Literature never failed us; we abandoned it

Destroyed Books

The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository has been abandoned since a fire struck the building. It’s a metaphor.

Mark Bauerlein, English prof at Emory University, makes precisely the point that for me lies at the center of the big, slow-motion cultural conversation about the death of English as an academic discipline. Teachers who could have seen themselves as stewards of a great tradition, who could have served that tradition and young people by learning and passing on the best that has been said and done, instead began to fancy themselves as transformative intellectuals, possessors of precisely the verbal skills needed for success in a hyperpoliticized age. They talk about empowerment and skills and the future. They do not, often, talk in any intimate and profound way about particular works of literature, or what such works reveal about who and where we may be.

After summarizing a few of the many defenses made for the humanities of late, Bauerlein focuses on the important detail:

These statements and others on how the humanities foster critical thinking, cultivate Information Economy skills, help enact social change, resist utilitarianism in human affairs, etc., may be challenged in one aspect or another, but they are all reasonable and they pop up in education discussions all the time. Their commonplace status, however, shouldn’t obscure the fact that they share an extraordinary characteristic. It is a trait so simple and obvious, and so paradoxical, that one easily overlooks it, especially as these voices so earnestly endorse the humanities. The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. In the Boston Globe (“Humanities: The Practical Degree,” June 21), Carlo Rotella claims that the humanities instill a “suite of talents” that include “assimilating and organizing large, complex bodies of information,” but he doesn’t tie that installation to any particular works of art. These pro-humanities documents drop a “Proust” and “Dickens” here and there, but little more. The works of the ages that fill actual humanities syllabi barely exist in these heartfelt defenses. Instead of highlighting assigned authors, artists, writings, and artworks, they signal what happens after the class ends: the moral, civic, and workplace outcomes.

Literature has obviously been in decline in schools for years–but there are signs it’s thriving outside the academy through new media such as the large catalog of downloadable audio lectures available from The Great Courses. There is a large audience–though not a universal one–for intelligent discourse about significant literary works.

This is not just bad for literature–it’s been a disaster for the culture, which is now trying to “humanize” young people with dismal programs such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports programs pushed by the USDE and adopted by many states, according to which the purpose of life is “success” understood mainly in materials terms and the method is compliance with authority. Low-level behavioral psychology (used to keep order in prisons and to train puppies) has become the official psychology, in many schools.

A lot has happened to American education in the past five or six decades, and there is no quick turnaround. What is not needed is a new national program, with workshop gurus and posters and buzzwords. The belief that widespread problems must lead to large-scale “solutions” is part of what ails us. What is needed are many individuals, spending time reading–thinking about current difficulties with the best authors of the past and present–and then discussing those particular works with others who are also responding to a troubled world by seeking deeper insight into history and human nature by regular engagement with the best books. It isn’t necessary that everyone do this, but it’s of vital importance that some do.