On August 4 I spoke at the Young America’s Foundation conference in Washington, DC. I had the honor of following an address by Elizabeth Kantor, the editor of the Conservative Book Club and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Kantor’s address was a superb summation of some of the values which we are fighting to defend today against the global jihad, and the monumental works of literature in which those values are articulated or embodied in character.
Being so impressed by her address, I asked Dr. Kantor if I could reprint it here so as to elucidate some of the principles that are under attack from jihadists today, and the need to defend them. I have waited to do so until her book (which is likewise excellent) became available. I hope you will read both this essay and her book, as we need to see much more of this sort of thing: forthright and unapologetic defenses of the value of the civilization which, if we do not defend today, we will surely lose.
Bravo, Dr. Kantor, and thank you.
What should students read in college? Should you be reading conservative books? Well, I”m the editor of the Conservative Book Club. And I”m also just getting ready to publish a conservative book with Regnery — The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature.
But I”m not going to recommend that conservative books should be at the very top of your reading list. You”ve got a whole lifetime to keep up with the state of the culture war or to be a political activist. But you”ve only got one chance at growing into an actually educated American citizen, a full-fledged participant in our cultural heritage, a torchbearer for Western civilization. Hundreds of young people committed to defending America or preserving Western culture aren’t going to be able to accomplish those goals if there are no young people still getting the kind of education that used to turn students into educated Americans and real citizens of the West.
You should be reading Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare — Dickens, and T. S. Eliot — the “dead white males” who used to make up the old “canon” of literature that every educated person needed to know. Even conservative classics — take Whittaker Chambers” Witness, for example, or God and Man at Yale — aren’t going to give you Western culture. They”re only going to convince you why it’s worth conserving, and set you a fine example of how to defend it. You can learn from the greats of American conservatism that there are permanent things, and that they need preserving. But the best place to learn the permanent things themselves is not from reading the classics of conservative thought. It’s from reading the classics, period.
As Americans, we”re lucky. The greatest modern body of literature — maybe the greatest literature in world history — is in our native language. Literature is the kind of art that English speakers have excelled at. We”re fortunate because we can enjoy Beethoven’s 9th and Michelangelo’s Pieta just as easily as any German or Italian — they don’t need any translation — and Shakespeare and Wordsworth are in our own language.
In 1988 — which was eighteen years ago — that might be the year you were born, if you were starting college this fall — Jesse Jackson led student protesters across the Stanford campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ. has got to go.” [Note: Since I gave this talk, it’s come to my attention that Jesse Jackson was not actually leading this chant: though he participated in the protest in which the slogan “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go” was chanted, it appears that he expressed reservations about it at the time.] Meanwhile, what those protesters wanted has pretty much happened on American college campuses. Postmodernism and literary “theory” have effectively stopped college professors from transmitting Western civilization to the next generation. In “English” class, for example, you might now watch a Michael Moore movie, or study Marx, Foucault, or Derrida, or the history of ballet, or pornography, or “Latino cultural studies,” “Caribbean women writers,” detective fiction, or Stephen King novels.
Even if you sign up for a course with “Shakespeare” or “Faulkner” in the title, there’s no guarantee that you”re going to be taught English or American literature. The professor is likely to be interested in teaching something else — Marxism or postcolonialism or feminism. The literature is there to give you a dose of Western culture that’s just enough to inoculate you against it.
College students used to read Shakepseare’s plays for — among other things — universal truths about human nature. Now Shakespeare’s Tempest is supposed to be about colonialism, Othello is about racism, Macbeth is about the oppression of women, and The Merchant of Venice is about the instability of what the Marxists call “early capitalism.” (Not having learned anything from the fall of the Berlin Wall, they think we”re in “late capitalism” now.) In college today, you learn to read through Shakespeare looking for subtle signs of the “ism’s and “phobia’s that have made traditional Western culture the locus of evil in the modern world. America and the West are all about oppression, so there must not be anything but oppression in our literary heritage.
It makes perfect sense that leftist professors would want to disrupt the communication of our culture to the next generation. Look at some of the things you might learn, if you actually read the great literature that’s written in English:
You might learn to admire heroes, and appreciate that war is sometimes necessary, and even noble. That’s a lesson you could learn from Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, Shakespeare’s Henry V, William Faulkner, and Evelyn Waugh, to give just a few examples.
