Popularizing; or, Knowledge Not Purchased by the Loss of Dignity

Simplicity in habit, truth in speech,

Be these the daily strengtheners of their minds;

May books and Nature be their early joy!

And knowledge, rightly honored with that name–

Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!

-William Wordsworth, from The Prelude

It’s hard for me to not feel a little nostalgic when I return to the literary criticism of many decades past, back when texts in the field—at least the most important ones—enjoyed both popular and academic audiences. How long has it been since we’ve had a Seven Types of Ambiguity or a The Mirror and the Lamp, books read and respected equally by literary critics and lay enthusiasts? The crop of books that attempt any popularization of literary study is increasingly sparse these days: something by Harold Bloom every few years, of course, and there’s the recent success of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, and How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. However, few of these command the attention of academics in the field—the expert and the amateur now wander through different valleys.

This separation may be an unavoidable consequence of the hyper-specialization that permeates all of modern academe, including the social and physical sciences, and I’m not suggesting that we invest our energy in trying to turn back the heavy hands of that clock. However, there’s another trend that I think it is worthwhile trying to buck, a trend evident in the subtitles to the “like a professor” books; these are not merely accessible explications of the field and its methodologies, they are “lively and entertaining” and “jaunty” explications. I think that Prof. Foster’s project is a commendable one and I shy away from criticizing anyone in the humanities who still makes a sincere attempt to talk to the general public about what we do. However, something is gone awry when the selling point of our popularizations is that they’re “fun”—and not that they matter.

Wonderful as Schoolhouse Rock was, perhaps we need a better model for speaking to adults…

This is not, of course, to suggest that learning shouldn’t be pleasurable; woe betide anyone who’s had to sit through a semester of lectures from a professor who never makes a good joke. However, I think we fundamentally degrade our potential audiences when we treat them the same way that we treat five-year-old children, assuring them that “school is cool” as we shuttle them of to kindergarten. Learning may be fun (and, far more doubtfully, school may be cool), but, for heaven’s sake, that is not and cannot be the point of the thing. After all, cocaine and reality TV can be fun, but most of us are generally not in the habit of commending either of them to the culture at large nor are we busy lamenting the fact that they aren’t more widely consumed. Unlike the aforementioned vices, knowledge is something that most of us regard as a good in itself, which is precisely the reason why most of us in the humanities start to shift uncomfortably if our school administrators start to talk too much about job training and learning outcomes. Obviously students do need to be equipped with future marketable skills, but universities have never (until quite recently) been viewed solely as means to an end.  Most of us that still believe, at some level, in the idea of the university believe that education and knowledge can be their own ends.

Fortunately, I don’t think that we have to reduce ourselves either to infotainment or to skills training in order to re-establish a voice as public intellectuals who are engaged in a sincere conversation with society at large. The fact of the matter is that lay readers already value knowledge as an end in itself. Witness, for instance, the popularity of books on physics like Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory and the earlier enduring popularity of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. In the humanities, the one field that has remained truly in conversation with the public is history, with serious studies like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln ending up on bestseller lists.

Unfortunately, despite a demonstrated public interest in thinking seriously about serious questions, much of the popularization of philosophy has been reduced to an endless march of [Insert Popular TV or Movie Title Here] and Philosophy texts. Similarly, in one of the most religious countries in the first world, popular theology typically represents either the worst of the worst of infotainment or it becomes pure polemic (a road that most of the popular texts on atheism have also traveled). And literary criticism rarely makes an appearance at all—and when it does it is either there to be “fun” or to “better” us (Publisher’s Weekly described Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why as an “aesthetic self-help manual”). In short, science and history have managed to provide audiences with accessible accounts of the research being produced by the best academics in the field; philosophy and literature, in contrast, have been reduced—at least in their marketing if not always in their substance—to either beach reading or self-help tomes.

This needn’t be the case. To understand why, we first need to dispel two destructive accounts about the nature of literary study. The first account charges that literary criticism and theory have simply become too jargon-laden and willfully obfuscating, that they’re a simple exercise in sophistry. The second account argues that the difficulty in these fields are real—but then it proceeds to insist that the difficulty of the material makes it impossible to popularize it at all. The fact is, literary study is like any other academic discipline: it is difficult and specialized and it does need its own vocabulary for experts in the field to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively with one another. The “jargon” of literary study is no more ridiculous or obfuscating than the language of physics or medicine. However, as the success of popularized accounts of physics demonstrate, it is possible to give an accessible but, of course, reductive account of physics to someone without a doctorate in the field. And, fortunately, most people who read A Brief History of Time don’t think that they now “know” the field; but they can rightly claim that they have a basic understanding of its layout.

It might help to recall this xtranormal video that made the rounds last year. If we can recognize the absurd lengths to which the “but surely you must first know X!” argument has been taken in academia, then we should also be able to recognize how much more absurd the extension of this argument to popularization efforts is:

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the growth of MOOCs and the hope of some (especially administrators) that they might be the way of the future for humanities outreach.  As I’ve made clear in past posts, I’m largely suspicious of most of the institutionally sponsored humanities MOOCs that have been offered, and I’m increasingly convinced that the MOOC does not provide the best format for providing the general public instruction in the humanities. However, the fact that a course on modern poetry, which offered no easily definable “marketable skills” like programming MOOCs do, drew enrollment in the tens of thousands suggest that there is a clear desire on the part of lay people to learn more about the discipline of literary criticism and theory. Institutional humanities MOOCs, in my experience, end up as poor copies of the humanities small classroom experience. But perhaps the answer is neither to create “massive” classrooms nor to insist that the only viable mode for education is a liberal arts classroom experience available only to the privileged few. Perhaps the answer is (shock!) more and better books. It may be a lost dream to expect this generation of academics to produce our version of The Mirror and the Lamp, original scholarship that is accessible outside the academy, but is it also an impossible dream for us to produce our version of A Brief History of Time, a serious attempt to make our earlier scholarship accessible to the public?

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