Your Syllabus Needs a Story

When I was in graduate school in English at UCLA in the 1980s, one of the hot, cutting-edge books in the discipline was Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. It came out in 1979 (English translation, 1984), near the end of the era of High Theory and quickly joined other works in the elite canon of avant garde thought (Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Said’s Orientalism, etc.). Some of the ideas in these books had become dogmas in the field, such as Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” and they were presented in seminars as part of our formation. Graduate students absorbed them as the equal of Shakespeare and Milton. We had to. Critical theory was the material of a higher humanities, the sign of expertise. That’s what the professors told us, and we didn’t argue. We were young and nervous, looking forward to joining the professorate, mindful of recent trends in the field and eager to demonstrate our professionalism. You showed your membership in the guild by trading smoothly in theoretical maxims. 

The lesson we took from Lyotard was simple and far-reaching: be skeptical of master narratives. This incredulity he identified as the central feature of the postmodern condition we all inhabit. By “master narratives” (or “Grand Narratives” or “metanarratives”), Lyotard meant those Big Picture models that give a direction and value to history. Marxism, for instance, laid out a plan that began with private property, concentration of wealth, and exploitation of labor, and culminated in communal relations and the workers’ paradise once the operations of class struggle did their work. Christianity had Christian Providential History, whose beginning (Creation), middle (the Incarnation), and end (the Second Coming) neatly contained the entirety of worldly existence. Natural science, liberalism, and Freudian psychoanalysis offered their own versions.  

Metanarratives such as these endowed with purpose everything from discrete events to historical time periods to individual lives. What was the Declaration of Independence? A major step in the evolution of individual rights from the Enlightenment to the time when full equality emerges. In that liberal teleology, the Declaration had a meaning that extended beyond its immediate occasion. That’s what a metanarrative supplied: a framework, a transcendental structure that reveals patterns and causes in the superficial messiness and randomness of human affairs. 

Now, in 1984, Lyotard declared, metanarratives had lost their credibility. People didn’t believe in them anymore. Lyotard highlighted the advance of technology as a primary cause, and we could add the decay of religion in people’s lives, the failure of communism, and abundant evidence of 20th century barbarism that undid sunny notions of progress. But for those of us learning the trade, the reasons were less important than Lyotard’s pat conclusion. Don’t rely on grand historical schemes, it said, don’t invoke Big Pictures in your treatment of literature and art.   

That was the upshot of the book. We didn’t have to be told how important such metanarratives were. Those of us in English had been taught to see things in literary terms since undergraduate days. Secularists all, we understood that metanarrativeswere more significant than God, freedom, and transcendence when it came to questions of beauty and truth and goodness. It was easy, then, to accept Lyotard’sskepticism as the latest disciplinary knowledge. By the time we encountered it, it already had the status of a professional assumption.   

We followed closely the academic stock market, the ideas and theories going up and those going down. In the humanities world at that time, everyone felt the pressure to be up-to-date and in-the-know. I’m not sure if that was because of the tight job market or because of the flood of European ideas and theories hitting English departments in America from the mid-60s forward, but the urge to be in on the latest developments was universal. Departments were alive with theoretical disputes. People didn’t argue over the right interpretation of Keats’s odes, as they had 20 years earlier. They debated whether Harold Bloom’s model of poetic influence was patriarchal, how the New Historicism challenged the old historicism, and the role of politics in literary criticism. The debates were all theoretical, or at least the most visible ones were. If a job candidate weren’t familiar with them, he might bomb the interview. 

It was like a catechism. The humanities had their master figures and their authoritative ideas, like theorems in algebra that you had to learn before graduating to geometry. But there was something different about Lyotard’s axiom. It affected our conceptions of literary expression and literary history, of course, just as ideas taken from Freud and Derrida did. But it also altered our syllabi, too, and not just by changing the texts and assignments we included.   

