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The neo-canonicity of F. R. Leavis

My first ingestion of F. R. Leavis’s 1953 essay “The ‘Great Books’ and a Liberal Education” resulted in the British critic’s own volume being thrown across the room. What was this defense of an overtly un-democratic model of the university, and of the study of literature—and why did something about it appeal? National rhetoric about higher education has undoubtedly descended from a dichotomous but distinctly American belief in both “meritocracy” and “equality of ability” (I refrain from saying “equality of worth”; that farce is clear): the divergent impulses to sift the magnificent from the average and to emphasize a capacity for self-improvement possessed by everyone. In as much as this belief in opportunity is still viable, it presupposes individuals who can use it to their benefit—people who can improve themselves—and therefore some sense of equality, or at least equal availability. What classes people, in this utopian model, is their commitment to work. There is a myth (meant here to mean a narrative that sometimes coincides with reality though it has no basis in it) of work and attainment just as there is a myth of justice about who attains what. In this conception of society, pragmatism is anathema to the university’s protection of knowledge, whether idealized for its own sake or for the lofty but endangered undertaking of bettering human consciousness.

The corporatization of the university, founded on an extremist strain of pragmatism, is spoken about so much—at least in Berkeley, the only school I can describe with some certainty—that discussion about the corporatization of its culture, and of the culture in general, leading up to the university often gets left out. But the fact is that one in five United States undergraduates is studying business: the university, the haven for value unable to be translated into financial terms, is becoming a vocational school, a training facility. Educational experiences are spoken about in terms of the careers that follow them; increasingly, funding for the arts and humanities is being cut, whole departments eliminated. I cite these generalities not to lament them—there are others who have done so far more exactingly—but to sketch the backdrop against which Leavis’s attack on what he calls the “Great Books” program, which was first published in Commentary, appears at first skim both dangerous and ludicrous. In light of the university’s subjugation to standards of economic worth, which neither need nor care for notions of democracy, the assertion that “only a minority is capable of advanced intellectual culture” seems revoltingly aristocratic. (And, sadly, more tenable to many.)

But I don’t want to misrepresent Leavis, whose vivisection of Robert M. Hutchins and The Great Conversation is induced by an urge to preserve, as he sees it, the university as a guardian of standards. It is Hutchins who, unlike Leavis, defends the idea that a species-wide dialectic has been ongoing ever since humans were able to scratch lines into stone. And not only this—but the idea that such a dialectic, once curated (and therein lies one of its major problems, which I’ll talk about further on), bears universal meaning and universal implications that merit its dissemination in the context of the university. To Leavis, the second idea is especially ridiculous and disastrous: “I find it hard to decide which aspect of the whole extravagant and enormous unreality is the more astonishing; the idea that liberal education is, or should be, or ever has been, this…” he writes, “or the fanatical illusion that one may hopefully set out to prove that this, or anything like it, could be made, by dint of example and leadership and exhortation, the people’s way of using leisure (or life)—or a common way—in America or any country.” Leavis believes in such a conversation, but maybe not a “great” one; he doesn’t believe it can be reduced to a set of works whose importance is indisputable for all times and places.

Leavis’s approach is relentlessly pragmatic. He has no interest in pursuing the Great Books program, and makes it clear that he has not, in any case, read most of the texts Hutchins prescribes (though not without loudly doubting that Hutchins has read them, either). He has no reverence for, or reliance on, its omnipresent worth. He flippantly dismisses the program with the claim that there is neither time nor real need to pursue its course of study; this seems, at first glance, an antagonistically un-intellectual—to use the present histrionic term—claim. But it is motivated by two convictions: by a penchant for hierarchy (one that can’t but taste bad in the mouths of those who, like myself, have seen the underside of its effects), and secondly by a belief that specialization is both the preferred mode of scholarship and one that has become irrevocably entrenched in higher education. He knows the university must specialize and limit its gaze, but thinks there is no catholic methodology for this. His argument returns, inevitably, to feasibility: he writes that “it is plain beyond question that the promoters of the scheme not only have no notion of the limitations of the ordinary man,” but also that “they have no notion… of that kind of training of the powers of thought which must be central to any real education.” And real education, Leavis assures, means the ability to discern and to create. To discern in the sense of knowing what parts of the canon one can leave behind, and to create as an act of original—not regurgitative—thought. The completion of the Great Books program only offers its student the sort of “happy confidence among large ideas” that is emblematic of dead histories, not those mid-founding: a passive and literally uncreative intellectual existence.

