Literary Criticism and The New Idea of a University
My title suggests a rather larger sweep than the following reflections can deliver. I do have a few comments on selected parts of The New Idea of a University, and since I can scarcely do justice to the many virtues of the book, I will say at the outset how grateful I am for it, especially for the invigorating blast of fresh air it brings to the whole topic of university education. We are all, I think, indebted to Mr. Maskell and Mr. Robinson for the resilient commonsense they bring to their topic. Their book holds up the hope that it is still possible to make sense of the subject. As for “Literary Criticism,” what I have to say focuses on only a small corner of it, and much of that corner is personal in nature. I dedicate my modest contribution to the memory of Christopher Drummond, who died last March but who, while he was alive, was for me the very embodiment of the idea of the university. I hope by the end of these few remarks to have given you some idea of why that was so.
Idea of a University was scarcely more than a rumour in the small town in
years later when, as an editor of The Compass (published out of the
University of Alberta), I received in the mail a piece I regard as our best
essay ever, I had learned enough to know that George Grant’s title, “Faith and
the Multiversity,” contained elements as un-mixable as oil and water. Whatever
the modern university was, it certainly wasn’t unified, and whatever might be
holding some parts of the multiversity together, it certainly wasn’t faith. But
somehow Grant’s sombre meditation on an aphorism by Simone Weil (“Faith is the
experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love”) re-awakened the
ancient idea of a university. The experience, for me, was similar to reading
his Lament for a Nation, which re-kindled an idea of
I also share the view that one of the most important means we have for making sense is literary criticism, and The New Idea of a University is remarkable for the liveliness and accuracy of much of its criticism. My whole acquaintance with the Dearing Report on British education is limited to the glimpses provided herein, but The New Idea’s diagnosis of its flabby way with metaphor seems to me spot-on, as well as wonderfully funny: “quality of life [except as something immeasurable]; quality assurance [of anything that can’t be audited]; mission [but not of anything spiritual]; vision [ditto]; management [of anything but a business]; franchise [ditto]; partners [likewise]; customers [except of shops]; clients [except of solicitors and suchlike]; delivery [of anything but milk, coal or the post]; provision [but not of provisions]; investment [but not in the stock market]; leading edge [except of airplane wings]; professional [except to mean ‘paid’]” (66). I had better stop at that point even though I am only half way through the list, and there is a strong temptation to keep going. As a lover of the plain style, I take special delight in the way Maskell and Robinson hold their politicians and bureaucrats to the standards of the literal meanings of the language. This seems to me one of the first obligations of literary criticism: to see to it that the language in which education is discussed is kept in touch with what is literally commonsense.
Similarly accurate and funny is The New Idea’s exploration of the claim that “education is an investment.” “What is the rate of return,” the authors ask in Chapter 1, “and who gets it?” It’s very amusing to follow their tracking of the attempts by economists to provide solid, quantifiable answers based on so much fluid, unquantifiable, or dubiously-quantified data. The net result of this tracking is that one is highly sympathetic to the sensible view, expressed in the conclusion of the book, that “Education is, like the armed forces and pensions, a legitimate public cost, not an investment,” though there can be “sensible financial limits to that cost” (184). The more immediate consequence, however, for the way in which public discussion assumes the reasonableness of treating education as an investment is that the new university, as the authors show in Chapter 5, is increasingly regarded as providing a “training in skills.”
If the challenge is made to show the return on the investment in universities, the academics will give a simple and complete answer. What have we to show for all this money spent? Answer: ‘skills’.
If you are a public figure and want to be taken seriously on the subject of education, you call it skills. You won’t be taken seriously if you don’t. It’s a word that in itself obliterates the snobbish old distinction between education and training; and it makes education straightforward and definite, at one and the same time something you can ‘do something about’ and something worth the doing because it will increase the GDP. (74)
The New Idea, of course, is diagnosing the progress of the discussion (or perhaps I should say its degeneration) in the context of British education, but the diagnosis also fits Canadian institutions remarkably well.
