In his speech to the 2008 MLA convention, Gerald Graff admits that there are many one-sided literary-studies courses that advance a certain view of “social justice” or convey the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” He recommends that professors communicate outside of their classes and confront conflicting views about their ideas.
While it is good that Graff put this before the members of the MLA, it is unlikely that professors devoted to advancing left-wing notions of egalitarianism and social justice are going to absorb conservative ideas and conscientiously incorporate them into their teaching, at least on any kind of scale that matters — presuming they can find any conservative professors to talk to in the first place. Since Graff cannot bring himself to condemn the politicization in these courses outright, only to suggest that they should be balanced somehow, he is like Gorbachev: trying to repair a corrupt and rotting system.
Another point in his speech, however, is inadvertently quite telling. Graff describes the literature department of his student days in the pre-Sixties era, in which there were two types of approaches, literary history and New Criticism. He says it was possible for most students to understand the connections between the two approaches and to make sense of them. He says by contrast that in his own efforts to “teach the conflicts” flickering in literary studies today, he finds that many of his students do not understand either an Allan Bloom or a bell hooks well enough even to grasp what is at stake between them. Only the most adept students are able to do so.
What I take from this is that the older literature departments may not have been exciting hotbeds of “social change,” but they delivered a decent grounding in the subject. Also, their students usually had enough ”critical skills,” that is, reading, reasoning, etc., in order to follow things. The situation now is not only that there is an incoherence in the profession as to what is being taught, but that many students, after years of progressive pedagogy, no longer have the basic critical-thinking and reading skills by which to even begin to understand the cultural criticism of today — let alone get into the conflicts about which Graff wants to teach them. So it seems that the system today is actually less democratic and egalitarian than in the past, when even average students could grasp the lineaments of the subject; today only the brightest can do so. The answer, then, is not to teach the conflicts but to return to the simpler kind of approaches of the past, at least in the lower classes, giving students a sense of the scope of literary history and encouraging the close reading of texts that was the mainstay of the New Criticism.