The Ideal Teacher of Literature

 

With his students, the ideal teacher of literature seeks the center of knowledge, which he understands in metaphysical or theological terms. His vehicle is poetry, by which he means the imaginative creation of action and character in either prose or verse. When they seek the center in communion with the greatest of poets, teacher and student alike transcend the mutable world and begin to grasp, according to Paul Elmer More, “in a single firm vision, so to speak, the long course of human history” and to distinguish “what is essential therein from what is ephemeral.” By seeking the center with his students and affirming its existence, the ideal teacher of literature fulfills his duty to the humanities and realizes his calling to guard that in which all the humane disciplines have their first and final cause, namely, the Word.

Noble though some might deem his vocation, the ideal teacher of literature is an anomaly in contemporary education. The reason is obvious: education in our time is governed by the sciolistic principles of liberalism, which are fundamentally irreconcilable with the Word. James Burnham defined these principles nearly sixty years ago in his book Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. “By liberal principles strictly applied,” he wrote, “the specific function of education is to overcome ignorance; and ignorance is overcome by, and only by, acquiring rational, scientific knowledge.”

At the heart of liberalism’s educational objective is what the historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has referred to in his 2006 book, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, as “physicalism,” an intellectual bias that began secularizing the humanities about the time of the Reformation. Up to then, philosophers in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle acknowledged the subsistence in things of intrinsic qualities, which they called essences. Essence is that which abides or, in the case of the human soul, transcends and endures eternally. More than Copernicus’s supplanting of Ptolemaic cosmography, observes Russell, the shift from essentialist to quantitative thought “disenchanted the cosmos” and ultimately incapacitated the popular mind for thinking about the anagogical significance of life and death. This unfortunate depravation, this failure of the religious attitude, is all too apparent to the ideal teacher of literature, who confronts it daily in his classroom.

What makes the ideal teacher of literature professionally anomalous, if not downright irritating to the fashionable physicalists ensconced in latter-day academia, is his espousal of what Burnham describes as “the myriad beliefs that liberalism regards as non-rational or irrational . . . the debris of superstition, prejudice, intuition, habit and custom.” According to the tenets of liberalism, such “debris,” or what the ideal teacher of literature refers to as tradition, should “be admitted to the curriculum only as miscellaneous data to be studied objectively by psychology, history, anthropology and the social sciences.”

As liberal educationists see it, tradition is something burdensome to be overcome, not something alive and edifying when updated by the right orthodoxy, as T. S. Eliot argued unabashedly in his 1933 Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia. The liberal animus toward tradition is exemplified by Eliot’s dubious friend Bertrand Russell, who insisted that educational objectives “should be inspired, not by a regretful hankering after the extinct beauties of Greece and the Renaissance, but by a shining vision of the society that is to be, of the triumph that thought [pure reason shorn of religious faith] will achieve in the time to come.”

Liberalism’s suspicious attitude toward those who would teach poetry as a way of knowing truth through its embodiment in beauty is apparent in Russell’s remarks. It is implicit in the writings of Francis Bacon, Russell’s intellectual ancestor. In Thomas Babington Macaulay’s nineteenth-century essay on Milton, it is clearly pronounced: “As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite and the shades of probability more and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter.” Macaulay presents poetry precisely as the liberal would have it presented in contemporary education: as “a magic lantern” that produced comforting illusions “in a dark age,” beyond which man has moved into the (seemingly) salvific illumination of Comtian positivism.

Macaulay’s essay exemplifies Allen Tate’s image of several cowering critics attempting to justify their surrender to the scientific method. At length, they all agree that Milton’s philosophy is scientifically absurd and that science has proved that his religion is positively invalid. Still, they admit that giving up Milton means giving up their profession. Thus they decide that it is best to bestir themselves to study scientifically Milton’s unscientific philosophy and useless religion, lest they fail to profit from the coming triumphs of science. “Nobody,” they conclude, “believes today that the arts give us a sort of cognition at least equally valid with that of scientific method; so we will just take the arts as fields of data for more scientific investigation.”

