Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Not Just A Mystery

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Yesterday, in response to the posts, I got a pair of e-mails that don’t look, on the surface, as if they have anything to do with each other, but which I think are very much connected.   The one from John was about a teacher friend of his and her battles with the parents of her students, who think Junior deserves an A no matter what his work has been like and are outraged when she refuses to agree.   The one from Robert said the following:

>>>Truth is, the button of mine you push most often is not your defense of any work of literature, but your cavalier attitude toward those you despise as unworthy<<<

I’ve looked at that sentence a dozen times, and I still don’t get it.  I don’t “despise” works that are noncanonical, and I don’t see that anything I’ve said here indicates that I do. 

Nor do I assume that books have to be “worthy” in the sense that seems to be used above in order to be part of the canon–with the canon devised as a collection of works important in the intellectual history of the West, for instance, Uncle Tom’s  Cabin would make the cut where the minor novels of Jane Austen and all of Thackery except Vanity Fair would not, and Uncle  Tom’s Cabin is far worse of a novel (in the sense of fulfilling the defnition of a novel) than not only the Austen and the Thackery, but than Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer and even Somebody Else’s Music.

There is something going on there in that assumption that not to include a work in the canon is to look down on it that I think is key to the argument here.  And  I think it’s the key to John’s teacher friend’s problem with the parents of her students.

First, it seems to me that great big whacking hunks of the baby boom generation came out of school feeling that they’d been unfairly branded inferior by the system and their teachers.

Second, that these same kids, now parents, are convinced that the branding was all the more egregious because the standard on which they think it was based–the humanities in general and literature in particular–is something they consider nothing but subjective taste.  In other words, it was based on nothing real.  It was mere snobbery.

Somewhere back there a while ago, I pointed out that part of the problem with explaining the humanities to people is that it’s far easier to illustrate why an equation is wrong than why it is an idea about literature is.   That doesn’t mean that ideas about literature are subjective, or just a matter of taste, any more than ideas about quarks are.  It just means that they’re harder to explain.

One of the reasons why they’re harder to explain is that they seem to be something that everybody “gets.”  I’m not an idiot, am I?  I can read, for God’s sake.  You’re just making up all that stuff about Moby Dick being an allegory.

But Robert doesn’t fall into that category, and I don’t think anybody else here does, either.  So why make the assumption that if I don’t think Georgette Heyer is literature, I must “despise” her work?  Where have I said anything that indicates I “despise” it?

I did say  I thought Heyer was escapist entertainment–does that mean I “despise” it?  If it does,  I spend a damned lot of time indulging in something I despise.  I can’t handle the cozier sort of cozy–cat detectives, and that sort of thing–but Martha Grimes is escapist entertainment, and I loved her early novels.  Dorothy L. Sayers is escapist entertainment, and I have her complete works of detective fiction in the house somewhere. 

Back in the days when we taught people how to really read, the conventional wisdom was that there were three ways to read, each a little more difficult than the last–for entertainment, for information, and for understanding.   A book that provided an opportunity for all three kinds of reading had more claim to be taken seriously than one that  provided an opportunity for only one. 

But note–the requirement is all three, including entertainment.  The very best books provide that level for people who want it.  You really can read  Moby  Dick as an adventure story about a whale.  You can also read it for the information it provides about whaling.  You can also read it to understand the allegory.

A writer I like very much–a writer most of whose work is definitely escapist  entertainment–once pointed out through a character in a novel called Small Gods that books that can tell you how to fix the plumbing are all very well and good, but books in the humanities (literature and philosophy and history) tell you how to be human.

I don’t think anybody can outright tell you how to be human, but I do think that if you’re looking for a way out of cultural decadence and decline, you’re not going to get it from books on physics or theoretical mathematics.  Science is a great good thing, and when it has an impact on day to day life that impact tends to be huge, but a lot of it is the examination of issues that are of no importance to most of the people on this planet and never will be.   I think the whole question of whether the universe will expand until it reaches a steady state or get to some kind of end and retract again until it forms another ball for another big bang a neat thing to read about, but don’t tell me that I value science for its practical usefulness in the real world.  There is no practical usefulness in that, and probably never will be.

Physicists investigate the fate of the universe because they want to know for the sake of knowing, and I’m all for that.  The liberal arts–and physics is part of the liberal arts–are those things we study for their own sake, not because they will be useful to us.

But Terry Pratchett had a point–the humanities do indeed try to tell us how to be human.  They show us the different ways in which people have worked out their humanity, played out their lives, made the decisions that let to the consequences that got them to their end in one state rather than another.  This is useful knowledge to have.   The wider our understanding of how human beings live their lives, the better chance we have to live our own with some kind of decency and to build a decent society around us.

Nobody who has a thorough grounding in the humanities will ever tell you that morality is subjective and relative to different cultures, or that all cultures are equally worthwhile and to be valued on their own terms, or that it’s “just your opinion” that FGM is morally unacceptable.  One of the big jobs of the humanities is to teach you better than that.

