Isn't it maddening when people think their pastors or other theologians are more qualified than actual biologists to pronounce on questions of biology? Or dismiss the opinions of geologists on the age of the Earth? On the other hand, we atheists tell everyone to question authority, and aren't they doing just that? After all, who do these scientists think they are? They have some nerve thinking their fancy-pantsy "Ph.D."s and research papers make their opinions better than your pastor's!
The answer is, of course, that you can question scientific conclusions -- science invites you to do so. Scientific works typically explain (perhaps in general terms) how the evidence works and what kind of experiments were done as well as what conclusions were drawn. The reader is naturally encouraged to think about whether the evidence is convincing for any given point, and to come up with other possible experiments and research directions that could potentially refine or challenge current ideas. But that's not the same thing as choosing whichever "authority" is saying what you want to hear and "questioning" all the others. You're using your own brain when you asses which authority is most likely to have the correct answer to a given question.
But what if we're talking about an authority with a Ph.D. in Art or Literature? Or a work that has stood the test of time? To what degree does it make sense for a lay person to question?
I think part of the confusion for Americans lies in a tendency to see value in terms of popularity, and especially in dollars. The grand classics aren't taken for granted as grand. They have to prove themselves over and over. People scoff at the hallowed halls of academia, thinking "Silly eggheads -- if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" I've joked that an American is someone who goes to an art museum, heads straight for the abstract expressionism, finds the weirdest-looking painting and says "Ha! My dog can paint better than that!" Then goes home and settles into the layzee-boy with a contented sigh to watch some American Idol.
I know that sounds horribly negative, but the truth is that I'm including myself in this portrait. Just take a look at my post on art museums and The Da Vinci Code. Of course, in my case, I'm more likely to go home and relax with a copy of The New Yorker than American Idol or other television (which makes the above story that much more ironic, or perhaps just more pathetic). Still, while I don't think that a given work which is popular (or made money) is necessarily better than a given obscure work (it's a good indicator, but it's not 100%), I also don't think that the top few thousand most influential works that make up the canon of western literature are the best few thousand works produced by western culture over the same time period.
I hesitate to admit to this opinion because I'm coming dangerously close to wearing ignorance as a badge of honor, and we all know where that leads (exhibit A: Mr. President). So allow me to explain my reasoning a bit:
First of all, there's the fickle hand of fate. How many poems over the centuries have been composed by people who didn't have the paper to write them down, hence were forgotten after a few generations? How many notebooks of manuscripts have been thrown away without ever getting near a publisher? How many have had small print runs but never fell into influential enough hands to find a wide audience? How many works have been written and published in obscure dialects so that very few people could grasp the beauty of the text? I would be willing to bet that among these lost works there were many that the human race is far poorer for having never known. But, in the immortal words of Virginia Woolf: "accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them." The world won't find and diffuse every work that could potentially broaden the human spirit. It can't; it's not possible.
(Now I know you're going "Chanson, didn't you say you didn't like Virginia Woolf? Isn't that the whole point of this essay -- making excuses for that earlier fiasco?" Au contraire, I like her ideas. Of course I totally cribbed that quote from another student's essay.)
Similarly, since people can only read so many books in a lifetime, the right recommendation at the right time can start the snowball rolling which will grant immortality and superstar status to a work that's not necessarily that much better than its fellows. The more people read it, the more people talk about it, the more people read it, the more people talk about it, ad infinitum. And once a work attains a certain stature, it becomes hard to criticize it because if you say "Guys, this one really isn't that great because of X-Y-Z," you'll be branded as "the dummy who just doesn't get it." And to get this ball rolling, a work can be lucky enough to be created in the right place at the right time. For example, I have a sneaking suspicion that some works in the canon of American Literature have gotten a bit of a leg up in this game, riding on a highly influential culture that wants to have a proud literary tradition to hold up. Sure, a work chosen at random from the literary canon has a lot higher probability of being great than a randomly chosen obscure work. But no work should be a sacred cow that you have no business analyzing with your own brain.
And that brings me to my second point: the human factor. One can argue that a scientific or mathematical principle would be true whether humans discover it or not. But with literature, half of the equation is the reader's reaction. Literary quality -- the effectiveness of a work -- is highly subjective. Even simple questions like "What are the strengths and weaknesses of this piece? Is it great? Or okay? Or crap?" don't necessarily have a canonical right answer.
And this leads us to the deadliest question of all: When a classic work doesn't work for you, is it the work? Or just you? How to decide???