If you love literature and would like to study what you love, do not study literature. What you will in fact be majoring in is contemporary political correctness, French postmodern theory, politics and social critique devoid of any serious political import or aesthetic value, and perhaps most basically—pathetic scholarly debates over methodology.
The skepticism that the lay-person has of literature professors is in my opinion strongly justified: the discipline is so obsessed with trivial debates over literary methodologies that it can offer nothing to the non-academic reader except rightful contempt for the elitist literary egg head. So resentful of their low estimation in relation to the sciences that they are desperate for anything that smacks of rigor and technicality. By following the appearance of scientific gravitas they have obtained only posturing.
While perhaps less so than in the ’90s, French postmodernism can still be found all over. Students are assigned Paul de Man’s reading of texts as the tension between rhetoric and grammar; Lyotard’s desperate attempt at sociological novelty through a half baked juvenile Wittgensteinianism; Foucault’s facile epistemic cautionary tale—all of it oscillating between unintelligibly and a putrid pathetic nihilism without any sign of Nietzschean affirmation. As for the more openly Marxist literature professors: they will obsequiously put their syllabi together with scraps of apparently still relevant Frankfurt School critical theory. The desperate to be relevant professors will, in an attempt to appeal to the “average” reader, write a Judith Butler infused critique of Lady Gaga.
The only one more cited than Butler is Foucault. BTW this is a sentence Judith Butler wrote… pic.twitter.com/4Q3oqBLMNk
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) December 25, 2016
The unsophisticated English major will feel no longer at home – they were here to read great books! The more sophisticated just become babbling second rate philosophers—doomed to unquestioned years of sophistry, obscurantism, and theological worship for whatever sounds the most intense and deep (the literati have forgotten the lesson of their granddaddy Hegel—”where there is an intensity there is not always a content”). They are laughed at or blown out of the water by serious philosophers, and simultaneously have learned nothing about great art.
And this perhaps the greatest and saddest flaw—literature majors do not become attuned to literary values or to aesthetic experience. They look upon such things with suspicion—as marks of a “bourgeois” status. They learn to be nihilistic, to vacuously condemn liberal capitalism, and to revere thinkers who no one takes seriously (for good reason) outside of literature departments.
Sure, there are a few outliers — professors who still attempt to keep their classes focused on the literary. But most of them are looking to teach works outside of the Western Canon. So fearful that they’ll be lumped in with Harold Bloom and the “old white men” (forget that Bloom is Jewish) if they stick with the tradition that they teach courses on second and third rate fiction. And those who teach fiction honestly are so embedded in the literary establishment that their views, approaches, and concerns are simply boring to anyone interested in the value of literature.
To sum up: Literature departments, by and large, are pedagogically and artistically regressive. They pretend to approach scientific rigor when they are the farthest thing from science; they pretend to be philosophical when the professors don’t know any serious philosophy; they cultivate nihilism and a weak Marxism; and they are not even capable of developing aesthetic appreciation. It’s not my place to say that literature departments should be closed. Perhaps with different lessons and professors they would be excellent. However, students who have to endure current departments should simply not major in literature. Read books on your own time. If you want to understand myth in literature study psychology and read Freud and Jung; if you want to understand philosophy then study philosophy; if you want to learn about language then study linguistics; if you want to learn about society then study economics or sociology; and if you want to learn about art, beauty, and literary value—read great writers and do nothing more than open yourself to them. Don’t pay and don’t let your parents mortgage their home to have your aesthetic sensibilities ruined and replaced by a hodgepodge pseudo discipline.