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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?
By pretending to sacrifice literary judgment, the English professor gains the right to moral and “metacognitive” judgment. Nice work if you can get it.
Starr and Dettmar compliment my phrase, “the pathologies of expertise,” and graciously proceed to illustrate one of the worst such pathologies — bootstrapping from a delimited sphere of professional authority to self-appointed arbiter of broad swaths of students’ experience. By pretending to sacrifice literary judgment, the Pomona English professor gains the right to moral and “metacognitive” judgment. Nice work if you can get it.
Their bargain looks even better once we realize that they aren’t actually giving up literary judgment for a moment. Starr and Dettmar argue that they don’t “force” students to understand the value of James Baldwin or Shakespeare. Whatever the students like is good enough for them. But then what’s on these professors’ syllabi, and how does it get there? Perhaps they have taken a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook and used algorithms to construct syllabi based on the empirical preferences of their students — gleaned from their Amazon or Google accounts. But more likely they’re putting works on their syllabi they think the students will benefit from engaging. And that’s literary judgment.
Starr and Dettmar claim they teach “difference.” Doesn’t this imply that they are showing students something they don’t already like? If so, they’re practicing judgment. They’re saying that certain works make available certain kinds of valuable insights and experiences. If not — if Céline Dion or The Apprentice are just as good at illustrating difference as Gwendolyn Brooks or Bashō — then what reason do they give to the student who reasonably inquires: Why do I have to read what’s on your syllabus?
A similar question arises with respect to empathy. Is every work equally good at inculcating empathy? If not, then Starr and Dettmar are practicing judgment. If so, then they are claiming a truly extraordinary authority. It doesn’t matter what works we teach; the professor’s total mastery of empathy, morality, and “metacognitive skills” itself is sufficient to enable Pomona students to thrive in the marketplace. Like all varieties of market egalitarianism, surface equality here conceals deeper inequalities. The more Starr and Dettmar tell the students how equal they are, the more they celebrate the equality of all consumer choice, the greater their own authority grows. Yet this comes at a cost. Pomona’s English majors are at historic lows. These professors are finding fewer and fewer subjects for their moral authority.
There are many serious questions about the expertise associated with literary judgment, and the kinds of checks necessary to counter prejudice and authoritarianism. But none of these arguments are necessary to demonstrate the emptiness of Starr’s and Dettmar’s position. They protest my authoritarianism, but they claim a professorial authority far greater, and far less grounded, than any I imagine. They pretend they don’t tell students what works they should value, and then claim they are showing students works that transmit the values of difference and empathy. The obvious contradictions of their response to my essay are dispelled by their identification of Silicon Valley as the destination of their pedagogy. Its combination of an egalitarian approach to consumer preference with a hostility to any value not assimilable to the market finds two faithful advocates in Starr and Dettmar. The power of this ideology renders them blind to its incoherence as an educational program.