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To Be or…

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Well, Robert insists that he has use even for the hard sciences only because they sometimes produce practical results, and will tolerate history because it produces practical results, too, or could.

I’d say simply that most people think of science as something that “does stuff,” and that the only reason they tolerate it is because of the stuff–but the fact remains that the actual percentage of pure science that is turned into anything practical is extremely small, and in some scientific fields (cosmology, for instance) it approaches nil.  

And the utility or lack of utility of the study of literature and philosophy did not stop anyone from studying it before, say, around 1965, nor did the humanities departments of that era lack “prestige.”  That was true even though the humanities departments of that era would have recoiled in horror from the idea that they should be presenting a program with some “practical” use, and humanities departments now either strive mightily to present just such practical programs (composition courses by the truckload, courses meant to lead to activism of one sort or another), but work day and night to devise mission statements that outline all the practical applications they can think of.

Robert wants to know who pays, what they learn, and who decides, and then he demands to know how much “music, dance and modern literature” existed in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

As for who pays–college study was then, as now, a matter for students and their parents to pay for.   The state universities endeavored to provide their citizens with the same cultural and educational grounding as the best private ones, and everyone (starting with  Jefferson) thought that was a good idea.  We can get to whether or not we want to do that later.  Up until then, I’m assuming that we’re talking about privately funded study.

As for “music, dance and modern literature,” there would have been none in Jefferson’s vision of the University of  Virginia, but then, there is none in the humanities as they are traditionally understood.   There is music history, which is a sub-set of intellectual history as traditionally conceived, but music and dance performance has never been, and usually is not now, part of the humanities.  Most universities who allow “majors” in that sort of thing do so under BFA programs, not BA or BS ones, or as part of “degrees” in education. 

As for modern literature–it depends on what is meant here.  Modern, or contemporary?  The appearance of courses in contemporary literature in the curriculum is fairly new–it arrived even after my time, which was significantly later than 1965–and it is, I think, a symptom of what has gone wrong here.  So is this entire discussion.  It’s obvious that a number of you have no idea what the humanities actually are.  I’d venture to guess that most of the literature and philosophy departments in the universities nearest you don’t know, either.  

As for  Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, what it did include were mandatory studies–no electives here, and no choice–in Greek and Roman literature in the original languages.   Do you really think that reading The Odyssey in Greek and The Aeneid in Latin was presented by anybody at the time as a “practical” course of study that would lead to pragmatic results like better judgment in devising banking policies or writing interstate commerce law?  

If you wanted to learn that sort of thing, you apprenticed to the appropriate business or profession, you didn’t go to a university at all.   And plenty of people, often very poor people whose time had to mean money if they weren’t going to starve, managed to carve out the time to learn ancient languages and read ancient works of literature and philosophy on their own, so important did they consider it to know what looks to many of us now as useless silliness.

And I return to the Land Grant colleges, which were not just institutions of practical instruction, but insisted that their aggies and engineers be grounded in the liberal arts (all three divisions). 

It’s odd now to read people like Lionel Trilling, or Allen Tate, or Cleanth Brooks, men who taught literature in  American universities in the 1950s.   Some of them were New  Critics, some of them hated the whole New Critical movement, but all of them never questioned for a moment the value of what they did or what they studied. 

And they knew what that was, too.  There were no courses in “Gender in the Victorian Novel” or “The Heterosexist Conspiracy in Contemporary Science Fiction,” not because the topics themselves were inherently uninteresting (see Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel) but because they would have found the approaches trivial and silly, and a complete waste of time in undergraduate education.  Undergraduates didn’t know anything.  If they wanted to wander off on side issues, they could do it on their own time.

When  I was an English major at Vassar, we were required to take courses spanning the history of literature in English and then write a long (usually 50 to 100 pages long) thesis on a topic in the field.  My master’s degree thesis was easier and less comprehensive than that thing was.  We had to pass courses in Medieval literature,  Elizabethan literature, Shakespeare (two semesters–read ALL the plays), Milton, literature of the Eighteenth century, the Nineteenth Century British novel, the Nineteenth Century American novel, American literature in survey–okay, there was more of it.

A couple of years ago, a woman I used to teach with gave me a copy of her doctoral dissertation, written in a program at a state university near us.   The thing was breathtakingly appalling.  Not only was it short (not much longer than that undergraduate thesis), and lightweight, and virtually entirely concerning secondary sources, but it was sloppy, badly written and silly.  It was obvious by about page three that she hadn’t read much of anything in the field, that she knew nothing about Medieval literature, about women in it or about the women who wrote some of it.  She was even lamer on the Victorians. 

So I asked.  It turned out that her doctoral program did have what we used to call “prelims”–general exams preliminary to the dissertation–but you could pick and choose among them and take only the ones you wanted to.  There was no need to study up on Elizabethan sermons or the eighteenth century British essay (think Samuel Johnson) if what you were really interested in was “Gender Studies.”

I don’t think the humanities have lost “prestige” because they’re not practical.   They never were.  I think the humanities have lost students–and we’re having the discussion we are–because they’ve stopped being the humanities.

The fact is that lots of people actively seek out the impractical, knowledge for the sake of knowledge humanities in places other than universities.  That’s why things like The Learning Company are profitable.  Men and women whose “college” experience consisted of a scattershot of “electives” in badly conceived, badly taught, and largely uninformed ‘relevant” applications of what should have been a foundation in philosophy, literature and history fork over hundreds of dollars for DVD sets of old guys lecturing on the concepts of good and evil in Paradise Lost and the importance of Original Sin in the sermons of John Donne.

