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Literature, pornography, and human dignity

Porn corrupts by stripping humans of their God-given dignity. What will be the result of dumbing down literature for teachers who are too busy and students who are too lazy to read?

(Image: Roman Kraft/

Old School

The University of Wyoming bookstore was a magical place back when I started going to college. So many books. So much knowledge. I saw it as a gateway to new worlds, a launching pad into adventure.

A list of required texts in hand, I’d wander the aisles fancying I could smell the ink on the pages of the books. The store was brightly lit. Throngs of students in various stages of disarray clogged the aisles and formed long lines at the checkout. The books cost a pretty penny, even back then. I didn’t mind. The price of admission to the hallowed halls was bound to be worth it.

I had dropped out of high school a few years earlier, moved to Arizona, and fell in with the wrong crowd. The move back to Wyoming was an escape from the netherworld of addiction that haunted the desert. I saw the university as a safe haven that might guard me from the vagaries of the world. It was a fortress that housed wisdom.

Naïve? Maybe. But I wasn’t disappointed. Not then.

It took a few Change of Major forms to figure out where to stake my claim. I dabbled in biology, forestry, and history. Soon enough, I realized I belonged in the Humanities Department. Literature and philosophy were a noble calling. It seems like such a long time ago now, another world.

At the beginning of each semester, I’d eagerly return to the bookstore. I purchased anthologies of American, British, and European literature. Books by Plato, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dante filled my room. Flannery O’Connor was one of my favorites. Willa Cather had a way with words. Visiting the bookstore continued to open the way to new possibilities of being in the world.

There was a display rack stocked with yellow and black pamphlets near the bookstore checkout. Anyone making a purchase had to pass it. The pamphlets were titled CliffsNotes and marketed as “literature guides.” The students knew they were really sophisticated cheat sheets.

I did witness students leafing through the pamphlets, but I never saw anyone actually purchase one. To read a CliffsNotes version of, say, Crime and Punishment, rather than reading the novel itself, would be blasphemy. Even the few who stooped to reading the pamphlets never considered citing CliffsNotes in a paper. To do so would risk being mocked by professors and students alike.

Brave New Theories

Years passed. I took on the role of professor in a humanities department. Students citing SparkNotes and LitCharts in papers became more common with each passing year. Many students either no longer knew or didn’t care that by depriving themselves of the experience of reading, for example, Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth” or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, they were giving up on humanity. They had learned somewhere along the way that the easy way was best way and so sacrificed a real education for a credential. They consented to being programmed.

Humanities departments were no longer the Keeper of the House of Wisdom. Too many had adopted university business models that pushed corporate canned educational packages with a decidedly progressive bent.

One of my worst moments was when I realized that the once vaunted Western literary cannon had been sacrificed on the altar of relativism. The coherence that once served as a foundation for literature programs across the nation dissolved like paper in sulfuric acid. The English degree no longer held common purpose or cause.

Depending on which college a student attended, he or she might study graphic novels, dramatic plays of the twentieth century, poetry of Pacific Islanders, or cartoons and commercials. A common denominator need not exist. What passed as “literature” was to be determined by faculty.

Literature professors were no longer concerned with how a short story or a poem contributed to the understanding of the human experience. They became preoccupied with the reader and what the reader wanted a story or poem to mean. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” nixes the author’s intent in writing a story from being considered in the reading. In doing so, Barthes aided and abetted the relativizing of interpretation to the point of incoherence.

Institutions, however, tolerate incoherence about as well as nature abides vacuums. Soon enough, a new order emerged, a political order based on dubious theories of identity. Books were interpreted by the theory du jour: Feminist, Queer, Marxist, Freudian, Intersectionality, and the list continues to grow to this day.

Moby Dick can now be interpreted through any and all of these lenses, and all interpretations can be deemed equally valid. Even, or maybe especially, the Holy Bible, the foundational text of Europe, was targeted by the new orthodoxy. The adherents of this sea change must have realized that when all interpretations can be seen as valid, the term “literature” is rendered meaningless. Literary theory becomes an exercise in the vanity of victimhood. The Western tradition be damned. This is what they were and are after.

More time passed. I grew more disillusioned. The university that had rescued me from a life of addiction and crime, that had given my life meaning, was no more.

Dystopia Now

I can remember when most people who wanted a porn-fix had to walk into brick-and-mortar store to buy it. They had to show their face to a cashier to get a Playboy or a Hustler at a convenience store. If they wanted something more depraved, they skulked to the XXX Store and walked out, brown bag in hand, into public. If the smut came through the mail, the recipient suspected that the mailman and people at the post office knew what they were delivering. At some level, the great majority of them were ashamed.