I choose my example from a public statement by Dr. Harvey Weingarten, the new president of the University of Calgary, published in the Calgary Herald on August 18, 2001, under the title “Creative Thinking Unlocks Door to Success”: “Every survey I know of,” says Dr. Weingarten, “reveals the dominant … reason students select a university education is the desire for a good job. And, every economic analysis I know of indicates these students are right in their decision. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, a bachelor’s degree is often the entry requirement for rewarding jobs and those most vital to the future of our nation” (OS7). I confess that I don’t know if the most vital and the most rewarding are two distinct categories or one and the same. Weingarten, as a new president, may be more unguarded than most, but he shares a common language with many of his colleagues across the nation. My own president at Dalhousie University, Dr. Tom Traves, for example, is also extremely fond of the phrase a “knowledge-based economy,” the realities of which are to hold us all to account. Weingarten is also not alone in reaching for statistics from the Conference Board of Canada to support his view of universities with evidence from a higher authority, or—higher still—a “recent statement by CEO’s of 28 of Canada’s leading technology corporations”:
They stated: “To prosper we need creative thinkers … who are comfortable dealing with decisions in the bigger context. They must be able to communicate—to reason, create, write, and speak.” These leaders, immersed in the realities of technologies, argued forcefully for the centrality of a liberal arts and sciences education in the development of these skills. (OS7)
As in the situation anatomized by Robinson and Maskell, the trump card here is “skills,” and one has the uncomfortable feeling that “realities of technologies” are the only realities that really count.
Weingarten does make an attempt to turn from the benefit the world economy may expect to receive from an education so conceived to the benefit of the individual so educated: “the education acquired in a good research university prepares individuals equally well for the many difficult choices and decisions a responsible citizen is required to make.” This does sound promising, if the responsible citizen may be thought to have responsibilities that extend even beyond the getting of a good job and the unlocking of the door to success, but the list of questions that follows and that illuminates the kinds of decisions that are looming, is an extremely odd list:
Is it safe to eat genetically modified foods? How should Canada’s medicare system be changed to provide appropriate, but affordable, universal health coverage? Which treatment option should I choose if I am diagnosed with cancer? Is globalization good or bad? Which type of cellular telephone is best? Do I really have to lose weight, and if so, what is the best method of weight loss for me? (OS7)
My first response to this is if the question of weight loss really is the climactic question facing university graduates, then we are faced with the loss of something more than weight. The questions are all worth asking, of course, but is this really what a university education is for? My parents, who don’t have the benefit of such education, seem to me to have a pretty good handle on most of these questions, and if they don’t, I can’t see that my siblings and I, who have, are any better placed to deal with them. One of the main oddities is that the questions are all technical or posed in such a way as to suggest that a technical or technological solution is the natural solution to look for. The one question that clearly isn’t of this kind—“Is globalization good or bad?”—is wedged in between the matter of the appropriate cancer treatment and the best type of cell phone, so that it looks like it, too, is best approached as a technological matter.
What this question raises, however, is the question of the good. What is good for the world? What is good for the nations or countries or the people who live in them? What is good for individuals themselves or for their relations with each other? And the question of the good, which seems hardly to get a hearing in the president’s ‘mission statement’, is what The New Idea of a University raises with special force and point by invoking the example of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is one of the special delights that Robinson and Maskell treat us to that they can invoke one of the world’s best, most popular, and best loved novels, and assert that it—rather than the new idea (of the economists) or even the old idea (of Cardinal Newman)—gives the truest picture of a liberal education. What’s more, especially in their analysis of the ways that Elizabeth and Darcy respond to each other, the way they study and re-study their most passionate utterances (in speech and by letter), they make the claim stick.
