One of the most dispiriting findings in recent years about the state of the nation concerns evidence that colleges are failing to achieve a fundamental goal: improving students’ critical thinking skills. (Click here, here, and here, for some leading studies showing that these institutions have failed to teach undergraduates “how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event,” in the words of a typical description of the conclusions. Here’s a dissenting view.)
And if Viet Thanh Nguyen, a University of Southern California professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist to boot, is the slightest bit typical, then it’s painfully obvious that a main reason for this sorry record is that way too many college faculty lack these skills themselves.
As presented in a Washington Post article yesterday, Nguyen’s argument is…well, it’s actually hard to tell what his argument is. As best as I can surmise, he’s upset that, in too many instances, American college students are discouraged from reading non-western literature, and that young literary scholars are discouraged (by continuing bleak job prospects stemming from intolerant appointment committees) from researching and writing on these works.
He cites his own experiences trying to climb the academic career ladder, as well as a controversy that’s just broken out at Barnard College in New York City over the demands of “some English majors” for “greater diversity in their curriculum.”
At the same time, Nguyen makes clear that since such issues became a bone of contention in the late-1980s and 1990s, reformers who “demanded more space for works by women, people of color, the working class, the queer and the non-white” have “triumphed.” In fact, their victory had taken place by the late-1990s.
The author’s belief that these “culture wars” are flaring anew on campuses, and that a Donald Trump-fueled revival of “white identity politics” is mainly responsible, is also puzzling – to say the least. After all, neither the President nor his more extreme, racially motivated supporters seem to have many supporters in the ranks of U.S. professors or higher education administrators. Nor does there seem to be any scarcity of courses and degree programs in non-western literature and culture in American academia.
So Nguyen’s article flunks three basic texts of critical thinking – advancing a coherent argument, providing serious evidence on its behalf, and refuting major evidence-based counter-arguments.
Nguyen’s real beef seems to be somewhat narrower, but no less important: A charge that higher ed’s English and American literature curricula, especially in courses covering their seminal works (i.e., their canon), don’t make enough room for non-white and female writers. But here he falls short of meeting another important critical thinking challenge: placing objects or ideas in their proper categories. Here’s what I mean.
The study of literature obviously has to include a study of the entire environment in which that literature is created – including its history, economy, social structure, other aspects of its culture, etc. But first and foremost the study of literature is the study of an art form (which can be both fictional and non-fictional in nature). Therefore, it’s primarily concerned with how and why and how this literature’s aesthetic features have evolved; how successfully and skillfully, and creatively or derivatively, various authors achieved their goals and sent their messages; what the artistry of these works can tell us about how their creators perceived and interpreted, both knowingly and unwittingly, the various elements of their environments, characteristics of human psychology, and the crucial ideas that have molded the human experience; how these factors in turn influenced these authors; what their works reveal about these circumstances; and what, if anything, they can teach us today.
To apply Nguyen’s complaint and this definition of literature to the American canon, there can be no doubt that throughout its history, the nation’s population has consisted of many racial and ethnic groups (and more than one gender). There’s no doubt also that the various forms of contact these groups and genders have had with each other have influenced the worldviews, and therefore the literary output generated by each.
But there’s also no doubt that the influence of white males of European descent has been dominant, and that this dominance was especially pronounced in the nation’s formative years and decades – when the ideas and values and perspectives that have (so far) contributed the most to American culture (and other elements of its environment) began crystallizing. And the degree of injustice in part responsible for this group’s dominance has no intrinsic bearing on its role and its lasting influence. Nor does the inarguable fact that the influence of these white European-descended men itself consists both of admirable and shameful aspects.
So it makes perfect sense that American literature courses, especially at the more general level, to date have emphasized the works of these white males. By extension, it makes perfect sense that much less emphasis has been placed on the works of authors from other groups. Indeed, Nguyen himself explains why: In his words, these authors have been “submerged, overlooked and forgotten.”
Now, if the aim is the entirely worthy objective of learning more about these marginalized groups as such, then of course exposure of their literature is essential. But the greatest responsibility for achieving this goal logically belongs with other academic disciplines – which focus on the histories, social structures, broader cultures, etc. of these groups. Acquaintance with their literature is also needed to understand how these groups have influenced the dominant culture.
And of course, as greater opportunities have opened up for marginalized groups, their output inevitably has become more influential as well, and requires more attention in order for purely literary studies to remain truly representative and accurate. For example, it’s clearly not now legitimate to study American literature as a whole since the early or mid-twentieth century without recognizing the substantial role played by female, African-American, and Jewish authors.
More recently, writers from other groups have gained significant audiences and critical acclaim. Their works will surely wind up making lasting notable and lasting contributions to the nation’s culture. As a result, they should surely be spotlighted prominently in future curricula, and in particular in survey-type as opposed to more specialized courses. In addition, scholars right now should by all means be debating which works should qualify for this status. But it’s far too early for academia to reach an intellectually respectable consensus on the matter.
Moreover, this more recent prominence of previously marginalized groups creates no valid reason for concluding that their contributions to the national canon have so far been comparable with the contributions of the dominant group for most of U.S. history. Think of it this way: As stated above, Jewish authors have played an important role in American literature since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. But it would be utterly misleading to argue that Jewish authors played an important role in American literature before then.
One interesting wrinkle here – how to handle the likelihood that any number of overlooked works by submerged American groups fully measure up in artistic terms to the acknowledged classics. These works need to be found because, by definition, they would contain major insights into all the crucial issues addressed by great literature. Scholars should be searching for them and describing their virtues, and their discovery should be deeply appreciated by everyone who appreciates the value of great literature.
But because prologue cannot be past, even in these cases (and if readers have any examples or candidates, feel free to let me know about them), it would be essential — and intellectually honest — to specify that their effect on the nation’s literary and broader cultural life would need to be potential and prospective. Claiming a marked effect on the American story to date would amount to speculation or wishful thinking at best, and cheerleading at worst – none of which should have any place in genuine scholarship.