Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 21, 2010

Commentary: In Praise of Tough Criticism


Jeffrey R. Di Leo offers an opinion In Praise of Tough Criticism, in The Chronicle Review, Jun 13, 2010.

The Chronicle Review

June 13, 2010

In Praise of Tough Criticism

By Jeffrey R. Di Leo

Professor Jones is well known for her generosity. She encourages nonconfrontational exchanges of ideas and is always upbeat and positive about her colleagues and their work. She is patient with her graduate students, encouraging them to be patient with one another as well. When a student makes a comment in class that is weak or off base, unlike some other faculty members in her department, Jones will not make a fuss. When the appropriate opportunity presents itself, she will try to work with the student to improve his or her thinking. Jones’s critical credo is, “If you don’t have something positive to say, then it is best not to say anything at all—at least not in public.”

Her colleague Professor Smith is quite the opposite. He has built a successful career by telling people that they are wrong. The goal of criticism, he believes, is to persuade other people to see the world his way, and if they don’t, then he will do everything he can to prove to them—and anyone else who will listen—that they are wrong. Criticism is a competition of ideas, a nasty business in which it is acceptable and sometimes necessary to be a brute. Strong ideas survive, weak ones perish; there is no room for wishy-washy opinions and people. Smith’s assessments are harsh but well argued and persuasive. His critical credo is, “Public criticism is as valid as public praise.”

Most of us probably know someone like Jones. Others have either heard of someone like Smith—or have been attacked by someone like Smith. The bulk of literary scholars and critics, I think, believe that our profession would be better off if it contained more people like Jones and fewer people like Smith—more compassion, less confrontation. The critic Jane Tompkins has bemoaned scholarly attacks as evidence of a “decline of civility,” and Herbert S. Lindenberger, a professor emeritus of humanities at Stanford University, has lamented the “warlike atmosphere” of English studies.

(Read complete article at original site)



  1. When it comes to criticising, I try to remember the words of two men who wrote anonymously.

    John Adams:
    “There may be occasion to say very severe things, before I shall have finished what I propose, in opposition to this writer, but there ought to be no reviling. Rem ipsam die, mitte male loqui, which may be justly translated, speak out the whole truth boldly, but use no bad language.”—Novanglus, No. 1, January 23, 1775.

    John Dickinson:
    “I am of their opinion, who think it almost as infamous to disgrace a good cause by illiberal language, as to betray it by unmanly timidity. Complaints may be made with dignity, insults retorted with decency; and violated rights vindicated without violence of words.”—An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados, 1766.

    “What concerns all, should be considered by all; and individuals may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sentiments. It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them.”—Fabius, Delaware Gazette, April 10, 1788.

    When it comes to accepting criticism, I try to remember the words of two men who wrote under their own names.

    Daniel Neal, the famous Puritan chronicler:
    “When I am convinced of any mistakes, or unfair representations, I shall not be ashamed to retract them before the world; but facts are stubborn things, and will not bend to the humours and inclinations of artful and angry men; if these have been disguised or misreported, let them be set right in a decent manner, without the mean surmises of Plots and Confederacies, and whoever does it, shall have mine as well as the thanks of the publick.”—The History of the Puritans, 1755.

    Robert Smith to his children before he was burned at the stake:
    “Ask council always of the wise,
    give ear unto the end,
    And ne’er refuse the sweet rebuke
    of him that is thy friend.”
    —John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.