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Distinct Models: Why We Teach What We Teach

In his commendatory poem in the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1623), Ben Jonson addresses the Bard as “Soul of the age!” (17); however, a couple of dozen lines later, Jonson proclaims, “He was not of an age, but for all time” (43).1 I must confess to having taken a perverse delight over the years in watching students squirm when asked to resolve the apparent contradiction. We may then surmise that a certain poetic justice, a certain perversity of the Fates, has come into play as I find myself squirming at the spec­tacle of learned and distinguished colleagues, scholars of literature and the other humane disciplines, quite as nonplussed by the Jonsonian paradox as the most callow sopho­more. According to the reigning hetero­doxy, absolutely nothing is “for all time”; and works of literature do not bespeak the “soul of the age,” so much as they conceal, even while embodying, its ideological agenda and economic imperatives. Hence the cur­rent clamor from certain quarters within the academy and other intellectual institutions for the “opening up” or dismantling of the “canon” of “classic” works, for the abolition of the very notion of “great books.” Should this view prevail, then the question, “Why we teach what we teach?,” would be no longer moot, but merely meaningless. Al­though pretexts for teaching this or that text would abound, there could be no reasons, since rational discrimination among the “products” of deterministic cultural hegemo­nies is impossible. It is, therefore, important to attempt an understanding of how Shakespeare—or Plato, or Dante, or Jefferson, or Carlisle        can be both “Soul of the age” and “for all time.” Although in the remarks that follow I shall speak principally about poetry, that is largely a matter of my own convenience. As Cicero points out, “All the arts, which pertain to humanity, have a certain common bond and are joined together among themselves as it were by a certain kinship.”2 I wish to suggest that this element of common humanity is crucial in our curricular decisions and is, indeed, the only basis for our integrity as scholars and teachers.

Perhaps the one conceivable benefit of the current assault on Western culture from among its ostensible conservators is that we are forced to reflect upon what it is and why it is worth conserving. And make no mis­take, we are not confronting merely an urge to modify or expand the canon, or an argu­ment over criteria for the admission of au­thors and titles to the curriculum, much less over the inclusion or exclusion of this or that particular work. What is at stake is whether a hierarchy of works can be established at all, whether rational (and hence just) norms for determining intellectual, moral, and aesthetic excellence are possible. A negative answer to this question entails not “opening up” the curriculum, but eviscerating it; and if there is no canon of intrinsically great works, then professors of the humanities will seem less like scholars than vultures and jackals feeding on the cadaver of the liberal arts. Hence Barbara Herrnstein Smith was somewhat disingenuous when she used the occasion of her 1988 MLA Presidential Address to sneer at “members of the asso­ciation who still regard women as members of another species and are still waiting for the theory fad to blow over,” and to insinu­ate that distress about the present state of affairs in the academic world arose from “the comparison of Oedipus with Sherlock Holmes or the assignment of The Color Purple alongside The Scarlet Letter.”3

The Exalted Critic

The revolutionaries who currently domi­nate academic discourse in the humanities are not really interested in gaining accep­tance for The Color Purple as a great book, or in gaining a new theoretical purchase on The Scarlet Letter. Revision of the literary canon—both by addition and revaluation—has been old news for a long time. The concept is available, for example, in T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Tal­ent,” where he remarks, “The existing monu­ments form an ideal order among them­selves, which is modified by the introduc­tion of the new (really new) work of art among them.”4 Determining the criteria for and the identity of the “really new” work and assessing its precise effect upon the canon are undertakings subject to reason­able, tolerant, and even fruitful debate. But this is not the nature of the current disputes, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith could have found this out on her own by stepping down the hall and conferring with her Duke col­leagues. “Literature is inherently nothing,” Frank Lentricchia avers; “or it is inherently a body of rhetorical strategies waiting to be seized.”5 In another context Professor Len­tricchia illustrates the practice of ideological appropriation by treating Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” a brief poem written about seventy-five years ago, as an attack on American intervention in Vietnam.6

