You’ve probably heard the baleful reports. The number of college students majoring in the humanities is plummeting, according to a big study released last month by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The news has provoked a flood of high-minded essays deploring the development as a symptom and portent of American decline.
But there is another way to look at this supposed revelation (the number of humanities majors has actually been falling since the 1970s).
The bright side is this: The destruction of the humanities by the humanities is, finally, coming to a halt. No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature. No longer will the reading of, say, “King Lear” or D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” result in the flattening of these transfiguring encounters into just two more elements in an undergraduate career—the onerous stuff of multiple-choice quizzes, exam essays and homework assignments.
The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”
When people wax plaintive about the fate of the humanities, they talk, in particular, about the slow extinction of English majors. Never mind that the preponderance of English majors go into other fields, such as law or advertising, and that students who don’t major in English can still take literature courses. In the current alarming view, large numbers of people devoting four years mostly to studying novels, poems and plays are all that stand between us and sociocultural nightfall.
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.
The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.
With the waning of religious authority, the humanities were born as a means of taking up the slack. Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare were now put in the service of ministering truth to souls parched for higher meaning. Anything more contemporary than Shakespeare, however, was seldom part of the curriculum. (As an undergraduate at Columbia, it delighted me no end to discover that the English department listed the telephone number of the visiting professor each year in the Manhattan White Pages under the name “Milton S. Chaucer.” Looking the number up, as I often did, enchanted me.)
The teaching of literature came into its own early in the 20th century, with the formation of literature departments. For years, these consisted mostly of philologists who examined etymology and the history of a text. 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.
In a sense, the story of teaching literature as a profession is a story of war. Soldiers returning home in 1945 yearned to make sense of their lives after the carnage they had witnessed and survived. The GI Bill and an abundant economy afforded them the opportunity and the time to do so. In that moment, teaching literature as an investigation of life’s enigmas struck a deep collective chord. Majoring in English hit its zenith, yet it was this very popularity of literature in the university that spelled its doom, as tendentious pedants of various stripes accelerated the academicization of literary art.
In contrast to the effects of World War II, the purposeless bloodshed of the Vietnam War made all authority suspect. That was when teaching literature acquired an especially intense ideological fervor, when university radicals started their long (and fruitless) march through academic institutions armed with that fig leaf for mediocrity known as “theory.” And that was when majoring in English began its slow decline. The rest is today’s news.
Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.
More than 50 years ago, the critic and professor Lionel Trilling expressed his frustration with presenting imaginative writing in the classroom in an essay titled “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” It was published in 1961, a time when majoring in English was in its heyday.
Trilling observed that the modernist literature he had on his syllabus—Eliot, Yeats, Lawrence, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Gide—”asks every question that is forbidden in polite society. It asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends.” He then rolled his eyes at professorial efforts to convey the character of such outlaw works to undergraduates, mocking a typical exam question for his course: “Compare Yeats, Gide, Lawrence, and Eliot in the use which they make of the theme of sexuality to criticize the deficiencies of modern culture. Support your statement by specific references to the work of each author. [Time: One hour.]'”
Trilling was exasperated by the absurdity of teaching morally subversive modernist works in the morally conventional precincts of a university, to the point where he somewhat hysterically exaggerated what he called the “force and terror” of modernist literature (there is terror in Syria, not in Gide). But he was, after all, a college teacher, and he was not able to see that the classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.
Literature changed my life long before I began to study it in college and then, in a hapless trance, in graduate school. Born into modest circumstances, I plunged with wonder into the turbulent emotions of Julien Sorel, the young romantic striver of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” My parents might have fought as their marital troubles crashed into divorce, but Chekhov’s stories sustained me with words that captured my sadness, and Keats’s language filled me with a beauty that repelled the forces that were making me sad.
Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”
But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
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.
At the present moment, we are experiencing the rise of new digital pleasures and distractions, the expansion of a mostly visual culture that races far ahead of the imagination, the ubiquity of social networks that redefine the pure solitude once required for reading a demanding book. And in this time of rapid changes in the workplace, life’s great mysteries seem more economic than existential. A digital environment also stresses quantitative thinking, and perhaps that helps explain why the most exciting cultural advances are now in science and medicine.
It is hardly a surprise that in this atmosphere, college students choose to major in fields that are most relevant to the life around them. What a blessing that is on literature. Slipping out from behind ivied prison doors, where they have been forced to labor as evaluative “texts,” the great thoughts and feelings made permanent by art can resume their rightful place as a unique phase of ordinary experience.
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.
And just as we do not need to know about biology and physiology in order to love and to be loved, we do not need to know about, for example, Homer’s rhetoric or historical context in order to enter into Odysseus’s journey of wandering, rebirth and homecoming. The old books will speak to the oldest part of us. Young people will read them when they are touched by inexpressible yearnings the way they will eat when they are hungry. If they want to. Some of these pitiable non-humanities majors might not be interested in literature at all. They might have to settle for searching for a cure for cancer, and things like that.
In “Moby-Dick,” Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, declares that “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” Soon, if all goes well and literature at last disappears from the undergraduate curriculum—my fingers are crossed—increasing numbers of people will be able to say that reading the literary masterworks of the past outside the college classroom, simply in the course of living, was, in fact, their college classroom.
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