A few months ago I heard the president of a major university defend the humanities. He praised the profundity of the West’s great thinkers, the civilizing effect of major poets and novelists, and the aesthetic delight afforded by masterpieces. I kept asking myself: How can he lie like that?

As the president well knew, this description of the humanities has provoked derision—and a lot worse—for the past three decades. In English departments, it is the literary equivalent of creationism. Instead, we are told, there is no such thing as intrinsic literary greatness, there are only works called great because they serve oppressive elites (not including college professors). I began to notice that academics use one description of the humanities with their colleagues while gulling the public with another.

In his profound and crisply written new book, James Seaton dwells on the highly influential Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Its editors paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called “cultural studies,” which, having generated numerous subdisciplines—working-class studies, whiteness studies, environmental studies, and several more—has set the critical agenda:

Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important that any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.

And so, only insofar as what used to be called masterpieces can be fit into a liberationist program are they worthy of study, and no further. If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of “production, circulation, and consumption” is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, but more insidiously, than the futures market.

When speaking to the broader public, humanists pretend that their disciplines promote what the Norton editors call “the practical skills of organization, analysis, and literacy” as well as “the values of detachment, caution, and cooperation,” but, as Richard Ohmann long since demonstrated, these attitudes and manners invisibly aid “the smooth operation of contemporary capitalist societies.” The public is told that the humanities teach “critical analysis,” but what is meant by this term is the opposite of disinterested examination of facts or the habit of questioning one’s own assumptions. It means the critique of others.

Seaton also points to the significance of the very term “theory and criticism,” which used to be “literary theory” and “literary criticism.” As late as the 1970s, they indicated the investigation of broader questions going beyond the individual work: How do literary genres shape meaning? What role should an author’s biography play in understanding her works? Why do the characters of realistic novels seem so lifelike and what can we learn about morality from them? Such questions have given way largely to political advocacy issues not specifically concerned with literature. If one wonders why “theory” so understood should be taught in English departments at all, the answer is historical: As the Norton anthology shows, the vocabulary of current theory and criticism was originally shaped by people trained in the study of literature or their students, and they acknowledge as their predecessors the great literary theorists from Plato to Irving Howe.

To be sure, it is still possible at most elite colleges to get a good education in literature if one carefully reads course descriptions and syllabi to discover the few serious offerings. There are still enough needles in the haystack. Moreover, philosophy departments at major universities remain dominated by the analytic tradition, which is rigorously logical. For an analytic philosopher, showing one’s position is more left-wing does not constitute an argument any more than it would for a mathematician. But to many students, such philosophy sounds like a technical method, more like statistics than a part of the humanities.

Seaton offers the telling example of a “casebook,” designed for undergraduates, devoted to Jane Austen’s novel Emma. As it happens, one classic writer whom today’s college students often read on their own is Jane Austen, but this series of essays will kill their interest. Five of the six essays are selected not to shed light on different aspects of the novel (character, psychology, authorial voice, aesthetic wholeness) but to illustrate schools of criticism: gender criticism, Marxist criticism, cultural criticism, new historicism, and feminist criticism. These essays simply presume the rightness of twentieth-first century academic opinion on all social issues, the better to patronize the benighted author by measuring how close her attitudes are to ours. Jane Austen falls short, because her book succeeds in “reimmasculating men and women alike,” assumes “that human nature is transhistorical,” and “mystifies” social and economic relations.

No wonder college presidents have to defend the humanities! And no wonder enrollments in literature courses decline. If English professors don’t believe in great literature, why should students? If the classics are no more important than “any artifact or practice,” why single them out for study? And if all one can learn from them is what one already knows, then why put in the considerable effort to study them? After all, reading Paradise Lost or War and Peace is not a walk in the summer garden. By contrast, Lionel Trilling discovered in Emma “the possibility . . . of becoming acquainted with ourselves, of creating a community of ‘intelligent love.’ ” Because Austen invented the technique of narrating events as if through the character’s eyes, other critics have honored her for making possible the great psychological novels to come. The casebook’s sixth essay, by Marilyn Butler, describes Austen’s art as one “through which a great range of thought, feeling, and minute observation is being quietly registered. By displaying the humanity of her fools and gossips, Austen escapes the doctrinaire tendencies of so many or her contemporaries” and, of course, of so many of ours.

Austen’s suspicion of “doctrinaire tendencies” is just what most current schools find repellent about her. They see her art of subtlety as a technology of mystification and regard the charm of her writing as seduction to bourgeois evil. Where does such hostility to literature come from?

