literate values failed

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.4 (Fall 2017)

 

F I N A L I S S U E

Literacy vs. Post-Modernity

 

Why the Center for Literate Values Has Failed: A Very Personal View
John R. Harris

Reviewing why the Center for Literate Values failed elicits from its founder not so much nostalgia over times past as as regret over his own ineptitude; but even more than any one person’s ineptitude, this failure indicts our time’s downward-trending cultural vectors.

When I walked away from my fifth academic position in ten years, I decided that a definitive change was needed. As it turned out, the changes I attempted were not nearly definitive enough; but I possess all the worst possible character traits for a marketer, have not much of a head for figures, and am not particularly handy with wrench and ratchet, so my “definitive” break occurred within rather narrow parameters. I’m probably quite typical of a certain kind of intellectual who falls between the cracks in our society. I had an exceptional talent for using my own language and learning to read others (not to speak them, thanks to excessive introversion), for framing instructive or fanciful situations with dramatic effect, and for ferreting out the moral import and consequences of actions. Unhappily, my society has a long history of taking pride in its no-nonsense (often brutally streamlined) grammar and spelling, deals in dramatic fantasies only when they can be given a popular twist that promises a big payday, and can’t comprehend how the moral might be anything other than the useful. Bad match.

Still, I should have taken a crack at selling furniture or laying hardwood floors, or maybe even raising almonds. Yet after three degrees, I couldn’t rid myself of the sense that serving an apprenticeship in midlife to become a manual laborer would have betrayed both my talents and my hard work. My relentless “sense of an ending” would have been outraged by crumpling up and throwing away a story that I had begun writing when I was five or six years old.

And so I turned to publishing.

I will say this much in defense of my abortive academic career (especially since its lessons spilled into my abortive publishing career): the latter twentieth century was a very bad time to aspire to being a professor of literature. The primary reason for that is feminism. Educated women had been told that they were worthless menials and domestic whores if they simply cooked their man’s food and conceived, bore, and raised his brats. A career was required to justify their existence… and so they poured into the Humanities, and especially into English departments. Naturally, no one was allowed to observe that the feminine intelligence is more verbal and naturally gravitates to the world of letters; many a college administrator has lost his high position in disgrace for stepping in that ideological fecal deposit. Yet the evidence that such hardwiring exists stands as ready as a review of the enrollees in any Physics or Chemistry program. Women in search of careers overwhelmingly choose English, History, Sociology, and the like.

There were two disastrous consequences to the trend. The first was that these young women were responding to no real calling. They took up the study of literature not because they loved well-written books, but because it seemed the most congenial field for reaching their terminal objective: a brilliant career. So negligible was their affection for literature per se, indeed, that they concocted theories which defamed it and savaged it. They appeared interested in just about anything tangential to the text without showing the slightest concern for its literary qualities (or admitting that it had any). Would-be competitors for positions like me who spoke and wrote about the aesthetic aspects of narrative were branded lackeys of the patriarchy: the “pleasure” of literature was nothing more than a stale opiate distributed by the powerful in order to dull the mass-mind to their ruthless machinations.

What a healthy influx of new ideas (actually retreaded old ideas) that all proved to be! Then there was the second effect. College administrators and other figures in authority felt obliged to accommodate every demand vaguely associated with feminism, just as their guilt-ridden generation had lately accommodated every protest made on behalf of racial equality. Among other things—right at the top of the list, in fact—was the demand to hire more women. If you were a male and also a member of a recognized (preferably racial) minority, you might just get by. (In English, you would most definitely get by… for what male of African or Hispanic or Cherokee descent wants to study novels and poetry?) For a person occupying my demographic niche, no seat was reserved on any of the Titanic’s lifeboats, and I was already well out to sea when I realized that this might pose a problem.

To the extent that literature programs survived the recasting of their subject as a vast historical conspiracy of male against female, they did so by creating a new audience: young coeds who felt vaguely victimized by eighteen years of life and needed an explanation for their not being adequately celebrated by the world. Other erstwhile pools of English majors dried up. Males, in particular, vanished. Over all, departments shrank. Hence there were fewer and fewer jobs for literary types even as more and more of these were automatically doled out to non-males (and, in my old-fashioned hermeneutic, that parses to read “females”). Administrative officials, though themselves mostly male, became “feminists” in droves—an appellation which meant nothing more to them than that they would hire and promote females whenever possible and rubber-stamp any proposal for a feminist program. Their careers, too, prospered.

