Mar 1Liked by Micah Mattix

I grew up a precocious reader who enjoyed scouring the family bookshelf for novels from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and along the way to appreciate so many of the introductions to those works by scholars (mostly New Critics) who discussed the texts as works of literature and culture with erudition and critical expertise.

Naturally, as I grew older, my love of this discourse made me want to study English in college. Although I had many good teachers, it was disappointing to see that so much of what had become fashionable in scholarship was so rooted in hard left ideology that if one wasn’t already on the team, so to speak, or dared to be critical of fashionable ideological assumptions, one was considered anti-intellectual.

Since then, it has only gotten worse, so I can see why so many bright young people who aren’t already leftists, or just don’t want to tangle with identity politics, reason they can nurture a love of letters on their own time without all of the pettiness.

After all, this is why we have the internet and Amazon.

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On the decline of the humanities: "He waited for the black, terrible anger as though for some beast out of the night. But it did not come to him. His bowels seemed weighted with lead, and he walked slowly and lingered against fences and the cold, wet walls of buildings by the way. Descent into the depths until at last there was no further chasm below. He touched the solid bottom of despair and there took ease." (Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter)

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The changing ethnic make-up of the country, not least among college students in the U.S., plays an important role, one that is closely related to other causes identified both by Micah Mattix (the abandonment of fostering traditional national and regional cultures) and in the New Yorker article.

To be sure, non-European immigration need not spell the decline of Western/European/American cultural heritage: the survival of classical music in this country certainly owes a lot to East Asian immigrants. (Does there exist a good book or article on that topic?)

And white people, of course, have shown themselves quite capable of overseeing the slow decline -- and active destruction -- of their cultural inheritance without any help from "people of color."

Still, the organic, sometimes mysterious connections between a community and its heritage are strained and severed with an influx of peoples from different parts of the world. A well-known turn of phrase that one discovers to be from Shakespeare or the King James Bible: What is that to a Guatemalan? Do Protestant hymns, Christmas carols, and Negro spirituals resonate with my Pakistani colleagues and their children? Do immigrants from China and the Philippines bring memories of Mother Goose with them?

To Mattix's point, a program of acculturation could -- possibly -- overcome these natural barriers. There was some success with that in the early 20th century with immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. But the barriers now are higher, even if the self-confidence and will to acculturate were present.

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Attending English grad school back in the 90s, I thought that it was in the grip of an ivory tower fantasy — undermining its own canon in the name of leaving no sexist or racist stone unturned — that had no hope of influencing the real world outside. Boy, was I wrong.

They did their best to drain all joy out of studying literature, replacing formal and literary pursuits with political ones. But Derrida and Kristeva and the litany of ersatz philosophers succeeded too well in their project. Now, society as a whole has become a not-half-as-clever-as-we-think-we-are grad student, endlessly pointing out the racist/sexist/etc. failings of everything under the sun, real or (far more likely) imagined. The leftist theorists' victory is so complete that they've rendered themselves irrelevant.

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I read the Heller piece with interest but think he’s missing something important: In the last couple years, humanities have actually been making a comeback: https://millersbookreview.substack.com/p/humanities-are-not-dead My guess is the growing specialization in humanities ends up creating some interesting interdisciplinary connections with STEM majors in the coming years.

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