Updated: Dec 4, 2022
(Author's Note: This article was published last year in Catholic World Report. I am reposting it here because it is still a major problem that must continue to be addressed.)
The University of Wyoming bookstore was a magical place back when I started going to college. So many books. So much knowledge. I saw it as a gateway to new worlds, a launching pad into adventure.
A list of required texts in hand, I’d wander the aisles fancying I could smell the ink on the pages of the books. The store was brightly lit. Throngs of students in various stages of disarray clogged the aisles and formed long lines at the checkout. The books cost a pretty penny, even back then. I didn’t mind. The price of admission to the hallowed halls was bound to be worth it.
I had dropped out of high school a few years earlier, moved to Arizona, and fell in with the wrong crowd. The move back to Wyoming was an escape from the netherworld of addiction that haunted the desert. I saw the university as a safe haven that might guard me from the vagaries of the world. It was a fortress that housed wisdom.
Naïve? Maybe. But I wasn’t disappointed. Not then.
It took a few Change of Major forms to figure out where to stake my claim. I dabbled in biology, forestry, and history. Soon enough, I realized I belonged in the Humanities Department. Literature and philosophy were a noble calling. It seems like such a long time ago now, another world.
At the beginning of each semester, I’d eagerly return to the bookstore. I purchased anthologies of American, British, and European literature. Books by Plato, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dante filled my room. Flannery O’Connor was one of my favorites. Willa Cather had a way with words. Visiting the bookstore continued to open the way to new possibilities of being in the world.
There was a display rack stocked with yellow and black pamphlets near the bookstore checkout. Anyone making a purchase had to pass it. The pamphlets were titled CliffsNotes and marketed as “literature guides.” The students knew they were really sophisticated cheat sheets.
I did witness students leafing through the pamphlets, but I never saw anyone actually purchase one. To read a CliffsNotes version of, say, Crime and Punishment, rather than reading the novel itself, would be blasphemy. Even the few who stooped to reading the pamphlets never considered citing CliffsNotes in a paper. To do so would risk being mocked by professors and students alike.
Brave New Theories
Years passed. I took on the role of professor in a humanities department. Students citing SparkNotes and LitCharts in papers became more common with each passing year. Many students either no longer knew or didn’t care that by depriving themselves of the experience of reading, for example, Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth” or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, they were giving up on humanity. They had learned somewhere along the way that the easy way was best way and so sacrificed a real education for a credential. They consented to being programmed.
Humanities departments were no longer the Keeper of the House of Wisdom. Too many had adopted university business models that pushed corporate canned educational packages with a decidedly progressive bent.
One of my worst moments was when I realized that the once-vaunted Western literary cannon had been sacrificed on the altar of relativism. The coherence that once served as a foundation for literature programs across the nation dissolved like paper in sulfuric acid. The English degree no longer held common purpose or cause.
Depending on which college a student attended, he or she might study graphic novels, dramatic plays of the twentieth century, poetry of Pacific Islanders, or cartoons and commercials. A common denominator need not exist. What passed as “literature” was to be determined by faculty.
Literature professors were no longer concerned with how a short story or a poem contributed to the understanding of the human experience. They became preoccupied with the reader and what the reader wanted a story or poem to mean. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” nixes the author’s intent in writing a story from being considered in the reading. In doing so, Barthes aided and abetted the relativizing of interpretation to the point of incoherence.
Institutions, however, tolerate incoherence about as well as nature abides vacuums. Soon enough, a new order emerged, a political order based on dubious theories of identity. Books were interpreted by the theory du jour: Feminist, Queer, Marxist, Freudian, Intersectionality, and the list continues to grow to this day.
Moby Dick can now be interpreted through any and all of these lenses, and all interpretations can be deemed equally valid. Even, or maybe especially, the Holy Bible, the foundational text of Europe, was targeted by the new orthodoxy. The adherents of this sea change must have realized that when all interpretations can be seen as valid, the term “literature” is rendered meaningless. Literary theory becomes an exercise in the vanity of victimhood. The Western tradition be damned. This is what they were and are after.
