English Departments throughout the United States have without question diversified their curriculum and adjusted their cannon over the last few decades. While the accusation of an all white male curriculum is now an inaccurate, yet still used mantra of certain critics, the fact remains that the presence of works authored by anyone from Kate Chopin to Richard Wright is a reality in the contemporary classroom. For a variety of reasons, none of which shall be examined in this essay, higher education, or “the university” has been hospitable to social and political activism. African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Indigenous, even Disability Studies are part of many if not most major universities now. Within these departments, it is assumed that social justice is a concern of vital importance to what is being taught. To some extent, all such studies intersect, or are under the umbrella of the English Department as social equity has become a priority. Indeed, those enamored with the written word and its beauty would no doubt have at least some curiosity about its varied usage in different cultures and languages and to some extent should be eager to do so in order to better serve an increasingly diverse student body. That understood, with this emphasis on equality comes a small political bias. It may be that the modest assumption of social justice being relevant to the study of literature is a politically loaded assumption at best, but more likely it is a distortion of the discipline of English. Above and beyond this small bias, the English department and University as a whole seem to have become over politicized. The academic prerogatives for the study of English have been at some point distorted when professors are keen to spend less time examining the line by line beauty of Romeo and Juliet (or for that matter the rhetorical effectiveness of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’) and are instead active or tacit partisans in the political arena. It is unlikely that such a political emphasis is what originally drew most students into the study of English.
The academic field of Disability Studies is rapidly emerging as a new manifestation in identity politics on campus. For reasons that will become clear, this trend seems to be very much intertwined with the direction of modern English studies. The Society for Disability Studies website reads,
“Over the course of twenty- five years, SDS has explored issues of disability and chronic illness from a scholarly perspective. Our membership includes social scientists, health researchers, and humanities scholars as well as artists and those active in the disability rights movement. We are committed to the full participation of disabled people in and across the spectrum of international communities. This is indicated in our international character. We are also dedicated to interdisciplanarity and intersectionality as evidenced in our efforts in exploring connections between disability and other identity frame works, including race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and national affiliation.”
An examination of the intellectual development of this rising field further confirms its share in the trends affecting the study of English. “It is extensively informed by literary and cultural criticism, particularly of the Post-Structuralist variety, insofar as it pulls apart concepts about disability to see what cultural attitudes, antagonisms, and insecurities went into shaping them” (Monaghan, NP) Those prominent in its establishment (if not official academic departmentalization just yet) are quick to liken this new field to other political movements. Aside from the relatively timid descriptions of Disability Studies as a civil rights movement, the tone is also more explicitly radical. “Officers of S.D.S. say the initials are no accident: As was the case with the 60’s era Students for a Democratic Society, members intend their work to forge social change” (Monaghan). It would seem that the priorities of this self styled civil rights movement place political organization and activism on a greater or equal footing to actual, scholarship or explication of knowledge. Anna Mollow, in the Michigan Review Quarterly describes the theoretical conventions of Disability Studies as in need of analysis. One of the more frequent assertions is that “Their claim that disability has received far less critical attention than race, gender, or sexuality is incontrovertible… It functions to prescribe, as a remedy, the installation of disability as another identity category. This recommendation is explicitly articulated by many prominent disability scholars, most of whom consider the central goals of disability studies to include forging a group identity” (Mollow). This assumption of the need for political activism( as implied in at least someway in forging a group identity) , no matter how worthy or reasonable the goals immediately biases the orientation the scholarly investigation and is loaded with assumptions, some of which may or may not be shared by students otherwise interested in this subject matter. A student who is interested in reading the literature of a “disabled,” or “differently abled,” author or in better understanding the perspective of people with disabilities may not view the situation experienced by people disadvantaged in this way in terms of oppression or liberation as do so many disability scholars. If the assumption in a classroom is that oppression is a political reality that needs to be remedied, then one wonders if a certain amount of intellectual coercion is taking place.
This same issue affects modern university studies in general, including in many cases, the ‘English Department.’ The pursuit of political equity or social fairness steers the classroom into a clear direction. If these very general, very modest goals are a way of redressing grievances, then it falls upon those pursuing them to ask who is in a position to alleviate and address those grievances, and along the same lines, what is the source of those grievances? It is not a universal opinion that society and the government are sources of oppression. It is not completely agreed that historically oppressed groups are now currently oppressed. That written, ideological strains extant within the study of literature seem to operate with that assumption or thrive from such an approach.
