When I was a young teacher—young in years in the public schools, not in passage of years—I was invited, with several colleagues, to a conference, where I presented a concept I thought to be unremarkable, perhaps of some small use to teachers of English. It was poorly received. Oh, the participants were polite enough, but it was clear I just wasn’t getting it. I wasn’t one of them. I was lacking some fundamental understanding, and they weren’t buying what I was selling.
What was this bizarre concept? That in understanding any work of literature—drama, cinema, etc.—one must recognize there is such a thing as good art, as opposed to mere entertainment or bad art, and one may determine the value of such works by applying rational, pertinent criteria.
These are the criteria I developed for literature in general:
1) Is the theme clear and well developed?
2) Does the author use imagery well?
3) Is the author skilled at characterization (does he write interesting, compelling characters)?
4) Is the plot well developed? Does it make Sense?
5) Is the writing/story telling imaginative and compelling? Did you suspend disbelief?
6) Does the piece have an effective conclusion?
7) Is it good art (Does it teach? Does it delight?)?
These aren’t terribly technical, but are intended for high school kids.
I could not, at first, understand why my peers seemed so cold to what seemed to be an entirely non-controversial and useful means of helping students appreciate good art. It finally, after much thought, and years of experience, hit me: they do not accept the very concept of good art, of excellence. Devotees of cultural relativism, they shrink from making such value judgments. A short story written by an obscure, untalented feminist socialist, or author of color, wallowing in grievance, is equal in value to Shakespeare, Milton or Twain.
If there is no such thing as good art, if we dare not recognize the heights of human achievement in writing for what they are, all art is good. All art is valuable and thus, may be taught, displacing the canon, which is, after all, mostly dead white males with their patriarchy, toxic masculinity and privilege.
What’s that? You want an example of good art? Take this link to an invaluable speech from Henry V.
An article by Mark Bauerlein in Minding the Campus, inspired this article on this scruffy little blog:
Many years ago, in the late ‘90s, three professors and I met with the undergraduate dean at Emory University to discuss a Great Books proposal. Steven Kautz, a political scientist, led the effort, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Harvey Klehr, and I backed him up. The idea was to build a Great Books track within the undergraduate curriculum whereby if a student took enough approved courses, he could add a certificate to his record. Kautz had lined up funding for the program and promises of cooperation from (to that point) three or four departments.
By all means, take the link and read the article, but I’m sure, gentle readers, you can see where this is going. The dean was unenthusiastic—he recommended they remove “great books” from the course title–and nothing was done.
Like everyone everywhere else, we had seen the core of liberal education erode as multiculturalism spread through the professorate and as “education” types called for more student choice in the general requirements for the bachelor’s degree. A policy that allowed a student to take a course on contemporary fiction instead of one on The Odyssey disgusted us. To object to ‘Great Books’ was to ask us to drop our basic philosophy of teaching.
Perhaps that was his intent. A clever bureaucrat doesn’t kill an initiative by beheading it. He goes after a big toe, a small-seeming request or inquest that, in fact, disables the whole project or discourages the leaders of it.
In this case, the toe was the very idea that some works are of greater value than others. To the multicultural, this is heresy.
After Western Civilization had suffered such a resounding defeat over the course of the 80s and 90s, it seemed bizarre or paranoid for anyone to worry about a tiny re-institutionalization of it. The modesty of our ambitions, which would only touch, most likely, 50 or so students per year, made the anxiety over the very name ‘Great Books’ clearly overdone. [skip]
The dean understood that, and his misgivings should have given us that lesson in resistance. But we could learn it only by not taking his words in earnest. He wasn’t speaking for himself. He was anticipating the reception of the initiative by our colleagues. Administrators, you see, are not the problem (Emory’s leadership has been quite helpful with conservative-oriented programs in recent years). It’s the other professors who don’t want to let it happen, no matter how unambitious the effort. A few weeks later, one of my closest friends at the time, an art historian who was gay and had close ties to Women’s Studies professors (I was still voting Democratic back then), told me that he’d heard Betsy Fox-Genovese was trying to push some conservative program under the radar. ‘Conservative’ here meant ‘vile.
This is a tale from the past, but it is also the current state of education.
The professors act this way because they are suffused with ressentiment. Ressentiment is, of course, Nietzsche’s term for a certain state of mind, or rather, a condition of being. He liked the French word because it signified a deeper psychology than the German (and English) equivalent does. Ressentimentis the attitude of slave morality, Nietzsche wrote, the moral formation of one who feels rage and envy but hasn’t the strength or courage to act upon them. A man of ressentiment knows and resents his own weakness and mediocrity, and he hates the sight of greatness, which only reminds the lesser party of his own inferiority. And so he fashions a new moral system whereby victimhood becomes a high badge, suspicion signifies a sensitive eye for justice, and group denunciation of lone dissenters is the surest path to virtue.
I have, in my teaching career, occasionally come across teachers—English teachers, mind you—that cannot fathom the value of Shakespeare. I’ve always suspected, and sometimes confirmed, their lack of ability to understand Shakespeare, to figure out what 9th graders reading Romeo and Juliet are capable of apprehending. They held themselves inadequate to teach Shakespeare, so they do not, denying his insights to their students, leaving them bereft of the common cultural knowledge and intellectual growth that was once the mark of an educated American. Such people are self-saddled with ressentiment.
