Sacred cows' herd instincts

July 21, 1995

Critical theory, claims one former adherent, is now so dominant in English faculties that it has become the new orthodoxy and a real threat to academic freedom. The debate over the ascendancy of modern critical theory within university English departments has had few contributions from students, like myself, (now a lecturer), who have been through the system in the past ten years and witnessed its rapid transition.

When I came to university in the late 1980s, the divisions within the English department were already plain to see. Roughly, there were the "theorists" and the "non-theorists". The former were keen to make connections between the study of literature and political issues of contemporary relevance from a left-wing perspective. They were hip, enthusiastic and had a mission. They took a provocative, unorthodox stance, aiming to goad the students into a properly irreverent attitude towards received critical ideas and assumptions. They talked of ideology, history and politics, gender, colonialism and the rhetoric of power. They crossed disciplinary boundaries and set literature in newly revealing contexts.

Their talk of ideology and the politics of representation seemed exciting to those such as myself who longed to make links between literature and the real world, instead of feeling that what we were engaged in was the cultivation of genteel literary tastes or a sterile study of formal conventions. Students flocked eagerly to the theorists' lectures, sensing that here were inspiring role models intent on blowing the mothballs off academic English, giving it street-cred and, at the same time, appearing to demand a new kind of intellectually-demanding approach requiring broad reading in philosophy, political theory and cultural history. In addition, the scandalous lack of women lecturers was at last being addressed. The need for a feminist voice in English studies was long overdue.

It is not true that English used to be a "neutral" subject uncoloured by politics of any kind: what you teach and how you teach it has always been a matter of politics, as well as of aesthetics, ethics and other criteria of literary judgement. How well I remember the frustration, at A level, of having no legitimate channel for protesting at those elements in Paradise Lost and The Wasteland that I found repellent. What a relief, then, to find, at university, teachers who actively encouraged us to question the underlying assumptions in the books we were reading.

All this needs to be said, for we are now in a climate of virulent backlash against what is erroneously termed "Political Correctness" - a blanket term of abuse for everything that has a whiff of radical politics. The many approaches to teaching English which are now (equally crudely) homogenised under the term "traditional" did often fail to address their own founding premises.

The theorists, on the other hand, clearly had a mission, and their zeal was highly infectious. Here, then, seemed to be excitement and a sense of purpose: everything was open to reappraisal.

Or so I thought. Alas, after the first flush of infatuation with the theorists, the scales fell from my eyes. I soon became suspicious, then rapidly disillusioned. It became clear to me before long that, for all their talk of critical interrogation, the academic rebels were not in fact interested in fostering free and uninhibited debate. Rather, they were bent on disseminating a new orthodoxy as rigid and un-self-critical as anything that had preceded it. They were proselytisers aiming to recruit obedient disciples.

Classes were occasions for indoctrination, not critical analysis or genuine debate. If one asked the "wrong" questions (and it took some courage to do so), the response was contemptuous dismissal or evasion. The students, sensing that personal feelings and reputations were at stake, bowed their heads and kept silent. They got the clear message that they would be rewarded for challenging old orthodoxies, but punished for approaching the "new" ideas and theories in the same sceptical spirit of inquiry. What ought to have been a great opportunity for developing in English students the faculty of genuinely critical thinking turned out in practice to be a sham promise: they were being asked merely to substitute one set of unexamined assumptions for another.

Eight years on, I am teaching part-time at a different university; but here the critical theorists are thoroughly entrenched and theirs are the officially approved critical approaches that the students are taught to view as "up to date", "better", and generally more sophisticated. My first and second years learn their lessons early: post-structuralism and radical feminist criticism are what the tutors want and what they will reward. Liberalism and humanism are outmoded, defunct, hopelessly passe and misconceived. So my students produce unintelligible essays crammed with blase anti-humanist rhetoric, tortuously unconvincing interpretations, and puritanical moralising posing as political insight. Texts are blithely reduced to thinly-veiled expressions of false-consciousness, or routinely shown to subvert their own (lamently wrong-headed) ideological structures.