I would emphasize the profound hypocrisy operative at both ends of the academic ladder. A careerist dean or vice-president no more cares about the truth beneath all these furiously flying allegations of “gender oppression” than he cares about advancing real solutions to crime and poverty in the inner-city black ghetto. That is to say, he will allocate more money to both causes all the livelong day—i.e., to their outspoken and largely self-appointed advocates. It’s not his money, after all. He buys the institutional praise of dissident elements with funds that cash-strapped parents have raised on loan, spreads the wealth, and then… off to a higher position at a more prestigious university.

As for academic feminists, I will pose them this simple question. If my suspicion of their “vast conspiracy” theory is brutally “sexist”, then why is it that I love literature and they don’t? Why is everything they read or write a political manifesto—why have they no patience with or interest in anything else? The pleasures of literature… a sugar-coating for patriarchal propaganda? But very few great works merely endorse the status quo by having it come out on top in some dramatically complex struggle. Even the Iliad calls into question the validity of the traditional warrior ethic. In trying over many years to argue for a deeper level of interpretation to Virgil’s Aeneid, based on ubiquitous textual clues, I have run into no obstacle greater than the dogmatic insistence of the “conspiracy” crowd that the epic is just one long, tiresome exercise in propaganda. The new dogmatists need this peculiarly off-key adaptation of Homer to be just another outburst of testosterone-inspired jingoism: hence that is all it can be.

I ask again… what exactly has feminism done for the appreciation of literature? What has it not done to undermine the literary canon and promote the careers of ill-read individuals? What more has it proved to be than an ideological justification of scholarly negligence and ignorance that expedites thousands of jargon-rich articles suitable for publication in avant-garde journals?

Such were the preoccupations that weighed heavily upon me as I scrambled about to mount some sort of resistance in print against the Ivory Tower’s scandalous moral bankruptcy. There’s that word “moral” again. An older friend once seriously advised me to consider the ministry. I’m afraid I have far too much of the libertarian in me for that: I believe that people need to pick their own path up the mountain, as a Chinese monk once said. Yet I would indeed have expected the support of the Christian community, or some segment of it, in my publishing endeavor. The very first thing I ever brought to light on my own was a novel titled Seven Demons Worse, published through a tiny operation that I dubbed Arcturus Press. With little effort, I was able to elicit a generous and enthusiastic blurb from nationally syndicated columnist Jeffrey Hart. (“This is going to be easy!” I was smiling to myself at the time.) In trying to market the book, however, I instantly ran into trouble with the editors of Christianity Today, who flatly rejected a proposed advertisement because of the book’s title (and the utterly random accident that my new FAX number contained a 666 in it). I vainly attempted to inject reason into the discussion, pointing out that the title’s allusion to Matthew 12:43-45 should be familiar to any student of the Gospels. The response was on the level of, “Yeah, that’s how all you satanic saboteurs talk!”

The so-called Religious Right, it turned out, was also enamored of certain conspiracy theories. One was either with the Biblicist legions or against them—and one’s true allegiance was determinable through numerous passwords, none of which one was allowed to misplace or mispronounce. I was denied employment during these same difficult transitional months by a private high school of the Reformed Presbyterian persuasion (whatever that meant: I soon found out that “reformed” did not imply a mild shift from historically grounded faith to natural inspiration—from letter to spirit). The interview ended with my being informed that I could reapply if I came to “see things differently”. This variety of Christian, it seemed, would be satisfied with the quality of my faith if hunger reduced me to repeating the prescribed formula. No wonder such people fear infiltration by Satanists posing as believers!

There was no help forthcoming, then, from any sector that loudly identified itself as Christian. When I created the tax-exempt Center for Moral Reason to give Arcturus Press a website and a quarterly published advocate for fine literature and humane values, still another firestorm erupted from the “Christian” firing line that I had supposed to be on my side. “Moral reason” appears to have been interpreted as code for “atheist” or “agnostic”; for one doesn’t reason about morality—one does just what the Good Book says.

