I went to my neighborhood coffee shop this morning with the best of intentions; I was armed and ready to make revisions to a piece that’s due on Monday. Computer, notes, pen, playlist: I was in.
Then I made the mistake of picking up this weekend’s Wall Street Journal and reading Lee Siegel’s” Who Ruined the Humanities?” and, well. It’s been awhile since something I read reduced me to inarticulate rage. And since throwing chairs is generally frowned upon in public, I’m gonna hurl a few here instead.
On its face, Siegel’s argument is pretty simple: The teaching of literature has ruined the pleasures of reading. Thus, we should eliminate the study of literature from the academy, because [and this is my favorite part] students will flock to the great works on their own.
Indeed, “[l]iterature [he tells us] “is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read…The old books will speak to the oldest parts of us. Young people will read them when they are touched by inexpressible yearnings the way they will eat when they are hungry.”
Siegel’s core rhetorical strategy is to use his own unhappy experience in studying literature at university as the heart of his evidence, as the engine of exigence for his argument. It’s a very Augustinian move, to use one’s own unhappiness as the means through which to define the ways in which other people should live–and in this case, learn. And hey, why not? We’re still living under the shadow of Augustine’s guilt for banging anything that moved for the first 30 years of his life.
But see, Siegel can’t get outside of his own head, the boundaries of his own experience, and the myoptic nature of that lens leads him to make some freaking amazing assumptions about the students he’s ostensibly trying to liberate.
To be blunt: he assumes they’re male, white, and monied.
How do I know this? Let’s go to the videotape.
Siegel stuffs his piece with 33 nods towards what he identifies as some of the “classics of Western literature”—or, even better, “the old texts”—and what do you know? Only white men write classics, sweetheart.
16 authors, 33 references, and not a woman or person of color among them:
- Shakespeare: 5 references
- DH Lawrence: 4
- WB Yeats: 4
- Homer: 4
- Andre Paul Guillaume Gide: 3
- TS Eliot: 2
- Anton Chekhov: 2
- Chaucer: 1
- John Milton: 1
- Marcel Proust: 1
- Franz Kafka: 1
- Thomas Mann: 1
- Stendhal: 1
- John Keats: 1
- Henry James: 1
- Herman Melville: 1
I have to be honest: I’m tempted to close my discussion right there, because frankly? This kind of bullshit is game, set, match.
I thought we were past this canon = dead white guys crap. Guess not.
Anyway, this narrow view of what constitutes literature illustrates how Siegel’s self-centered perspective boxes him into some tremendous assumptions, including:
- The canon is ruled by white guys.
- The value of said canon is inherent, for the appreciation of “[l]iterature requires only that you be human…[a]ll you need to understand that is a heart.”
- The base value of “human” is male and white. The relative humanity of other readers is measured or extrapolated from this base. Thus, it is assumed that the value of the canon remains constant: the measure of the human heart.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that one must be a white man in order to appreciate Shakespeare or Eliot. That’s a perspective as polemic and narrow as Siegel’s; and it ain’t true. But to insist that the body of beloved “old texts” can only be sketched by white men is just asinine.
Perhaps this is because I don’t share Mr. Siegel’s assessment of critical theory–including feminism, deconstruction, critical race theory, postmodernism, etc.–as a “fig leaf for mediocrity” in the academy. [Particularly hilarious given that Siegel’s profession is “cultural critic.”] One of the productive benefits of the embrasure of critical theory was a reevaluation of the literary canon, and its slow but steady expansion to include works by women like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Kate Chopin.
Indeed, Siegel sighs that “[b]ooks took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life.” If, as a white man reading white men’s texts, he was pushed beyond the boundaries of his everyday life, then surely readers with even less in common with these works will have this same experience. But Athena forbid that the canon itself shift to include different kinds of experiences that might speak in tongues to a new generation of readers, no.
For a man that claims to want to shake up the academy, Siegel has a very particular yearning for the university of a bygone, imaginary age: a 19th century model where, as he argues, literature was not a subject of study; where a young man might “plunge…with wonder” into books unencumbered by anything by his own emotions.
Also troubling is Siegel’s implicit assumption that students have easy access to the kind of contemplative leisure time required to engage with challenging texts, with few pressing responsibilities outside of the reflective stretch of their own educations. His construction leaves little room for students who work, who must care for their siblings or parents, who are struggling to make ends meet. Hand most students a copy of A la recherche de temps perdu, point them towards a shady elm under which to recline, and the heart will do the rest.
None of this bullshit is new, though; Siegel often seems to be channeling the rhetorical ghost of Harold Bloom. I think what really pissed me off about this essay is that I actually agree with one of Siegel’s central premises: that literature courses tend to suck the soul out of reading.
Many of the books that I love (hell, a lot of the fan fics, too) is their ability to, as Siegel puts it, “present their meanings in patchwork-clouds of associations, intuitions, impressions,” in their “capacity to transfix you with their language while hiding their meaning in folds of mind-altering imagery.” This kind of nuance and joy is difficult to capture in the classroom, and many of the literature classes that I’ve had in graduate school have tended towards the Dementor variety, devouring pleasure and leaving only words in their path.
But. Some of the best teachers in whose classrooms I’ve had the pleasure to participate have taught literature, and have managed to combine comprehension and beauty into the experience.
It can done. But it ain’t easy.
For Siegel, however, the fact that “for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence [drink!] come alive for the lucky few…there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodonist’s chair” is enough to condemn the entire field into the dustbin.
If that’s the measuring stick we used for the value of a discipline, universities would be ghost towns, my friend. Graduate work trains you for a whole of shit, but teaching, in general, isn’t one.
Ultimately, the problem seems to be that Siegel spent his first twenty years banging texts and taking great pleasures in the body of work in which he indulged–and then came university, graduate school, and suddenly the joy was gone: “this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of of my existence that vexed or bored me.” Understandable that this would be a site of frustration, that it would inspire a desire to regain a lost, imaginary past, one in which education did not intrude on the life of a young man’s mind.
But said man’s nostalgia for a kind of pedagogical Brigadoon is not, I fear, sufficient exigence for the wholesale gutting of an entire discipline. It is, however, reflective of a very particular audience’s perception of What’s Wrong With This Country; for the readers of the Wall Street Journal, I’ve no doubt that Mr. Siegel’s prescription will hold great appeal.
Bury them in the classics, they’ll say; and if the kids still can’t make their own way, well. Then they’re not our kind of human.