I don’t think the wave of anti-intellectualism we’re experiencing is the result of people thinking the experts are full of it.  If anything, a thorough grouding in the liberal arts (all three divisions) should mean you are more likely to feel like that about experts, not less.

I don’t think it’s about left-wing professors, either.  The professors in the hard sciences tend to be just as left wing, if not more so. 

I don’t think it’s about “intellectuals” “sneering” at the masses.  I  certainly think there’s some sneering out there,  but I think the resentment came first, that what sneering there is–and there’s less of it than people want to believe–is a result of the resentment, not the cause of it.

I think that what has happened is this:  I think that the people charged with teaching and scholarship in the humanities have dropped the ball.  Lionel Trilling knew why there should be English departments, and why and how people should study literature.  Our English departments no longer seem to have a clue. 

Forget seem.  They no longer do.  Isolated individuals within those departments get it, but by and large the university divisions are populated by people who think that just about anything is more important than the liberal arts.

They are, in their way, was pragmatically-minded as Robert would want them to be, but the practical uses they want to put literature to are not “building good citizens” but “building good revolutionaries” and “ending racism, sexism and homophobia.”  In a way, they’ve brought a kind of social gospel to the humanities.  We’re no longer talking about ultimate truths and ultimare reality any more.  We’re making our message make a difference in the lives of the people we encounter.

The problem is that there’s very little point to the social gospel, really.  If you want to “make a difference in the lives of people [you] encounter,” it’s much more sensible to study medicine or social work or even manufacturing than to deconstruct Huckleberry Finn.  If literature and philosophy and history are not valuable on their own terms, then they’re at best side issues, distractions, and not really valuable at all.

Why should anybody take humanites departments seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously, if they don’t see the point of what they do, if they don’t even do what it is they’re supposed to do?

I’m not going to say the humanities are dead.  The Teaching Company and The Great Courses and their cousins are in fact keeping them alive.  The real thing is out there, it’s just very seldom out there in university English departments.

And on the very lowest levels of the system as it is now constituted, it is not there at all.  

Ask any of my students why they’re required to take a course in English literature to graduate, and they’ll tell you it’s so the university can make money.  One of them told me, indignantly, that I had no right to expert her to know about things that happened before she was born.  And Milton and  Donne, Shakespeare and Austen, Oedipus sleeping with his mother and Odysseus sailing the wine-dark sea?  They’re boring.

My students, given who they are, might be bored by all this no matter how well it was taught to them.  At the moment, though, they have ever right to be bored.

Written by janeh

October 28th, 2008 at 5:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'To Be or…'

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  1. Isn’t it probable that the people who want to teach literature as social gospel are attempting to change the culture away from that produced and supported by the study of the humanities? They are trying to create a Brave New World, although perhaps not one which is founded on a coherent over-arching political ideology. It’s a world that seems to be founded on a groupthink and an assortment of isms, but then I’m getting less and less enamoured of it, so my view is unsympathetic. Nevertheless, the practitioners of the-Humanities-as-social-action seem to think that they are using the humanities to forge a culture, only not the one that has been developing all along, and which they hope is uttering its final gasp.

    Or are they merely grasping at straws; struggling to find a rationale for the university and its jobs in a world that values practical stuff? I’m sure you’ve come across the university-as-business and student-as-customer ideas.


    28 Oct 08 at 8:00 am

  2. “Well, Robert insists that he has use even for the hard sciences only because they sometimes produce practical results, and will tolerate history because it produces practical results, too, or could.”

    My limited experience is that the people doing pure science do it because they enjoy it- its fun. A non-science friend once commented “bigger and better crossword puzzles.”

    Yes, but we don’t ask tax payers to pay billions of dollars a year to support crossword puzzles. Nor do we force university students to take courses in crossword puzzles. The fact thea I enjoyed Physics is not a good reason to force Robert to pay for it.

    Back in the 19th century much of science could be described as “sealing wax and string” – small labs, simple experiments and simple equipment. There was a sense in which science was a hobby. Pure science can still be thought of as a hobby but its a very expensive one.


    28 Oct 08 at 4:06 pm

  3. Excuse me? Suggesting that it might be interesting to know something isn’t generally regarded as a demand. However, Jefferson desired that in the University of Virginia–I was wrong in thinking it had begun as a college–“all the useful sciences should be taught in their highest degree,” Useful. That included law and medicine, by the way, and nearly the first electives in the United States.

    According to the UVA web site, his notion of useful included “modern as well as ancient languages, history, rhetoric, mathematics, chemistry, botany, zoology, government, ethics, and other fields.” I don’t believe I’d quarrel with anything on the list with the possible exception of ethics. (For that matter, I’m happy that ethics be taught: I just think it’s tricky for a secular institution.)

    As to the horror with which a 19th Century humanities department would regard practicality, I believe Thorstein Veblen covered the subject far better than I ever will.


    28 Oct 08 at 6:57 pm

  4. I think there are a lot of reasons for taxpayers to support scientific research. Much of it benefits all of us in frequently very unexpected ways. Supporting only what directly benefits you personally always seems short-sighted to me.

    And unlike 100 years ago, serious research is much too expensive for individuals to do effectively in their kitchen.


    28 Oct 08 at 8:35 pm

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