It would belabor the obvious to suggest an active and avowedly partisan political dynamic to be found in Marxist literary criticism. That said, any summarization of this particular concentration will point out that Marxist criticism has been influenced by and itself influenced Feminist, Post Structuralist, and Cultural Studies. Even allowing that many of those employing these critical methods may not have a political agenda that goes beyond academic scrutiny, their method of investigation lends itself to inherent biases. As mentioned earlier, the mere notion of power structures, be they capital, patriarchy, or European hegemony are ideologically loaded concepts. Students directed to employ these methods of analyses are in no uncertain terms being guided towards somewhat predictable conclusions. If it is agreed that the once prominent, and still respected field of Marxist literary criticism has had influence on Feminist Criticism, New Historical Criticism, and many self styled liberation movements within the halls of academe, the minds of many students would almost certainly be pointed in a very definite direction. No argument will be advanced arguing that any classroom or any approach can be employed without predisposing students and thinkers towards certain ideas, but Marxism, being a largely invalidated in its political application due to its invariable turn to totalitarianism merits an especial scrutiny where it still has standing or residual influence. Of course, there has been no absolute divine decree or act of God declaring the evil of Marxist theory or communism, but the cautious and fair instructor should be forthright about his or her intentions and biases when teaching or applying this highly disputed theory or those related to it.
Self ExpressionScholars of any field certainly have the right to express their opinion on any subject, political and otherwise. No one should presume that being a tenured professor in anyway limits one right’s to also be a private citizen who enjoys the same, ( or even more in that particular case) freedom of expression than anyone else. That written, if one were to make a snap judgment concerning the public statements of many prominent people in the study of English, it could be argued that the discipline continues to grow into something less academic than activist. That three prominent professors in the English field have now chosen to publicly state that multiculturalism is limited in its usefulness towards attaining equality and are now calling for renewed emphasis on matters of class shows a blatant prioritization of matters more political than objectively intellectual and is indicative of an environment that rapidly hastens such a change. In an interview, Walter Ben Michaels, University of Illinois Chicago English Department head and eminent literary critic is among voices advocating the class emphasis. The interviewer states ” One can read(Michael’s book) “The Trouble With Diversity” as an extended argument that almost every public topic in American life — is a distraction from what you diagnose as our most basic problem, which is economic inequality” to which Michaels responds by agreeing and expounding on his position (1). Later, Michaels, who is criticized by other literary critics for his “inclination to resist the physical and aesthetic pleasures of the text” (1), disposes of any veil of academic disinterestedness and says “There should be a new kind of ideological revolution, a commitment to ideology and to these kinds of ideas. Whether it will be the Democratic Party or some other form one does not know” (4).” Avowed Marxist Terry Eagleton, who is described as probably the most well-known literary critic in Britain and the most frequently read expositor of literary theory in the world,(Eagleton 1) holds similar ideas “Like two of his erstwhile enemies, Fish and Walter Benn Michaels, he thinks the current infatuation with culture and identity is dead wrong,”(Eagleton 2) It does not seem the study of English is progressing in a logical or focused way when such public intellectuals, in particular those who are eminent literary critics, find themselves increasingly well known less for literary insight but for their advocacy of class struggle. Lastly, it seems necessary to point out that the idea of class being more important then race is not a particularly original or insightful opinion, and the fact that such an opinion has become trendy just now in this academic circle speaks volumes.
The motivation for courting more socially relevant issues of public concern in some cases is explicitly not rooted in scholarship or intellectual betterment. When Walter Benn Michaels was asked if his attempt to publish for a more general audience made him reconsider his previously critical stance on “public intellectuals,” he had this to say “I suppose you’re a public intellectual if people call you a public intellectual, and I will end up being a public intellectual. But not happy about it! The statement that I’m doing it for the money is meant to distance myself from public intellectuals. But perhaps all public intellectuals do it for money, in which case that just makes me one of them. … (6)
Left Wing Professors
Beyond the risk of bias and distortion inherent to an overtly political orientation in literary critics, these public expressions are problematic in that when the most prominent scholars of English make these pronouncements, they cannot but help to further ‘get the wires crossed.’ While they are not introducing history, sociology, economics or political science into the study of literature they are certainly giving added emphasis to these subjects by using their misplaced literary credentials to speak out on the aforementioned subjects. Their (mis)leadership may very well encourage further, less related debate on subjects which many scholars are not qualified to weigh in on as academic authorities. No one can argue that for better or worse, modern literary criticism intersects history, sociology, cultural studies, etc, but different fields have different methodologies, many of which English scholars are not trained in. Harold Bloom describes his own anxieties concerning the dilution of literary studies in an effective, if perhaps overstated way, “Precisely why students of literature have become amateur political scientists, uninformed sociologists, incompetent anthropologists, mediocre philosophers, and overdetermined cultural historians, while a puzzling matter, is not at all beyond conjecture…” (Bloom 228). While there may not be any actual underlying contempt or ignorance of great literature, there certainly seems to be a less then reverent attitude towards the beauty of the written word reflected in a discipline that seems to be stretched thin.
