Response to the Wall Street Journal’s “Who Ruined the Humanities?”

I recently read Lee Siegel’s Wall Street Journal article, “Who Ruined the Humanities?” and was prompted to write a response as someone who not only majored in the humanities for my B.A., but am pursuing a degree in English literature at the graduate level. If you haven’t had a chance to read the article yourself, I highly suggest taking a look. The thrust of Siegel’s point can effectively be summarized in the article’s subheading:

“Of course it’s important to read the great poets and novelists. But not in a university classroom, where literature has been turned into a bland, soulless competition for grades and status.”

newspaperSiegel’s disillusionment with the state of humanities in the American education system echoes the complaints of many students who feel academia ruins good books. I regret to report that I have had a number of teachers who have failed to enchant their students with the subject of literature. At worst, some fostered a sense of fruitless competition between students, encouraging them to dissect novels and reduce the power behind their writing to textbook dryness.

It is no wonder that former humanities majors have been outpouring into the fields of communications, advertising, and other more “practical” studies. Literature majors studying literature in isolation from other fields are a dying breed, Siegel informs us, “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.”

Far from a sign of the failure of our academic system, Siegel sees this as a saving grace, preserving the inherent value of literature so it cannot become corrupted by dissection in the classroom.

“No more will literature, as part of an academic curriculum, extinguish the incandescence of literature.”

To some extent, he’s entirely correct. A dry lesson dilutes the rhetorical power of a well-written piece of literature – of that there’s no doubt. But isn’t there more going on in the university¬† classroom than teaching kids to love reading? To suppose that any student can develop superior analytical writing skills just by picking up a copy of Ulysses is a suspiciously privileged view. Not every student has the social advantage of being able to sit and read selections from the English Literary Canon after school.

Where I disagree with Siegel is in his grand assertion that the study of literature as a college major is failing because it doesn’t offer students any value beyond the experience of reading books. His argument hinges upon the idea that what literature has to teach, it does so inherently – it cannot be taught in a classroom.

Now, a number of comments on the Wall Street Journal’s website have already poked holes in this argument. Learning about critical theories of literature and the historical circumstances in which a novel was written not only adds a new dimension to the way we think about books, it calls to mind questions that go beyond the page. There’s a big part of that understanding that comes from contextual knowledge and discussion in the classroom.

My advanced classes at the university level have changed the way I write, think, and communicate. There are different levels of understanding one can glean from literature. You can pick up a poem by William Butler Yeats and appreciate the sound and cadence of the poetry, but someone who is educated in Irish history, mythology, and mysticism will have a different relationship with Yeats’ work.

There are a few works that have changed my perceptions of the books I read and the media I watch, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Derrida’s deconstructionist approach to language. They have permeated my approach to reading novels in an important way, if not a strictly pleasurable way. If learning about literature in the classroom has destroyed Siegel’s enjoyment of the classics, it has heightened my appreciation of them.

But that is not the point I want to make. I understand my appreciation for the classroom study of literature may just be another subjective judgement in a world of critics. My true appreciation for my education in literature came after a year of working at the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution. Students came in with all different types of writing: everything from philosophy papers to scholarship applications to personal statements. I was amazed at how many brilliant students had difficulty articulating their ideas.

Not every English major is the most eloquent, brilliant writer. However, I do believe that humanities students are pushed to new levels of analysis and most importantly, of articulating that analysis. When it comes to writing a personal statement for a scholarship or even a lab report, you would be surprised how many non-humanities students struggle to describe their own ideas concisely and articulately.

I truly believe my writing skills have helped me get internships over people whose majors were more suitable for the position. I’ve worked in the engineering, IT, and marketing industries, and in every job situation my ability to communicate helped me get the job and market my skills when applying to scholarships and other positions. I even passed up a full time job with upward mobility to pursue my graduate degree.

Siegel sits in judgement of the classroom treatment of literature from the high seat of a literary purist who, having achieved his advanced degrees in the humanities, now presumes that he developed his eloquence and literary discernment outside the classroom. Maybe he did – but if so he ignores the reality that to achieve that, one must have a relatively affluent and learned home environment. Moreover, he lumps thousands of teachers’ approaches to literary studies into one great failure that has soiled the average American’s appreciation for literature. According to Siegel, understanding the full depth of classical literature “requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

I disagree. The greatest thing I was ever taught by my literature and history instructors was not just to enjoy literature, but to question it. Who wrote this and why? And how did it come to be that I am reading it now? The ability to answer these questions allows a student to make broader connections about the relationship between language, culture, and communication.

I’m not saying that non-humanities majors do not encourage students to think critically about their subjects and empathize with other cultures. I’m also definitely not saying that everyone can and should be a humanities major. I’m saying that what the humanities have to offer still has value in our education system.

Yes, there are misguided teaching approaches out there – just as there are in every subject. However, I do not think that the humanities are “ruined” or even necessarily declining. We are in an economic recession and people are naturally worried about getting jobs and having a marketable resume. One could say the humanities died with the fall of the Roman Empire, but here we are today studying the authors of our own language and era. The role of literature in the classroom is merely changing.¬†We have the opportunity to promote non-canonical texts and the voices of minority authors in the literature classroom. When it comes to education change is not always bad, sometimes good, but always inevitable. In the meantime, I will continue to study the humanities.

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