That immensely disappointing formula struck me as shockingly similar to what I had left behind in academe. There were good guys and bad guys, and one’s eligibility for solid citizenship or for lynching was entirely determined by the propriety or impropriety in one’s use of signals and shibboleths. Life was nothing more than a power struggle, and you had to declare yourself explicitly for the right side or else be held a spy or collaborator. As if to drive home the point, a college administrator who read the first couple of issues of our journal Arcturus was dismayed by my repeated criticism of his professional class for selling out Western tradition to a pack of noisy antinomians. He informed me that my journal had “one more chance” to change its tune, or he was done with it. Naturally, his ultimatum possessed a suave politeness in nowise inferior to the manner of my Reformed Presbyterian inquisitors. There’s no need to be uncouth when escorting a vagrant to the city limits.

It was at this point, late in the year 2000, that I altered my organization’s name to The Center for Literate Values, and over the next three years I succeeded in winning it 501(c)3 charitable status as an educational and religious undertaking. In the process, I allowed Arcturus Press to go defunct. What with my almost nonexistent budget for advertising unable to make an impact even on the Internet (which had been portrayed to me as tailor-made for shoestring operations—but which turned out to be a slaughterhouse for small players), the book-publishing arm of my endeavor fell off of its own dead weight. For good measure, in 2001, the events of 9/11 sealed off its last artery: starting on September 12, Americans became distinctly less interested in the ideological takeover of academe than they had been at any other point since about 1980.

I will mention in passing, with gratitude, that I had been given a virtually free promotional opportunity by the journal, Christianity and Literature… but will add, with regret, that nothing much came of our appeals in that organ. The failure was again instructive. Certainly readers of C&L (in which I myself had published, and for whose editors I had served briefly as a referee of submissions) tend not to be the hard-line manner of believer who thinks that no literature beyond the Bible need ever be taught—and that literary fiction, in particular, should be avoided. What I observed even as the millennial calendar was turning over, however, was a “colonizing” of the entire Conference of Christianity and Literature by the same careerist forces as had ruined academe: feminists, deconstructionists, neo-Marxists, and (in tiny but increasing volume) rare birds like the Queer Theorists. They all needed paper-readings and publications, you see, to attain their career goals. The repugnance of having to seek laurels from a journal whose title featured the name of that most hated faith must have been mitigated by a certain satisfaction in compromising one of the faith’s mouthpieces. When genuine infiltrators came sneaking into the cathedral through the vestiary, an exchange of passwords proved wholly inadequate to repel them! I believe some degree of resistance probably succeeded at regional levels, but the battle for the national organization’s soul was lost.

My contention, all along, has been and remains that we in literature must fight for the elevating properties of literary art—not for the canonical preeminence of authors who espouse this or that faith or political ideology. Mature creative fiction is the test of a program for living. In the history of story-telling, we see human nature exposed to an all but infinite variety of pressures—and the story’s aesthetic struggle to achieve a wholeness allows us to reflect upon where certain values may lead us, where certain cultural practices have led us, and how plausibly a given author has mapped out human responses to given values and practices. As Christian educators, we should never have served any other objective but this; for if the Christian faith is that which best captures the essence of the human creature, then we should be able to recognize the contours of its truths even in Achilles or Genji or Meursault or Okonkwo. To the extent that we have instead insisted on an ideological qualification before admitting a work or author to study, we have denied the legitimacy of the literary experience. We have endorsed the very disappointing, short-sighted utterance of Okonkwo’s creator that “all art is propaganda.” And once all art is merely propaganda, then anyone with an ideological axe to grind may join the party and proceed to textual mutilation.

***

The Center for Literate Values instantly and permanently turned its attention to the quarterly publication of a new journal, Praesidium. Though content immediately improved, both in quality and quantity, over what Arcturus had offered, we were still, ever, and always playing catch-up. In our best year, with funding from a major foundation, we scarcely exceeded a thousand dollars in revenue. Usually we were fortunate to scale halfway to that plateau—leaving us a thousand percent short, more or less, of what we would have needed to produce an appealing and competitive hard-copy edition.