Seaton argues that we can best understand the history of literary criticism in terms of three traditions: the platonic, the neoplatonic, and the humanist. Seaton’s platonists—who are often not platonist in a philosophical sense—regard literature, as Plato did, as dangerous and deceitful. Poetry, fiction, and drama reinforce the prejudices of the unenlightened masses or, as we would say today, of the bourgeoisie. The neoplatonists also disdain the ordinary and bourgeois, but for a different reason. For the third-century philosopher Plotinus, what is important about a sculpture is not the stone, or anything material, but the idea leading to its form. True critics of art contemplate this idea, which is higher than anything given by Nature. In the words of Sir Philip Sidney, “her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.”

We discover such beliefs in the romantic poets and critics. Shelley proclaimed that no existing poem is more than “a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet.” The twentieth-century modernists regarded art as the only refuge from the vulgarity of the majority, while postmodernists deemed it no refuge at all. The Idea was still the most important thing, but it was to be discovered not in poetry but in Theory.

I have often found it strange, if not risible, to see Shakespeare and George Eliot hauled before the stern tribunal of associate professors, like French nobles during the terror. But if one understands the odd combination of Platonic contempt for literature and neoplatonic faith in Theory, one grasps how Committees of Literary Safety arose.

Seaton calls for a renewal of a third tradition, which he calls humanistic. Founded by Aristotle, and represented by critics as diverse as Samuel Johnson, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling, it sees great art as having something important to say to us, not about a superhuman Idea but about the complexities of ordinary life. No theory can ever be adequate to the infinite shades of difference that constitute our daily feelings, thoughts, and relations to others. Trilling spoke of literature as “the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” Henry James (who seems to be the hero of Seaton’s book) was unafraid to say that great novelists reveal “the truth” about particular people. These writers do not stop at the visible surface but see the invisible world within. They listen “at the chamber of the soul.” Truth so conceived is never a single whole, graspable as a comprehensive theory, but is the sum total of “the great body of partial truths.”

For the humanist, the artwork has an integrity of its own. To understand it one cannot reduce it to a sentence or doctrine. One must work to tease out its subtle texture of meanings and its implications for the way we live our ordinary lives. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life,” wrote George Eliot in Middlemarch, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” The great artist perceives and records that roar and the great critic teaches us how to hear it.

I once knew a Soviet Russian thinker who had memorized the works of Marx so he could find a quotation to justify anything he might care to say, and there are numerous doctoral dissertations and syllabi that treat “cultural studies” the same way. Almost no one admits to humanistic values, as no Soviet scholar admitted to a belief in God, so it is hard to tell how many humanists remain. The humanistic approach, however, has not entirely died out among influential critics. We hear its voice in James Wood, Thomas Pavel, and Robert Alter, among others.

Seaton builds a strong case for humanism, and it is all the stronger because he follows his own rule of academic integrity. Intellectual honesty, he explains, precludes giving a pass to members of one’s own camp, as ideologically minded people often do. So he faults Allan Bloom’s celebrated book The Closing of the American Mind as a “romantic cri de coeur.” In a neoplatonist spirit, it exalts philosophers and writers as wiser than all others and summons us “to fight it out with triumphant natural science.” Are we to reject Darwin or take Tolstoy as an astronomer? Seaton likewise offers strong but not unmixed praise for Anthony Kronman’s recent book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman offers a fine critique of political correctness, ably defends “secular humanism,” and above all, demonstrates a willingness to see the best in opponents’ views. But Seaton faults him for claiming that all religions insist “there is only one right answer to the question of life’s meaning,” as if all religious traditions were the mere repetition of dogmas rather than ongoing debates.

Because Seaton limits himself to the English-speaking world, he cannot consider the humanistic critic who above all would support his views. The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, absurdly taken in the academy as a Marxist and postmodernist, was in fact a dedicated defender of literature as the source of great wisdom—even greater and more far-reaching than any earlier critic had discovered. His Soviet context taught him the danger of confusing the political with the ethical, as if belonging to the right party could offer an “alibi” for personal responsibility. In his view, literature and criticism exist to help us understand individual other people, to whom we are ethically responsible at every passing moment.

As Seaton and Bakhtin both argue, critics must neither remove art from human concerns nor reduce it to a social program. Rather, we must seek to open ourselves morally to its wisdom. As Bakhtin wrote: “I must answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life. . . . Art and life are not one, but they must become one in me, in the unity of my responsibility.”