Elizabeth and Darcy are both seeking the good, though that isn’t one of their phrases. It is, in one necessary way of putting it, the morality in Elizabeth that involves her in concentrated reflection and the organization of her natural gifts…. Education, the education they administer to one another, is necessary to the kind of good Elizabeth and Darcy achieve. Let us bear in mind [too] that Darcy’s education is a by-product of his love. Without love education will not get far. (172)
I like everything here except the bit about “by-product,” which doesn’t quite capture the intimacy of education and love, and which seems to overlook the fact that Elizabeth’s is also—and as much as Darcy’s—an education-in-love. Still, the paragraph is pretty much on target, and it points out one of the central conditions of a liberal education: “the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love.” And the expansiveness of such education is evident in the way Elizabeth and Darcy are not only seeking the good in each other. One could not say of them what J. V. Cunningham says of Tristan and Isolt: “Tranced in each other’s beauties./ They had no other duties.” Elizabeth and Darcy also seek the good of the community, the good of their kin, their neighbours and acquaintances, even as they recognize ever more clearly their faults and shortcomings. Their love is proven by the way it opens them up to the good in and for others. And it is only with such models and moved with similar incentive that we could ever expect to make any headway with such a question as “Is globalization good or bad?”
Given the excellence of their literary criticism on this aspect of the novel and on its relevance to thinking about liberal education, it is doubly curious that Maskell and Robinson go as wrong as they do when they offer up what they regard as a model for a university seminar. At this point, I’m going to quote two paragraphs from a PhD thesis on “Jane Austen and the Virtues” (Dalhousie University, 2002).
[In The New Idea of a University], Maskell and Robinson suggest that Pride and Prejudice provides a framework by which we can understand what education should be. But they point to Mr. Bennet’s breakfast seminar on the textual analysis of Mr. Collins’s letter as the ideal model, with a learned man offering to young students a piece of writing for discussion. Mrs. Bennet’s response focuses more on her projections for the future than on the matter at hand, while two of his other listeners, preoccupied with other things, decline to comment. Each of the other three offers her opinion of the text, with one determined to like it, one commenting pedantically on style, and one arriving at something resembling the seminar leader’s own opinion, thereby at once demonstrating her critical capacities and pleasing her teacher. The idea of the seminar discussion represented here is a useful comment on education, but it is not the best model for it.
For one thing, Maskell and Robinson give Mr. Bennet too much credit for wisdom. They write that “As Mr. Bennet, without aiming to, just in the ordinary course of domestic life, educates his daughter Elizabeth, so Elizabeth re-educates the formally educated Darcy, and is educated by him” (45). In the ordinary course of domestic life, Mr. Bennet is usually in his library, ignoring the education of all his daughters, including Elizabeth. And in the breakfast seminar scene, he gives no guidance, no instruction, to his students: he simply offers them a text to think about and then prepares to enjoy laughing at their responses to it. That Elizabeth responds intelligently owes nothing to the powers of the seminar leader (except in this case, perhaps genetic inheritance), and everything to her own judgement. (180)
I quote these paragraphs because I think they are fundamentally right, but I would be remiss not to confess, as well, that the writer of this thesis is also my daughter. The paragraphs, then, are a double-edged sword, since I know perfectly well that my own breakfast table seldom provided opportunities even as flawed as Mr. Bennet’s for the education of daughters. I should add, too, that the thesis also argues that Maskell and Robinson get a great deal right in their commentary on Elizabeth and Darcy.
Still, it is curious that they should get this wrong, and I find myself asking why they do so. Why do they assert, late in the book, that, “Elizabeth’s groping for a judgment of Mr. Collins in response to her father’s invitation to judge his letter is, to our minds, a perfect example of what education is”? (170) Perfect? Surely not. Maskell and Robinson, when they are not in the grips of their thesis about him, are too good at literary criticism not to get Mr. Bennet’s character right: “Mr. Bennet’s wit,” they say, “has too much in common with the way he shuts himself up in his library and fails to provide for his family after his death. Being witty at his wife’s and daughters’ expense may be necessary for his mental health, but at the same time the wit is one of the forms his irresponsibility takes” (60). Elsewhere they argue, again rightly, that education depends crucially on personal influence: “If the education is genuine this influence is not of the form ‘You must do it this way because I in authority say so’ but because the lecturer’s authority, that of the whole man or the whole woman, is shown in a mode of judgment the student can recognize as genuine, even when the recognition takes the form of dissent” (34). This, I think, is absolutely right—and it’s well said. But Mr. Bennet is not a whole man; a part of him is absent, and it’s absent at the breakfast table every bit as much as when he shuts himself in the library. Why would anyone hold this man up as the perfect seminar leader?
