Having recently completed a fun and enlightening read of Dr. Elizabeth Kantor’s Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, then just happening on the article “Un-Donne: When Secular Students Confront Reverent Classics” by Joan Faust in the Winter edition of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, I began to ask myself, what are they teaching kids these days in college, including my own grandchildren? Is it worth the exorbitant amounts they extract from parents (and grandparents) to learn — in many cases — defunct Marxist philosophy, Black Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies (yes, that’s what it is called), and other such drivel?
Dr. Kantor’s book proposes to enlighten the reader on the flimsy fare that passes for English Literature these days, but better and most helpful, are her suggestions about what you and your young people need to read to teach yourselves good English and American Literature in spite of the junk they are being fed in today’s classrooms. It seems that the object of most left-leaning English professors today is to deny students the great works of the English language going all the way back to the heroic Beowulf, during the Anglo-Saxon period (Why? Who needs heroes these days?), through the Medieval period (Why? Who wants to talk about God and the Church these days?), to the Renaissance (Why? Still too Christian, too much talk of sin and redemption), and, of course, let us completely ignore the seventeenth century where literally everything, even life itself, depended on religion in England. Romantic poets? Nah – too sappy. Jane Austin? No. She believed in marriage and patriarchy (can’t have any of that stuff!). Huckleberry Finn? — terribly racist (Why, it uses the “N” word, you know.) How about Faulkner? too Southern! All the grand works of these eras were written by Dead White European Males — so — out they go! And so it is.
Now along comes the quarterly journal Academic Questions, whose mission is “…to enrich the substance and strengthen the integrity of scholarship and teaching, persuaded that only through an informed understanding of the Western intellectual heritage and the realities of the contemporary world, can citizen and scholar be equipped to sustain our civilization’s achievements.” I was so grateful to learn there is at least one English professor who is giving her students their money’s worth, and much to my southern satisfaction, this lady is ensconced at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.
Dr. Joan Faust, professor of English at the above-mentioned college and executive board member of the John Donne Society, writes “…anyone who teaches any medieval or early modern texts must face the challenge of the woeful lack of student knowledge of religious dogma, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant or Jewish beliefs. Such knowledge is essential for the study of early modern texts, whether to understand the intricate plan of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Inferno; the subtle and not so subtle irony of Chaucer’s portrayals of the Summoner, the Pardoner and the Prioress; or the anguished repentance of John Donne’s Roman Catholic tendencies in his Holy Sonnets…” Students do not know who Saint Paul was and his importance to the spread of Christianity; some think he is Paul McCartney of Beatles fame!
The point being made here is that so much of literature requires knowledge (not necessarily belief) of religious dogmas, liturgy, and practices that students coming into college in our times are not prepared with even the slightest smattering of that necessary knowledge. They simply do not understand what they are reading, nor do they understand the historical context in which English literature was written. Rabbi Jacob Neusner of Brown University declares that this began with the Protestant Reformation and was reinforced by the so-called Enlightenment, which drove religion from the forefront of society and forced its internalization. Professor John Cavadini of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame laments that even Catholic students at his elite college come into their studies without the least bit of knowledge of basic Catholic beliefs — the Trinity, the role of Our Lady, what the Gospels are and how many of them there are. (Now, as an aside, can we guess just who was responsible for catechizing these ignorant Catholics?) Obviously Dante, Shakespeare and Donne are being taught at some places in spite of Dr. Kantor’s claims in her Politically Incorrect Guide. Some professors are resorting to composing a matching timeline of historical happenings (such as the Reformation in England and on the Continent) and a background of all the splits in Protestantism so that students can properly understand the writings of the “fundamentalist” Protestant John Milton and the Anglican (who retained his Catholic sensibilities) John Donne.
Coming into college from an almost totally secularist society, not only do these students lack knowledge of the importance that religion plays in literature, they have no concept of its role throughout history. One could be so bold as to say that the major force in the building of Western of Civilization was the Catholic Church. This is obviously the reason that those Stanford students in 1987 chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go” in their attempt to dump the DWEMs (Dead White European Males) and institute “diversity” studies with books like I, Rigoberta Menchu, the supposed story of a Guatemalan peasant woman which was exposed as a fraud in 1999, but is still taught in some English departments. Where are you William Shakespeare?
It is sad that our younger generation is losing the treasure of the greatest body of literature ever written. It is even sadder that the underpinning of that great literature, the Christian religion, is being trashed for a shallow and totally secular culture. Dr. Kantor’s book can be of some help in self education. Conscientious and dedicated professors like Joan Faust who continue to teach that great tradition may just bring us back to our senses and our young people back to real education.