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Teaching the Good

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 41, Number 2, Summer 2011
pp. 167-174 | 10.1353/jnt.2001.0000

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The ambiguity attached to the good often invites polemics. When ethical value is aligned with an activist agenda and connected to social justice, academics often rush to accept this invitation, enlisting their critical skills in an attempt to distinguish Left politics from reactionary, conservative, or neoliberal positions that retract the good to notions of what is moral, patriotic, or economically calculable. According to this position, interpretative strategies associated with cultural analysis as well as literature itself enlighten us to a wider sense of the good, one that is both less self-interested and less anxious about toeing the line of normative standards. Teaching the good in these terms entails a radical pedagogy that prioritizes democratic values in the training of citizens “to exercise their freedoms in concert with larger concerns over social justice” (Giroux 5). As studies of political donations to the 2008 presidential election showed, many in the academy support such an agenda: faculty, especially in the humanities, donated to the Democratic Party and Barack Obama by sizable margins. Even if nary a conservative was to be found in an English department (to the chagrin of David Horowitz and others rallying around the so-called Academic Bill of Rights), this presumption of unanimity elides fundamental and still unresolved discrepancies between a good activist agenda and good aesthetics.

This fault line is exposed in the texts we teach—or, as more often the case, in the texts we do not teach. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a book that performed a verifiable social good in rallying support for the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, but many have debated the aesthetic payoff of a novel that ends in a lecture. No doubt Sinclair’s preaching sustains the common impression that The Jungle actually created food reform. This belief in the novel’s efficacy, as Sinclair’s biographer demonstrates, was in part manufactured by a savvy publicity agent at Doubleday and Page who devised a media campaign to link the novel to food legislation that was already being discussed in Congress (Arthur 70–83). Similar questions fiction’s about real world effects have been asked about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, and Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Luckily, though, each of these books weighs in at several hundred pages, giving us convenient excuse for not clogging up courses with texts that would take too many weeks to teach. Ironically, then, these books that make a case for representation—the representation of workers, slaves, indigenous peoples—are sometimes seen as being unrepresentative because their sheer length would require that other texts be bumped off the syllabus. This false causality in reality marks a crisis in representation, most notably when political representation seemingly fails to line up with aesthetic representation. The laudable intent of The Jungle seems to jar with the novel’s proximity to socialist propaganda; the virtue of Stowe’s antislavery politics is diminished by her dubious preaching about “Negro” character; Ramona, in spite of or rather because of its concern for California Indians, is classed as “one of the great propaganda novels of the nineteenth century” according to no less an authority than Amazon.com.

The political and aesthetic imbalance that seemingly disfigures these texts is the problem of all committed art. For Theodor Adorno, art whose level of commitment requires engagement with the social world already represents a compromise with that world—its practices, its methods, and its injustices—as it is. “Bad politics becomes bad art, and vice-versa,” he writes (187). In a similar vein, we might also ask whether bad novels (in Adorno’s sense of “bad”) make for bad teaching. How do we teach the good without tripping on the aesthetically bumpy ground where art seems uncomfortably close to propaganda?

Teaching the good is an imprecise endeavor that can send us running in several directions at once in pursuit of texts that lead to students to aesthetic pleasure, ethical instruction, and social justice. Jonathan Arac probes one of these aims by asking “What Good Can Literary History Do?” Prompted by the concern that “in the twenty-first century . . . our work is marginal,” Arac discusses how literary history...

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