The general public prefers when it can to think in teams. To keep an account of every person or idea is difficult, so as a matter of convenience it helps to put them into groups whose members all share certain traits: New Yorkers walk quickly, Republicans dislike the welfare state, scholastic theologians are highly technical. This is in no way an illegitimate impulse, for usually issues have sides on each of which the participants are agreed on a few basic points, vary though they may in the details.
The defining features of these teams can vary in specificity, as do the levels of the biological hierarchy from domain to species. What Southerners, for instance, have in common is much broader than what the West Coast Straussians have. In discerning what the teams in a given argument are, the trick is to cast a net of the correct size.
Now, analyzing the so-called culture wars is just such a task, and right understanding hinges on identifying what is in dispute and who are disputing it. One of the battles is about the purpose of higher education, whether it should solely train the mind how to think or whether it should also impart moral cultivation.
On the one side we can put English professor Harold Bloom of Yale, a literary critic who maintains that reading great literature is for attaining “cognitive power,” “rhetorical power,” and “a real capacity for apprehending otherness,” but not for refining one’s standards of ethical behavior. On the other side we might put, modestly, me, who thinks that a work such as “Hamlet” is meaningless if one fails to recognize that its moral tensions are also one’s own, not merely a set of premises the reader must accept temporarily in order to comprehend the play.
Bloom’s position is nonetheless thoughtful, and a controversy between his team and mine would be quite interesting because they are distinguished at this fairly specific level, since both agree that there exists in the first place such a thing as great literature, which we should read, in contradistinction to bad literature, which we should not. It would be impossible to debate the fruits of reading Shakespeare if one of the combatants did not understand why they were discussing Shakespeare and not, say, E. L. James.
But if you glance up from this proposed argument, you will find that the real world will not suffer it to take place. In the real world, Bloom and I are counted on the same team.
This cannot be, you say; this is manifestly absurd from the foregoing. I agree with you. Many thousands of people, however, do not agree with you, and these are the members of the other team, which stages a dispute at a broader level. They do not care about Bloom and my disagreement about the value of great literature, for they object to the very idea of “great literature,” which they find to be a self-serving figment of the patriarchy.
Bloom, calling people so persuaded the School of Resentment, gets called a conservative and is placed on my roster for disbelieving that aesthetic merit is a bourgeois preoccupation. A vast spectrum of literary opinion which should be arguing within itself becomes compressed into an undifferentiated line because the campus left, perennially bereft of good taste, tries to make up for this defect by denying that good taste exists. This is, one can imagine, a depressing state of affairs, not only because arguing with the School of Resentment is exceedingly boring but because it obscures my disagreement with Bloom, which is both more interesting and more important.
The problem recurs in every area of intellectual life. Jordan B. Peterson, a swashbuckling Gnostic who in a better world would be a conservative’s sworn enemy, is classed with me as an upholder of patriarcho-fascism. Psychology professor Steven Pinker, atheist libertarian, argues that test scores should determine admission to Harvard, and that puts him on my side, notwithstanding meritocracy’s history as a dirty word in conservative circles. The most glaring disagreements are crowded out; the thinking cannot debate each other because we are indiscriminately besieged by the unthinking, the unthinkable, the thoughtless, the thankless.
I didn’t pick these teams. I hate these teams. A civilization in which I rose every morning to do battle with Bloom would at least be fun, but there’s no chance of having one until the campus barbarians are domesticated.
Liam M. Warner ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Classics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.