Jane Tompkins, another member of the Duke literature faculty, furnishes an even more efficient model of political hermeneu­tics in her minute analyses of the “Western” fiction of such writers as Zane Grey and the late Louis L’Amour (that’s “Western” as in bang-bang, you’re dead; not as in Western culture). If literature is merely a bundle of rhetorical strategies anyway, it would hardly seem to matter what bundle of verbal mate­rial the critic begins with. In fact, the West­ern offers a distinct advantage: part of the greatness of great literature is precisely the resistance it offers to ideological reductiv­ism and ordinary oversimplification (Pro­fessor Lentricchia is really not very convinc­ing about Wallace Stevens). Much popular literature, however, has insufficient substance of its own to put up a real fight and can be made to say pretty much whatever the critic wishes. Jane Tompkins rather manhandles Hondo and Riders of the Purple Sage, which submit with hardly a whimper: “What I want to argue for specifically here is the idea that the Western owes its essential character to the dominance of a women’s culture in the nineteenth century and to women’s in­vasion of the public sphere between 1880 and 1920.” This essay in the cherchez la femme school of literary interpretation concludes triumphantly in this wise: “The Western doesn’t have anything to do with the West as such. It isn’t about the encounter between civilization and the frontier. It is about men’s fear of losing their hegemony and hence their identity, both of which the West­ern tirelessly reinvents.”7 Call this hegem­ony envy if you wish, but I am reliably informed that there is no truth to the rumors that Jane Tompkins once worked as a sports­writer for the Boston Herald on special as­signment to the New England Patriots. Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour might be baffled by the array of semantic doves and rabbits she pulls out of their ten-gallon hats; how­ever, anyone familiar with current academic discourse will recognize the sleight-of-hand and the semiological stage properties, as the ideological buckboard rumbles across the textual plain, scattering signifiers like so many tumbleweeds.

What unties the approaches of Tompkins and Lentricchia is the privileging of the work of the interpreter over the text—the putative object of interpretation. Such an exaltation of the role of the critic has been a major project of Duke’s English Department chair­man, Stanley Fish, who assures us that aban­doning the notion that any piece of writing embodies inherent truth or meaning will provide us with “a greatly enhanced sense of the importance of our own activities.” It is the critic’s own activity, Professor Fish maintains, “that brings texts into being and makes them available for analysis and ap­preciation. The practice of literary criticism is not something one must apologize for; it is absolutely essential not only to the mainte­nance of, but to the very production of the objects of its attention.”8 Under this new dispensation, then, neither The Scarlet Letter nor The Scarlet Pimpernel, neither The Color Purple nor Riders of the Purple Sage has any in­trinsic significance; indeed, they only exist as a result of the critic’s conjuring. If this interpretive theory were given credence, then the canon of great books could scarcely be more than a record of the ideological impo­sitions of regnant “cultural hegemonies.” But if such is “the practice of literary criti­cism,” then apologies are certainly in order: in this schema the critic is no more than an il­lusionist—a huckster noisily calling atten­tion to his own contrivances (Penn & Teller, call your office). Or the critic is Humpty Dumpty: works, like words, mean exactly what he says they mean. And we all know what happened to Humpty Dumpty.

Such a critical practice is not without its practical consequences. Two years ago the English Department at Syracuse University issued a manifesto entitled “Not a Good Idea: A New Curriculum at Syracuse.” The authors (all eleven of them) point out the difficulty of designing a curriculum in a vacuum, literally not knowing what you are talking about:

The first element that allowed our discussions to maintain collectivity with neither the sup­port of a common canon nor the envelope of an indifferent critical pluralism was the recognition that we had to live, uncomfortably, with our pedagogical object as somehow dis­placed. Whether in the language of alienation, of repression, of loss, or of self-division, we faced a common awareness that the assump­tion of a self-evident object of study disap­peared along with the closed canon that once incarnated it.9

Having lost the “object” of their work, the professors were forced to fall back on their own predilections; and “the construction of a new curriculum” was expressly an exer­cise in self-interest: “By 1985 it had become clear that the actual teaching and research interests of the department were no longer adequately served by the curriculum as it stood” (2). The impact upon students of substituting their teachers’ hobbies for a genuine curriculum is predictable and made quite explicit by the Syracuse document:

For those committed to understanding and resisting the role of texts in producing oppres­sive race, class and gender relations, the end of an education in literature will be, not the traditional “well read” student, but a student capable of critique—of actively pressuring, resisting and questioning cultural texts. The consequences for a curriculum will be a shift from privileging a particular body of cultur­ally sanctioned texts to emphasizing the modes of critical inquiry one can bring to bear on any textual object and the political implications of such modes. (1)

If “textual objects” are “inherently noth­ing,” if their very existence is a result of interpretation, naturally the task of the lit­erature professor is to guide the student in the formation of politically correct attitudes, and liberal education is reduced to training in fashionably sanctimonious carping. That students might learn more about their pro­fessors’ prejudices than the substance of their courses has heretofore been regarded as one of the pitfalls of the university; now inculcation in odium academicum would seem to be the sole purpose of courses utterly de­void of substance in themselves.