Nowadays millions of people access porn on the internet in the privacy of their home (or wherever they can escape notice). According to Esquire, “In 2018, the human race made a grand total of 33.5 billion visits to Pornhub, clocking in 92 million daily average visits to the site and 4,791,799 pornographic videos uploaded—enough hours for a single person to continuously watch porn without breaks for 115 years.” That’s just one site. Porn sells!

LitCharts, SparkNotes, and other “literature guides” can also be viewed on the internet. I wager these sites, due to their sheer volume, have a significant impact on undergraduates and graduate students alike. “There’s no shame in cheating if nobody sees you do it,” seems to be the wisdom of the day.

Like Sparknotes, LitCharts aims to make complex passages less complicated. It is estimated that about 30% of LitCharts subscribers are teachers and educators. Course Hero recently purchased LitCharts and suspects that,“…it will grow from 1 million subscribers last year to 2 to 3 million paid subscribers this year.” Not nearly the number of views as the porn industry, but they are steadily gaining ground.

Porn corrupts by stripping humans of their God-given dignity. What will be the result of dumbing down literature for teachers who are too busy and students who are too lazy to read? For one thing, it helps in destroying the viability of university humanities departments.

The companies in the “literature guide” game cozy-up with the new orthodoxy and cater to propagators of the progressive. Why? Because identity politics sells. Students who are taught to read literature through prepackaged lens are being stripped of their birthright. Reading and interpreting literature used to be an exercise in critical thinking. It was also an immersion into the human experience not to be found anywhere else. It was the premiere place the reader came to deepen their understanding of what it means to be human.

Too many humanities departments today undermine human dignity through indoctrination. Instead of diversity, they promote conformity by way of relativity. When the truth we share as humans is canceled because each individual’s truth is their own and all interpretations are valid, our humanity is cancelled as well. The individual, drowning in a sea of nihilism, then clings to any label that will keep him afloat. Craving meaning, he trades human dignity for the buoy of identity politics. He no longer understands what being human means because it can mean anything at all. It becomes tribal.

Ideology and the death of dignity

A man addicted to porn can no longer recognize a woman’s inherent worth. Our current culture promotes political ideology in public schools (where are public school teachers trained?). In doing so, teachers (inadvertently or not) deprive students of dignity because they no longer recognize the inherent worth of each individual’s shared humanity .

When I was in college, pretty much everyone knew that reading CliffsNotes was cheating, just like almost everyone knew that pornography was a sin. The CliffsNotes display near the checkout at the University of Wyoming bookstore was always full of titles. They must have sold a few copies here and there, but I never saw anyone buy one. Those who dared must have done so at closing time or when the store opened in the middle of the week. At some level, they were ashamed.

The bookstore at my current university doesn’t have a CliffsNotes’s rack. Come to think of it, it doesn’t have that many books either. Students purchase electronic copies or buy them on online. The store’s not very crowded the week before classes. Either is the campus. Students spend their time in their dorms taking online courses and surfing the internet. They don’t understand the internet, like any addiction, is dehumanizing. Unlike other kinds of addicts I have known, these ones don’t seem to have a sense of shame.

The university, more than ever, is a progressive stronghold. Progressive elites see themselves as the architects of the City of God. Think Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Together they seek to usurp He who cannot be usurped. In what they see as a noble quest to stomp out evil once and for all by strictly human means, they deny human nature, divine grace, and the mystery of being. These efforts are, of course, doomed to fail. But when? And at what cost?

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About Jack Gist 14 Articles
Jack Gist is a professional writer and teacher who has published essays, poetry, and fiction in journals such as Catholic World Report, Crisis, Galway Review, First Things, The Imaginative Conservative, New Oxford Review, Academic Questions, St. Austin Review, and many other national and international venues. He can be reached at Revival Writing.


