Everyone seems to like what I have asserted about literary criticism, at least “on a high level,” as Jake Seliger puts it, but no one really agrees with me.
Litlove, for example, accepts my credo that literary criticism must contribute to the store of human understanding, but then she adds that such contributions emerge “gradually, organically, from the process of continual, profound discussion in which teachers and students explore every angle and aspect of a text and enlighten each other.” What she endorses, in other words, is Mark Bauerlein’s call for fewer scholarly publications and more teaching.
I don’t know what it means, though, to say that new contributions to knowledge grow organically out of discussions between students and teachers. Such discussions may provoke curiosity, but when the research bears fruit, it is because someone has excused herself to go off and inquire into a question. Human knowledge is expanded by inquiry into something that is not yet known and understood. If and only if class discussion is organized upon the model of inquiry will it yield organic produce.
And that is the key. The institutional reforms proposed by Bauerlein and Seliger (limit promotion materials to one hundred pages, change peer-reviewed publication into a link to a paper on the author’s website) are sharp-eyed and promising—I hope they will be instituted—and are entirely beside the question.
Nor is the question, as Seliger would have it, “the difficulty of deciding what is good criticism.” Such a question can never be decided before the fact, and even when you have finally hit upon a practitioner of good criticism, the question has still not been decided:
The only question is how to enlarge human understanding—how, that is, to return from the lure of career advancement, which encourages the critic to write something that is merely new and different, regardless of its validity, to the professional responsibility of adding to the store of human knowledge. “[M]ost people who are writing just to ‘write something new and different’ would argue they are adding to the store of human knowledge,” Seliger observes. He is right. Who am I to assert otherwise?
The careerist is motivated by “getting on,” while the professional is motivated by a sense of responsibility to the profession. And in the critic’s case, that means responsibility to the growth of literary knowledge. What follows from this, however, is that no one knows but me whether I am a careerist, because no one but me has access to my motivations. But what is more, the shift from careerism to professionalism—from commitment to career to commitment to knowledge—is entirely a matter of motivation, and entirely within my control.
The shift will never occur, though, unless the ideal of contributing to knowledge is clearly and repeatedly enunciated, and if it is not lost in the swarm of institutional proposals for merely scaling back the demands of a career.
 Michael Oakeshott, “What Do We Look for in an Historian?” (1928), in What Is History? and Other Essays, ed. Luke O’Sullivan (Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic, 2004), p. 135.