What is necessary, then, is a sort of academic class warfare: combat with the canon, an interrogation of it that involves chair in a concrete room with a single bulb. The Great Books program emphasizes not just complicity with, but glorification of, “the” canon—the most presumptive canon of all, that of human literary history in its entirety. But it fails to take into account the idiosyncratic and irreducible natures of human experiences that do not dovetail neatly into its narrative. Here, Leavis’s point isn’t lost: what poses as the most democratic conception of human heritage is potentially the least democratic model of them all. Leavis wants to go so far as to say that a unified democratic heritage is strictly not possible, nor should it be sought after, as seeking it will crush the “living tradition” that brings forth new, creative works. It is depth that matters, not breadth; not an understanding of “literature” that matters but of many literatures, the investigation of separate components paramount to his criticism. The whole to which a book titled The Great Conversation (or the Syntopicon, which Leavis cites as a would-be “authoritative” resource for those looking to pursue the Great Books) pretends is ruinous illusion. To wit, Hutchins in his introduction makes a point of de-emphasizing national literatures. Like Leavis, though, I find this disavowal of responsibility for thoughtful representation unconvincing; national literatures exist, and avoiding knowledge of them solves nothing.

F. R. Leavis

The nature of the Great Books program, then, is to seize between the un-democratic impulse to curate “greatness” for mass consumption and the democratic belief that it should be offered to all. Leavis disagrees with Hutchins on both of these counts. And though the latter author insists fiercely that the democratization of education’s availability is a good thing, its incompatibility with his pedagogy is made clear in excerpts that explain (or apologize for) the logic of the canon’s selection:

We thought it not part of our duty to emphasize national contributions, even those of our own country. I omitted Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and Mark Twain, all very great writers, because I felt that, important as they were, they did not measure up to the other books in the set. They carried forward the Great Conversation, but not in such a way as to be indispensable to the comprehension of it.

My own reaction parrots that of Leavis: “Heaven save us from any large supply of the kind of ‘comprehension’ threatened here!” He goes on to defend Twain as an American master, and Huckleberry Finn as a proof of the complexity and, indeed, impossibility of “universal” ethics or aims. He is not interested in reductiveness, or reductive compatibility—but at the same time he supports the existence of an academic elite, one constructed by an extensive filtration system that excludes many who might have succeeded given the chance. Leavis would disagree with me, would say that they would have never effectively “made it” anyway, but the more damning argument here is to be found in the distribution of financial resources by a rubric of education. In “‘Believing in’ the University,” he acknowledges, at the behest of D. H. Lawrence, money as the foremost motivator in Western society, and seems to be displeased about this; but at the same time he has no hope for, and is actually opposed to, any meaningful destruction of the status quos that help enforce this model. Hardly anyone, he says, can pursue the Great Books program; let the rest of them labor, a la Aristotle’s “natural slavery”; let those who can, perhaps not even by their own right or work, enjoy the leisure and political power of economic and education supremacy. His guttural admonitions against a curriculum of Great Books give way to obsequiousness at points. “I am not of course being foolish enough to question the importance of greatness of Aristotle,” he concedes, after writing that the student supposing that the Poetics offers more than historical context to the study of Hellenistic tragedy has not achieved a real education. Leavis is doubtful of pseudo-democratic elitism, so he offers his own up instead, that of the purpose of an age: fleeting “specific contemporary needs and conditions.” His is not the canonicity of the Great Books promoters but the neo-canoncity of pragmatism, of an outlook that might call itself brute “realism,” which appropriates knowledge ad-hoc and with no real commitment to a community ethics.