Of course it could be argued that students writing more "traditional" style essays produce nothing better; this is often true. And if, at 18, I wanted to argue with Milton and T. S. Eliot, why object now to students who chide Donne and Lawrence for their sexism? The point is this: there is still no real freedom to argue the case you want to argue - thus there has been no real progress. Lecturers see it as their job to disabuse students of their political misconceptions and bring them into line with their own dogma. They do not trust the students to make up their own minds. The students know this; several female members of my first-year class complained to me that they felt under pressure to reproduce in their essays feminist interpretations of texts, interpretations they found either unconvincing or uninteresting. This amused me, since I had had the opposite problem six years before; but it was also dismaying, because when students learn that there are unwritten rules to which they must conform, they become cynical.

The essays my theory-inclined students write for me are no improvement on the old sort; in some ways they are much worse. For instance, it is now common for undergraduates to spend a large proportion of their study time boning up on Barthes and Foucault and then to produce work expounding their abstruse theories, assuming they can apply their "critical concepts" to whatever literary text they are ostensibly discussing. Occasionally this results in a genuinely interesting and illuminating essay; more often, the attempt to be "sophisticated" produces a mixture of the incomprehensible and the downright simple-minded. These students will have read Derrida but not Plato, Lacan but not Freud, Althusser but not Marx. They will be encouraged to patronise Leavis without ever having read a word he wrote. Most importantly, they will have read even less of the literary canon than their forebears, though this will not prevent them from carelessly dismissing whole literary traditions such as the realist novel with one swipe of the pen.

There is nothing rigorous or even very critical about modern critical theory. Students and lecturers alike are being duped by a fashion-craze posing as the final solution, a craze nourished and perpetuated by a growing body of academics eager to beef up their lit. crit. with smatterings of scholarship in every discipline from linguistics to history to philosophy. But real philosophers are meticulous and disciplined thinkers. Real historians have to do hard research and produce evidence for their claims. Critical theorists form a coterie within which they talk to each other about each other, in a language designed to communicate only with those who already speak it. For all their protestations of democracy and socialist principles, they are notoriously inaccessible to the average intelligent reader - an irony that seems lost on them. Perhaps worst of all, they are anti-pleasure.

My students soon learn from their teachers that they are not at university to enjoy reading literature; one girl, on informing her tutor that she loved poetry, was told: "We'll soon knock that out of you". This peculiarly masculine puritanism is the despair of many a student who is thereby deprived of an aesthetic vocabulary and mode of analysis - something that surely ought to be one of the major tools of literary criticism.

It also saddens me to see so little principled and vociferous resistance to the theorists on the part of lecturers who have had a more conventional scholarly training. Academics of wide learning and genuine critical insight are on the run from those who are often their inferiors in terms of intellectual capacity and achievement. Of course there are genuinely rigorous scholars in both camps, just as there are charlatans in both. But the "traditionalists" often lack the confidence to confront the theorists, and are cowed by the pressure to conform to present trends. The new universities, in particular, are nearly all advertising posts for young academics competent in "recent critical developments". This seems to me to reflect the idea that English is now a kind of science, where today's criticism and theory necessarily renders yesterday's redundant.

I fear the critical theorists are here to stay - at least for as long as it takes to make over English studies entirely in their own image. They have asked a lot of questions that needed asking, and thereby done us all a favour. But in trying to turn English into a branch of philosophy or sociology and pouring scorn on literary scholars of the past, they have turned their backs on the real challenge, which is to confront the human need for beauty and pleasure, for sensuous and spiritual satisfaction in art, not as a piece of ideological mystification, but as a basic, ineradicable human hunger that should be integrated with politics, not opposed to it. By dismissing aesthetics, and denouncing those who disagree with them as reactionaries, the theorists reveal their own fear of democratic debate and their own puritanical moralism - and in doing so, give radical politics a bad name.

We have agreed exceptionally that the author, who holds a part-time appointment, may remain anonymous.

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