that? Why not opera, or interior design, or mincing and prancing? Those make just as much sense. That is what I always wonder about these bizarro world people who orate about their concern with social justice instead of actually saying anything about literature despite the inconvenient fact that they are, in truth, teachers of literature. Did they take a wrong turn in the corridor and simply keep going until they had the wrong PhD and it was too late? Why don’t they have exactly the same limpid thought the student offered Benton? If they want to do politics, why don’t they get their degrees in political science instead of literature? Why are they so…lost?

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