More time passed. I grew more disillusioned. The university that had rescued me from a life of addiction and crime, that had given my life meaning, was no more.
I can remember when most people who wanted a porn-fix had to walk into a brick-and-mortar store to buy it. They had to show their face to a cashier to get a Playboy or a Hustler at a convenience store. If they wanted something more depraved, they skulked to the XXX Store and walked out, brown bag in hand, into public. If the smut came through the mail, the recipient suspected that the mailman and people at the post office knew what they were delivering. At some level, the great majority of them were ashamed.
Nowadays millions of people access porn on the internet in the privacy of their homes (or wherever they can escape notice). According to Esquire, “In 2018, the human race made a grand total of 33.5 billion visits to Pornhub, clocking in 92 million daily average visits to the site and 4,791,799 pornographic videos uploaded—enough hours for a single person to continuously watch porn without breaks for 115 years.” That’s just one site. Porn sells!
LitCharts, SparkNotes, and other “literature guides” can also be viewed on the internet. I wager these sites, due to their sheer volume, have a significant impact on undergraduates and graduate students alike. “There’s no shame in cheating if nobody sees you do it,” seems to be the wisdom of the day.
Like Sparknotes, LitCharts aims to make complex passages less complicated. It is estimated that about 30% of LitCharts subscribers are teachers and educators. Course Hero recently purchased LitCharts and suspects that,“…it will grow from 1 million subscribers last year to 2 to 3 million paid subscribers this year.” Not nearly the number of views as the porn industry, but they are steadily gaining ground.
Porn corrupts by stripping humans of their God-given dignity. What will be the result of dumbing down literature for teachers who are too busy and students who are too lazy to read? For one thing, it helps in destroying the viability of university humanities departments.
The companies in the “literature guide” game cozy-up with the new orthodoxy and cater to propagators of the progressive. Why? Because identity politics sells. Students who are taught to read literature through prepackaged lens are being stripped of their birthright.
Reading and interpreting literature used to be an exercise in critical thinking. It was also an immersion into the human experience not to be found anywhere else. It was the premiere place the reader came to deepen their understanding of what it means to be human.
Too many humanities departments today undermine human dignity through indoctrination. Instead of diversity, they promote conformity by way of relativity. When the truth we share as humans is canceled because each individual’s truth is their own and all interpretations are valid, our humanity is canceled as well. The individual, drowning in a sea of nihilism, then clings to any label that will keep him afloat. Craving meaning, he trades human dignity for the buoy of identity politics. He no longer understands what being human means because it can mean anything at all. It becomes tribal.
Ideology and the death of dignity
A man addicted to porn can no longer recognize a woman’s inherent worth. Our current culture promotes political ideology in public schools (where are public school teachers trained?). In doing so, teachers (inadvertently or not) deprive students of dignity because they no longer recognize the inherent worth of each individual’s shared humanity.
When I was in college, pretty much everyone knew that reading CliffsNotes was cheating, just like almost everyone knew that pornography was a sin. The CliffsNotes display near the checkout at the University of Wyoming bookstore was always full of titles. They must have sold a few copies here and there, but I never saw anyone buy one. Those who dared must have done so at closing time or when the store opened in the middle of the week. At some level, they were ashamed.
The bookstore at my current university doesn’t have a CliffsNotes rack. Come to think of it, it doesn’t have that many books either. Students purchase electronic copies or buy them online. The store’s not very crowded the week before classes. Either is the campus. Students spend their time in their dorms taking online courses and surfing the internet. They don’t understand the internet, like any addiction, is dehumanizing. Unlike other kinds of addicts I have known, these ones don’t seem to have a sense of shame.
The university, more than ever, is a progressive stronghold. Progressive elites see themselves as the architects of the City of God. Think Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Together they seek to usurp He who cannot be usurped. In what they see as a noble quest to stomp out evil once and for all by strictly human means, they deny human nature, divine grace, and the mystery of being. These efforts are, of course, doomed to fail. But when? And at what cost?