The Earhart Foundation proceeded to withdraw its support after that initial contribution, noticing that our material product was somewhat woebegone. I was learning (as always, it seemed, too late) that the rich get richer in the world of charitable donations while the poor… well, they dry up and blow away. “Charitable giving” is big business, and those organizations that work at it full-time don’t clog up their massive works by patronizing Mom-and-Pop operations officed in a garage. The typical garage, indeed, would have surpassed in square footage whatever space was devoted to our undertaking; and as for salaries, our board and contributors received, year after year, a uniform stipend of… $0.00. I’m afraid that many of them, for that matter, were mildly impoverished by their association with us, for they often contributed money as well as time.

My excessively idealistic assumption from the outset had been that the product’s inherent quality would win out over its superficial meagerness. After all, shallow people who judged a book by its cover wouldn’t be very interested in books no matter what cover you stitched onto them. If we could merely persist in transmitting thoughtful words for a few quarters of a few more years, I reasoned, even though those words might not be packaged in a bright wrapper, inquiring minds would find them, read them, and support their further dissemination. People in Occupied France had turned in to static-garbled broadcasts from England, hadn’t they? People behind the Iron Curtain had risked prison to catch a half-hour of Radio Free Europe, hadn’t they? I didn’t think it was asking too much of our culture’s true intellectuals to fight back against the academic career-mill by overlooking the staples in the quarterly journal’s spine.

Yet again, I was wrong. Contributions did not come pouring in as word of our counter-offensive spread: we were not “found” by a critical mass of the public. More and more, I was being compelled to accept that the only possible future for a journal like ours would be online, where we could both cultivate a more polished look at little expense and also, potentially, reach the entire planet merely through keyword searches and shared links.

It is painful to recite this series of miscalculations. Enough to say that, while the wholesale move of our journal and our ancillary pages to the Internet was certainly a necessary tactic, it could not be done effectively if done on the cheap. In fact, the cost involved in giving the site the same glister as the Net’s most successful literary venues would have equaled that of running glossy, professional hard copies of the journal. Web-surfers do not peruse a site, remark its intellectual depth, forgive its technical shabbiness, and pony up with a contribution: they instantly see that they have stumbled upon some second-rate assembly with weird margins and squeezed fonts, and they run away. I must accept my share of the blame in this. I honestly didn’t know that the pages I was posting were often not visible to other terminals in the fashion that they reached mine. I also required months, more than once, to discover that what help I could afford was not serving me well. I was in way over my head; and, like our other directors, I was also trying to work a full-time job and raise a family.

If that last bit doesn’t sound very much like accepting blame, I would reiterate that I’m only accepting a share of it. I’m pretty good at blaming myself for almost everything that happens around me; yet I will maintain, when all the evidence is weighed, that even an adequately polished and purring site would not greatly have altered The Center’s fate. We tried to counter the various “vast conspiracy” obsessions in academe with truly literary assessments of great texts; those who might have cheered us on, having been shut out of the Ivory Tower by ideological stormtroopers, had moved on to other things and probably didn’t want to dwell on misspent years of “higher education”. We constructed web pages that listed and described or reviewed classic movies, musical masterpieces, evocative paintings, and neglected books suitable for young people; those who were educating their children at home were preoccupied with checking off the boxes required of them by the state, and devoted most of what time was left over to teaching the Bible or focusing on technical skills. We honored our 501(c)3 commitment by never endorsing or attacking a political candidate, yet we advocated without apology a limited government based on constitutional principles that valued the human individual’s right to try, fail, learn, and grow. Political movements and coteries that ought to have made common cause with us instead seemed to be forever lobbying for fewer gun restrictions, more drilling rights, and a deeper intervention in Middle Eastern affairs.

I have constantly failed to identify, in short, any significant audience in the twenty-first century that does not consider a discussion of broad ideals—of principles abstracted from specific issues—to be a waste of time.

