Benton's column discusses the things that inspire students to major in English and then to go to graduate school, and he contrasts those early motivators with the "reality" of graduate school. Now, no one would disagree that the undergraduate experience is very different from that of the graduate student, and many of us might admit to a certain feeling of loss: after all, as an undergraduate, one's reading and writing are enfolded (at least for many students) into the idyllic and leisurely life that is college. And as Benton rightly notes, students rarely become English majors due to parental pressure or because they have a set career path in mind; generally, they do it because they like to read, and they take the classes they take because they seem fun. As an undergraduate, then, almost everything is exploratory and almost everything is new, and any anxieties about the Real World exist in a category separate from one's classes.
In graduate school, however, career anxieties and personal anxieties are almost entirely entwined with one's work: do I actually know how to write? Do I have anything interesting to say? Am I ever going to get a job? Am I any good at this stuff (which is to say, in the graduate student mind, am I any good, period). That to me is the chief and most meaningful difference between the undergraduate and graduate study of English. Yes, it's quite true that the graduate student has to learn a number of new skills and master a larger body of knowledge, but the real difference is that what had once been essentially a pleasant and low-stakes pastime becomes a career, with all the pressures and expectations--and, let's face it, bullshit--that any career entails.
But this is not what Benton talks about. For Benton there's a more important difference between college and graduate school, and it's one he that he illustrates by listing the answers he received when he asked his English majors why they study literature. He got the usual responses: an early love of reading; the pleasure of getting lost in alternate worlds; a "love for the free play of ideas"; a quasi-spiritual sense of meaningfulness; attraction to the "cultural aura" of the bohemian artist; a "desire for wisdom."
"It surprised me," Benton reports, "that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects." In fact, Benton is so surprised that he even asks his students why they didn't identify political or social reasons as motivators: "[O]ne said, 'If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology.'"
Huh, I thought when I read this. Why is Benton surprised that his students aren't majoring in English because of their political commitments? Why is he even asking this question? It seems awfully leading. . . . Oh, right. It's supposed to be a leading question, because only by asking it is Benton able to comment with due sorrow on the sad, sad state of graduate education, which sucks all the truth and beauty out of the simple, pure study of lit-rah-chure that his students enjoy in their prelapsarian groves of academe.
Sorrowfully, then, he continues:
It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school.
They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.
[. . . . ]
The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place.
This may reflect Benton's experience, and if so, I'm sorry to hear it, but it bears no relation to my own reality. (FWIW, I know where Benton went to graduate school, and although I don't know a great deal about the specific culture of that program--either now or when Benton went through it--his grad program and my grad program are major competitors, so it's probably safe to assume that there are some broad similarities between the two.)
Yes, academics in the humanities tend to be liberal, but while some of them are radically so, most are not--and relatively few, in any case, bring their political commitments to bear on their scholarship. And yes, there are idiots in the academy, and careerists, and people who rely upon incomprehensible jargon and other scholars' theories and who have never had an independent idea in their lives.
But most the people I know who profess English love it. LOVE IT, in the geekiest and most sincere of ways, and have never really lost whatever it was that made them the kind of kids who stayed up under the covers all night with a book and a flashlight. They're savvy and professional and hard-hitting scholars, but they still have that childish feeling of delight and wonder at the things they read and teach.
This is true whether or not they have political commitments to their research, although Benton appears to assume that merely having these commitments--or indeed a specific theoretical orientation--is what prevents one from loving literature. Now, I myself am completely unchurched when it comes to theory (never been taught it, never been expected to know it), and it would be pretty hard for my political beliefs to have much bearing on my scholarship even if I wanted them to, but I can't imagine objecting to the simple fact that some people have political commitments that are entwined with their scholarship.
Certainly, there are people who are more interested in the politics than in the literature and who let their agendas ride their textual analyses--but most of the people I know who have definite theoretical orientations are superb thinkers who came to their particular framework because they found it to be illuminating and liberating. I blogged last summer about reading Judith Butler for the first time (as I then was) and about how astonished I was (coming to her, perhaps, with some of THB's prejudices) to find her work so moving and so obviously passionately felt. But then, that's what good scholars do: they translate their passions and their enthusiasms into commentary, criticism, and teaching. They love what they do, and they take literature seriously and they take literature personally.
So I suggest this: since all Benton's evidence is anecdotal, and all mine is likewise anecdotal, let's do this officially: THB's peeps and my peeps. Right after school. By the swingsets. We'll settle this once and for all.