There’s been much written about the demise of the humanities in the college curriculum lately: its causes ranging from students’ recognition of today’s economic exigencies to faculties driven politically and socially by Marxist, feminist, and minority agendas. But Lee Siegel’s article in today’s WSJ “Who Ruined the Humanities” places the blame squarely on academics who fail to understand that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”
As an English major and literature teacher, I agree.
Whoa, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence and what’s worse that I actually believe it. (Remember, kids, be wary of an unreliable narrator.) After all, I’ve spent the last 17 years teaching literature, nearly two decades of engaging in the reductive exercise of coming to, in Siegel’s words, “right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations.” And outside the classroom I’ve been talking and writing about the value of the humanities, wondering what kind of a world we’ll eventually live in when we all stop reading … or at least stop reading literature. (What’s the temperature, students, at which books burn?)
So it was actually pretty hard to read Siegel’s article and find myself nodding, especially since I’m teaching two sections of AP Lit next year.
But my students – incredibly dutiful and willing – have been telling me the truth (kindly slant) over the years by their obvious boredom with and their retreat from literature so that I’m beginning to finally appreciate Siegel’s argument.
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.
“Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read”? So, is Siegel suggesting that we lit teachers scatter our classroom floors with beanbag chairs, line the bookshelf walls with the classics, and then hand in our resignations? Not exactly. (Learn to read, students, with a scholar’s eye.)
We all can appreciate what Aristotle meant by his statement, “All men by nature want to know.” We are born with the innate desire to question and to seek understanding.
But we only know one story – our own. Literature allows us insight into limitless stories, all of other men and women who also want to know, the questions they ask and the answers they find. But if I as the teacher tell the students what their questions should be, how to discover the answers, and even what those conclusions should be, I’m shutting down their natural instinct to seek knowledge on their own. I’m teaching them, albeit unconsciously, to distrust their own inherent questioning and to instead mimic and value mine.
Siegel, hardest on college humanities professors, actually places his greatest hope in the hands of us high school lit teachers:
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 the transfiguring literature works of the past the way they will be drawn to love.
What a beautiful last line that is. That we would feel the desire to read as we would the desire to eat or to love. That reading would be at the core of what it means to be human.
Teaching in this light becomes the process of letting go of our traditional role as the arbiter of knowledge and of honoring our students’ natural desire to know. The essential questions that guide that shared endeavor in the literature classroom become “why we read, what we read, how we read.” The teacher becomes the facilitator, discovering what the students want to know and how and where they might find those answers. The students learn to “understand” – the etymological roots of which mean “to stand in the midst of” – who they are, what they desire, and what they believe. They “will read (literature) when they are touched by inexpressible yearning the way they will eat when they are hungry. If they want to.”
Admittedly, I’m afraid of Siegel’s conditional statement – “If they want to.” What if they don’t want to? That is honestly a terrifying thought to me. But I have to confront my role in that possibility. If I continue to teach literature, demanding that students read Shakespeare to gain my understanding and to scan for meter and rhyme, then they’ll continue, as over the past 400 years, “creeping like snail / unwillingly to school.” But if I honor their natural “desire to know,” I might have a chance of helping them to the next stage.