In his Wall Street Journal essay “Who Ruined the Humanities,” Lee Siegel makes a powerful case that the rising generation needs an introduction to literature through high school survey courses, simply to know what wonderful books exist, much more than it needs any special tools to understand literature.
It does seem to me that any aspect of the study of literature that is not effective at opening students’ eyes to the wonders of literature should be seen and judged either (a) as instruction in how to achieve similar effects in creative writing, or (b) as some combination of linguistics, history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, geography, political science, or the like. Indeed, Lee writes that early in the 20th Cenutry, many literature departments “consisted mostly of philologists who examined etymology and the history of a text,” which could be considered a combination of linguistics and history.
Here is the heart of Lee’s argument:
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….
… 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 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….
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.