Mark Edmundson's meandering mess of an essay at the Chronicle has attracted a lot of ridicule in the corners where I hang out on the internet, and it is indeed a doozy. Though I'm often impatient with Edmundson's take on the humanities--both his fuzzy celebration of their value and his dour certainty that they're doomed--I respect him as a writer and have usually felt that his heart is in the right place: he values the humanities; I value the humanities; and the fact that he has a national audience probably helps all of us.
But this. . . well, even before I got to the really outrageous part, I was embarrassed for him. It's a self-indulgent and not entirely coherent account of Edmundson's time at Yale and how alienated he felt from both the tweedy profs with their sherry and the undergraduates he regarded as an undifferentiated mass of Skull & Bonesmen headed straight for Wall Street and/or the C.I.A. Edmundson was different--what with his black leather jacket--and so felt some initial sympathy with the rise of theory, which seemed sexy and young and opposed to all that fusty establishmentarianism. But! Over the years he came to see the nothing and the nihilism at the core of theory, and his essay concludes with the sorrowful realization that the tweedy fuddy-duddies had it right all along. But alas, the fuddy-duddies are all dead, and now "[f]ew professors in my field, literature, believe that they can distinguish rigorously between pop-culture flotsam and the works of Milton. Few of them know how to mount an argument that values Wyatt's poetry over a video game."
Um. Say what?
That last quotation is the portion of the essay that has received the most scorn, and rightfully so. Some of Edmundson's defenders claim he's merely being hyperbolic, and though I'm not convinced that he is--wild claims of this sort have been a staple of conservative critiques of the academy* for decades--whether Edmundson literally means that there are legions of literature professors who can't discriminate between the value of Paradise Lost and a video game or whether he means merely that they can't mount a coherent argument for the value of any canonical author, he's wrong.
Most professors know how to argue for the worth of whichever texts are canonical within their particular area of expertise, and most do so explicitly or implicitly one semester after the other. One reason is that we tend to be hired within traditionally-defined subfields ("Victorian Novel," "Modernist Poetry") and tend to be expected to teach bread-and-butter genre or period surveys. This means we do a lot of thinking about what our students need to know and what it would be irresponsible to leave out; we also--and especially if we happen to teach any subject that isn't immediately appealing to students--tend to think about how to make the case for those texts. Believe me: even at the most elite schools, students do not arrive convinced of their need to study Chaucer or Milton.
At less-elite institutions this is doubly true. (I've had students who assume "British Literature"--all of it!--is strange and foreign and totally distinct from any American literature ever.) At RU, Shakespeare is a required course, but I still consider it my job to make the case, actively and every day, for why Shakespeare is worth reading. I do not assume it. Canonical works only remain canonical because new generations of readers continue to fall in love with them and continue to believe in their worth; if your only argument for Shakespeare's canonicity is "because generations have said so," or even, "because I love him," you've lost. And lemme tell you: if I couldn't make the case for Milton, my classes would get cancelled. I only get to teach Milton because I sell him, hard, to students who have frequently never heard of him.
But I want to move away from the question of whether professors still recognize a canon and toward an interrogation of what we're doing when we dismiss some works as "pop cultural flotsam." I'm not sure what Edmundson intended to include in this category, and his vagueness is probably strategic. But as someone who works on an earlier period, I've long noticed that conservative critics who inveigh against the teaching of pop culture, ephemera, women and minority writers (and so on) do not take quite the same position when it comes to very minor writers who happen to be part of the establishment. So, early modern ballads, sermons, and the works of fifth-rate playwrights are so interesting and so worthwhile and even an important work of recovery (because: OUR HERITAGE!), but Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish--nevermind Toni Morrison, August Wilson or The Sopranos--aren't important enough or central enough to the culture.
Now, I'm not claiming that this is how Edmundson feels--I don't know his opinions about any of those works or writers--but I'm uncomfortable with any sweeping dismissal of popular culture. The fact is that virtually all serious scholars work on noncanonical texts at least some of the time (I wrote almost an entire book about 'em!), but not all noncanonical texts get sneered at as "flotsam." I can tell you that I've never once had anyone assert the triviality of the material I work on: it's old enough and aligned enough with traditional sources of power (the court, the church) that it reads as serious and important. But I'm not sure it's intrinsically any more or less valuable, as a subject for analysis, than 1950s sit-coms. Part of the question is what one does with the texts in question.
Some uncanonical texts are useful primarily for contextual or historical information (to see the evolution of a particular writer's works; to study the conventions of a genre; to understand the period's attitude toward gender, money, science, religion), but many are aesthetically interesting in their own right to a greater or lesser degree. I teach very few of the noncanonical texts I work on, but I'll assign the occasional sermon or excerpt from an ars moriendi manual, just as some of my colleagues show the occasional clip from a sit-com or bring in a series of midcentury advertisements.
The formal and interpretative skills that scholars bring to Shakespeare or Faulkner can be applied to any aesthetic object, however low or high, serious or pop-cultural, but only the best will keep yielding new meanings. Some of our t.v. shows (and, who knows? maybe even video games) will last or will be rediscovered by future scholars. Some of our "serious" novels and films will not. In the meanwhile, we study and we teach what seems most meaningful, most illuminating, most worthy. Most the time, those are canonical or critically-acclaimed texts. But real humanists know when and how to attend to the flotsam and ephemera.
*H/t Phoebe, who has anatomized the conservative critique of academia in this post and later ones.