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Excerpt from:  “Humanism's Heat, Postmodernism’s Cool,” CEA Critic LVII.2 (Winter 1995):  1-25.


NB: This publication received the Robert Miller prize from CEA as “the best article to appear in the CEA Critic in 1995,” awarded at the April, 1966 CEA convention.


Traditional humanists need to recognize that the challenge from antihumanists won't go away on its own and that antihumanists cannot be frightened away by horrified dismissals or accusations about the crudity of "politicalization." In the first place, a good many antihumanist challengers have made good on their claims. Their critiques of the "great books" of traditional humanistic study have opened our eyes to the lurking presence in them of many socially embarrassing, politically objectionable, or downright oppressive values that generations of traditional scholarship have mostly ignored. In the second place, the challenge is not being very well met. Traditional humanists—assuming, perhaps, that communication with antihumanists is impossible (an arrogance matched only by antihumanists who assume the same thing in reverse)—too seldom rely on developed arguments and too often rely instead on bluster, outrage, shock, and a "how-could-you!" attitude designed to make antihumanists feel ashamed of themselves. But antihumanists don't feel ashamed of themselves—in fact, they seem to feel pretty cocky most of the time, as combatants who have their opponents on the ropes are likely to feel—and they generally decline the invitation to wither in the heat of traditional humanists' moral outrage, which they often view either as laughable or as prima facie evidence of humanists' dismissibility. Traditional humanists in the current debate too seldom develop the best case for the salutary effects of the texts they value; too frequently, they try to pretend that only barbarians would ask questions about political appropriateness in the first place. The heat of humanists' passions is met with the cool of postmodernists' skepticism, and there the matter often remains.


The irony of this situation is that traditional humanists have a good case to make and that some of the antihumanists' arguments are deeply vulnerable. But the traditional humanists' preference for indulging in outrage instead of advancing hard arguments gives the field, by default, to those who do make arguments, even if these arguments are sometimes poor. While many of the antihumanists' arguments are weak, for example, at the very points their proponents think are strongest, it can't be denied that they are arguments and that even weak arguments will overpower nonexistent arguments. It follows, first, that traditional humanists need to critique the antihumanists' arguments where they are vulnerable and, second, that they need to advance their own arguments about the value of the literary study they cherish, instead of pounding on the table, saying that they won't stand for any more nonsense. In the following section, I try to model the kind of developed argument I am recommending. My argument focuses on the role that literature plays in educating human beings to operate effectively and autonomously in the world.