Part of what’s so crazy making here, though, is this;  I’m pretty sure  Robert believes in God.

The push to make scientific procedures and standards the only procedures and standards is usually the province of very militant atheists.  It provides them with a basis on which to deny any evidence that does not fit a rather narrow agenda.  If man is “just another animal,” for instance, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t move to active euthanasia when someone is just “using up too many resources” and so threatens the “quality of life” of the rest of us. 

I’m not saying that all atheists have this sort of agenda–they really, really don’t–or that atheism in and of itself requires it (it really, really doesn’t), but the fact is that scientism–the use of “science” as ideology, the denial of all other kinds and enterprises of human knowledge–is a very useful tool for certain very specific political agendas.  It is not the political agenda Robert favors.  I don’t think it’s the political agenda anybody here favors.

Contrast that with the body of work of somebody like, say, George Steiner, who manged to work his way around to declaring, in Real Presences and Lessons of the Masters, that the existence of great art proved the existence of God.

Okay, not quite.  But close.  And  I have some real problems with Steiner, as a thinker.  But his basic point in all this is the same as Terry Pratchett’s.

The humanities are those branches of knowledge that deal with what it means to be human in particular.   That is, they deal with the things that make us different from every other creature that exists on this planet, and different in kind, not just in degree. 

Even medicine doesn’t do this.  It works off biological science that begins with the assumption that species are interconnected–that the digestive systems of mammals have a lot in common with each other, that the idiosyncrasies of the human digestive system are no more than that.  When neuroscience tries to “explain’ religion, or creativity, it talks about the ways neurons develop and the action of hormones on synapses–and in the end it tells us nothing about religion, or creativity, at all.

The danger of scientism is that we will begin to think science tells us about those things.  When people like Victor Davis Hanson lend their names and reputations to things like ID, it’s scientism they think they’re fighting, although they’re not.

The humanities are not subjective matters of taste with no objective foundation for understanding and evaluation.  They’re the only expression we have of our full and unique humanity and the only path we have to understanding it.

Trust me, science is not going to help.

To say that some work or other operates on the level of entertainment and entertainment only is not to “despise” it. 

And to set up a situation where we have only two choices–it’s great art, or it’s complete crap–doesn’t help anybody.


Written by janeh

November 30th, 2008 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Not Just A Mystery'

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  1. Back at my own computer – I may go on at length! The one I used to respond to Robert yesterday was painful to use.

    I love Terry Pratchett, and I do see your point here. I read a LOT of fluff. Well, I read a lot, period, but there are books I read for entertainment, some I get entertainment and something to think about from as well, and sometimes books I read because I want to know more about something – mostly I enjoy these well enough to get through, but it takes much longer than the light reading I carry with me on the bus all the time. I also enjoy them in a different way. I plowed through a so-called introduction to Christianity recently that took me months, and parts of it were above my head, but other bits were really rewarding because I could figure out, oh, *that’s* how he gets from what’s in the Bible to what a lot of people are saying about What Christians Believe. I might agree or not, but I enjoy figuring out how someone else thinks about these things. All (or almost all) kinds of books are of value to me.

    I came to the conclusion long ago that there had to be different ways of knowing about the world. With all respect to the many Christians and other religious believers who have argued that you can prove logically and/or scientifically that God exists and the way you should therefore behave is that, I find that unconvincing. Of course, when I go down this mental path, I find myself eventually saying, basically, ‘I think there is a God but I can’t prove it to your or my satisfaction’, which to a former science student is a bit uncomfortable. But on the other hand, having complementary ways to view the world gives a depth and breadth that neither way alone does.

    I’m looking forward to your next book, although I confess I’m one behind – I haven’t got ‘Cheating at Solitaire’ yet, although I read and enjoyed ‘Glass Houses’.

    I don’t mean you should write more slowly, though, just because I’m a bit slow reading right now!


    30 Nov 08 at 9:08 am

  2. Science vs humanities. I’ve been spending some time thinking about the the difference between scientific law and human law.

    Laws in science work becuase they don’t involve consequences. The law of conservation of energy always holds in all cirucmstances. If a jumbo jet with 300 people on board runs out of fuel half way across the Atlantic, then it will crash and all 300 people will be killed. And its no use saying “Its not fair” or “Its unjust” or “They didn’t deserve that.”

    Science and common sense tells us that humans are social animals who function best in groups. This leads to what used to be called “Natural Law”. We have to control anger and killing because society can’t function if anyone can kill anyone else at any time for any reason. So we have a “Natural Law” that killing is wrong.

    But then our legal system has Murder and Manslaughter and Negligent Death and Accidental Death. There was a recent case in Australia where a speeding driver killed a group of pedestrians. He was charged with something like Causing Death by Culpable Driving. The jury convicted him of a lesser charge of Causing Death by Negligent Driving.

