Wall of Separation?

I have recently read of an incident at the University of Nebraska, featuring a young lady giving out leaflets for a conservative group, and a graduate student and English instructor, a self-described “queer” woman of color in her forties, who confronted the student, shouted at her, called her a racist, humiliated her in public, and, well, made her cry. The ghastly little interlude has the university scrambling to control the damage, because the generally conservative farmers and businessmen who make up the unicameral Nebraska assembly are not amused, and they hold the university by the purse.

Some members of the assembly, wishing to hold down state spending, want the university to eliminate what they consider to be worthless programs in queer theory, gender studies, women’s studies, black studies, and so forth. The offensive instructor fairly boasts that that is all she really does in her English courses: challenging the patriarchy and all that. It is no wonder that men who look to the bottom line, or who suspect that the humanities at our colleges are mere excuses for a quasi-religious evangelism on behalf of what is without a trace of irony or humor called “social justice,” believe that something like an English major is an expensive waste of time. Why should they not believe it? The professors themselves believe it.

They do not put it that way, of course. They too have houses and would like to heat them. They too have bellies and would like to fill them. But it is true nonetheless. If you want to find people who believe that the study of the poetry of Lord Tennyson, in its own right, adopting as far as you can the thoughts and feelings of the poet himself, not subjecting them to any political agenda of yours, is either pointless or an affront to justice, do not go to the chemistry department. You might find there a gray-haired fellow who can repeat a couple of lines of In Memoriam, fondly recalled from days of very old, who would simply assume that despite the sporadic insanity of some, an English department is actually about the study of English literature for its own sake. Such is the naivete of the scientist. No, if you want to step on a hornet’s nest of people who hate English literature, you go to the English department itself.

I do not know whether those in Nebraska who want to squeeze the juice out of an English department’s budget are crass utilitarians who never learned what the humanities and the liberal arts are for. I do know that such crass utilitarians are first cousins with the crass politicians; the first sort worship Mammon, and the second sort worship Moloch. We can put them together, thus: we fund those departments in the humanities that are efficient at producing young warriors for a secular and all-comprehending state, savage in their contempt for religious faith, the natural family, the health and innocence of children, and the traditions of a people. That such action serves to worsen the condition of the poor by making their families all the more fragile and brittle, if they have managed to establish families to begin with, the warriors never trouble to ask. Cui bono is the question. There’s many a fat crusader for the abstract poor who will not stop to ask it – to ask why a professor of Generic Leftist Studies should make double the salary of the back-strained middle-aged construction worker who builds the building where the professor works. Nor do they ask why it is just to tax people to fund quasi-religious indoctrination that is aimed against half of the people paying up. Nor why it is just, in effect, to tax young men going to college to fund a program that is aimed at them as a howitzer is aimed at the enemy – a Women’s Studies program defined not by the object to be studied, women, but by political desiderata.

English literature is dying because English professors have slain it.

The odd thing is that if you do want to study English literature, you are far more likely to get the chance at specifically religious colleges, and the more clearly and confidently religious the college is, the more likely it will be that its professors treat the humanities and the liberal arts with the reverence they deserve. I have seen it in person, at Patrick Henry College (evangelical), the University of Dallas (Catholic), Christendom College (Catholic), Biola University (protestant), and thirty or forty other similar places. I am living it out at Thomas More College, here in New Hampshire.

There are two reasons for that, and they are not hard to find. I might say that the reasons are both sabbatical: if you show up at a Christian service on a Sunday, you may just come to understand that nothing, no matter how noble, can take the place of the worship of God. You need not wrest poetry into the service of Mammon or Moloch, because in fact you are not worshiping Mammon or Moloch. You have far better things to do than that. You have your praise and supplication of the true God, and you have excellent poetry to read and to enjoy. The first, your praise of God, clears space for the second, your letting poetry be what it is, and not political warfare in free verse. That means that poetry itself will enjoy the sabbatical: it is not work so much as leisure, not foot-soldiering in the battle for some abstract and often incoherent or inhumane notion of justice, but allowing yourself to be raised up in the truths that better minds than your own have been given to see.

The crowning irony of it all is that while politics is a realm of envy, ambition, and hatred, so that trying to bring peace by political action is like trying to quench thirst with salt, poetry – the study of arts and letters generally – actually can sometimes bring people together, by their common love for a thing of beauty that makes their political differences seem petty and provincial and evanescent. Singing is what the lover does, says Augustine, and we might invert the proverb and say that if you are not singing, you are probably not much in love; for chanting angry slogans is what the politician does, ever dividing, until there is hardly anything left to fight over. Let professors of English who see their departments shriveling be advised.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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