The confusion of subject matter is only one way in which English is strained beyond its capabilities. The idea that fervent debate and publicly declared positions on abstract matters will have an immediate impact is on its face absurd; the idea that theoretical disagreements between professors will have any major impact over individual population is also dubious given how isolated the world of many professors has become. For example, Mollow writes “Many disability scholars–even those who have insightfully drawn upon poststructuralist theories in their work–have greeted these developments with ambivalence or frustration. Constructivist challenges to identity, they have sometimes suggested, are academic luxuries that come at the cost of attention to the real lives of people with disabilities.” The suggestion is that an undermining of the term “disabled” would ultimately pose a threat to those who fit that category. However, it seems quite unlikely that the deconstruction of any literary or linguistic identity will take impetus away from disability scholars or the disability movement. It is after all, in large part made up of people with physical or mental challenges. These challenges will be no less urgent for what is or is not published in academic journals.
The academic world does not presently, (nor has it ever in the United States), have a tremendous amount of influence over either the political sphere or the closely related public opinion. The implication that an intellectual trend among Post Structuralists, Post Modernists or any other literary critics will some how result in the suffering of the “differently abled” seems ludicrous. Put in the simplest terms, having a certain ideological stance concerning literary criticism, or any study, in no way advances any cause. Discrimination Against Conservatives
Inherent to instructors choosing to advocate a political agenda is a lack of respect for students. Certain ideological percepts bias a study from the very beginning. It seems that many Disability scholars have no interest in what they deem “ableist” perspectives. Instead, they choose the more politicized, perhaps leftist form of analysis common to many philosophies and literary critics. As mentioned already, the emphasis is on viewing individuals as subjected to oppressive environments. In fact, Disability Studies may be influenced by pioneers in the same field who operate on just such a premise. The University of Leeds is among the more influential and internationally recognized homes of Disability Studies. Its website states that its “initial research activity focused on institutional discrimination and disabled people in the U.K. and on building a case for anti discriminatory legislation” (What is Disability Studies?). Such an approachmakes it very easy to do away with any attempt towards objectivity or consideration that the status quo is not an oppressive reality. Although complete academic objectivity is an unattainable goal, it is useful in nurturing a spirit of intellectual tolerance. Otherwise, students are pressured to arrive at certain conclusions, directed in how they study and examine issues.
When the simple use of the word “disability” is controversial and the title of Disability Studies is considered inappropriate or derogatory, then the typical use of word does not signify the actual concept being advanced and is therefore misleading to at least some who would otherwise be interested in some way in that particular field. None the less, there are some institutions operating with the assumption that disability is in fact not inherently disabling or less than physically ideal, while other that disability is an arbitrary condition. A University of Toledo Disability Website reads “In this program, disability will be understood as a sociocultural phenomenon and not as a medically defined condition.” This is a modest assumption, but in effect, the student of this field has had one conclusion arrived at for him or her already.
This essay is not written in a spirit of chastisement or contempt for individuals who choose to study or teach English, no matter what their ideological background or predisposition may be. It is precisely their concern for social equality that may allow for greater self reflection on the current beliefs and practices and how they influence students. Fairness and tolerance require that one considers that not all basic assumptions are shared. Those who do not share in what are considered ‘progressive values’ may have a separate, and no less worthy understanding of life in general, and literature in particular. If the current times demand that every group have its recognition, then does not the ‘established’ opinion have a seat at the table as well? Those who embrace diversity and plurality have a far greater capacity to accept opposing values than any who adhere to an ideology convinced of its absolute rightness. It is time for progressive academics, specifically those studying English, to examine their own biases, and in so doing protect their students from their more subtle influences.
Bloom, Harold. “Elegaic Conclusion.” Falling into Theory Ed. David Richter. New York:Bedford/St.Martins, 2000. 225-235.
Howard, Jennifer. “Ideology Instead of Identity-and A Lot More Extremism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 53.5 2006. Wilsonselectplus. Firstsearch Olson Lib. ,
Northern Michigan U. 22 April 2007. http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org
Mollow, Anna. “Identity Politics and Disability Studies: A Critique of Recent Theory. Michigan Quarterly Review 43.2 269-296 Spr 2004. Wilsonselectplus. Firstsearch. Olson Lib., Northern Michigan U. 22 April 2007 http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org
Monaghan, Peter. “Pioneering Field of Disability Studies Challenges Established Approaches and Attitudes.” Chronicle of Higher Education 23 January 1998 22 April 2007 http://www.uic.edu/orgs/sds/articles
“What is the Center for Disability Studies?” Center for Disability Studies 20 April 2006.
22 April 2007. http://www.leeds.ac.uk./disablity
“What is Disability Studies?” The University of Toledo Center for Disability Studies 22 April 2007.http://www.dstprg.utoledo.edu/index.asp?id=7
Williams Jeffrey. “Terry Eagleton, The Wanderer.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Northern Michigan U. 22 April 2007. http://www.newfirstsearch.oclc.org