This article at Millions Blog, and Scott's response on Conversational Reading has prompted a loud hurrah from the Red Room Librarian. Millions assesses an argument brought forth by Pinky about the "backwards" nature of the GRE, which posits that the GRE, and perhaps English criticism in general, is mainly stuck in colonialism, working within the confines of "monarchy." Millions response is deft and articulate, and I think spot on.
Essentially, as Millions describes, and as Adrienne Rich, in her poem A Long Conversation, partially explores, literature is an interlocking web of form, idea, metaphor, allusion, and, yes, conversation. As readers, we inherit a vast world of information that has been added to, expanded, qualified, and investigated. How can you read T.S. Eliot without reading Shakespeare? How can you read early Virginia Woolf without knowing her debt to E.M. Forster? How can you read Hemingway without understanding the Puritan plain style that he artfully translated into prose work? Answer: you can't. To be able to understand the current issues of post-modernism, or post-post-modernism, since post-modernism seems passe these days, you must understand the foundation. Writers, if they have something to say, never work in a vaccuum, and scholars shouldn't either. Argue with Milton, have a stern chat with Shakespeare, wonder at G. Eliot, but don't dismiss them. They have created your literary world.
In graduate school, I was inundated with comments akin to Pinky's: " we shouldn't read the canon; it has nothing to say to us"; the canon is oppressive"; "all of western culture is oppressive (which prompted me to inquire if Physics and modern medicine were to be included in the censor); "there are other books that are better"; and so on. Delving deeper into the conversation, I discovered that none of these people had ever met literature as an interested reader; they had all assumed an excuse of colonialism and oppression because it was easier than saying it was too difficult to read. I wonder if Pinky would have had such a thought about the GRE if he had felt equal to the task of answering the questions?
In the English academy, we have assumed the role of the garbage man rather than the toiling farmer: if it is difficult, if it keeps people out because the view is limited or because it is too hard, then can it. We have become arrogant in our modernity: we believe that we are the smartest, most astute, most alive generation in the history of the world, and in many ways we are. However, we are still built on a mountain of words, ideas, and people, and without this foundation, we crumble.