The Heart of the Curriculum

In order to see fully the implications of such curricular sansculottism, we must recall that curriculum—what we teach—is ancil­lary to education; and that education ought to be understood in the root sense of the word. The Latin educare means to “rear or bring up (children or young animals),” and it in turn derives from educere, “to lead forth” or “to lead out of.” Implicit in the term is the idea that education consists in leading the young out of something, and the something out of which everyone must be led is the peculiar, self-interested ego; for to be self-centered is the common predicament; nar­row, stifling subjectivism, the universal prison of all human beings. A great work of litera­ture is, then, a book that extends our hori­zons, that alters our perspective, that makes us take notice of something beyond our immediate needs and desires. Note well that the new curriculum at Syracuse encour­ages students to question “cultural texts” and apply a pervasive skepticism to virtu­ally everything except themselves. Simi­larly, the editors of a new collection of es­says on seventeenth-century poetry promote their book as “deeply skeptical of the re­ceived ideas about a literature that is itself sensitive to the disruption of epistemologi­cal, social, and economic certainties.” The essays constitute “a skeptical interrogation,” they say, “of numerous received ideas along a variety of fronts.”10 Notice that again what gets questioned or “interrogated” is the lit­erature itself, or at least the “received ideas” about it (and this amounts to the same thing, since postmodern theory does not allow for the existence of literature apart from inter­pretations).

Now I do not mean to suggest that every piece of literature that is subjected to critical scrutiny in the classroom, much less in the scholar’s library carrel, is a deathless classic, embodying the perennial wisdom of West­ern culture. Such works should be at the heart of the curriculum, but they are not the whole story. Students in my American lit­erature survey, for example, read the poems of Anne Bradstreet. Although she is by no means a great writer, her competent, if undistinguished verse provides an invalu­able window into the daily life of colonial Massachusetts, a matrix of American cul­ture; moreover, the poems reveal a great deal about the fortitude and generosity of Bradstreet’s own wholly admirable charac­ter.

If I teach Ann Bradstreet in spite of her literary mediocrity, then Michael Wig­glesworth’s Day of Doom finds a place because of its ineptitude. I generally ask the class to consider the stanzas where Christ explains to the souls of unbaptized infants why they are justly adjudged to hell, along with hardened sinners, only for having in­herited the guilt of Adam’s original sin:

Would you have griev’d to have receiv’d
through Adam so much good,
As had been your for evermore,
if he at first had stood?
Would you have said, we ne’r obey’d,
nor did thy Laws regard;
It ill befits with benefits,
us, Lord, so to reward?

Since then to share in his welfare,
you could have been content,
You may with reason share in his treason,
and in the punishment. (Stz. 174–75)11

Several stanzas later (the poem runs to more than 200 just like these) the souls of the unbaptized infants trudge ruefully off to hell, though with this small consolation:

A crime it is, therefore in bliss
you may not hope to dwell;
But unto you I shall allow
the easiest room in Hell.
The glorious King thus answering,
they cease, and plead no longer:
Their consciences must needs confess
his reasons are the stronger. (Stz. 181)

There is some value in exposing students to a negative exemplum and to a worldview that is eccentric and unpalatable by modern standards, but it is still more important to show how an awkward style and logic that is somehow both obtuse and hair-splitting are the marks of a superficial mind failing to come to grips with a profoundly serious, if terrible, doctrine. The Day of Doom was incredibly popular in colonial New Eng­land, but I suspect that its appeal to seven­teenth-century youth was akin to the effect upon their modern counterparts of that se­ries of horror films featuring a dreadfully disfigured villain in desperate need of a manicure: Christ the Judge as Freddy Krueger.