Multicultarilsm vs. the Humanities

At today’s university, students learn about poetry; they are not expected to learn from it. Any such expectation would violate the liberal principles that Burnham delineates. In contrast to the ideal teacher of literature, the hubristic litterateurs of our time “sound . . . like ethologists,” writes Wendell Berry in his essay collection Home Economics, “students of the behavior of a species to which they do not belong, in whose history and fate they have no part, their aim being, not to know anything for themselves, but to ‘advance knowledge.’ ” Berry urges teachers of literature to remember that the master poets offer a timeless route into wisdom: “That route is simply closed to people interested in what ‘they’ thought ‘then’; it is closed to those people who think that ‘Dante’s world’ or ‘Shakespeare’s world’ is far removed and completely alienated from ‘our world’; and it is closed to the viewers of poetic devices, emotional effects, and esthetic values.”

As a result of liberalism’s disorienting effect on the humanities, a majority of those who presently teach literature are not unlike Tate’s cowering critics or Berry’s ethologists. Indeed, many teachers are simply unable anymore to distinguish writing that is forever contemporary from that which speaks only to an age or generation. Now more than ever, literary scholars whose publications inform the classroom curriculum are exploiting time-honored works of the imagination to advance social agendas or academic careers. Professors of English at once-respectable universities across the country continue to promote the very theories and practices that have been undermining their profession since the deconstructionists first laid siege to it in the early 1970s. These circumstances have scandalized the ideal teacher of literature and caused him to grow ever more concerned about the future of literature as a meaningful discipline.

College classes in pornography, Harvard course titles such as “Modern Protest Literature: From Thomas Paine to Tupac,” professional obsessions with gay and lesbian or transgender studies featured in the once-important Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, the smiling irreverence of Stanley Fish and his legacy of chic theoreticians, the new historicism inspired by the Marxian belief that consciousness is derived not from the Logos but exclusively from material conditions: these are just a few of the countless debasements one could adduce to justify concern. Another akin to these is multiculturalism, a radically egalitarian ideology that predominates practically everywhere in the humanities.

Multiculturalism is a pervasive though misguided view among contemporary teachers of literature. Its espousers eschew meta-cultural universals, insist that all cultures are equal, and deny the existence of a supervening high culture by which cultures are comparatively and normally appraised. Multiculturalists contradict what every wise poet knows: that he is finally accountable to that summary tribunal of dead writers who judge his work without regard to his race, sex, or ethnicity, none of which has anything to do with poetry as poetry, or with literary eminence.

Educators under its spell love to intone the word multiculturalism. In an unfortunate Boston Globe article that ran on the sesqui­centennial anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick, for example, one of the several professors interviewed boasted that she had sailed clear of the novel until discovering its “racial overtones.” Since then, she went on to say, its author has “gone from a bad demon to a spokesman for multiculturalism.” Teachers “really are eager to understand what multiculturalism has to do with Melville,” remarked another, for Melville “was working on a vision of a multicultural world.”

Was he really? Was Melville not working out a vision of something a little less reductive? Was he not striving through each of his imaginative works to realize, in addition to aesthetic excellence, something universally or philosophically more significant than a vision of a multicultural utopia—whatever that might look like? “Ah, humanity!” Clearly the multiculturalists have forgotten the last two words of Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” one of the finest Christian parables ever composed in the modern age.

It is to humanity that enduring literature is chiefly relevant, humanity under the aspect of eternity. The best of poetry plumbs the depths of being, as Glenn C. Arbery puts it in his book Why Literature Matters, “with an intelligence that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering.” Writers like Melville share a singular capacity to produce literature that “can give,” in Arbery’s words, “an experience of ‘a common glory’ that intimates something otherwise unsayable about the nature of the Word through whom all things were made.”

But today’s academics rarely consider humanity or literature or anything else from an eternal point of view. That is not to say that they are uninterested in spiritual matters. They are. But like all positivists, they are interested in spirituality not of a transcendent but of a secular-immanent kind. For them, as Eric Voegelin observed of positivists in general, “The horizon of man is strictly walled in by the facts and the laws of the phenomena.” Be they real or not, gods “are . . . not permitted [by the positivists] to participate in history or society.”

The Importance of Religion

The eternal triflers of academe, whose aversion to transcendent reality Voegelin aptly called “logophobia,” have not failed in their determined efforts to effect the popular mind, in which faith and reason are fast being dissociated. Not too long ago, for example, Americans asked, “What is the place of education in religion?” Later they asked, “What is the place of religion in education?” The difference between these two questions—suggested by T. S. Eliot in To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings—is radical, and the substitution of the one for the other has just about metamorphosed the life of the mind if not the social order in America. For when they began questioning the place of religion in education, Americans lost their way and slipped, many of them, into the slough of abject materialism.

