Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Who ruined the humanities?

An interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering, piece from this weekend's Wall Street Journal. I wasn't going to post it at first, because I think it can be wrongly interpreted as supportive of the "reading fiction is a leisure activity for soft people with low quantitative abilities and has nothing to do with education" position. I do agree with the author that reducing literature to themes and symbols and quizzes runs the risk of robbing students of the joy of reading great literature. But I also strenuously believe that no person can consider themselves educated without having developed the habit of regularly reading great literature. And I think that the author is misguided in thinking that high school will provide meaningful exposure to great literature that is sufficient to inspire a lifetime of independent reading.

Perhaps literature in college need not be taught on the 50 minutes three times a week for 14 weeks, with a midterm, paper, and final, in exchange for 3 credit hours system. Maybe colleges should present students with books that they are expected to have read by end of each academic year, provide forums for students to discuss or ask questions about these books, and have various faculty deliver engaging, inspiring, brilliant lectures on selected books (say, for 2 hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening). A one hour oral examination at the end of the academic year should suffice to demonstrate whether or not the student has actually read the books (and not just the shmoop notes).

"Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector's infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.
So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works' mortal enemies.
The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera. One page of Henry James's clotted involutions or D.H. Lawrence's throbbing verbal repetitions will disabuse you of any conception of literature's value as a rhetorical model. Rather, the literary masterworks of Western civilization demonstrate the limitations of so-called clear-thinking. They present their meanings in patchwork-clouds of associations, intuitions, impressions. There are sonnets by Shakespeare that no living person can understand. The capacity to transfix you with their language while hiding their meaning in folds of mind-altering imagery is their rare quality.
The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.
Literary art's sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read."

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