“Why Teach” by Mark Edmundson And The Dogma of New Criticism

Should a high school students, college student, or even an adult who has long since graduated from formal schooling be expected to value what is termed the Western literary canon just because it is held in such high regard by the individuals who first dubbed it the Western literary canon?

I pose this question after reading what I consider to be a semi-polemical work by University of Virginia English Professor, Mark Edmundson, entitled Why Teach, in which he claims in the chapter headed “Narcissus Regards His Book/ The Common Reader Now” that the devaluation of so-called Western Culture and the Western literary canon is caused by a growing “culture industry” in the United States in which the main standard by which society judges a work of literature is its ability to elicit feelings of pleasure and satisfaction from readers,

“If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why, then let us applaud them. Let’s give them awards, let’s break down the walls of the old clubs and colleges and give them entry forthwith. The only really important question to pose about a novel by Stephen King, we now know, is whether it offers a vintage draught of the Stephen King experience. Does it deliver the spine-shaking chills of great King efforts past? Is the mayhem cranked to the desirable degree? What’s not asked in the review and the interview and the profile is whether a King Book is worth writing or worth the reading. It seems that no one anymore has the wherewithal to say that reading a King novel is a major waste of human time. No chance. If people want to read it, if they get pleasure from it, then it must be good. What other standard is there?” (Edmundson 177)

I am not entirely sure how to react to this statement. On the one hand, it is incredibly insulting to anyone who dares to read for pleasure. I do read for pleasure, however not as much as I used to. These days I find myself reading more for discovery, more for what Edmundson calls “the pursuit of influence”. I want to have my horizons broadened, my views shaped and altered, albeit in a critical manner. I am aware that I am not perfect and neither is my outlook on the world. I agree with Edmundson that “It takes a strange mixture of humility and confidence” to read this way. I also believe that most people do not have this mixture.   I agree with Edmundson that many people in this country do not want to be influenced. They are dogmatic. They are ignorant. They are irrational.  They are set in their ways, and they simply do not care to listen, let alone to critically analyze an alternate viewpoint. I also agree with Edmundson that, up to a certain degree, reading for primarily for sensual stimulation as opposed to “Reading in pursuit of influence” is a product of this culture. But, at the same time, human pleasure comes in many forms. Pleasure is not just immediate sensory stimulation.  I get as much pleasure from reading James Baldwin, Joe Kincheloe, Henry Giroux, Noam Chomsky, Paulo Freire, and Rosa Luxemburg as I do from reading Stephen King and Dean Koontz.  Often times I experience two or three types of pleasure in reading one work.  And sometimes I recognize the same values, the same morals, the same ethics expressed in Koontz’ riveting, fast-paced, and creative story-telling as I do in Chomsky’s unconventional and unrelenting political and media analysis.  Yes these two authors express those values through different literary forms, but does the literary form and style of Koontz as opposed to Chomsky, detract from the meaning, the value, the moral and ethical enlightenment I experience from reading the former’s brilliant works of fiction.  Absolutely not!!!  Yes, the works of Chomsky and Freire and Luxemburg are more overtly political, more intellectual works then the works of King and Koontz.  But does that mean Koontz and King wasted their time writing?  Does that mean I am wasting my time reading Koontz and King?  Give me a break.  I implore you to critically examine your own simplistic dogmatism, Professor Edmundson.  If you bothered to do so, you would no doubt realize that you explicitly argue for the idea of reading for pleasure in the exact same chapter in which you so vociferously denounce it,

Now the people who were kids when the Western Canon went on trial and received summary justice are working the levers of culture.  They are the editors and the reviewers and the arts feature writers and the ones who interview the novelists and the poets–to the degree that anyone interviews the poets.  Though the arts interest them, though they read this and though they read that–there is one thing that makes them very nervous indeed about what they do.  They are not comfortable with–errr–judgments of quality.  They are not at ease with “the whole evaluation thing.”  They may sense that Blake’s”Songs” are in some manner more valuable, more worth pondering, more worth preserving than The Simpsons.  They may sense as much.  But they do not have the terminology to explain why.  They never heard the arguments.  The professors who should have been providing them when the No More Western Culture marches were on never made a peep (……)  They never even cited Wilde on the value of pure and simple literary pleasure. (Edmundson 176)

Oh I see.  So if I decide to read Stephen King for pleasure because I read Oscar Wilde and he told me it’s all right to read for pleasure then I’m in the clear because Oscar Wilde’s work is included in the Western Canon.  But if I decide on my own to read Stephen King because I find his work pleasurable then I am an uncultured and uninhibited pleasure-seeker.  Please Professor Edmundson, explain away that fancy logic.

And let me get another thing straight.  You put any work of literature, any piece of art, any musical work, any film that is not included in the Western Canon, in the same category as…..The Simpsons.  Well of course….neither the works of Rosa Luxemburg or The Simpsons are included in the Western Canon.  As a result, both share qualities inherent in low culture.  Please Professor Edmundson, explain away that fancy logic.

