The Clare Spark Blog

July 17, 2011

Literary criticism, Ravitch variant

John Martin’s Satan in Council, the engraving owned by Melville

[Before you read this, see, retitled “Diane Ravitch and the higher moderation.”]

Here is a quote from Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police (Knopf, 2003). She writes “Most state standards say that literature is to be read by students for a social or political message, as though every poem or novel is meant to be a social or political commentary rather than an expression of the writer’s emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic concerns…The study of literature as knowledge and as art is either missing from the standards or has been supplanted by utilitarian concerns.” (p.124)

Such statements make me tear my hair. Every author, no matter the subject matter, is situated in some particular relationship with the dominant cultural and political trends of a specific historical context; they may affirm or reject dominant values, but they do not stand above the fray, with the affected neutrality of state-appointed mediators. If a writer’s book or poem is heavily influenced by a previous author from a different period, as, say, Melville was responding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in Moby-Dick, it is not because of aesthetics alone, but because a certain unresolved philosophical issue remains current and problematic to Melville. In his case, it was the matter of moral accountability and the limits of human agency: were his actions predestined or chosen freely? The question of moral action could not have been more relevant to the period of composition for Moby-Dick: the slavery question was already dividing the Republic, along with Melville’s own family as the decades wore on. And then there is the issue of patronage, irrelevant to Ravitch’s declaration of war against extra-aesthetic or extra-“literary” readings. In the case of Melville, writing his Supplement to Battle-Pieces during the intial year of Reconstruction, patronage was everything, for his support group was entirely conservative Democratic (though a very few of his relatives stood with the Radical Republicans like Sumner and Stevens, but the sprinkling of “radicals” did not affect his pocketbook; see

Ravitch is complaining about bowdlerization and abridgment as perpetrated by “puritan” “perfectionists” of both Left and Right, and I am with her as she complains about pervasive censorship in textbooks and speech codes. But to throw in this plea for literariness is reactionary, but it does line her up with the moderates I dissected here: So, in spite of her oeuvre standing athwart the general protocols of moderate progressives,* Ravitch is revealed as an organic conservative, unwilling to open literary texts to students, not matter  how much she may complain about the language police,  heading her chapters with epigraphs from George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. She has her own axe to grind, and it doesn’t serve young readers, though she would like to introduce them to our “common humanity,” speaking to us today across the vast reaches of “time and space.”

What are the implications for teachers of English or any other language that delves into the literary inheritance? It is impossible to teach literature as an artifact plucked from history and held up to scrutiny in the classroom, wiped clean of its historical referents. Teachers at every level need to be well-grounded in the humanities, with an understanding of competing ideologies at the time of the artwork’s production. It is hard to find such persons today, for the Left has captured the relevant terrain.  Will classical liberals meet that challenge and develop their own objective, courageously analytic approach to the teaching of our literary and cultural heritage? Or will it abandon the field to censors from the Left, Right, or Middle? How will they teach Milton’s Paradise Lost, if at all, for it remains one of the seminal texts of modernity. For most of the 20th century, Melville’s annotations to Book IX, approving of some of Satan’s arguments in the seduction of Eve, remained sequestered from scholarly and public eyes. These lines had to do with the accountability of rulers to the ruled, as viewed by a radical puritan, as Milton undoubtedly was. (See; some of Melville’s annotations to Paradise Lost are described at the bottom of the blog.)

Now teaching kids about that controversy would be a blow for artists and everyone else.

*Compare to this statement on p.163: ” The schools should be the great agencies of social and intellectual equality. This they cannot be unless they can give all children access to great literature and teach them the joy of reading. Reading is the key to future success; it builds vocabulary, it enriches the imagination, it opens new worlds. …What literature offers is a common denominator for understanding human experience; it allows human beings to recognize one another across time and space.” These are the banalities of the progressive movement: the religion of humanity (a kind of leveling and internationalism) has removed the stark differences of people in societies that do not allow dissent or the development of individual rights with those democratic republics that do encourage individuation, innovation, and critical thought. Although Ravitch is hostile to Gary Nash’s notion of European, Amerindian and African convergence in colonial America, she has her own version of community. It is a distinction without a difference.


  1. […] Such beliefs in a shared bond between members of a “race” or “ethnicity” can only be mystical, not grounded in empirical fact. Yet that does not stop the “historians” of racial or ethnic conflict from writing books and playing leading roles in the formulation of national, state, and local policy, as is the case with Dr. Ravitch, or her humanist predecessor Robert M. Hutchins, whom she cites favorably in the last chapter of her big book, and in passing in other synoptic works. (See Hutchins and his colleague Paul Hoffman illustrating Also […]

    Pingback by Diane Ravitch and the higher “moderation” « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 9, 2013 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  2. Without having read her book, I wonder if Ravitch is reacting to the way that many contemporary literature teachers/professors seem to deal with politics only in terms that make sense now — Republican/Democrat, Right/Left, etc. The railroading of “the” Dead White Male in the 80s and 90s was accomplished, in part, by a collective willingness to ignore the fact that there was always vast (political, social, philosophical) diversity within the Dead White Male class. We are enamored of dichotomies and dialectic (right now) in America, but history hasn’t always been that way. When there were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, there were also Calvinists and proto-monetarists and so on. I’m agreeing with you, I suppose. But I’m trying to be a little more gracious in Ravitch’s direction because I suffered through so many oversimple and propagandizing lectures on the supposed politics of so much of American literature.

    Comment by Casey — July 18, 2011 @ 12:52 am | Reply

    • I did say that I agreed with her on many points. But these sentences that I quoted are very much in the progressive neo-classical tradition–I suppose she is once again influenced by Robert M. Hutchins. She is clueless about specific authors, and lumps the dead white males (and Emily Dickinson) all together, and worse, as if they were still speaking to us today. What links them in her mind is their timeless greatness. She is defending high culture against the philistines from the cultural nationalist media and school reformers.

      Comment by clarespark — July 18, 2011 @ 1:20 am | Reply

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