Saturday, March 17, 2018

The discipline of literary criticism and the difference between graduate and undergraduate education

Michael Meranze reviews a new book by Geoffrey Harpham, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, which centers on the definition and role of the humanities, literary criticism in particular. After a bit of introductory material we have this paragraph:
Harvard University’s General Education in a Free Society offered the crucial conceptualization of the humanities within general and liberal education. Commonly known as the “Redbook” (for the color of its cover), General Education in a Free Society was a protean text. Its greatest influence appears to have been in promoting lower-division general education in colleges and universities, though its notion of the centrality of general education was far too capacious for postwar academic institutions. Arguably, the Redbook was the last attempt to define higher education as a humanist enterprise that was not a defensive gesture: its authors — a Committee empaneled by Harvard President James Bryant Conant — asserted that the humanities and social sciences lay at the core of higher education. The aim of education was the instillation of “wisdom,” conceived as an “art of life,” a cultivation of the “whole man.” None of these lofty terms would survive the intellectual challenges of the next half-century. But they proved to be powerful arguments in the midcentury debate over the creation of a mass higher education system in the United States.
And then, and then, until:
As Harpham shows, the New Criticism was as much a pedagogy as a research program. Late 19th- and early 20th-century English studies was divided, to use Gerald Graff’s terms, between scholars and generalists. Scholars based their authority on a Germanic tradition of philological rigor while generalists, believing this approach missed the element of genius in literature, embraced the theater of charismatic teaching. Ultimately this divide was settled in practice through the separation of graduate training from an undergraduate curriculum of appreciation. This arrangement allowed both sides to participate in a larger project of “criticism” that would, on the one hand, establish the professional status of literary critics while, on the other hand, maintaining the undergraduate enrollments that kept professors employed.

The New Criticism provided the means to bring these two visions together into one pedagogical program. As envisioned by I. A. Richards and elaborated by William Empson, the New Criticism’s emphasis on close reading and the structures of language allowed professors simultaneously to claim a new, more scientific method and to dazzle undergraduates with interpretive possibilities. Moreover, because the New Criticism opened up a seemingly endless debate about authorial intention, it made literary criticism into a powerful tool for tackling the interpretive dilemmas of American civic culture. New Criticism, in short, transformed constitutional interpretation into literary interpretation and therefore opened up the possibility of training students to read the texts of America in a more critical fashion.
And that's what interests me, the distinction between undergraduate education and graduate training. It has long seemed to me that what's most important about (lower-division) undergraduate courses in literature is the texts themselves. It almost doesn't matter what we say around and about them as long as students are taught/allowed to take them seriously (whatever that may mean).  Graduate training and professional research, however, may be somewhat different in character–a matter I discuss at greater length in a working paper, An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism. Here's the abstract:
Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguists, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).

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