What does this constant smelting and re-forging of the canon mean for the university? Leavis resists an envisioning of the university as the placeholder for some gestalt of human tradition, of the so-called “Great Conversation”; it is not a university, where the Latin roots of the word spring up and snarl things together to mean, as they did, “the whole”: universitas. This word is related to universus, a combination of the prefix for “one” and the suffix for “turned”; the university is a unitized version of the schisms and facets of society. This is mirrored in late Latin, when, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, universitas came to mean “society,” or “guild.” And what else is the modern university but a guild, a consolidation of power that implicitly promises, by the pomp, circumstance, and regalia of its self-regard, power for those who enter and exit through it? A museum of divisions works to cultivate specialization; it fails when we ask it to stitch itself into one project. Such a project, Leavis argues, would never cohere—nor should it when the consequence of such coherence is a lowering of standards, which itself bears truly universal implications. “It is a commonplace now that the pursuit of the ‘democratic’ ideal has led to a disastrous los of standards.” The classical sheen of “university” gets traded for the two-part di-, or the three-part tri-. The fragments of hierarchy’s pluralism are what higher education brings into proximity, but it does not fuse them. “Diversity” as di-vision, not community as in the communal.

In a period of vast income disparity, of budget cuts that strip institutions of public education down to their skeletons, Leavis’s aggressive endorsement of a productive unavailability of educational resources might well seem unacceptable. But it should be kept in mind that Leavis, despite his embodiment of so much which he professes to contend with, holds creative work—of which criticism is a form—above all. Creative work, he argues, is not the willingly subverted “appreciation” of a canon. The most rigorous application of the mind to literature, he argues, “is one in which intelligence is not distinguishable from sensibility”—one, in other words, in which value judgments are made. In 1948, in a book titled The Great Tradition (reviewed positively by Orwell; no small amount of irony there), Leavis defines great texts as those that exhibit “a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity.” This is why the un-democratic act of creation, the retreat and immersion into the self  (even if temporarily, in the case of art made in the eventual service of public aims), is so foundational, so exalted. This is where the “living tradition” is to be found, in a striated society where an intellectual elite is responsible for intellectual work, but maintains a symbiotic relationship with the populace. The didactic Great Books program, on the other hand, arises from the “monstrous unreality” of intellectual thought that ferments “in a kind of academic other-world”: a world of ideals, one of which is the social ideal of public education, which assumes its superiority but is lazy when called upon to examine its own tenets. In Professing Literature: An Institutional History, Gerald Graff writes of what followed the study of literature as a largely philological enterprise in the 1800s; his estimation of the academic scene is not far from Leavis’s perception of its polarity. “Scholar and critic emerge as antithetical terms,” he notes: “the gulf further widens between fact and value, investigation and appreciation, scientific specialization and general culture.”

Paul Dean, in his 1998 introduction to The Critic as Anti-Philosopher, a collection of Leavis’s essays and papers, writes that the critic’s elitism “is bound to seem scandalous to modern university democrats,” especially now that the democratization he decried has become widespread. This is true. Anti-democratic in the service of knowledge in the service of need, Leavis is less concerned with people, with students, and with social mobility. And he doubts that the advocates of the Great Books program really believe in such a far-sweeping mobility themselves. Instead of propagating populism, the university’s foremost goal, he argues, should be to guarantee that “the living seed” of intellectual pursuit—creative, in the sense of moving forward—finds fertile soil; he thinks the garden better tended to by fewer hands than more. In Leavis, the present situation of higher education, and the debate about the valuation of wisdom—whether it’s in the service of practicality, or innately of use—finds a telling correlation. The ground is shrinking, the seeds quickly being eaten, the necessity of change more present, perhaps, than ever. The fate of Leavis and his ideas is to tread water, it seems, while the elitist and egalitarian factions of today march further apart.