Embarrassing though they are to the typical academic, questions of the religious kind are of ultimate importance to the ideal teacher of literature, who agrees with sagest of minds that religion is precisely what man needs if he is to be saved from himself. “What would society be like,” Eliseo Vivas inquired in The Moral Life and the Ethical Life, “if it became completely secularized . . . if it utterly and thoroughly lost all traces of the rich religious tradition on which it now lives?” We are beginning to find out. But when Vivas posed this question more than fifty years ago, he concluded that “neither history nor sociology at present can give us an answer, since neither the historian nor the sociologist has ever had the opportunity to observe such phenomena.” Yet, as potential realities, two such societies do exist, he maintained, in the imagination of the humanist. One is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; the other is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and “both,” wrote Vivas, “are nightmares.”

Vivas assumed that the chief and perennial threat to civilization is natural human aggression, which returns man to the brutishness of his primordial existence when it goes unchecked by custom and unrestrained by ethical enculturation. This assumption is back of the noblest literary achievements. It informs what “Sophocles long ago / Heard . . . on the Aegean,” that “eternal note of sadness,” which “brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery,” as Matthew Arnold wrote in “Dover Beach.” It is back of Dickens’s novels, as Myron Magnet has shown in Dickens and the Social Order. Vivas’s view of the human situation, which the discerning student of the humanities finds corroborated not only by the poets but by history itself, is essential to the ontology espoused by the ideal teacher of literature. This ontology is undeniably complex. But it can be briefly adumbrated by way of response to the ineluctable, if uncomfortable, question, What is man?

Man is a creature existing in a purposeful universe. He is fundamentally imperfect, but redeemable through reconciliation with his Maker. He is unable to achieve perfection through his own endeavors, yet free to make his own choices and to bear the consequences of what he chooses. He is neither deterministically fixed in any one state of human affairs nor ever confined to an irreducible material condition, not even within the Greek concept of Fate, properly conceived. He is neither good nor bad, but both good and bad. He is accountable to something higher than mere social contracts between himself and his fellows, his fundamental moral laws being ultimately permanent obligations to his Creator. In fine, he is individual, responsible, guilty but redeemable, and, yes, damnable. (And here I am indebted to Edmund Fuller’s Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions of Contemporary American Writing.)

The truth of our being, which the ideal teacher of literature seeks to disclose through poetry, should be of primary importance to everyone who teaches in the humanities. For today, at least in the West, crass common man and the opportunistic meritocrats whose manufactured illusions of happiness determine his values and his vote have seized the controls of history. This being the case, what Vivas observed early in the last century is truer now than ever: “The most important question the teacher must ask himself is whether men can be taught that they cannot be eulogistically called ‘men’ if they free themselves from the tyranny of the ideal.” One must hope that they can, for if they cannot, the controls of history, if not the fate of Western civilization, will remain in sordid hands.

“The Superadded Ideas”

Of course, teaching men and women to heed the ideal requires that instructors in the humane disciplines acknowledge that such a thing exists. For this reason, as Theodore M. Greene reminded us in the final year of the Second World War, all serious work in the humanities, whether in the classroom or in scholarship, must assume an “objective reality of beauty and its concrete embodiments, of goodness and its impact on human life, of God and His relation to man.” Denials of this assumption, Greene insisted in his contribution to The Humanities After the War (a volume edited by Norman Foerster), “make thoughtful, reflective study of the arts and literatures, of morality and religion, meaningless and impossible.” They condemn us “to a relativism in which every man’s judgment is exactly as good or as bad as the judgment of anyone else, a relativism in which it is meaningless to say that we have at our disposal a rich cultural and spiritual heritage, that is, an accumulation of insights and achievements in the realm of the spirit from which we could and should benefit.”

Only under the aspect of an absolute good can we recognize a relative one: Is this not the point that Greene was trying to make? Does not his insight evoke Spinoza’s defense of the Word? “All ideas are in God, and in so far as they have reference to God, they are true and adequate; and therefore none are inadequate or confused save in so far as they have reference to the individual mind of anyone.”

