The Value of Literature: Part 1

I’ve had a love affair with the early version of  Eugene Genovese since I was an undergrad, and I’m currently re-reading his essay “On Being a Socialist and a Historian” (from In Red and Blackto revisit my thoughts on academia, the humanities, and political commitments. In-and-of itself the essay is an intriguing historical document as Genovese composes it at the height of the Vietnam War, a time attacks on academia (and the on the Humanities in particular) originate from both the right and the left. As Genovese tells it,

“The real question is whether or not the socialist movement needs people—beyond party intellectuals—who write history and teach in universities instead of working as welders. (We my hope that the opponents of Academia are not about to denounce even welding as bourgeois dilettantism.)”

At a moment when critical discourse (not to be confused with jingoistic, shrill invective) has reached an ebb all across the nation and, even more so than when Genovese is writing, “The conditions of life in America…provide no place outside of the university for the great majority of left intellectuals to work effectively,” one is left wondering about the validity of Genovese’s question today: what is the value of academic labor? More pressingly for people in my end of the humanities, what is the value of our particular discipline, i.e. literature?

I’m going to be typing out some thoughts on these questions (I will not, nor even pretend, to answer them) over the next few weeks, as much to clarify my own thought process as anything else. First, a few preliminary musings.

As Genovese indirectly suggests, the very posing of the question puts the value of the Humanities in general and literature in particular in play in ways that place an impossible burden upon the person answering the question. In other words, in Genovese’s formulation welding and the welder become a synecdoche for practical skills broadly writ, and their value lies beyond questions of value. By comparison, by uttering the words “what is the value of…?” we place the Humanities in a position where their value is, by definition, less that that of “practical” professions, perhaps nothing, and possibly even a detriment to those who engage them (of negative value). That is, the question itself already poses a kind of answer.

In the neoliberal university of the early 21st century such questions are of a tragically ideological cant as “practical skills” are frequently soft euphemisms for abandoning the humanist enterprise and insertion into the capitalist system. We are thus far from Genovese’s ideal of “universities and professional associations as places of contention,” and hurtling towards an ever more ideologically polarized environment where public universities, formerly seen as a publicly supported  public good, are subjected to the “market” in the name of supposed economic and ideological neutrality. As anyone familiar with these would tell you, “free hands” and “rational actors” are simply illusions as neoliberal re-orientation decidedly (permanently?) tilts the playing field ideologically and materially. (Just look at the “Chilean Miracle,” actually LOOK) Less learning History, more Entrepreneurship. Less English Literature, more Leadership. Less student aid to facilitate economic mobility, more student debt that limits long term aspirations.

In the cold light of day the learning outcomes of such “practical” disciplines would prove to be every bit as fuzzy, if not fuzzier, than traditional humanist enterprises. I mean, if a Leadership class graduates 60 students per year, who are they going in to the world to “lead”? Businesses that already have institutional structures in place? And how does mere graduation speak to implied success later on? If everyone is now trained as a leader, who follows? Other leaders?

But again, the value of such practical learning isn’t being questioned but rather the “impractical” disciplines that facilitate one’s skills of critical inquiry. What’s been lost here? What bill of goods has been sold? What new paradigm has subtly been introduced?

And as a new paradigm, do you see how it precludes formulating these very questions, and why that may be staggeringly important?

One comment on “The Value of Literature: Part 1
  1. Thank you, Paul my friend, for these insightful, though depressing, words. Our situation as a small country isolated from the rest of the world (I live in NZ) means being pressed to adapt even more drastically and quickly to the “new era” in education, following -as you clearly see- the neoliberal paradigm of universities at the mercy of the needs and demands of “the industry sector,” no longer educating citizens but pre-formatting clients to fit into this scary New World configuration. Technical knowledge that refuses to engage in any serious discussion about values can be lethal and we all know this, as a young colleague of mine said, being practically competent and skillful can also mean being able to build deadlier and nastier weapons, doesn’t it?
    If the prevalent neoliberal paradigm prevails, this “sálvese quien pueda” climate cannot sustain us for too long and this will be made the worse if we do not create fora where young people can encounter, discuss, embrace or reject and emotionally involve themselves with the lessons from the past, the artistic achievements of the present and the ethical challenges of the future.

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