How Not to Support an Argument (or a Culture)

We’ve written a lot recently about the funding, management, and technological problems (all related to one another) currently affecting higher education. This discussion largely avoids what is going on within individual majors or disciplines. Frankly, I don’t know enough about what’s cooking (to borrow a phrase from Oppenheimer) in most fields to have an opinion about the usefulness of what happens in, say, a biochemistry class. I do, however, have a pretty good sense of what occurs in literature classes, in spite of the fact that I haven’ t taught one in almost two years now. And this is why I am slightly torn as to what to make of Lee Siegel’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal

I am generally skeptical of pieces about education and the humanities published in the WSJ. It’s a prejudice I should probably get over (Thomas Frank used to write for them!), but I doubt I will. And Siegel’s piece is very much in line with the ideology of the paper’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch, in its call for literature to be removed from the largely public (and quasi-publicly-funded) realm of college curricula so that it can “flourish” in the private lives of individuals. Although he doesn’t come right out and say it, Siegel is essentially calling for the defunding of humanities education because, according to him, it doesn’t provide any skills that can be monetized. He writes:

The remarkably insignificant fact that, a half-century ago, 14% of the undergraduate population majored in the humanities (mostly in literature, but also in art, philosophy, history, classics and religion) as opposed to 7% today has given rise to grave reflections on the nature and purpose of an education in the liberal arts.

Such ruminations always come to the same conclusion: We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.

These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy.

He goes on, predictably, to blame the decline in the quality of literary education on tenured radicals (I must be the luckiest guy on earth to have never had one of these as a professor in my ten years of undergraduate and graduate study), and it’s clear Siegel thinks he’s making a devastating point when he starts using his own experiences as evidence that not only does one not gain much from taking literature courses in college, but that taking them actively “extinguish[es] the incandescence of literature.” And that’s really what the essay boils down to: Siegel found his college literature courses so allegedly dispiriting that he thinks we should simply get rid of them, but not dispiriting enough that he refrained from studying literature in graduate school. It is the flimsiest of reeds upon which to hang an argument, especially when Siegel doesn’t even bother to address whether writing about complex works of art in a context where one can get constructive criticism of said writing might help one become a better analytic and descriptive writer. He simply asserts that it doesn’t. Finally, don’t even get me started on these unsupported (because unsupportable) passages:

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.

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.

Anyway, we have all been sufficiently sparked and stoked by literature to make it part of our destiny by the time we graduate high school. If there is any hand-wringing to do, it should be over the disappearance of what used to be a staple of every high-school education: the literature survey course, where books were not academically taught but intimately introduced—an experience impervious to inane commentary and sterile testing. Restore and strengthen that ground-shifting encounter and the newly graduated pilgrims will continue to read and seek out the transfiguring literary works of the past the way they will be drawn to love.

So why am I even a little torn after read this mostly vapid, abstract, and culturally clueless piece of criticism? Because I think Siegel is right that there are things wrong with the ways we teach literature. Literary “theory” is indeed “that fig leaf for mediocrity,” and the value given to it by a few professors is sad. Most of what Derrida, Butler, and Foucault (and even Freud) said that is of any use can be boiled down to a few sentences. And some professors don’t do a very good job of making clear connections between what students read and write in their classes and the lives they’ve led, are leading, and will lead once they leave the university. Siegel’s most salient critique though is of literary education on the high school level.  While I am not sure what he means when he says that survey courses should not be “academically taught,” he is right that we need to introduce students to an ever-expanding canon of great works (from the Bible to John Rechy and beyond) in their formative years. Siegel manages to botch even this simple point though, as he fails to mention the reason why even our smartest students are coming out of high school unable to write about or even really feel connected to complex works of literature: AP testing. Instead of cutting literary study out of the college curriculum, we need to eliminate AP literature courses that teach students to think about literature in terms of multiple choice tests and timed, short essay exams, and we need to eliminate these evaluative measures at the college level as well. Instead of helping students think about literature, these forms force students to focus on how to best “beat” the test. It becomes a game, and many of the kids I teach spend enough of their time playing games. The study of literature needs to be hard in order for it to be useful, so I thank Siegel for (kind of) gesturing toward this fact, even if most of what he says is laughable.

And this is where I come back to the fact that this piece was published in the Wall Street Journal. It seems that the mode of modern conservatism is to be as profoundly unconservative as it can be. Instead of trying to fix higher education and the social safety net (to say nothing of the social fabric of which its made), modern conservatism prefers to blow things up and “let the market sort things out.” This is a great strategy if you’re insulated from the market’s often violent reactions, but not so good for everyone else. If you care at all about culture, you try to pass it on to as many people as you can. You don’t write gushy paeans to ignorance.


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