Here is where Edmundson analyzes opposition to the canon,

“But it’s not only the division of experience between hard labor and empty leisure that now makes reading for something like mortal stakes a very remote possibility.  Not all that long ago– fifteen years, not much more–students paraded through the campuses and through the quads, chanting variations on a theme: Hey-hey, ho-ho, they jingled, Western culture’s got to go.  The marches and the chants and the general skepticism about something called the canon seemed to some an affront to all civilized values. (Edmundson 174)

If students were marching against Western culture fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been because they were valueless, it wouldn’t have been because they were uncivilized, it wouldn’t have been because they were uncultured, it wouldn’t have been because they were uninhibited pleasure-seekers.  If students were marching against Western culture fifteen years ago, it would have been because they were being cast aside, treated as objects to be molded and shaped according to the dominant ideology, disrespected and disregarded by a culture of normalized cruelty, alienation, militant individualism, and inundated with commodified culture.  It would have been because Western Culture had betrayed them, their hopes and their desires, their dreams and aspirations, not because they had betrayed Western Culture.  Give your students some credit Professor Edmundson.  The ones who march are the ones who get it and seek to do something to change it, and they don’t deserve your derision.  They deserve your praise.

Professor Edmundson lionizes the Western literary canon and labels anyone who doesn’t unequivocally appreciate its contents as an active participant in this “pleasure”.  To think that this could be the only possible reason, or even the main reason, that someone would disagree with the labeling of the works of literature included in this so-called canon, as high and superior culture, is extremely naive and frankly anti-intellectual.  Is it an indication of my low culture that I find James Baldwin more engaging, more thought-provoking, a more relevant author to my life and experience then Shakespeare?  Would Professor Edmundson call a Black teenager living in the midst of inner city poverty in the United States, devoid of culture for not being able to relate to Homer’s Odyssey?   Reading, especially critical reading is a subjective process and the disagreement between me and Professor Edmundson as well as others who lionize the Western literary canon is not over its the value of its constituent works to shaping our society but the pedagogy that is used to convey, explain, and relate that value to human subjects who bring their own experiences, their own values, their own knowledge to the classroom. It is as if Professor Edmundson believes his students should value a work of literature just because it is presented to them as high culture, the best our society has to offer regardless of what they may think. You can’t just plop Shakespeare down in front of a kid and expect him to value it, relate to it, be transformed by it just because you value it, you relate to it, you are transformed by it. Does Professor Edmundson believe that his students are standardized? Does he believe knowledge is standardized?  Does he believe that one student experiences a work of literature in exactly the same way as another student?  Does he believe that every student should experience the Western Canon as he does?  Apparently he does.  According to him, some of his students just do not have the “wherewithal” to practice this unapologetic elitism.  If this is his idea of how affective teaching and learning should be conducted, by making the students realize how stupid and uncultured they are,  then he should not be a teacher.  The view that Edmundson takes here is extremely authoritarian and paternalistic. He disrespects his students by not recognizing that their subjectivity is integral to the effectiveness of the learning process.  If his pedagogy reflects his reasoning for why his students do not appreciate Shakespeare, then he will forever be complaining about what he perceives to be the low culture of his students.  By doing this, he absolves himself of all pedagogical responsibility for helping to make literature, any works of literature, whether they are in the Western Canon or not, accessible, relatable, and most importantly potentially transformative and liberating for his students.  And that, Professor Edmundson, is exactly how you teach students to passively and uncritically assimilate to the status quo which you, at times, eloquently criticize throughout the rest of the book.

Professor Edmundson, you are not the supreme arbiter of all knowledge, not to your students and certainly not to the readers of this book.  Yes the intellectual and media culture in America is severely degraded, but that is because of their service to corrupt power structures not because of your erroneous belief that we have forgotten the value of the classics.  I hated Shakespeare in high school.  I despised the Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I despised Dante’s Inferno.  I did not enjoy having to read Homer’s Odyssey in high school and then again in college.  But do you know why I despised them?  It was not because of anything inherent in any of these works of literature.  It was because my teachers and professors, like yourself, thought they could tell me how and what to feel about whatever I was reading, and if I didn’t feel however they thought I should feel, well then I was stupid, I didn’t belong in an Honors English class  They thought, like yourself, that they could tell me to value one work over another just because some supposedly wise men who came before me had already decided that these works of literature were just better than all the rest.  It was all about power for them, power over my heart and power over my mind.  It was all about educating at me and to me instead of with me.  Well guess what.  Now I prefer James Baldwin.  I prefer Noam Chomsky.  I prefer Dean Koontz.  I prefer Joe Kincheloe.  I prefer Henry Giroux.  I prefer Paulo Freire  I prefer Paramahansa Yogananda.  I prefer Malcolm X.  I prefer Martin Luther King Jr.  I prefer Rosa Luxemburg.  I prefer authors that speak to me.  And I will never pick up Shakespeare again.  I will never pick up Virgil’s Aeneid again.  I will never pick up Homer’s The Odyssey or The Iliad again.  Why?  Not because I despise them, but because I despise the idea of a Western Canon, because I despise the unabashed elitism that is inherent in the creation and the advocacy of such a repulsive power structure.  Believe it or not, I have read and I have enjoyed and I have been transformed by some of the titles in this so-called Western Canon.  I have read John Dewey’s, Experience and Education, ironically a work that argues for the value of the student’s subjectivity in education.  I expect that John Dewey, if he were alive today, would strongly criticize this absurd invention known as the Western Canon, let alone the inclusion of one of his seminal works in such a structure.  Karl Marx, is another author whose Capital is included in the Western Canon, and who would no doubt, in line with his denunciation of the oppressive rule of a tiny minority over the great majority, denounce its creation as well.  Perhaps Professor Edmundson should re-read these works in order to get a better idea of why so many intelligent people within American society oppose the Western Canon.

Works Cited

Edmundson, Mark. Why Teach? In Defense Of A Real Education. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013. Print.


I write to dialogue. So please, let's engage each other in some dialogue.

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