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Excerpt from:  “The Many-Headed Hydra of Theory vs. the Unifying Mission of Teaching,” College English LIX.1 (January 1997):  41-58.


A better model for us in our discipline than either Plato or Derrida is Chaucer. No one could accuse Chaucer of not seeing the evils of his day, but his generous humanity, his charity, and his love of the world not because of but in spite of its imperfections is a model that we professionals who teach literature and criticism could profitably adopt. Chaucer is not a Pollyanna or a Pangloss, nor does he pull Pilate's trick of washing his hands, but neither does Chaucer teach us to hate the world. Chaucer simply employs a richer set of resources for improving it than do such critics as Plato, Voltaire, Derrida, or most postmodernists. Chaucer relies on critical intelligence, but he also relies on love: love of the world despite its limitations and love of his fellows despite their failures. In the end, I remain convinced that love and criticism are much more powerful influences for improvement than criticism alone.


My argument is not that English as a discipline has the power automatically to improve either students or the world. Studying literature and criticism does not automatically improve anyone's reasoning, aesthetic sense, or moral agency. Studying literature does not automatically make the world more civilized or sane or spiritual or democratic or tolerant of diversity. Traditional humanists from the Renaissance to the present have long been culpable for claiming naively that literature does work these improvements automatically, as if literature were a magical panacea. But the weakness of the traditional humanists’ arguments is its overstatement of a fundamental truth, not the weakness of being completely wrong-headed. The problem is in claiming that literature works its good effects automatically, not in claiming that it possesses the power to work good effects. It is still possible to argue that literary study invites such improvement, and that as long as literature remains the focus of our disciplinary activity, then English teachers may reinforce literature’s invitations with appropriate forms of knowledge and practice that can be life-forming and life-changing. The nature of literature’s invitations to improvement can be brought into greater focus by contrasting those invitations with the coercive prescriptions of postmodern cultural criticism which, despite its relativistic notion of truth, brooks no diversity of views about its own social and political priorities.