Think about how it came into play when we had to design a syllabus for a course in composition and literature. Coupled with lessons in grammar and rhetoric and revision, the readings for the course formed the core of the instruction. We wanted to pass along some literary and historical knowledge to go along with the writing pedagogy (most of us aimed to complete dissertations on some literary subject seen through a theoretical lens). What readings should we include, then? What was the principle of selection, and how should we arrange choices? In what order and to what purpose? 

Well, according to Lyotard’s injunction, we had to avoid the metanarrative mistake. We could not organize the texts we chose into a lineage that evolved toward a particular end or embodied bit by bit an overarching historical or aesthetic design. A syllabus of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huck Finn . . . Invisible Man, and Wise Blood, advertised as “The Great American Novel,” would sound too much like a “grand narrative” to fit the going wisdom. It would postulate an “American greatness” that various literary geniuses managed to realize in works that now had the status of classics, and no such memorializing conception as that was allowed. In 1919, T. S. Eliot spoke of the best literature of Europe, the “existing monuments,” as forming an “ideal order” that 20th-century writers properly experienced as alive and complete. Lyotard put that traditionalist notion to rest, and so did we. There was no ideal order, no grand scheme of Western civilization, or of the Great American Novel, or the Enlightenment pathway to freedom . . . 

Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, something else emerged that reinforced Lyotard’s skepticism. Indeed, it wielded more authority than anything the French theorists bequeathed to us. I mean the mandates of multiculturalism, which likewise criticized metanarratives but on different grounds. The old models were untrustworthy, it said, because they excluded women and minorities, they were Eurocentric, they denigrated colonized peoples and cultures, and cast self-serving values as universal standards. Courses in Western civilization, theretofore required at hundreds of campuses, had to go because their narrative of Jerusalem and Athens uniting, migrating to Rome, and spreading across Europe and the Atlantic in a triumphant progress of Judeo-Christianity, science, art, and justice suppressed non-Westerners and the victimizations they suffered. 

The same thing happened to other literary-historical metanarratives as they stood accused of Dead White Male bias. You had to diversify your syllabus, and that meant abandoning the old plotlines if you were going to do diversity right. It wasn’t just that you had to add more women and minority authors. That wasn’t hard to do in my area of 19th-century American literature. I had Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Booker T. Washington, Edith Wharton, and many other non-white-males on my syllabus when I started teaching a survey course at Emory University in 1990. But their inclusion put a strain on the conceptions of that period that I had learned by reading classic works of criticism in graduate school. F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), for instance, identified the decades before the War as the first great flowering of American literature, with five figures alone representing it (Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman). In adding other authors to my presentation of the age, I couldn’t stick with Matthiessen’s thesis, as Matthiessen himself found when he had to remove Poe while writing the book when it became clear he didn’t fit with the others. 

But multiculturalists didn’t care about maintaining a plot within which the works on the syllabus had a place and a purpose. Coherence wasn’t a virtue. A survey of American literature couldn’t be a “story” of American literature. A story would only impose a factitious unity upon diverse materials. It would also erect artificial boundaries around the literary past and exclude things deserving of attention. If, for example, American literature was the ongoing expression of American ideals as proposed in the Founding, as some literary historians in the early-20th century affirmed, Thoreau and Whitman and Douglass, too, had their roles. But where would Emily Dickinson go? She could appear only as an anomaly, an interruption in the story. 

More exceptions would explode the story, but that was part of the multiculturalist intention. I remember one evening in the early-90s that crystallized the aim. It was a faculty-grad student gathering, and I was there alone with a drink in my hand when a young woman introduced herself and started complaining about the American literature survey course offered that semester. The problem was obvious and inexcusable: no Native American literature on the syllabus. “Can you believe it?” she asked, incredulously. I told her that I could because I was the teacher of the course. I admitted it somewhat sheepishly; I wasn’t looking for a dispute. She blinked, her countenance alternating between embarrassment for herself and disapproval of me. I think I said something about looking at some Native American materials next time I taught the class before she walked away. 

