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College Quarterly
Fall 2010 - Volume 13 Number 4
Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet
Elizabeth Ammons
University of Iowa Press, 2010. Paperback, 174 pages.
Reviewed by Rusul Alrubail

Elizabeth Ammons’ book is a must read for every humanist educator. Ammons reminds us of the harsh truth: that the Arts and Humanities have ironically lost their humanistic feel in education. Students are not encouraged to have a moral perspective; instead, they are taught vague concepts and abstract theories. Brave New Words argues that the theories used to deconstruct meaning in texts cause students to recognize the insignificance and irrelevance of the Arts and Humanities. Elizabeth Ammons argues a profound case, not revolutionary, yet still groundbreaking, as she reminds the readers of the revival of the liberal arts as a mode of critique, not just for the sake of critiquing, but also to achieve social justice, change and restoration of the earth (Ammons 2010).

Ammons sees ambiguity in the liberal arts’ critiques, and this ambiguity is celebrated due to a postmodernist perspective that everything is complex and nothing is simple. There are no universal truths; in fact, there is hostility towards universal truths. Nihilism, in the liberal arts, therefore is gladly received by educators. Students are encouraged to read the text with a nihilistic perspective that does not commit to or advocate social values and change. This is due to the fact that there is "no center, no transcendence, only knowledge gained through reason, which can and always must be deconstructed" (p.9). In doing so, one becomes an elitist and is rewarded by being accepted into graduate school (p.9).

The book’s rare yet sarcastic and cynical approach ironically aims to change a humanist's pessimism. She directly shows us the flaw in the current liberal arts education system and advocates that it must be changed. To support such change, she notes that there are many brilliant, inspired young minds out there that are willing to make a difference. The liberal arts' lack of social and political direction as to what is right or wrong comes from the insecurity that grips the discipline. Students see this lack of relevance and insecurity and turn to other disciplines to make a difference, because they are more "practical". By continuous repetitive and empty deconstruction, we are in turn dismantling our discipline and its importance (Ammons, 2010). Most humanists go into the Humanities because they want to learn about relevant issues; issues that concern humans and our way of life. Yet after spending many years in the humanities this perspective changes and is replaced with a lack of support for enthusiastic students who are interested in change. As a result the reputation of the humanities is disintegrating as a field that holds tangible values and meaning (Ammons, 2010). The celebrated belief in the inexpressibility of language should be eradicated and we should instead focus on meaning and significance.

Ammons provides different examples for educators on how to teach humanities with a positive mind set, not just for the sake of being an upbeat professor, but for the sake of allowing students to know that our beliefs and values do make a difference. It is not a cliché to believe that a person can make a difference. It is in fact a cliché to think that one person cannot make a difference. The book identifies many authors, historical and current, whose works advocated social activism. She draws from the works of David Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Apess. Although her references are dated, these texts are critiques of transformative change, as well as hope and optimism. Brave New Words insists that the liberal arts needs to be engaged with current events and should take a stance on relevant issues that are affecting society, the environment and the world.

Elizabeth Ammons’ book is making a simple argument: we need to use our professions as humanists to make a change. She does however tend to overlook that many humanists do choose to specifically advocate social change through literature in the classroom, but not necessarily in graduate school. There is however a minority of educators out there who strongly believe that literature holds meaning and truth, and that this truth is relevant in our world. Ammons’ book focuses on acknowledging students’ agency and its significance. It is a must read for every humanist, cynic and pessimist, as one might be inspired and pass on this inspiration, or simply choose to deconstruct the meaning of it to no meaning at all.


Rusul Alrubail teaches English Literature at Seneca College in Toronto. She can be reached at rusul.alrubail@senecac.on.ca

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