Well, maybe there's a reason that line repeats itself in the eternal cassette player of my mind. (Yes, I'm dating myself here. That's okay.) When I think about the subject matter I teach--English--the question of what to throw away and what to keep asserts itself constantly. What belongs in our curriculum; what should be removed? Which approaches to understanding literature are helpful and necessary; which are stodgy and outdated? And, if the majority of society no longer seems to want what we're offering (to the extent society ever did want that), how far should we go to capitulate to current tastes and trends in order to remain "relevant"? If we go too far and cave in to the shallow values of our current society, do we dilute the potential value of what we do until it's no longer even valuable? Yet if we refuse to adapt with the times, do we risk devaluation by becoming irrelevant?
This week I read an Inside Higher Ed article reporting on a recent conference on "the future of the liberal arts" (HERE). While the article itself is somewhat more nuanced than the link's title--"liberal arts must return to a 'purer form' in order to survive" (quotes mine)--the conference it refers to rehashes a longstanding meme: that those of us in the liberal arts today are responsible for our own demise because we've allowed our disciplines to become "impure," tainted with nasty stuff like critical theory, postmodernism, jargon, and various contemporary concerns.
John Agresto, former president of St. John's University, posits that the decline of the humanities is "less a murder than a suicide" and suggests that our survival depends on a "return" to a "Great Books" curriculum (such as that taught at St. John's). What's "ruined" the humanities, according to Agresto, is "hyperspecialization" and, especially, critical theory which he claims, "limit[s] students' free inquiry" by committing such travesties as "portray[ing] the founding fathers as mere 'white racists.'" Next comes the usual "let's go back" argument, calling for us to return "to an older mode of instruction, and instilling critical thinking skills." The article posits that there was a time when the liberal arts were a 'gift' given to everyone," evoking an imagined golden age of "classic liberal arts instruction . . . in which a cat may look at a king."
I'm still trying to make sense of bashing "critical" in one breath (Critical Theory=Bad) while praising it in the next (Critical Thinking=Good). To be sure, it is overly simplistic to portray the founding fathers as "mere white racists," when historical contexts and those who function within them are highly complex, always have been and always will be. There's always more to the story than just one facet. (I would add, despite being taught by a good many critical theorists myself, I was never taught to interpret history in the simplistic manner suggested here--my learning was far more nuanced than that, and thus this characterization of critical theory as a "limit on free thinking" reads to me like a caricature.)
Yet it's equally if not more simplistic--not to mention un-critical--to ignore the huge blind spots at the core of America's founding: the bold visionary declaration that "all men are created equal," made by a group of men, many of whom owned slaves, at a time when indigenous people were being forced off their own land, while half the population--women--went unmentioned. Is it really accurate to characterize a superficial and triumphalist interpretation of history or literature as a "gift" to everyone, when during that supposedly golden age of the liberal arts, most people were actually left out of the picture being presented? My own critical thinking process tells me "No." (Thank you to my critical theory professors.)
And when exactly was this time when "a cat may look at a king"? When I think backward, what I recall is a time when most people didn't even have a shot at college education; and if those from society's less elite sectors somehow did manage to enter the university, they rarely found their own experiences or perspectives reflected in what they were required to study. (Furthermore, while a few "cats" here and there may have gotten occasional glimpses of "kings," education has never been so radical that the "kings" were in turn taught to look at--let alone think about--the "cats.")
Critical theory reminds us, "Hey, there are a few other lenses through which you can understand this, rather than the single lens you've been using." Looking through a different lens often results in a picture more complicated, and admittedly often more ugly, than the one previously seen. We're simply killing the messenger if we blame the observations made by critical theorists for the demise of "old-school" liberal arts education that was, by nature of its inherent exclusivity, doomed to fail in an increasingly pluralistic society. Critical theory calls for a deeper recognition of the complexity and inherent contradictions in much of what we study, whether it be our history, literature, art, political systems, religious traditions, or anything else. To "return" to an "older mode" of understanding--a more simplistic mode--means moving away from "critical thinking" rather than toward it.
(If you've been reading this and thinking "just another indoctrinated, theory-addled contemporary academic," you might like the next paragraph. If you've been nodding along with me in agreement so far, here comes the part you might not like.)
But I do have criticisms of critical theory, too--especially when it comes to its difficult language, its jargon, its intellectual elitism. What bothers me here is the hypocrisy: It's one thing to act elitist while not pretending to be anything otherwise. Obnoxious, maybe, but at least elitists who own up to their own elitism are consistent. But when you're calling for a more inclusive framework--an approach to literature or history or art appreciation that advocates for the perspectives of the less privileged--it's ethically problematic to do so in language inaccessible to many of those on whose behalf you claim to speak. Too often, critical theory is couched in language more exclusionary and difficult than Shakespeare ever was. Too often, well-known theorists and critics advocate for exploding the "literary canon" when it's their own theories that are now canonized (through such mechanisms as curriculum and syllabi).
I actually like the idea of liberal arts/humanities as a "gift given to everyone," and if we're going to keep their study alive and vital, I'd argue that taking such an inclusive and generous approach is exactly what we need to do. We need to include everyone, engaging in ever-widening and deepening conversations that pose and explore the big questions about life's meaning, offering a challenge to the purely materialistic, mechanistic, individualistic way of understanding the world.
But I disagree when people call for us to "go back," thereby implying that there was a time when this gift was given to everyone. Such a time never existed. Critical theory--rather than "tainting" the liberal arts, as the call for a "purer" approach would suggest--has served a vital function by pointing out the many voices and perspectives that have long been excluded, both in terms of what will be studied and who gets to do the studying.
When it comes to "knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep," I'm in favor of keeping a great deal: an in-depth understanding of our history; major philosophical questions about the purpose of life; the art, music, and literature that throughout the centuries has attempted to address those questions; the notion that there's more to life than just profit-and-loss statements; the potential of the liberal arts for training us to think through vantage points beyond what our own narrow, individualistic focus would allow. Maybe my belief that all this is possible makes me rather quaint.
Yet there is also much I'm in favor of throwing away: racism and ethnocentricity, sexism, rigid gender roles, exploitation, homophobia, elitism, class-based hierarchies, snobbery, anything that dehumanizes anyone, and approaches to knowledge that fail to address --or in some cases even acknowledge--the implications of all of the above. Maybe my belief that the "good old days" weren't so good, that critical theory has substantial merits, and that dehumanization in all its forms needs to be exposed and challenged makes me rather "strident," as some critical academics have been disdainfully called.
If understood and applied in the spirit of inclusion, I'd argue that critical theory opens up more rather than fewer possibilities for making the liberal arts relevant, meaningful, and sustainable. Yet if critical theory is approached in an exclusionary manner and couched in language inaccessible to most, then perhaps we have not come so far after all.
I'd hate to think that we are throwing away the wrong things--curiosity, a spirit of community, humanity, the quest for meaning. I'd also hate to think that we are keeping the wrong things--the exclusionary and dehumanizing attitudes that have historically constrained the liberal arts from being the widely disseminated "gift given to everyone" that they should be.