But I didn’t do so, and I never did end up teaching Native American literature. Especially in a survey course, it would have been impossible to insert them in any meaningful way. For one thing, the literary quality of many Native American works included in anthologies such as Elias Boudinot’s “Address to the Whites” (1826—Boudinot was a leader of the Cherokee) didn’t approach that of Emerson et al, notwithstanding their high historical value. Additionally, while one could draw direct connections between the canonical authors—Whitman once said, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil”—to relate Whitman to the Ghost Dance songs, which also pop up in some anthologies, would be a stretch. Most importantly, to teach the Ghost Songs well would require too much contextualization for a survey course to admit. You have to move too quickly through too much material; the schedule doesn’t allow for much scaffolding. 

In effect, the result of this and other diversifying inclusions would be a break-up of the survey course into separate units of presentation and analysis. There would be no narrative that incorporated all or most of the materials into a larger design. Instead, once sufficient diversity was in place, as the weeks passed the teacher would move from one text to another with little more signaling than “Now, let’s look at this.” No more causality in literary history, no Big Story to tell, only multiple and discrete little stories that do not add up to a linear American heritage. No, they signify . . . diversity. 

In the new dispensation, a combination of French theory and American diversity, that wasn’t a drawback. It was an achievement. To do otherwise would be to slip into the old unities (according to Lyotard) and marginalizations (according to the multiculturalists). Nobody with academic ambitions wanted to be accused of that, and so nearly everyone obeyed. They relinquished the former narratives and turned their syllabi into a sample of this and a sample of that, some of them familiar works and authors, others less known but identified with previously ignored demographic groups.   

It happened all across the humanities, and it’s still happening. Just this year Yale University dropped its renowned survey of art, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present,” a course that legendary professor Vincent Scully taught for many years and was one of the most popular on campus. Students loved it; several architects and urban designers who helped start the New Urbanism movement took the course, which celebrated Western art and architecture as a glorious tradition. Recently, however, the familiar objections grew louder. The course focused on the Western tradition, which the current chairman of the art history department judged “problematic.” It drew too narrow a line from the ancients to the moderns. It had to be revised. From now on, instead of offering the old survey course, Yale Art History will run several courses thematically oriented, including “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” and “Sacred Places.” They won’t have a metanarrative, of course, but they will have lots of diversity. 

I wanted to rise in academia, but I couldn’t go along with this kind of diversification. At the time, though I shared the off-campus politics of my fellows (secular, left-leaning, Democratic Party, anti-“family values”), I liked Eliot’s vision of an “ideal order” of masterpieces.  Like E. D. Hirsch, I was a political liberal but an education conservative. The existence of a strain of genius running from Dante to Shakespeare, Swift, and Dostoevsky drew me to the English major in the first place when I was 20 years old, and now that I was 40 the attractions of this and that synthesis of literary history lingered. I was hooked on Grand Narratives, which were fun and inspiring. To believe that reading “Tintern Abbey” and “Mont Blanc” in my room at night connected me to a momentous heritage of the sublime was invigorating. Freud regarded the literature of the previous 150 years as the discovery and probing of the unconscious, an exploration I found as exciting as the tales of Columbus, Balboa, and Magellan that we learned in 7th Grade. I couldn’t give them up. The legacy of Great Books, Western Civilization, the American Renaissance, etc., made literary study a glamorous enterprise. 

That put me at odds with the humanities project. There was a lot of conformity in academia back then, and even more conformity now. Dissent from the reigning fundamentals closed off opportunities. In the ensuing years, I didn’t prosper within the institution. When it came to writing and jobs, I shifted to trade presses, newspapers, and magazines, doing consulting work for College Board, ETS, and other private and public education organizations, and working for the National Endowment for the Arts and First Things (while keeping my teaching post at Emory).   