    The Universe just says “drive a car at that speed around that curve and you will lose control. It doesn’t matter that 5 people will die becuase of the lack of control.”

    Humans have to decide how to punish that action.

    I suggest that science teaches us the unchanging laws of the universe, the humanities help teach us how to live together and that our laws are changeable.


    30 Nov 08 at 1:17 pm

  3. More from my History teacher friend. Posted by request from Jane! Sorry about the formatting. Copy from email and paste into this form doesn’t work well. :(
    >Isn’t there something called grade inflation going on in the

    It started in high schools, actually. It started in the 70s and 80s
    with the idea that we can’t hurt children’s self esteem, and everyone is a
    special and unique snowflake, blah blah blah. So they got grades they
    didn’t really earn and HEY WOW YOU’RE A WINNER YOU GOT AN A! Then everyone
    applying to college began having transcripts that looked identical, so
    universities began using other things to determine who they took,
    including AP program participation. Well, you can imagine what that led
    to. Suddenly EVERYONE was qualified for AP! No, seriously. There are
    public schools where you are automatically enrolled in AP as the standard
    course unless you opt out for “remedial” courses. That is so fucking
    wrong; AP is meant to be a college-level course for only the best and
    brightest. Not even all the A students at my school are ready for AP.
    (Yes, I teach it how it is meant to be taught; I actually have a special
    certification from the AP Board that is noted on transcripts to indicate
    that my courses are REAL AP. How sad is it that such a thing is even

    Universities have now kinda adapted to the new reality. They’re
    businesses; they make parents and students happy; what does it matter to
    them if grades are inflated?

    I kinda get on a roll about this, because the “entitled special
    snowflake” attitude is, I believe, the number one issue that is
    destroying our culture and country. Kids expect to live as well as
    their parents right out of college because THEY DESERVE IT, and the
    concept of working for it is alien to them. Over 50% of our college
    grads now move back home instead of getting an apartment and job,
    because they can’t find a job that’s “acceptable” to them and they
    want to have comfort. (I actually knew a college grad who was holding out
    for a job as a magazine editor. No, really. She wouldn’t only accept
    EDITOR. Right out of college. What?) Credit debt is racked up like whoa by
    most people because THEY DESERVE IT. (This was before the economic
    downturn, too.) Affairs are at an all time high, because THEY’RE SPECIAL
    AND RULES DON’T APPLY. Basic manners have essentially evaporated in a lot
    of places, because no one’s feelings/needs matter but their own. And so


    30 Nov 08 at 4:28 pm

  4. OK, Robert does believe in God. But Robert also comes out of a Protestant tradition of the priesthood of all believers and individual scripture reading and not out of an orthodox tradition in which doctrine is established by committees of the highly trained and educated, which may be pertinent here.

    And yes, he’s a Boomer badly scarred by high school and Freshman college English–if not made to feel inferior, at least left with a very poor opinion of the sort of fiction favored by English teachers and left with the impression that this attitude was heartily reciprocated. Three levels of reading? Most of what I was assigned in school never achieved Level One.

    It’s not a desire to count only scientific knowledge so much as an awareness that without the testability–the falsifiability-of science, it’s much easier for expert opinion–or taste–to pass itself off as fact.

    And yes, I do sometimes wonder how much of the critical “superstructure” is arbitrary, and whether suitably deep levels of meaning could be found in a very different assortment of books should the critical winds shift. The Ossian Poems were hailed as being as great as Homer once, but when the authorship changed, the greatness went away. I understand the same thing has happened to some doubtful Shakespeare attributions.

    There are several volumes now of critical studies of Tolkien in general, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS in particular, praising the understanding of the nature of evil and addiction, the entrelacements of the plot, the paralleled characters and the choice of language. The reader might also want to read a review from the time of publication by one of America’s most distinguished literary critics. The reviewer was Edmund Wilson, and the title was “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs!” Oddly, the text doesn’t seem to have changed.

    If literary excellence is objective, we approach it through academic criticism which certainly is not. More and more, my inclination is to read the books wich touch ME, and not wait for the critics to catch up.


    30 Nov 08 at 9:30 pm

  5. Robert,

    Another example of literary fashion is Rudyard Kipling. The critics originally loved him and then they turned against him.

    But science also has fads. Something called string theory has been all the rage among theoretical physicists for 20 years. It hasn’t produced a single testable result.

    I haven’t read this book


    But I’m heard that it asks whether sting theory should be considered Physics or mathematics.

    And is global warming real or a scientific fad?


    1 Dec 08 at 1:22 am

  6. “And is global warming real or a scientific fad?”


    OK, global warming is probably real. The extent to which humans have caused it and may be able to influence its progress is, um, subject to debate. And the attention paid to it and the way it is presented is worse than faddish, it’s got the elements of a call for political/religious orthodoxy in the worst possible way!


    1 Dec 08 at 7:36 am

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