This morning, I retweeted the following, which links to columnist Rod Dreher’s post:

Basically, Dreher links to another post, this one by a 61-year-old English literature professor D.G. Myers, whose teaching contract will not be renewed when it expires in the spring.  What should we call this? Dismissal? Abandonment? In either case, he sees it as indicative of a fracturing of what he considers “a whole world of knowledge.”

Initially, I’d felt a couple of ways about the post. First, I thought it was another great example of a cultural shift that this country has undergone, is undergoing, and one whose effects are still reverberating.  The media landscape has been subdividing into smaller and smaller niches for years.  Second, I felt sympathetic because I do believe there is a place for tradition.  I mean, no one’s going to argue with the value inherent in Austen, Shakespeare or Faulkner.

Dreher, too, laments this situation as “indicative of a more thoroughgoing collapse.”  In fact he writes:

Myers is not complaining about literature professors giving themselves over to the study of minute topics within the tradition; in fact, he praises that in this piece. He is objecting to the loss of the idea that there is any tradition worth studying and passing on.

I don’t want to sound dismissive of either of their concerns.  However, I do think it’s important to properly frame things.  A better frame might be this: If it’s a given that the world evolves, then we all need to evolve with it.  More to the point, as holders of traditions, it’s up to us to figure out ways to make them relevant to those coming behind us.  It’s our job to understand that shifting culture changes the context around everything.

 

I went on to say this:

My friend Ronda offered this:

 

 

My response:

I guess my counter to all of this is that the responsibility for relevance is on the part of the knowledge holder.  Things get discarded when they’re no longer useful, or if something else comes along that provides better value.  Myers mentioned the ivory tower, and it’s true: Too many English lit professors and departments have locked themselves away and have not cared how the world changed around them.

Whatever you care about–a body of knowledge, a brand–has to stay vibrant in relation to the cultural context that it finds itself in.  It doubt it was the demise of the common core or even Dreher’s dramatic “throroughgoing collapse”.  Rather, it was the inability of English lit departments overall to make their knowledge relevant that cost Myers his job.

There is, I believe, a lesson here for all of us.

Note: You can find the Storified collection of these tweets here.

Posted by Rob Fields