But I still believe in the metanarrative approach to humanities instruction. In fact, I would say, in rejecting Big Pictures in the name of postmodernism and/or multiculturalism, humanities teachers have made a terrible mistake. The unfortunate fact for them is that their theories don’t match the desires of their audience. This is the irony of the theory explosion of the last half-century: what exhilarated the professors has proven a discouragement to non-professors. The discrepancy still holds. When students enroll in classes today, most of them expect that the teachers will introduce them to a significant body of expressions that have lasted through the ages—yes, an “ideal order” of some kind. They want to get the “story” of English satire from Dryden to Pope, not just a series of poems written by those figures. That’s a large part of the attraction of the humanities. 

Recall yourself when you were 18 years old. You left high school and parents, matriculated into a college. You wanted the things you encountered there to signify a higher level of study, a next stage of life. You felt better believing that history does have a direction, and that the course of things (including your existence) was not capricious. An English class on Romanticism that said something remarkable happened from Blake to Keats which cast a shadow over poets and critics for the next 100 years, a presentation of Paradise Lost that set the poem alongside Homer’s and Virgil’s works and upheld an epic tradition . . . those kinds of assurances met your hunger for meaning and purpose. A class whose readings didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts—not so much. 

We know this student desire exists because of feedback schools have received when they have asked current and former students about their experience. One of the better known episodes of the Culture Wars of the 1980s took place in January 1987 when Jesse Jackson led 500 students in a march around the Stanford campus as they chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go.” They were protesting the freshman Western culture course, a general education requirement that the marchers judged Eurocentrically-biased. One year later, Stanford scrapped the course and created a diversity-style replacement (lots of non-Western and non-male materials). The capitulation of the faculty became one of the central controversies of the day. What didn’t get reported, however, was that the Western culture requirement was one of the most popular courses in the university. Also, when Stanford did a curriculum review several years later, more than 70 percent of the students gave the new course low marks. They rated it a poor class not because of the diversity revisions, however, but because the course materials were not integrated into a coherent whole. It looked to them like a Chinese menu, a little of this and a little of that, all of it thrown together with no larger rationale. 

Columbia University has discovered the same fondness among the alumni for its famed Great Books courses every time it tinkers with them. As a dean at Columbia explained to me once, the alumni value their freshman year reading the classics and acquiring a feel for the momentum of Western civilization as much as anything else in their undergraduate careers no matter what their eventual major. They know it was a unique chapter in their lives and they don’t want to see it destroyed. 

My advice to K-12 humanities teachers is this: make your syllabus tell a story. Select and arrange the novels, poems, plays, treatises, paintings, sculptures, symphonies, concertos, and events into a sequence that has a plot. Give students the parts and a whole. The whole may be largely your own creation. It may rise upward or slide downward, evolve or decay, climax or anti-climax, head toward triumph or tragedy, knowledge of this or truth of that, progress from material to spiritual or vice versa, from God to man or man to God . . . but some design is essential. Do not let the ideology of diversity lead you away from unity and wholeness. 

The benefits will be lasting. Students will remember the materials better than they will if they are not situated within a structure (retention improves when the mind sets small pieces into a larger design). Students will learn the habit of discerning patterns within the heterogeneity of historical change. Your approach to art and literature, philosophy and history, will instill a habit of reflection. The world will become more meaningful to them, and the past will appear a living creation, not a dead letter. 

Students will remember you, too, many years after they have graduated. As literature instructors, you will have cultivated their writing, shown them critical attitudes to take toward fiction and drama, explained prosody and metrics and rhetoric. But you will also have offered them a holistic vision of the past. They may accept that vision or reject it. Some of them, to be sure, will be indifferent. But all of them will know that the humanities are a lot more than a bunch of readings and assignments to complete. The humanities are the meaning of history; they contain the meaning of Man. In that meaning, many of your students will begin to find themselves. Your gift to them is better materials of self-discovery than the stuff of pop culture—Hamlet wondering what to do, Pope concentrating so much wit in a single couplet, Ahab persuading the men to join in his obsession, the Invisible Man craving to be seen . . . 

© Retained by author and Institute for Classical Education 2020