I meant to blog on Lee Siegel’s recent jeremiad about the way college ruins a love of literature, but never got around to it last month. It’s good stuff. Excerpt:
Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”
But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. 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.
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.
So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.
In Wordsworth’s phrase, “we murder to dissect.”
At least at my alma mater, literature is gone. The only English requirement for incoming freshman analyzes “rhetorical and stylistic conventions that govern professional and academic writing in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities”—and people complain about reading Chaucer!
Get literature out of high school instead. That’s where the real problem is. The worst excesses of college literature courses have already trickled down to high school. High school English is now a “social science,” used as a vehicle for social history, not about what makes us truly human. The stated purpose of the AP Literature & Composition course—the gold standard for literature courses at most high schools—is for students to “reflect on the social and historical values [each work] reflects and embodies.” None of the six approaches to texts that the teacher’s guide recommends have anything to do with illuminating the “incandescence of literature.”
So, even if you are a brilliant and engaged high school literature teacher, the system compels you to take a social science approach to literature, at least when you teach the brightest students (those enrolled in AP courses). Is this true? If so, that’s terribly sad.
This morning I dropped my son Matthew off for the first day of class at Sequitur, the classical Christian homeschooling tutorial he attends twice a week. You might recall that last year, the first year of Sequitur, Matt’s class read The Odyssey, which parents were encouraged to read along with their kids. I had never read it, and joined my son on this journey through Homer. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done (you can read my posts on it here), in part because it made me see the world differently, and it brought Matt and I closer together in discovery. This year, the class is going to read The Iliad. My son and I are really excited about this. I asked Brian Daigle, Matt’s tutor, when he was going to start the kids on The Iliad.
“Right away,” he said.
Yes! Let’s go!