The Hypocrisy of Experts

Michael Clune in The Chronicle Review:

A number of readers of my recent Chronicle Review essay, “The Humanities’ Fear of Judgment,” doubted the existence of literature professors so enchanted by the pseudo-equality of consumer culture as to reject literary judgment. Therefore I’m grateful that G. Gabrielle Starr and Kevin Dettmar are so explicit on this point. When I suggest that teaching a great writer like Gwendolyn Brooks to resistant students is worthwhile, they retort: “When Silicon Valley types say they want to hire humanities majors, it’s not because they want coders who know Gwendolyn Brooks poems.”

Starr and Dettmar reject the “authority” by which a literature professor presumes to show students works worth reading. Who are we, they argue, to tell students that James Baldwin, Shakespeare, or Gwendolyn Brooks are good? As a first-generation college student, I learned to be wary of professors loudly forswearing their authority, approaching students as buddies, just wanting to have a friendly conversation. Such a stance typically concealed a far more thoroughgoing play at authority.  And of course Starr and Dettmar immediately reveal their suspicion of authority to be hypocritical. These literature professors modestly disavow any expertise in literary judgment in order to claim expertise in empathy, morality, and “metacognitive skills.” Such expertise, they tell us, will “prepare our students to contend with some degree of success in the marketplace of ideas.”

But what exactly qualifies a literature Ph.D. as an empathy expert? Why should students attending Pomona College — one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet — go into debt to learn how to be moral from the authors of scholarly books on 18th-century literature and Bob Dylan?

More here.

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