You might learn that Christianity is intellectually respectable. Once you”ve read Milton, you can never again think of evangelical Christians as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command” — as the Washington Post described them. Medieval and Renaissance literature scholar C. S. Lewis explains in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, how reading English literature was instrumental in his conversion: Lewis realized that the authors whose works he really loved — and whose view of the world made the most sense to him — were all Christians. He was doing his best to stay an atheist, but he realized “All the books were beginning to turn against me.”
You could also learn about chivalry: English literature is an education in this uniquely Western arrangement between the sexes. For example, consider the work of the great medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer. When Chaucer was writing, courtly love was still mostly a kind of literary fad or a hobby. The feminist theory is that that putting women on a pedestal was some kind of a trick of the patriarchy for oppressing them more effectively. But you can find out what was really going on when it all started. Just read Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
If you get your idea of what women in the Middle Ages were like from the feminists you”d think they were all silent, submissive — “erased,” as the feminists say. But the women in Chaucer aren’t like that at all. They”re mostly engaged in a ferocious and well-matched battle of the sexes with the men in their lives. But a few of them have discovered chivalry. They”re wishing for, or even enjoying, a different kind of arrangement. If chivalry and courtesy are applied to marriage, then a man can be a woman’s “lord in marriage” — and at one and the same time her “servant in love,” too. This is the beginning of the chivalrous relations between men and women that were in force in America and the rest of the West until 20th-century feminists started arguing that all distinctions between the sexes””even the courtesies that seemed to elevate women””were really demeaning.
If chivalry just keeps women submissive, then the West ought to be the place where women have the least freedom. In reality, it’s just the opposite, of course. Women in America have unexampled freedom and dignity. We inherited those things from Western culture — ultimately, from the Middle Ages. If we cut ourselves off from that past, can we be sure we”ll always keep that freedom and that dignity?
Here’s another thing could learn from English and American literature: What’s wrong with leftist morality. Our great novelists will teach you all about unintended consequences — and about the horrors of revolutionary expedience.
Dickens is the great example for this one. His Tale of Two Cities was such a good criticism of revolutionary ideology that Margaret Thatcher gave Francois Mitterand a copy. Think about what’s wrong with revolutionary morality. What exactly is the answer to the Leninist idea that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs? Why doesn’t the end justify the means?
A moral philosopher will tell you that it’s never right to do evil that good may come of it. A historian can show you that revolutionary expedience always seems to lead to atrocity following on atrocity: Good intentions without moral absolutes are a recipe for terror.
But if you”ve read the great 19th-century novelists, you”ve internalized the traditional Western respect for those absolutes. You feel the force of the principles that are finally the only check to totalitarianism. You”re not just convinced of the abstract proposition that the ends don’t justify the means. Your character is formed to recognize that it’s disastrous to do evil that good may come of it.
You”ve learned from Dickens, for example, that good and bad actions have their own internal logic, which the best intentions in the world can’t override. Every choice you make has results that aren’t controlled by your intentions. Those results flow naturally from the character of the choices themselves — as Dickens shows in hundreds of fascinating plots twists.
Dickens is known as a crusading liberal reformer, and there’s a lot of truth to that reputation. But he had a novelist’s eye for the truth about human characters. And he was also grounded in the traditional wisdom of Western civilization. So his books are actually full of severe critiques of liberalism. Hard Times shows the dehumanizing effects of the modern science-based education that was already replacing humane education in his day. And Bleak House gives us a picture of the evils of liberalism in Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby is not a violent revolutionary, leaving a trail of bloody destruction in her wake. She’s a respectable English philanthropist who cares deeply about the — very real — problems of Africa. But she neglects (to the point of physical danger) and even persecutes her own children in her cause. She has turned her oldest daughter a miserable, overworked secretary for her charitable correspondence. She blackmails her little boy into contributing his small allowance to the cause she loves better than she loves him.
Sir Philip Sidney, writing in the Renaissance, argued that the purpose of literature is to teach and delight. A philosopher can teach you abstract principles. But the poet shows you what’s noble, and what’s base — so that you actually learn to love what’s good and aspire to it — and to despise what’s not. Americans didn’t use to consider themselves educated unless they”d been formed by Shakespeare, at least — among the great classics in our language. Literature used to be such an important part of the typical undergraduate education because it civilizes people. If you want to be a citizen of the West, you need to read our great literature.