I’ll go to my grave thinking that the Internet itself, and electronic technology in general, has much to do with this preemptive attention to the specific and the immediate. That, too, was a theme that ran through almost every issue of Praesidium over the years, always without much comment and, indeed, without any appearance at all of finding a little traction among our online readers. I admit that one would be hoping to see a deep paradox come to life in expecting otherwise. Why would people who do most of their reading online leap from their chairs in excitement and solidarity after finishing a long piece about the risks of electronic living? Nevertheless, I think such risks have proved justified; I think, even, that the Net, the Cloud, and our panoply of “devices” have all become to education generally what feminism was to literary studies. I believe they have made us darned near ineducable—indifferent to the true ends of education and incapable now of reaching them.

I write this as an educator who taught his first high school class in 1976 and his first college course in 1985. I’ve seen the change first hand. Questions do not even register with students now unless specific answers attach to the format. (I am asked by students, “Would you repeat the question?” twice as much now in one semester as I ever was during any decade before 2014.) In their view, of course, a “search” will find the answer instantly; and if it needs verification, that will be bestowed by the site’s trailing a “.gov” or “.edu” after its moniker. (This is what’s actually being taught in composition class.) Words and phrases, furthermore, are all processed against the backdrop of popular culture to determine meaning, not evaluated as rational, free-standing blocks of communication. (Hence “spic-and-span” is a racial slur, a Madonna is an aging mime of sex acts to the accompaniment of sinuous tunes, and braided hair must be described so as to avoid either stereotyping or cultural appropriation.) Incoherent, cliché one-liners tweeted as an “author” weaves obliviously through a crowd or tries to steer down a busy highway carry such power that they may impel their target to suicide, and seem increasingly destined to draw government regulation and legal prosecution.

The very software through which all of The Center’s pages and posts have been transmitted to the e-public (WordPress) red-flags everything we compose for “readability”.   We in this outfit are all serial offenders, it appears, against the new literacy.

Meanwhile, by the way, our old friends, the campus administrators, are making out just fine beneath the digital tsunami as they did during the race and gender revolutions. Every year, they mandate further shifts of the curriculum onto the computer and the Net. Parents are told that rising tuition costs are owed to advanced technology that is “preparing their children for tomorrow”, while students happily work their online exams together (Googling answers to questions drawn from a text that not one of them has read). Professors, as always, rush to embrace anything new in their zeal to appear progressive, clearly not suspecting that the endgame is to replace them all with software and, in some instances, trained actors. Hardware and software producers, too, are naturally quite content. Some of them share a certain amount of genetic material with vice-presidents who have lubricated new contracts for them, and some have extended off-the-record promises of employ to said administrators when the education gig plays out. So, you see, the cork always bobs to the surface.

***

It is in this rancid atmosphere that Praesidium has failed, The Center as I designed it has failed, and I have failed as designer-in-chief. I am handing the project off to Christopher Cook, whose proficiency is precisely of the tightrope-walking variety that allows him to approach the jittery, hit-and-run Internet reader with pithy messages. May he prosper in his endeavor! Yet I find that I cannot draw myself from beneath a cloud of pessimism… for all of the failures I have just enumerated are also those of contemporary American society. I really don’t know how a people that hasn’t the time, collectively, to read anything longer than three hundred words, the patience to read it without an accompanying “pic” file or a video, or the background to handle more than a couple of polysyllables per sentence is going to comprehend the problems that face us all, let alone solve them. I certainly see no signs of a surprising competency in recent plebiscites.

Not that it matters, in terms of our nation’s future, our culture’s, or human civilization’s… but I will carry with me for the rest of my life a sincere pride in the associations I was able to establish with my directors and several of my contributors. Tom Bertonneau humbled me with his knowledge of music while also delighting me with his excursions into the world of science fiction. His is the sort of mind I had naively hoped to find populating the halls of ivy when I began graduate study: immensely learned but not in the least pretentious and also, at times, prone to have a little good clean fun. If they have universities in heaven (and that may be an oxymoron), then his kind walks their gilded corridors.