Once upon a time in America, any educated person hearing “there is a tide,” would recognize the line from Julius Caesar, spoken by Brutus to Cassius as an admonition to take advantage of his opportunities. They might even know it is in Act IV, Scene 3. They might even recognize “IV” as the Roman numeral for four. I ensure my students know at least that. Many teachers do not.
I am sure many readers of Minding the Campus have come across these types often in their academic careers. I’ve met them again and again, and a great error of my early academic career was to try to befriend them, or at least to try to lay out some common ground of collegiality. How naïve was that! You don’t ingratiate yourself with people who set their vindictiveness behind an exterior of sympathy for the disadvantaged and hurt ones among us. It obligated me to a degree of grubbing. The dynamic is never straightforward. They speak the words diversity and tolerance and inclusion, but they don’t mean them. In their mouths, those make-nice sounds are weapons of reproach.
Diversity, tolerance and inclusion are, at best, abstractions. They’re virtue signaling, never meant to apply uniformly to everyone, only to those approved victim groups currently politically useful.
They won’t leave you alone because your very existence troubles them. One of Nietzsche’s best interpreters, Max Scheler, put it this way: “the origin of ressentimentis connected with a tendency to make comparisons between others and oneself.” They haven’t the integrity to be what they are, accept themselves, and affirm their status. They aren’t comfortable in their own skin. Other people keep reminding them of what they are not, and it bothers them. This explains the characteristic impulse to detract, to find flaws in George Washington and belabor sexism in ParadiseLost. [skip]
The bare presence of a Great Books program in one unobtrusive corner of the campus concerns them. They can’t help but draw comparisons. The organizers, few and humble though they be, presume to call their materials ‘great.’ Who are they to say so? No question embodies the attitude or ressentiment better than that one. Who are we to judge? What licenses you to decide what’s great? And don’t you know that when you call some things great, you call other things not-so-great?
As I noted at the beginning of this article, that’s precisely the point. Some works are great, timeless, of inestimable value because they are examples of the best human beings can create in that genre. All else is, while not necessarily worthless, less. It is this these people rail against, the very idea of the natural order, of human nature: some people are smarter and more capable then others. They tend to produce better literature than others.
In the School of Resentment, it’s personal—it’s very personal. A couple of years ago, a distinguished literary critic and teacher in the New York area told me a story about a curriculum revision in his department way back in the early 90s. Several people on the faculty set about doing the customary thing—fewer requirements of canonical works and fields, more diversity. My friend, a solid liberal who would never, ever vote Republican, leaned over to the chairman before one meeting started and said something about the necessity of preserving the classics. The chairman said to him that in ranking the classics above other things, he was saying that people who teach the classics are better than people who teach the other things. My friend replied, ‘That’s one of the stupidest statements I have ever heard.’ The chairman didn’t speak to him for five years.
The chairman, in making that stupid statement, reveals his insecurity, his fear, even knowledge, of his own inadequacy. There is always someone bigger, taller, better looking, more personable, smarter, faster, better. The secure understand this, and appreciate strong, capable colleagues. They do not see themselves reflected in them and find themselves wanting. Or if they do, they behave as Kendoists when they have been beaten: they bow and sincerely say, “thank you for teaching me I must become better.” Most importantly, they do not think themselves superior simply because they teach the most consequential literature. They know there is always someone smarter and better read.
People who suffer from this kind of resentment don’t like to lose. It’s not enough for them to win, either. They don’t even like to have any adversaries. They must defeat the other side, again and again, their envy ever unsatisfied by any single victory. This is the problem they have with Great Books programs. They make the eradication process more difficult for professors of the left. The professors have all the institutional power on their side, it seems, yet these old-fashioned, atavistic conceptions of tradition and greatness keep popping up like weeds through the concrete. They thought they won, and they did, but the triumph they needed had to be absolute.
The impulse to pull others down to the lowest levels of human achievement—non-achievement?—is ever strong.
It’s a tragic situation for them. Professors who sneered at the tweedy fellows who gave us standard editions of Dryden and Hawthorne, approached the traditional curriculum as if their moral make-up were so superior to that of the Old Times, and used diversity as a screen for tearing down the monuments . . . well, they chose the wrong battle. They seized humanities departments, altered the syllabus, and set identity politics at the core of disciplinary know-how, all in an effort to displace Great Books and the appreciation of them. But the aspiration to greatness is written in the human heart—as long as that heart hasn’t been warped by ressentiment(which is itself a twisted respect for greatness). Students and readers, young and old, still want them, and long after this generation of academics is gone, Great Books will be there to edify and entertain the next.
As much as the weak-minded, the shallow of soul, strive to deny it, it’s unlikely anyone will ever equal Shakespeare. His works are part of the foundation of any truly complete education, as are the works of innumerable great men—and they are mostly men—whose ideas, whose imaginations, whose knowledge of human nature, inspired and built western civilization. Do I ignore and denigrate women? Only one self-saddled with ressentiment would think so.
Much of what is passed off as meaningful literature these days doesn’t rise to the level of even a pale imitation. It is all too often self-referential navel gazing. There is yet hope for us all, but not if we are incapable of recognizing the value of those greater than ourselves, not if we are motivated to suppress the capable, brilliant and lasting. Not if we have no clue what “there is a tide” means.
We must, after all, be able not only to recognize opportunities, but take advantage of them. Without great books, we can do neither.