Higher Education

Shakespeare's conservative agenda

My recent presentation with my colleague Karen Stearns at the SUNY Conference for Instructional Technologies raised some conversation about the continuing role of canonical literature in English Studies. The general drift following the presentation was about whether we were suggesting that "great works" should no longer be studied (as if anyone would care what we suggested anyway).

As we know, literary studies was politicized from the left by canon busting in the 70s and then from the right in the 90’s by Lynne Cheney and similar folks. Given the strenuous nature of these arguments, only the most naive individual could imagine that the contemporary study of literature was anything but ideological warfare. To teach canonical works in a traditional way is simply to undertake a conservative political project just as one might undertake a liberal or more radical project by teaching different texts or using different methods.

Looking back, it’s reasonable to view all of modern literary studies (the entire 20th century) as a process of ideological indoctrination.

None of this stuff is any news to anyone who’s been in graduate school in the humanities in the last twenty years, right?

In this context, I think it’s strange that any one would ask if the incorporation of media networks into English meant that we can’t or shouldn’t study great works. No, the study of literature will do virtually nothing for you in preparing you as a literate individual in a networked society. But then it never really served any purpose in preparing you as a literate individual for an industrial-knowledge society either. What it did then, and what it might continue to do (at least for a little while), is hail you into an ideological position that, with any luck, might have desirable material results.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with the study of great literary works. I also have no problem with the study of great paintings or sculptures or symphonies and so on. If you are interested in these things, then please study them. The great ideological conflict over these matters comes about when we take the study of these objects and require them to perform significant ideological-interpolative work. This has been the case for literary studies over the past century, but it has not been the case for art history.

The situation Karen and I are investigating is the ambivalence of emerging media networks in the context of English Education curriculum. A large part of this comes out of students ideological-disciplinary allegiance to notions of authorship, authority, and literacy that underwrite a particular political project that, as student-teachers, they are being trained to carry out. There was a time, perhaps, when I would have touted the "radical" potential of networks in overturning this state-sponsored ideological project. But that was just the graduate school talking. At this point, I have no expectation of English doing anything but continuing to serve its ideological function until it fails and collapses (nothing lasts forever).

Still it is interesting to observe this intersection, and I think it tells us something about the impact of media networks on print literacy practices to study sites that are so deeply invested in the latter.

I understand how our study might be perceived as an attack on traditional disciplinary practices. From a different academic, the accusation that a particular practice served conservative political interests would might be intended as an attack. Though the stereotype of humanities faculty is that they are liberals, they are largely cultural conservatives. Why should this be surprising? Their job is to conserve a particular culture! Isn’t as obvious to them as it is to me that their choices concerning literature are purely political? And as such, what possible difference to their politics would the development of a new technology make? None, of course. So why would it’s emergence have any impact on their politics or their ideological allegiance to a particular cultural viewpoint?

It wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t expect it to. So I guess I’ll have to make it more clear in the future that my study of the problems media networks present for business as usual in the humanities is not intended to suggest that that business should be changed in any particular way or changed at all. I have seen enough of this kind of ideological-disciplinary warfare to know that it is a waste of my time.

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