Helen Andretta’s example reminds us that women have long had a place in the academy when they were motivated by a sincere love of their subject. I inferred from some of Helen’s reactions to my tirades against administrative leadership that she couldn’t entirely catch my drift. I think what I glimpsed in her mild perplexity was the great truth that one generous spirit in the right place can be the antidote to some of the pernicious effects of power. I find it very plausible that “the suits” behaved themselves around Helen, because an innate (if oft-ignored) decency common to all of us would have shamed them if they had done otherwise. Such is the far-reaching influence of character.

Like Professor Andretta, Lt. Col. Michael Lythgoe has battled with health problems in recent years; yet I would never have detected any such crisis from the evidence of our typical correspondence, which was uniformly cheerful and spirited. Mike’s poetry has always testified to the inborn sympathy we feel for certain images and movements in nature; and among the charges I would list in my indictment of the e-world, in fact, would be the degree to which it has “denatured” us by luring us into a prison of artifice. I have identified an urgent need to bring things forth from the earth and live closer to the seasons as I begin the final journey of my own life. Michael Lythgoe’s poems have helped me to re-orient myself with a little more clarity.

Ralph Carlson also (like Lt. Col. Lythgoe) served in Vietnam, and his exposure to the worst of the fighting appears to have been quite thorough. I’ve lost touch with Ralph; it must be five years, at least, since I last heard from him. His wife was not well, his academic career was demanding of him a publication in more “recognized” journals, and in general—I fear—life was starting to close in on him. Most of his work that I was privileged to read revolved around Southeast Asia, where he would return routinely to do charitable work. It’s odd, yet perhaps fully natural (in a mercifully benign way), that what you remember from scenes of unspeakable horror is often a clear blue sky or a snow-covered mountain in the background. Ralph’s poems gave me that sense, as if the ultimate proof of the outrage constituted by all our twentieth-century killing fields was the sublime serenity of nature that framed them.

Likewise, I have fully lost touch with Kelly Ann Hampton, a former student of mine whose youthful influence I thought would be very healthy on our board. In Kelly I see a little of the tragedy (just a little: she herself had plenty of resources to turn it to comedy) of the female undergraduate who, though gifted with an extraordinary literary sensibility, does not want to chant the war cries of the feminist ideologue. The profession had no particular interest in or use for her. She was female; but without the “right” political orientation, that counted for nothing. I can’t help but reflect upon how Alan Keyes has been airbrushed from history—a man who was probably full-African in his DNA, yet ran for president in the “wrong” political party. Condoleeza Rice illustrates the same hypocrisy a fortiori. How many extremely talented young women, I wonder, would have liked to pursue an academic career but had to surrender their ambition because they wouldn’t spout the party line? How liberating, tell me, is that?

My heart-felt thanks to Mark Wegierski, David Crookes, and Jonathan Chaves, as well, for the significant contributions they have made to the journal over the years. An appropriately pruned version of the Praesidium archive (yes, we did publish a certain amount of regrettable trivia, such as my deplorable cartoons) will survive on my personal website, and I’m sure the new home for The Center will carry a link to this stock of excellent articles.

When I uploaded the next-to-last version of the journal this past June and sent out the announcements, I was amazed to notice something hot and damp in my eyes. I shouldn’t have thought that I would be particularly sentimental about being relieved of a burden so cumbersome, enduring, and persistently fruitless—so full of failure. Was it because my activities leading up to the creation of The Center and then to its stubborn maintenance almost exactly overlapped my son’s birth, childhood, and maturing? Did those twenty years or so not contain my very best efforts to make my place in life—to have my say, to take my best shot? Maybe. But I think an even greater source of emotion was the faint but growing understanding that I had actually acquired some distinguished acquaintances—and some good friends (though I have met no one but Kelly face to face)—in this enterprise. Believe it or not, during my coterminous (as Mark would say) twenty years in Tyler, Texas, I have acquired exactly one durable acquaintance whom I would account a friend in a swirl of social and professional instability; so The Center’s business, in a very real way, has brought into my life most of the few people I have prized over these two decades.

I’ll miss you. When I’m uploading these words and finally steering this damn scow to dry-dock, my eyes will be a lot damper than they were in June.

Dr. John Harris (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, U of Texas at Austin) is the founder and president of the Center for Literate Values.