The answer lies, I think, in a kind a prejudice that Robinson and Maskell have about “formal education,” or at least as regards certain aspects of it. The prejudice shows up in their attitude towards “courses,” for example. I realize that practices in the UK and in North America are very different in this respect, but I still think “prejudice” is not too strong a word. One of their appendices, “An Anecdote of Institutional Life,” records the progress of a kind of institutional review:
We began, when we drew up courses, to ask ourselves, or the first time, what our courses looked like from the students’ point of view. Were they adjusted to the students’ interests and abilities? Would they be accessible and manageable? Was it possible for the students we got (no different from the ones we had got before) to get upper seconds in them? The other key principle we adopted for course design was that no course was to be too strongly marked by the particular interests and opinions of the person designing and teaching it. It ought to be such that any fellow professional could take it over if need be. This principle was well summed up by one of us as, ‘Courses aren’t like books.’ (179)
Several of the objections implied here are perfectly valid. Courses are like books, or should be, and they should be strongly marked by the interests and opinions of the designer or the writer. Furthermore, the practice of grade inflation, or of designing courses so easy that everybody gets top marks, is corrupt and should be opposed. But the admirable resistance to bad ideas about courses tends to blur into a general hostility to courses, period, and to the quite valid questions about what they might look like from the point of view of students. My favourite statement of the principle involved here comes from Ben Jonson when he is giving advice, possibly to the Earl of Newcastle, about the education of his children: “a master should temper his own powers and descend to the other’s infirmity.... And as it is fit to read the best authors to youth first, so let them be of the openest, and clearest. As Livy before Sallust, Sidney before Donne.” The letter from Mr. Collins is nowhere near so complex as the poetry of John Donne, but neither is it the clearest sort of prose. Mr. Bennet would be a better seminar leader if he thought harder about his own responsibility in the matter of the interests and abilities of Kitty and Lydia.
The New Idea also has a prejudice against explicit statements of educational aims, an understandable prejudice given how flaccid and feeble many such statements are, but a prejudice nonetheless. They are rather quick to assume that “the effort to state an academic aim becomes a self-contradiction. If the aims could be clearly stated, the course would already have finished. ‘What do you say in your new book?’ I once heard one academic ask another after a meeting of the Arts Faculty. ‘You will have to read it’ was the inevitable reply” (93). To me, this reply is anything but inevitable; it may be impatient, and the impatience could conceivably be justified; it may be just rude. But if my daughter, pondering whether to borrow my copy of The English Prophets, asks “What does Mr. Robinson say in his new book?” I should reply: “He aims to identify those literary critics who have been most intelligent about English letters and who, by connecting that interest with a broad concern for the spiritual health of the nation, deserve to be called prophets, by analogy with the biblical prophets, even though some of them are not always coherent or clear-minded about the theological underpinnings of their work. He further aims, in the light of the true, to expose those false prophets who are betraying the role of what Coleridge calls ‘the clerisy’. The book includes a good deal of commentary on several nineteenth-century figures, about whom you already know more than I; you will have to read it; it’s a very important book.” I would say this with all the authority I could muster as a father and as a once-only reader of the book—that is, with as much wholeness as is presently given to me. I would not expect my statement of aims to go unchallenged, but it would be irresponsible not to give what guidance I can. If Mr. Bennet were to have articulated his own aims, either to himself or to his family or both, he would have had a better chance of seeing how self-centred and self-indulgent they are. As Christopher Drummond once said, memorably, to a junior colleague who, like Jane Bennet, thought “that young minds need most to be reassured that any critical interpretation is as good as any other”: “Don’t you think you should tell your students what you believe?”
