Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why study literature?

In 1987, political philosophy professor Allan Bloom published his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Over a million copies were printed.

The book "hit the scene at a time when universities were embroiled in the so-called canon wars, in which traditionalists in favor of centering the curriculum on classic works of literature faced off against multiculturalists who wanted to include more works by women and members of minorities," Rachel Donadio wrote in the New York Times in 2007. As she put it, he argued "that abandoning the Western canon had dumbed down universities, while the 'relativism' that had replaced it had 'extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life'; that rock music 'ruins the imagination of young people'; that America had produced no significant contributions to intellectual life since the 1950s; and that many earlier contributions were just watered-down versions of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud and other Continental thinkers." These claims were controversial among academics, who had to contend with a "zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped," and in a context of the relative newness of American literature, which has barely had generations enough to form any canon at all, let alone one formed against a background of social inclusion of race and gender for writers and readers. For Bloom, the zero-sum game had a time constraint, too, since an American's years in college "are civilization's only chance to get to him."

Donadio quoted Mark Lilla, professor of political philosophy and religion, as saying that Americans seek "self-recognition" in literature and tend to find obscure, foreign texts to be "alienating" in comparison. She explained that philosophy professor John Searle remarked on the irony that texts which had been traditionally believed to teach critical thinking were now being criticized themselves. Searle wrote: "The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked."

Canon or no canon, acquiring skills of critical inquiry is central to the humanities. Prof T. Kari Kitao wrote in 1999:

“Professionalism may prepare us for a career but liberal arts education prepares us for a resourceful life. In short, liberal arts education liberates us.

I don’t just mean that it makes a knowledgeable person, a person who can recite a Shakespeare sonnet, a person who, watching a ballet, can recognize a grand jeté pas de chat, or a person who can debate medieval thinkers, Boethius vs. Anselm. I mean a certain predisposition that urges a person to be inquisitive, widely interested in a variety of subjects, old and new, those in fashion and out of fashion, those of different cultures, including your own. I mean developing a multilayered personality, a person who is infinitely interesting.”

Then there is the perspective that literature and philosophy does not only teach us how to think, but it also affords us an opportunity to feel deeply, which is another way of understanding our condition and our place in the world.

Lee Siegel wrote in 2013 that "the humanities" as institutionalized in academia can be its own worst enemy. Not only is the classroom setting an ill-equipped place to understand literature that is subversive or charged with dissent, but it is also typically the wrong place to enjoy its beauty. For every great teacher of literature, "there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist's chair." People can read literature without majoring in it, and he suggests that it is probably not true that "large numbers of people devoting four years mostly to studying novels, poems and plays are all that stand between us and sociocultural nightfall." It is a "sentimental fantasy" that the absence of formal education in literature leads to "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."

"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."

Before the end of the 19th century, he said, literature was "part of the leisure of everyday life," not part of formal education, and "it was only after World War II that the study of literature as a type of wisdom, relevant to actual, contemporary life, put down widespread institutional roots," when returning American soldiers had the opportunity to go to school under the GI Bill and "yearned to make sense of their lives after the carnage they had witnessed and survived." Of the classics, he says: "They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive."

Sources

"Revisiting the Canon Wars," by Rachel Donadio, New York Times, Sept. 16, 2007.
“The Usefulness of Uselessness,” Prof. T. Kari Kitao, 1999. Swarthmore pamphlet.
"Who Ruined the Humanities?" by Lee Siegel, in the Saturday Essay for The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013.

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