Abraham Flexner, another contributor to The Humanities After the War, reminds the ideal teacher of literature that, while scientists should be encouraged to pursue with rigor the ends of their vocation, the humanist must be prepared to judge the achievements and potential uses of scientific investigation, which are properly understood as means of bettering society and should not be mistaken as goods in themselves. This theme is reiterated by Robert A. Millikan, who is quoted in Foerster’s preface to the book: “The scientist provides us with extensive enough information regarding what is, but unless we have those among us who tell us also what makes for, and what does not make for, our more fundamental well-being, we are lost.”

The poets of yore tell us what we need to know because, with the help of the ideal teacher of literature, they keep us in touch with the wisdom of the ages. In their work we find compressed profundities of the kind exemplified in this passage from novelist Willa Cather: “We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton.” Indeed, the poets concern themselves with the experience of man as man, not man as anthropoid, statistician, or homo economicus. But that is precisely their trouble, according to the social scientists who teach us that man is merely a function of history.

The ideal teacher of literature is certain that Russell Kirk was right: “A people who have forgotten Homer and Plato and Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Johnson presently find themselves in personal and social difficulties.” For he agrees with Kirk that the literary tradition endows with form what Edmund Burke refers to in Reflections on the Revolution in France as “the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation.”

The “superadded ideas” emanate from the Word. For this reason, the ideal teacher of literature stands as their champion. Stand he must, for postmodernists seek to destroy them, just as the Jacobins did in Burke’s day when they tried to dismiss them as ridiculous absurdities of an antiquated mindset. As interpreter of poetry in the classroom, the ideal teacher of literature functions as a sort of middleman between the public and the superadded ideas, inasmuch as he helps the poets “keep up open roads / Betwixt the seen and the unseen,” to borrow the phraseology of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Indeed, the ideal teacher of literature is comparable to Browning and other furnishers of the superadded ideas insofar as he is duty bound to speak (in her words) what “God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond / Both speech and imagination.”

Because it is the singular power through which poets “prove what lies beyond,” the “moral imagination” to which Burke adverts in his Reflections is of primary importance to the logocentric. For the ideal teacher of literature, it is a “power of ethical perception,” as Russell Kirk called it, which, like the divine natural law, is impressed in the soul by the hand of Providence. But like the soul, which remains submerged in every human being, the individual moral imagination depends for full realization on civilization. Reciprocally, and as surely as the Western literary tradition begins with the Iliad, civilization, as the ideal teacher of literature understands it, depends for its preservation on the collective moral imagination of civilized individuals.

The Poet as Seer

According to the ideal teacher of literature, then, poems born of the moral imagination, be they fables, epics, or novels, look from the standpoint of eternity at material things and transitory wants. They awaken the moral imagination of the reader through truthful representations of man’s perpetual struggle against the constraints of the human condition. In short, poems of the moral imagination reveal truths communicable only indirectly through symbolic language that adapts the Word to the limitations of the human intellect. Such language has to be interpreted, and is interpreted with the help of the ideal teacher of literature on multiple levels of understanding, including not only the literal but also the allegorical, moral, and anagogical.

Take The Death of Ivan Ilyich, for instance. On the strictly literal level, Tolstoy’s novel is about a man who dies after coming to see that his bourgeois life has been horrifyingly petty. Considered morally or anagogically, however, it is about the redemptive love of God, “the real thing,” that Ivan discovers within himself when on the last day of his life, the third and final day of the most excruciating period of his transfiguration, he grieves not for himself any longer but for his wife and son, whom he had come to resent for merely being among the healthy livers of the world whom death has not yet prostrated. Prostrated though he himself is, Ivan finally defeats death. “Death is over,” he utters before stretching himself out and dying fearlessly and full of grace. In Ivan’s final moment, “Death [is] swallowed up in victory,” to quote from the biblical passage Tolstoy echoes in the story’s concluding paragraphs. Ivan suffers, dies, and is buried, most certainly. On the third day of his transfiguration, though, he rises again and ascends into heaven.

Poets like Tolstoy, whom the ideal teacher of literature takes seriously, complement the moral philosopher. For they present us with a unified vision of nature and man’s place in it while fashioning forth images of the beautiful and the honorable. By translating abstract precepts and otherworldly realities into venerable images, poets point us toward the good. Poets of superior imagination also give flesh to the darkness of the human heart and thereby remind us that slumbering in the depths of every psyche are “infinite capacities for reversion and crime,” which we would do well to recognize in order to restrain them.

