I was paging through the first section of the NY TIMES this morning, while having my regular lemon poppy seed muffin and decaf at the Carolina Cafe, when I came across a full page ad for something called The Nook, which is apparently a competitor for Amazon's Kindle. I have no interest in either, but my eye was caught by the photo of the [supposedly inferior] Kindle on which was displayed the first page of Pride and Prejudice. I read what is certainly one of the most famous first lines in the entire genre of the novel: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Reading that sentence gives me the sort of familiar and reliable pleasure that I derive from hearing yet again Haydn's "Kaiser" quartet or seeing Notre Dame at the bottom of my street in Paris. As I am sure any student of literature will agree, Austen's words are deceptively simple, and it would take several careful paragraphs to unpack their complexities of ironic voice and narrative point of view.
Then I thought to myself: "In a career spanning fifty-three years, at Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, Barnard, CCNY, Rutgers, CUNY, UMass, Williams, Yale, Boston University, Northeastern University, Duke, and UNC Chapel Hill, I have taught untold thousands of students, and yet there are probably no more than a handful -- five score, perhaps -- who could, if called upon, give unprompted an accurate, intelligent interpretation of that sentence."
The thought saddened me, but it also troubled me, because the ability to grasp easily and intuitively the nuances of language is one of the preconditions, I believe, of effective participation in the public life of a democracy. It is not, by itself, sufficient, heaven knows. Still, if one has no more than a coarse, ham-fisted grasp of language, then one's thoughts will be equally crude, lacking in the ability to make fine distinctions or balance competing claims and arguments. I hope my lengthy discourse on Ideological Critique demonstrated that even the domestic narratives of a Jane Austen, if managed with sufficient intelligence, are capable of encompassing the most controversial themes of the larger world, such as slavery and empire.
We see today an assault world-wide on the Humanities in tertiary education, as budgetary constraints and a corporatist mentality threaten any discipline that cannot prove its worth in the marketplace. Having spent a lifetime fighting losing political battles, it is, I suppose, only fitting that I should devote my declining years to one more lost cause. And yet, there is some reason to hope that though the Humanities may lose their once secure place in the Academy, Jane Austen's words, and those of David Hume, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Mannheim, and countless others will live immortally in cyberspace, ready to captivate and challenge a lively mind idly surfing the web.