Everyone knows what has happened to the study of literature in the academy. It is no longer news, either, that the nation’s largest organization of literary scholars, the Modern Language Association, is completely captive to the political agendas that have transformed the study and teaching of literature into programs of ideological indoctrination. During the decade that The New Criterion has been reporting on these developments, the intellectual misrule of the MLA passed from the realm of farce and scandal to what it is today: an intellectual catastrophe with immense consequences for the future of American cultural life.
The time has clearly passed for hoping that the MLA could be reformed from within. The faddish radicalism that the MLA embraced in the last decade or two has by now become institutionalized and entrenched. So long as this bureaucratic behemoth with its tens of thousands of members and immense institutional prestige and power continues to occupy its place in academic life unchallenged, the profession of literature will continue to be beholden to the politicized agenda that has made the MLA a synonym for scholarly dereliction and a home for tenured radicals.
We have often had occasion to point out in these pages that one of the greatest obstacles to challenging the hegemony of the radical ethos celebrated by the MLA is the widespread passivity and timorousness of the professoriate. Many, many professors privately are appalled by the degradation of literary studies that proceeds under the various banners of queer theory, multiculturalism, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and all the other ideological movements that have a strangle hold on the profession in so many institutions. But there have been precious few professors who have been willing to speak out publicly about these issues. We suspect that this quiescence has been in part due to a reluctance to get involved in issues that are by nature time-consuming and divisive; sometimes it has been simply a matter of cowardice.
Whatever the motivation in the past, however, there are some new breezes blowing in academia. The MLA and its sister radical organizations are still very much in ascendance, but they are no longer the only only voices being heard. One of the most welcome developments on the literary front was the announcement of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a new organization that has now been created to challenge the doctrinaire radicalism of the MLA and to provide an independent forum to support the study of literature—if we may put it so—as literature. The fledgling Association, which met in Boston in September to discuss organizational matters, has already attracted over three hundred individuals from various academic departments around the country. It has also gone out of its way to encourage the participation of scholars and critics outside the academy— those who write for readers, not tenure. Among the well known figures who have lent their support to the Association are E. D. Hirsch, Richard Poirier, Denis Donoghue, Mary Lefkowitz, John Hollander, Roger Shattuck, and Christopher Ricks. As this list suggests, it would be a mistake to regard the Association as a conservative or right-wing alternative to the MLA; on the contrary, it is a literary alternative to the aggressively non-literary politics that have come to dominate the MLA and much of the professoriate. As Professor Ricks observed recently, “The concern is not the presence of politics in the MLA; it’s the absence of non-politics… . It does seem that race, gender, empire, and gayness are the only aspects under which literature is seen to exist there.”
Publicly, anyway, Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the MLA and an ardent supporter of the MLA’s radical agenda, has welcomed the appearance of this new competitor. Its existence is, she said in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education a “sign of vitality.” Who knows if that is what she really thinks; we hope so, because this once, at least, we can whole-heartedly agree.
Readers interested in obtaining additional information about the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics may do so by writing to Ricardo Quinones, Bauer Center, Claremont McKenna College, 500 East Ninth Street, Claremont, California 91711.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 2, on page 1
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