Once upon a time Literature, with the capital L, was "la creme de la creme" of college courses. Young men and women longed to read the great books that addressed the universal spirit, as clothed in the particular narratives and fashions of different ages. The college years were about personal, philosophical and political contemplation of many different subjects, but literature offered the promise of knowledge that was fun to read.
The great books became the touchstone for sophomore angst. Students courted each other with lines from "Romeo and Juliet." They argued over personal morality and the public conventions in novels as different as Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Jane Austen's "Emma." "Othello" provoked debates over the nature of evil, manipulation and jealousy.
Before social studies, feminist studies, gay studies and even labor-union studies became trendy subjects for their own sake, exploiting great literature to make political points, the great books planted the seed for contemplating the human condition. But sometime over the last century, the literary tree of knowledge was struck by lightning. Its branches grew distorted limbs that appealed to messages without transcendence. Critical interpretation driven by ideology became more important than understanding with an open mind.
Our political life is barren for it. It's mere conceit now that the U.S. Senate is a repository of eloquence and rhetoric; rare indeed is the senator who can make a speech to keep anyone awake. Even with their stables of speechwriters, presidents only occasionally thrill an audience with after-dinner platitudes. As our kids go off to colleges to seek a better world for us and for themselves, we who also stand and wait (to write the checks) ought to listen to an important intellectual debate running just below the academic radar.
"Two or three decades ago, the belief that literature was a repository of knowledge - and important knowledge was usual enough for critics to take it for granted," writes Myron Magnet in a provocative essay in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute. "At the very least, everybody understood that literature was a storehouse of documentary knowledge."
No longer. Literature as an intellectual discipline has been downgraded to merely another "realm of opinion" by dead white men whose insights are mere reflections of privilege rather than brilliance.