Monday, July 15, 2013

Lee Siegel Tries to Bury the Humanities

University students are fleeing humanities courses. Among the reasons is the simple fact, reported here and elsewhere: humanities departments no longer teach the humanities.

Literature departments have been occupied by culture warriors who indoctrinate students in the political correct thinking. Many of them, if called on to teach literature would be at a loss.

Lee Siegel explains:

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.

After making this salient point, Siegel muddies it by saying that instruction in the humanities was never worth much anyway:

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."

In a lame attempt at wit Siegel is trying to say that those who believe that literature was well taught in the past are wrong. Studying literature was always a painful bore.

As someone who studied and taught these hoary subjects, I beg to differ. In olden days most professors of literature worked to teach literature. Some did it well; some did it not so well. They loved literature and worked hard to teach it to their students. 

Since Siegel does not seem to know very much about the way Shakespeare has been taught over the last century or so, he would have done better not to issue such a broad indictment.

One is happy that Frank Kermode inspired Siegel, but saying that other professors are not Frank Kermode is an empty assertion.

I have no idea who drained the life out of literature for Siegel, but his description of the old way of teaching literature feels like caricature:

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.

Siegel tends to conflate the humanities with literature, only making a passing reference to philosophy, theology, linguistics, art, classics and even history. He says nothing about the fact that English professors also teach expository writing courses and grammar.

Having reduced the humanities to literature, Siegel asserts:

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.

Siegel offers a wonderful example of what happens when you make broad generalizations on topics you know little about.

Allow me to point out that in medieval universities instruction began with what was called the trivium. Those three subjects were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They involved learning how to formulate a thought, learning how to think clearly and learning how to communicate effectively.

After mastering the trivium, medieval students moved on to the quadrivium, which involved geometry, music, arithmetic and astronomy.

One assumes, reasonably, that students at that time worked on the texts of Aristotle. Of course, his Rhetoric was the standard text on how communicate to an audience, but his Poetics discussed how great tragedy moved an audience. How would students have learned the rhetorical arts of moving audiences emotionally if they had no notion of how Sophocles did it and how Aristotle analyzed it?

Of course, students in the Middle Ages focused primarily on the Bible. I have no idea where Siegel got the idea that the Bible was not part of an academic curriculum. Is he aware of the fact that the basic text for the study of theology in medieval universities, the Sentences of Pierre Lombard was a compilation of Biblical and theological and philosophical texts?

Siegel is on firmer ground when he asserts that the moderns have become increasingly interested in literature as Biblical texts were losing their authority. It seems reasonable to assert that literary criticism derives from the longstanding practice of Biblical exegesis.

Yet, even today, if you do not know the Bible, a goodly part of what is going on in art, literature and philosophy will escape you completely. The notion that you can ignore the classics or the Bible is fatuous.

Not quite as fatuous as Siegel’s central argument, that reading great literature requires no special knowledge:

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.
Siegel is saying that if you are human and have a heart you will be able to understand Shakespeare. Shakespeare does touch your emotions, as does Homer, but it engages your mental faculties also.

It makes no sense to me that you can happily make your way through The Iliad, or The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost without having any special knowledge of history, of philosophy or of theology. I cannot imagine that you can effectively mine their resources without a guide. Dante needed a guide; why shouldn’t you?

Unfortunately, Siegel has chosen to prove his point by trashing writers who, dare I say, are vastly superior to him.

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.

Siegel’s manifest failure to appreciate Henry James proves that if you try to read through these texts without a guide you will get lost and miss the point.

Siegel is correct to see the modern mania about relevance, mania that predates political correctness, has damaged literature.

People need to study the humanities because the world is not reducible to bits and bytes. Great literature and great philosophy teaches you how to formulate thought and teaches you how to move an audience. To formulate a good concept you need to know how to tell a story.

Politicians succeed when they can communicate a message, clearly and concisely, by using a concept. Advertisers use the skill too.  Salesmen use it all the time. Policy analysis involves thinking through possible scenarios that might occur after a new policy is implemented. To do so you need to hone your imaginative faculties. Empathy will not do the trick.

If Siegel wants to say that politically correct professors have ruined literature, he would be making a good point, albeit a point that has been made many times before.

Yet, he seems to believe that literature should not be taught in universities at all because people can read them by themselves for entertainment.

By my lights this makes him an uninteresting Philistine. When it comes to literature and philosophy, it is best to get over the attitude that you should try to go it alone. You might learn this principle by studying literature or philosophy, but you will not gain it by lazing away an afternoon reading the latest piece of pulp fiction.


Bobbye said...

I doubt if the average or elite Philistine would agree with Lee on anything. Most likely a Philistine would agree with you, Stuart. Lee lives in and embraces this matriarchal/feminist culture which sees no value in 'all this thinking' when 'feeling' is what is important. Stuart, you should have been born in 12th century Paris, or even 1890 Oxford. Please stop dissing the Philistines. Don't you know King David married a Philistine Princess?

Webutante said...

I do not believe King ever married any Philistine princess. Where ever in the Bible do you find that referenced, Bobbye?


Bobbye said...

Thanks for challenging a statement Webutante. It is an honorable thing to do. You are right. I assumed that the king of Geshur was a Philistine because his territory was ruled by them. He most likely was a Geshurite whom the Hebrews failed to remove from the land during the time of Joshua. Thanks for enticing me to look that up. Dialogue is the essence of the Humanities.

The Passing Tramp said...

Very much enjoyed your insightful take on that piffling piece.

Webutante said...

Thank you, Bobbye, for your kind response to my bewildered question about King David. Yes, I totally agree that discourse and questioning and reasoning things out is the heart and essence of the humanities. We are all learning, aren't we?!

Best wishes.

Sam L. said...

Looked him up (knowing nothing about him), found this:
Lee Siegel - RationalWiki
May 15, 2013 ... Lee Siegel is a full-time narcissist and part-time writer. In his downtime, he builds his reputation by sparring with his many nemeses, including ...

Sounds right.