As you’ve probably heard, literary studies are on the decline. Because I was an English major who cares about the arts, I’m supposed to lament this with jeremiads against cultures who neglect the Life of the Mind, or craft an ode to learning for its own sake, or make some hackneyed argument that an English major has as much practical utility as engineering.
I feel fine. Maybe that’s because too many literature departments remind me too much of why I hated English class in eighth grade.
I’m painting with an unfairly broad brush in this post. I’m also speaking as someone who is–at best–on the peripheries of the literary academy.1 I’d be interested in the takes of any of you who actually do have advanced degrees in the humanities.
Now that accuracy and fairness are out of the way, here’s my hot take:
Literature as Lesson-machine
During eighth grade I was homeschooled on Pensacola Christian Academy’s video school curriculum. PCA recorded an entire year’s worth of classes, and I could watch from the happy isolation of my room.
This probably sounds awful.
PCA is a fundamentalist bastion. When you add the fact that I was watching their teachers in a room by myself for eight hours a day, it may sound like an evangelical-cynic torture device.
I liked it. As an introvert and misanthrope, the hermitic lifestyle suited me. And I enjoyed most of the teachers: the history and bible teachers were dynamic storytellers, my science teacher was affable, and my math teacher made algebra as tolerable as possible.
The only class I hated was English.
This was partly because of grammar–it’s impossible for middle schoolers to not hate diagramming sentences. But mainly, it was because PCA ruined literature.
For PCA, literature’s purpose was to teach moral lessons. Stories were selected for those lessons, not their literary merit. Class lectures weren’t about things like diction, tone, setting, or theme, but about applying the lessons to our lives.
I can only remember two canonical authors in our course–TS Eliot, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But the Eliot poem was about naming cats. And we only read the Hawthorne short story to identify all the ways it contradicted the Bible.
I’m not exaggerating.
This made English class about as fun (and useful) as a corporate seminar on email etiquette–a string of frowns and scowls and serious lessons.
It also missed the point of literature.
It is true that literature can instruct. But it should also delight.2 And many of the “lessons” we’re supposed to learn from literature are found indirectly, through the things that make a story a story, a poem a poem, a sentence a sentence.
In other words, you should study literature for the things that make it distinct and valuable. If we’re just hunting for didactic lessons, we may as well listen to a lecture on manners.
Literature as Lesson-machine (again!)
Too many literature professors3 take the same approach as PCA.
For them, the purpose of literature is to provide examples of oppression. Many of these lessons are helpful and good. Up to a point. But when the main things we draw from courses are that Hemingway was racist, Homer was sexist, and Dante was homophobic, something’s off balance.
Just like PCA had me read a Hawthorne story to count all the ways it contradicted the Bible, literary studies does little more than scowl disapproval while counting the author’s sins against progressivism.
Some students like this. There’s a special thrill from rampaging through world literature to expose the great writers as bigots, and lauding ourselves for being born in a more enlightened time. I’m sure some PCA folks liked tallying sins in literature and assuring themselves that they don’t go for the filth of the non-Christian canon.
At their cores, PCA and these professors have the same view of literature. They just have different policy preferences.
And that, I humbly suggest, is one small reason literature majors are fading. Whether you’re a fundamentalist or a progressive, finding examples of your worldview in action can be a useful exercise.
But you don’t need literature to do it.
Anyone care to defend contemporary literary studies? That’d be fine, I guess. Though it’d be more fun if someone wanted to defend PCA’s literature classes….
1 Though if you believe the stereotypes, my Yale Law degree is essentially in the humanities. Did I ever mention that I took a class there called “Ethics in Literature?” Good times.
2 Thank you, Sir Phillip Sidney.
3 And yes, I realize I’m painting with an unfairly broad brush. There are lots of fabulous Humanities professors who genuinely love their subjects. If you’re one of them, just assume I’m criticizing someone else.