The profession of literary criticism at the end of the twentieth century is one in which every four hours, someone sits down to write a little brief on the function of criticism at the present time, or on what the humanities are for, or on how criticism was once powerful back in the days when it was done right. And yet few among of the public seem to have any idea what we're talking about. What might education in the humanities entail? Why might it matter whether one subscribes to one view of this education or another, Allan Bloom's or Henry Louis Gates's, Lynne Cheney's or mine? The bulk of the answers we've gotten so far indicates that most nonacademics don't have the faintest idea, even when they profess to care at all. The optimistic tone of some of the essays in this book may suggest to some of my readers that I write in deliberate ignorance of these answers, that I'm repressing or suppressing what I know about the unintelligibility of even our (or my) most 'accessible' work. As it happens, I'm reminded of the tenuous nature of 'public access' quite as often as any professional critic. But these reminders don't make me give up on the enterprise.
At the 1993 convention of the Midwest Modern Language Association, for instance, I was to deliver a paper called 'Postmodern Humanities: All Access, All Areas', wherein I noted, among other things, the public resistance to 'specialization' and 'professionalization' in the humanities as opposed to the sciences, which are usually given wide leeway in the hope that they will get us to the moon and put Tang on our breakfast tables. (That resistance, as we know, often takes the form of mockery of outlandish topics and paper tides at the MLAs annual convention.) My panel, organized by John Mowitt, was tided 'The Humanities and Public Accountability', so I figured it was appropriate for me to talk about how scholars in the humanities are expected to be accountable to damn near everyone for the content of their work. Fellow panelist Gerald Graff, how-