Lanham is certainly ambitious enough. He proposes to resolve “three overlapping perplexities”:

a literacy crisis so widespread it has shaken our national self-esteem as an educated democracy; a school and college curriculum that no longer knows what subjects should be studied or when; and a humanism so directionless, unreasoned, and sentimental that it seems almost to quest for Senator Proxmire’s Golden Fleece.

Lanham’s solutions, however, require that we give up the Judeo-Christian (and Platonic) view of man—as having a preexistent or God-given “self,” with its own intrinsic drive to purposeful behavior—and accept in its place “Post-Darwinian Humanism.” That is Lanham’s term for a scientistic view of man who uses language—especially in its stylistic playfulness—as an evolutionary adaptation that maintains “social reality” but provides no access to truth.

For more than a decade Lanham has tried to demonstrate that the Western humanist tradition, because of the “stupidity” of Aristotle and Thomas More, has left play and game and conscious stylistics out of its sense of human motive. Thus, the only salvation for any of us is to make style the subject of freshman composition courses, then gradually of all the curriculum, and finally the center of civilized activity. Lanham is driven by a messianic determination to bring us all out of “Eden” (the world of those who share Aristotle’s erroneous notion that “people always do things for practical purposes”) and into “Post-Darwinia,” where everyone is devoted to “rhetoric for the sake of the contest, argument for the pleasures of contention.” According to Lanham, we must stamp out all Edenic concern for clarity and begin “making up ‘reality”‘ by “speaking for fun,” “for the hell of it,” “talking just to keep the social drama going.”

Lanham is very good at pegging the current scandals of academia: the gulf between literary study and composition; the irrelevance of graduate training in the humanities to the teaching assignments that follow in basic writing and general education; the exploitation of ill-equipped and underpaid graduate students and younger faculty, left to face an overwhelming literacy crisis (brought on by neglect of the high schools and by a changing, multilingual populace) while the older faculty pursue research-oriented career games in their mature but increasingly irrelevant discipline. His arguments for dealing with these scandals through integration of rhetorical, literary, and professional studies—in something like the old lit/comp classes, but informed by greater emphasis on stylistic expression and understanding—are appealing and convincing, and his program at UCLA seems to be working. But others—such as James Billington and Wayne Booth—have pointed out these same scandals and made promising suggestions based on very different views of human motive.

Besides, Lanham’s own dichotomy between purpose and play, between Eden and Post-Darwinia is false and (in its evaluative purposiveness) self-defeating. It is hard to imagine purely Edenic people (simplistic, stodgy, and naively convinced they possess an “independent ontological security guaranteed by God”) who always do things for entirely purposive reasons rather than for competition or stylistic display. It is harder still to imagine why anyone should praise Post-Darwinians who spend “a lot of time . . . acting for the sake of acting,” or “just screwing around.” How can such a reductionist vision of humanity—bleak and trivial—ever overcome the problems of illiteracy or provide a surer basis for humanism? Certainly few will be impressed by Lanham’s misguided application of his theory to Aristotle’s Rhetoric and More’s Utopia—works that are more self-consciously stylistic than Lanham will allow.

Lanham’s revision of modern humanistic curricula could only institutionalize such misreadings of the classics. And though Lanham claims to be a post-Darwinian, it is unclear how his all-out attack on the prevailing “Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity School” of composition would foster the survival of the species. No doubt humanists should devote more unashamed attention to style as intrinsically valuable, but as a friend in technical writing pointed out to me, “If your Volkswagen stalls at the top of Teton Pass at 30 below and you reach in the jockeybox for your manual, it better be clear, brief, and sincere.”


[Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, by Richard A. Lanham; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press]