Maskell and Robinson are right to insist on the importance of personal influence in a liberal education, but they are wrong not to see that, in a university setting, this needs the structure of something like, or closely related to, the structure of coursework. (At this point, though I have no time to go into the matter, I want to record that in Robinson’s exchange with Leavis on “Believing” in the University, and in his reprise in Prophets, I side with Leavis.) “It isn’t courses that educate,” they say, “it’s persons” (34). But for anyone trying to understand the idea of the university, this dichotomy is too neat. At its extreme, it becomes the claim, which The New Idea quotes with approval, that, “seminars aspire to reproduce the talk in the pub the night before” (34). Well, there may be some huge cultural differences between England and Canada on this score, but unless the presiding genius was a Johnson (a Ben or a Dr. Samuel), I would never advise my students to count on pub-talk. Believe me, my parents knew what they were doing when they drove me the 300 miles to Edmonton rather than abandon me to the mercy of the Southern Alberta pub or to the whimsicalities of the breakfast table.
In Edmonton, I eventually met Christopher Drummond. Or rather, I heard about him (in the pub, as it happens). My wife was the one who first began taking his courses, on Renaissance Poetry and then a graduate seminar on Leavis and Winters. Those of us who were outside the course knew beyond question that something exciting and important was happening inside—knew also that these courses were emphatically his courses. We knew it in part because when the seminar ended (usually about an hour and a half after it was supposed to end) and we all adjourned to the pub, the pub conversations, usually desultory and bored, invariably became animated and intense. The life in the pub took its bearings from the life in the course, not the other way round. And once I started taking the courses, I saw that even more exciting was the way that the big talkers and know-it-alls who tend to dominate pub-talk were repeatedly called to account, forced to stay on topic, challenged (as we all were) to sort out sense from nonsense, and not infrequently faced with the humbling experience that our own perceptions were dim by the light of the genius that was in the English Literature that was our focus.
I would be remiss, however, simply to end on this note on Drummond and the ‘discipline’ of literary criticism. I will conclude by borrowing two paragraphs from Gordon Harvey, another of Drummond’s students, who was also supposed to attend this symposium today, but who will now have to content himself with getting what is nearly the last word in my piece.
But most of all, what Christopher said was fun. He made the intellectual life fun, and he (more than any teacher I’ve encountered anywhere) was obviously having fun living it. Later on I was amazed to realize that Christopher had a reputation in the English Department for severity and negativity. This taught me something about the fear of intelligence and (especially) of literary criticism, even among well-meaning people. For only people made deaf by some great insecurity could entertain such a view of a man whose most characteristic gesture in conversation [was], after all, that great whooping [guffaw] of delight, and whose most characteristic phrase [was] “It’s just wonderful!”
Like Mr. Bennet, Mr. Drummond derived enormous amusement from contemplating the absurdities of life; but unlike Mr. Bennet, Mr. Drummond found it an even more profound pleasure when people made sense. Gordon Harvey continues:
And finally, there was … a compelling quality about Christopher that’s harder to define, but which I think of as his constant intimation of something larger, something beyond. Beyond the 16th-century poems we studied there always lurked the greater works: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, the Bible, Aristotle, Homer—whom one of course needed to know (and about all of which Christopher had many vivid and memorable things to say). Beyond our classroom discussions and papers was the larger, social mission of literary criticism, of which what we were doing in class was, excitingly, a part. And beyond all our ideas, and beyond literary criticism, was. . .what? The religious questions of whence? and whither? and what for? These questions, and the problem of faith in modern life, were never far away from anything Christopher said (which is why he [was] such an incomparably better teacher of Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, and Bunyan than either his merely atheistical or his complacently Christian colleagues in the English Department). And his engagement with the problems of faith, and of grace, was for me, and I think for all of his students, very moving.
For Drummond, as for Grant, as for Maskell and Robinson at their best, “Faith is the experience that the intelligence is illuminated by love.” Education can be no more liberal that this.
 Duke Maskell and
 Timothy Steele, ed. The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (Athens: Swallow/Ohio UP, 1997) 41.
Baxter, John. “Literary Criticim and The New Idea of a University.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) <http://www.thenewcompass.ca/jun2003/baxter.html>