Thursday, October 01, 2009

Shakespeare is the problem

James Atherton, a British educator, is not sure what to make of the core terms that I hold every student at a nearby private school should know by the time they “graduate and head off to college.”

Atherton wonders whether the list of terms is “idiosyncratic? Just one scholar’s way of distilling the essential of his discipline? Or is this kind of list routine?” One thing for sure: “despite all of this being (potentially) about literature, it is totally non-prescriptive about literature itself.”

I am grateful that at least one critic, unacquainted with my thought as a whole, gets its major premise right. Literature, as I have said on more than one occasion, is simply good writing—where “good,” by definition, yields no fixed definition. “From which it follows,” I argue, “that literature is not a body of poems, stories, novels, plays, memoirs, etc., but the act of judgment by which such things come to be named as literature. Literature is the worry of literary criticism.”

Or, in other words, literature (more properly, literary criticism) is a discipline of knowledge, a distinct and autonomous way of blinking at things—human experience sub specie textum. My list of core terms is an attempt to boil down the discipline of literary criticism to manageable college-prepatory proportions.

But literary criticism is not the only discipline of literary study. J. V. Cunningham once listed the four disciplines of graduate study in literature: bibliography, textual criticism, philology, and literary history. Of these the most important for beginning students is literary history. And if I were to contract English literary history to an irreducible minimum it would have to be Shakespeare.

When the department at Texas A&M University did away with its Shakespeare requirement for English majors some time ago, the more conservative scholars objected. “Shakespeare is the problem,” a more radical scholar replied. This is everything that is the case: the problem of English education on the secondary level is that Shakespeare is a problem on the next level.

High school students should learn the core terms of literary criticism, on my view, in order to be prepared for college classes in which the literary tradition has been abandoned. But they should also learn the outlines of that tradition, starting with Shakespeare, in order to make their way in a literate culture where Shakespeare and other great writers are not a problem, but a source of reference and wisdom.