The last sentence quotes from Albert J. Guerard’s introduction to the Signet Classics edition of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. Let us hear another passage or two from this extraordinary introduction, for its author exemplifies the things one might expect to hear from the ideal teacher of literature: “The end of wisdom, for Conrad, was . . . an awareness that we are eternally menaced, and most of all by ourselves. . . . Conrad believes, with the greatest of moralists, that we must know evil . . . before we can be capable of good. . . . Conrad . . . had a passion for truth—including the dark truth concerning our human nature.” Guerard’s are not the observations of a multiculturalist or a deconstructionist or a new historicist or any other postmodernist; such anthropocentric utterances are concerned with the nature of man and with atemporal truth, two concepts that postmodernists have anathematized between inverted commas. On the contrary, Guerard’s are the insights of the critic concerned with the embodiment of mystery in the manners of art, the mystery of what and where we are sub specie aeternitatis.

The ideal teacher of literature is careful not to take everything spiritually, however. Nonetheless, he believes in and endeavors to unveil the sacramental character of human existence. In poetic terms, he resembles Galahad in Idylls of the King, while the best of his colleagues, the unbelieving best, are not unlike Percivale. I have in mind, of course, Tennyson’s eighth idyll, where the two knights stand together at the altar. At the sacring of the Mass, Percivale sees nothing but the “elements” of the consecration. “Saw ye no more?” inquires the other. “I, Galahad, saw the Grail / The Holy Grail, descend upon the shrine. / I saw the fiery face as of a child / That smote itself into the bread and went.”

If belief in the sacred and supernatural enables the poet to see “ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience,” as Flannery O’Connor has suggested, it enables the ideal teacher of literature to see the same encarnalized in the mysterious body of literature. Some such belief must have informed Mark Van Doren’s teaching, which exemplified for Thomas Merton that of the ideal teacher of literature. “Mark’s temper,” wrote Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain of his former professor’s demeanor in the classroom, “was profoundly scholastic in the sense that his clear mind looked directly for the quiddities of things, and sought being and substance under the covering of accident and appearances.”

And what does O’Connor say to the teacher of literature? First, “as long as the appearance of a really fine work of fiction is so rare on the best-seller lists,” you have no cause to be complacent about your service to the touchstones of literary excellence, which are not to be confused with the slick, juvenile entertainments that presently masquerade as serious art. Second, you have a responsibility to the great tradition, which you best fulfill by providing your students with a guided tour “through the best writing of the past” in preparation for a proper “understanding of the best writing of the present.” Third, your role is to help the student derive genuine wisdom from a rigorous analysis of the inner workings of the immortal poems, not to teach “social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.” And fourth, though it is surely to be regretted if the pursuit of truth through such analysis is not to the “taste” of your students, their “taste should not be consulted,” as “it is being formed.”

The ideal teacher of literature has long heeded such advice. For he is certain of two things. If they are not taught to bear the burden of the truth derived from an order higher than the natural, students cannot be inclined to form their characters or souls in light of the perennial verities concerning the nature and destiny of mankind. If, in Paul Elmer More’s phrases, they are continually dragged “through the slums of sociology, instead of [being made] at home in the society of the noble dead,” their minds will be debauched “with a flabby, or inflame[d] . . . with a frantic, humanitarianism.”

Humanitarianism, materialism, scientism, multiculturalism, economism, and the other half-religions of the past two centuries have achieved what appears to be a marvelous success in the current academy. But the ideal teacher of literature knows that these intellectual pseudologies will eventually disappoint. In the meantime he would echo in our minds Napoleon’s words: “The world is ruled not by money, not by force of arms, but rather by imagination.” A country that would have its people ruled by the moral imagination, and not by the idyllic or the diabolic, needs the ideal teacher of literature. For in his centered service to the humanities and through the evocative power of poetry, he keeps the moral imagination of those who have the capacity to lead, whether in the public or private spheres of our intermingled lives, awake to a world without end, in relation to which all else is finally assessed and accorded dignity. ♦

Cicero Bruce is a professor of English at Dalton State College.


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