There are, then, sound pedagogic reasons for teaching the poetry of Bradstreet and Wigglesworth in undergraduate literature courses, but the same ends could be attained with, say, the prose of William Bradford and Thomas Shepard. The exact composition of a syllabus often depends on what is in­cluded in the most conveniently available anthologies. But there are some writers who should be included in every American lit­erature anthology and on every syllabus. Consider the following poem, written some two centuries after The Day of Doom, and dedicated to the same theme of our eternal destiny:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and leisure too,
For His Civility

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun

Or rather—He passed Us
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground
The Roof was scarcely visible
The Cornice—in the Ground

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—12

This of course is Emily Dickinson, who turns the common meter hymn stanza, the same verse form that Michael Wigglesworth reduces to jog-trot doggerel, into as subtle a vehicle for poetry as Death’s elusive “Carriage.” While Bradstreet and Wigglesworth are important largely because of when and where they lived, Dickinson’s poetry mani­fests an intrinsic literary value; that is, she is both “soul of the age” and “for all time.” If Anne Bradstreet were a twentieth-century suburbanite rather than a colonial house­wife, her poems would be of interest only to her friends. If Michael Wigglesworth were alive today, he would probably be a tele­vangelist rather than a poet. It is difficult to imagine a civilization, however, in which “Because I could not stop for Death” would not find at least a few responsive readers. In derivative and unimaginative, though by no means contemptible verse, Bradstreet states respectable (I mean the term sincerely) commonplaces. From the commonplaces of her own rather diminished world, Dickin­son fashions a poetry that speaks to the essential human condition.

If we consider the two women as indi­viduals, the life of the pioneer woman, Anne Bradstreet, is certainly richer and more capable of sustaining interest than that of Emily Dickinson, who spent most of her life as a recluse in her father’s house in Amherst. To be sure, the conditions of Dickinson’s life generate a good deal of attention from femi­nists nowadays; but, whatever the merits of this perspective, the revival of interest in her poetry preceded the rise of academic femi­nism, and it will surely outlast it—even as Sappho’s poetry has survived 2,600 years of turmoil in literary and political fashion. While almost nothing is known about her life, there is still no doubt that Sappho merits authentic canonical status as a poet. By the same token, Emily Dickinson’s importance as a poet does not depend upon the circum­stances of her life as a repressed, frustrated spinster in a “patriarchal” society—with all the grist thereby generated for the “dark satanic mills” of ideology.

Or perhaps I should say that her biogra­phy is important insofar as there is a re­pressed, frustrated spinster in all of us. To put it another way, it is part of the human condition to feel dependent, even helpless, unfulfilled, and at the mercy of what seems a senseless, arbitrary fate. The situation of an unmarried woman of Emily Dickinson’s class in nineteenth-century New England can be taken as a special case of what is, ultimately, everyone’s situation. We can all respond to her poems because she enjoys a unique perspective on what is an element pervasive in human life, but not so evident to most of us. Consider the particular in­stance of “Because I could not stop for Death”—we are all going to die. In the face of this inevitability, we all experience fear, hope, and just plain curiosity. Dickinson’s poem draws upon a virgin’s apprehensive yet fascinated imaginations of the wedding night: death is the ineluctable suitor who will have every maidenhead. This trope, that can be traced to the poet’s own peculiar experience, converges with broadly public symbolism of Christian tradition: all of us, men and women alike, are intended as brides of Christ; before God we are all feminine. Yet before that consummation, devoutly to be wished, we must lie down in the marriage bed of the grave. The poem thus plays off the reassuring typology of the Bible against the individual’s immediate perplexity and terror in order to dramatize a universal human ambivalence toward death.

But the power of the poem is not limited to a brilliant initial conception. A judicious selection and careful placement of every word, of every syllable, effect a tone of deli­cate irony, of subtle equivocator. The gos­samer gown and tippet of tulle, cherished adornments of a diminutive, feminine world (and the sort of details that need explaining to undergraduates), enhance by contrast the stark, immense mystery of death. There is a delicious irony in the way the poem com­ments on its own not-quite-successful at­tempt to domesticate death: the tulle and gossamer prove inadequate for “The Dews drew quivering and chill.” Then there is the wry conceit that the grave is merely another “House,” only it is almost completely bur­ied: “The roof was scarcely visible—/The Cornice—in the Ground.” The startling ap­propriateness of “Cornice”—an architectural ornament that serves as a synecdoche for all the “useless” though precious details that enhance our lives—defies comment. It is matched by the use of “surmised” in the closing stanza:

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity

The poem as a whole is an evocation of all that is implied in this improbably perfect word surmised:we are not told but reminded by way of an elusive verbal structure, deli­cate as the gossamer gown, that all our notions of death and “Eternity” lie in the realm of surmise.

