In Defense of English Majors, Part II

greatbooks72213

Source: udallas.edu

So I have been thinking a lot lately about being an English major and the value it has, ever since exploring the topic in my first post here.

And then a good friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel. In this highly interesting (and highly irritating) critique, Siegel argues that it is a good thing that the humanities–and the English major in particular–are falling into decline. 

In the swirl of recent online articles about why the humanities are disappearing and how  we can possibly save them lest we suffer intellectual and moral armageddon, Siegel’s approach offers a kind of appealing, unique alternative. He offers the ever attractive counter-intuitive advice: Don’t attempt to stem the tide–roll with it. The English major in particular is not worth saving, anyway.

Now he’s got our attention.

After outlining the brief history of the English major–which Siegel proposes developed chiefly as a  post WWII response of academic people trying make sense of the moral devastation the world had just experienced–he describes how the academic study of literature actually ruins  “the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation.” Indeed, he claims that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

I can hear my students cheering in the background (especially the ones who don’t read).

Siegel describes how, in his own life, he loved reading at an early age but so many of his college classes twisted what he had loved into some kind of unrecognizable intellectualized ideo-babble. The English major is, hence, both harmful and unnecessary:

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. (Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?”)

It’s a rather compelling argument. I, too, learned to love literature long before I really studied it. And I majored in English because of that love, that incandescent experience Siegel describes. I try to show my students all the time how works that seem at first so distant from us–Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice and Antigone–are actually speaking to our deepest questions and fears. “All you need to understand [them] is a heart.” That is true.

But the English teacher in me, who also loves analyzing syntax and diction and discovering the intricate ways authors create those works of art, objects very strongly to the rest of his argument. Here are my two main objections:

1) This is perhaps the most obvious point: poor English teaching does not, by itself, discredit the value of good English teaching. As Siegel himself acknowledges, there are both wonderful and horrible college professors who can either foster or destroy students’ love/understanding/interest in almost any subject. Although it may be true that many (perhaps even most?) literature departments across the country are doing more harm than good with their ideologically-driven abuse of art and language, there are also many that approach English the proper way. See the University of Dallas English department website for a stellar example. To entice you:

The [UD] program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers. (from website)

This is hardly the stuff of books being “taught like science” and “reduced to mere facts” or “occasions of drudgery and toil” (Siegel).

Okay, and I have to include this too:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

-Robert Hollander

Princeton University Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus.

You can’t really get better praise than that for a humble Catholic liberal arts school.

2) And then there is this idea that literature is too “sacred” to be taught. What nonsense. (Please excuse my irritated tone in this paragraph, but I’m using it because I’m feeling irritated.) I suppose we should dismantle all theological studies in all universities as well since God–much more so than literature–is too sacred for our prying minds. Or perhaps the biological sciences because the earth is too beautiful and too sacred for the taint of intellectual inquiry. Or the medical fields since the human body, this mysterious and intricate composition of ensouled matter, is too sacred for X-rays and CAT scans.

Is literature sacred?

Yes.

Is it therefore something *only* to be “experienced” and “appreciated” by the emotional and spiritual sides of us, and protected from our ravenous intellects?

Of course not.

When functioning at its best, human reason approaches mystery with an audacious kind of humility. Dare we approach Homer and Dante with our fallible intellects and our flawed academic theories? Yes- just like Saint Augustine, with far greater trembling, approached the Holy Trinity with his clouded mind, sinful heart, and theological talent.

For more great reading on English majors, and the “cognitive empathy they bring to the table,” check out this interesting article that adds more fuel to this conversation by Bruna Martinuzzi.

When my kids this year ask me why they have to study all this stuff in English class, I’ll just tell them I’m helping them develop “cognitive empathy.” And when they say “Why do we have to analyze this? Can’t we just read it?” I will say, “Yes, let’s just read it. And then we’ll analyze it.”

Dante warns his readers that plunging into his Divine Comedy is dangerous, and is a journey that cannot be taken lightly. But I think a good English teacher, like Virgil, does his or her best to guide the student through the labyrinth of analysis and context and all the other academic jargon, and does so as a fellow-traveller, filled with wonder at the images they encounter together.

vaticanmuseum

Students during their Rome semester. Source: udallas.edu

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5 Comments

Filed under Catholic Colleges, Education, Literature

5 responses to “In Defense of English Majors, Part II

  1. MK

    I love this. Sometimes (SOMETIMES) I have a creeping doubt about the value of my English degree but you renewed my appreciation and love for the discipline 🙂
    ps – you’re awesome.

    • So good to hear from you MK! Since I teach English to sometimes reluctant high schoolers, I have a lot of practice trying to defend it. It’s hard though!

      p. s. so are you. and I miss you!

  2. Pingback: In Defense of English Majors, Part III | Mysteries and Manners

  3. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes Friday (1/17/14) | Mysteries and Manners

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