  1. Perhaps Satan’s most lethal weapon for the 21st century. Sensuality technically enhanced visually so powerfully by reconfiguration of color, shape, suggestion. Men, especially in our fallen world, always on the prowl [even back then the Apostle speaks of the reprobate convert always seeking access to a woman] now find sexual nirvana in porn. “They became preoccupied with the reader and what the reader wanted a story or poem to mean”, Gist as usual is insightful. It’s a business, actually more it’s perhaps the fastest growing industry worldwide, supported as Gist indicates by a degenerate academia applicants for the performing arts of the obscene endless. For the young and the beautiful instant cash and notoriety. More intoxicating and addictive than ever. “Porn corrupts by stripping humans of their God-given dignity”. And it’s a form of virtual reality that men find its sensual enhancement more pleasurable than reality. It’s the deceptively easy robber that steals the soul. Widely known is that sexual sins aren’t the most egregious, such as abortion, the enslavement of a people. That’s because sexual drive and the sensual are strong inclinations built into us, although Original Sin and resulting concupiscence has led a vastly greater number of us to become the victims of our passions. In the process of this dehumanization we become more akin to the fallen Angel than the heavenly. Two most notorious sexual monsters Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez [the Night Stalker] testified what started their mayhem was pornography. According to private revelation Fatima there are more souls suffering eternal Hell because of sexual sin simply because of its prolificity. Mary, Our Blessed Mother, the Mother who greatly loves us is the greatest spiritual weapon our Lord gave us from the Cross. Her Rosary has saved many from the fires of Hell, and will continue to do so if we turn to her as her helpless children. Our model of purity inspires deathly fear in the enemies of Christ; her intercession with her Son is powerful in receiving His saving grace.

  2. What is tremendously sad about this article is that it describes not only what is happening at our dissipated, disintegrating public universities, but also at our Catholic – dare I say even “orthodox” Catholic – universities. As a professor for the past 35 years, I know only too well. The fact is, the vast majority of students do not read anything assigned to them, and professors can do nothing about it, because students are the “customers” and are entitled to consume the product they are purchasing with their tuition dollars in any way they see fit. They get this message from the administration, and the faculty do as well. I feel nothing but pity for young professors today, and I am glad to be getting out of this mess soon…

  3. A Serious Syllabus
    “Shakespeare matters!”
    affirms the teacher, with earnest gravity,
    “because, among other things,
    he tells important truths:
    Consider, for instance, how, in “Macbeth”,
    witches do not necessarily travel on broomsticks;
    how evil can appear in the guise of good,
    and persons who smile
    are not always benevolently disposed;
    how the human heart is not all sweetness and light;
    and how things that move
    the mind and will to deep desire
    require close scrutiny;
    and how the suppression of conscience
    has disastrous consequences,
    and a man without remorse becomes a brute.”

  4. Whenever I read Gist, and it is not nearly often enough, I am always forced to reflect further on something I pondered earlier in the day. His attack on relativist universities which stand Western Civilization on its head is right on the mark as usual. Paraphrasing Plato, universities used to ask, “how ought we to live”? Today, they wallow in relativism, dare not ask students to discuss or debate what is right and what “living the good life” REALLY means. Instead universities tell students that whatever they “think” is right and good enough. When most universities get serious about a topic it is only to make students better worker bees and consumers. One of Gist’s themes is that it’s all about feeling good, and that is OK. But, teach Christ’s injunction to us? Forget it. Long live non-secular higher education. Where else will we learn — or even try to learn — the difference between right and wrong.

  5. The Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges is generally a liberal, which makes the comments he makes here in the video all the more valuable:

    If I recall correctly, his book “Empire of Illusion” states that somewhere around 10% of the traffic on AT&T’s network was pornography. The contrast between the ugliness of that part of the content and the impressive technology of the company is disturbing:

    The photo by Michael Appleton appears in this story:

  6. This article is a typical white man’s jeremiad at the demise of the canonical status of Western – call it white man’s, colonial, imperial, dogmatic (only correct teaching / view) – literature unable to accept the people’s broadening of horizons today in discovering, seeing, and understanding the world besides the Western perspective. It is grotesque that this article equates – by way of implication – non-Western literature with literature cheat sheets. This sense of superiority can be considered literary eugenics.

  7. First I would say that lumping all European cultures together as “white” is in itself a dismissive and racist comment. The Italians are VERY different from the Scottish in every way, let me promise you. But lets go ahead and use your rather low standard of discourse. Race never used to be a measure of culture, until recently.That some people continue to bash the primarily white cultures which were responsible for the advancement of western civilization and its attendant freedoms and progress for ALL mankind, ( in science, economics, the arts and in political freedom as initiated by the American Revolution and it’s Constitution) is little more than disgusting self-serving propaganda. If there are candidates of other races whose accomplishments exceed the literature of a Shakespeare, the music of Bach or Beethoven, produced a song more stirring than Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus,generated explorers braver than Columbus or Neil Armstrong, then, do tell.The world is a MUCH better place because of such “white” people. We could go on about the western inventors and scientists ( you know, like the ones who conquered polio and a raft of other diseases) but you get the drift . Its entirely possible to shine deserved light on the lesser known achievements of other races without resorting to the untrue and absurd notion that the real achievements of “white cultures” are actually oppressive and must be destroyed where possible. As someone famously said, you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

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