Distinct Models

There are various legitimate reasons for teaching a diversity of works in college class­rooms, but at the heart of our curriculum should be the canon—a list of classic works that embody in a universally significant manner the common experience of men and women and enable us, by studying them, to grow into the full humanity that we share with others. Almost all the reasons for reading poetry are summed up in Cicero’s Pro Archia Poeta, where the crafty lawyer promotes his old teacher’s claim to Roman citizenship with every argument he can think of. Some of his reasons are practical: as an adult Cicero finds relief and relaxation for his “weary ears” after “the noise of the fo­rum,”13 and as a boy it was literary study that taught him that praise and honor only were worthy of pursuing with great effort in the face of every difficulty and danger. So his friends owe his success in defending them to poetry.14 Some of his reasons border on vulgarity: Archias has celebrated Roman achievements in the past, and it is poetry that holds out the hope of future immortal­ity for those now living.15 But Cicero also perceives that poetry is valuable because of its intrinsic qualities. In a justly celebrated passage, he explains how literary education becomes a permanent part of the individ­ual’s inner life:

Other occupations are not suitable for all times and places and ages; but these studies nourish youth and delight old age; they furnish the ornaments of prosperity and refuge and sol­ace in adversity; they please at home without hindering us in public affairs; with us they pass long nights, lighten our journeys, and remain with us in the country.16

What the Greek and Latin writers have left us, Cicero explains, are “distinct models of gallant men, not only for contemplation, but even for imitation.”17 The key phrase here is “distinct models” (imagines . . .expres­sas);that is, models or figures or images finely crafted or shaped or squeezed out. If they are also for imitation, they are initially for contemplation; and indeed, that is how they are imitated, by assimilation into our souls—into our rational and imaginative being through study and contemplation. We teach such works because they help us to discern the order and purpose in human existence. It is a paradox of our nature that we must learn from others to be what we are, to attain an authentic individual freedom. The most valuable educational service we can offer our students, as they strive to find them­selves, is, in Matthew Arnold’s still acute phrase, “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”18


  1. “To the memory of my beloved, the AUTHOR, MAS­TER WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, AND what he hath left us,” in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), xiv.
  2. Pro Archia Poeta Oratio 1.2, Selections from Cicero, ed. Charles E. Bennett (1922; rpt. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1968, 93: “Etenim omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent, habent quoddam commune vinculum et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.”
  3. “Limelight: Reflections on a Public Year,” PMLA 104 (1989), 286, 287.
  4. Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960), 5.
  5. Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 152.
  6. “Anatomy of a Jar,” South Atlantic Quarterly 86 (1987), 395–401.
  7. “West of Everything,” South Atlantic Quarterly 86 (1987), 375, 376.
  8. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpre­tive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 368.
  9. P. 3. “Not a Good Idea: A New Curriculum at Syracuse” is a six-page, typed document by Steven Cohan et al., members of the English Department at that university, dated December, 1988. Page numbers of subsequent quotations appear parenthetically in the text.
  10. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus, eds., Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seven­teenth-Century English Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), xxi.
  11. Wigglesworth is quoted from Seventeenth-Century American Poetry, ed. Harrison T. Meserole (New York: New York University Press, 1968). This volume also includes selections from Anne Bradstreet’s poems.
  12. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1957), #712.
  13. VI.12: “Quia suppeditat nobis, ubi et animus ex hoc forensi strepitu reficiatur et aures convicio defessae conquiescant.”
  14. V1.14: “Nam, nisi multorum praeceptis multisque litteris mihi ab adulescentia suasissem nihil esse in vita magno opere expetendum nisi laudem atque hones­tatem, in ea autem persequenda omnes cruciatus corpo­ris, omnia pericula mortis atque exsili parvi esse ducenda, numquam me pro salute vestra in tot ac tantas dimicationes atque in hos profligatorum hominum cot­tidianos impetus objecissem.”
  15. IX–X passim.
  16. VII.16: “Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum; at haec studia adules­centiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res or­nant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delec­tant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.”
  17. VI.14: “Quam multas nobis imagines non solum ad intuendum, verum etiam ad imitandum fortissimorum virorum expressas scriptores et Graeci et Latini rel­iquerunt!”
  18. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 257.

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