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Lee Siegel, For and Against the Humanities

Even though it’s trying too hard to be counter-intuitive, I really like this essay by Lee Siegel because it makes a point I also like to make (in this post, for example): that much of the current conversation about the State of the Humanities simply identifies “the humanities” with “college students who major in the humanities disciplines.”


We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.

These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy.

The college teaching of literature is a relatively recent phenomenon. Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

This is correct. We should pause to consider that almost none of the literary writers we praise and celebrate as essential to a humane education were themselves humanities majors. Apparently a B.A. in English is not the only route to excellence in the world of arts and letters.

Now, I must add that Lee Siegel takes his argument too far, as is Lee Siegel’s wont. For instance, he writes, “The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera. One page of Henry James’s clotted involutions or D.H. Lawrence’s throbbing verbal repetitions will disabuse you of any conception of literature’s value as a rhetorical model” — managing thereby to squeeze half a dozen non sequiturs into two sentences. (James and Lawrence do not between them exhaust “literature”; it is not obvious that neither writer provides useful rhetorical models, depending on circumstance; studying writers “can help you with reading and thinking clearly” even when those writers are not themselves clear; and so on.)

And here’s where his determination to cut against the grain goes way too far:

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….

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.

Siegel’s argument, in brief, is that he was taught literature badly in college; therefore literature should not be taught in college at all. But why shouldn’t his bad experiences in literature classes instead make him an advocate for better literature teaching — teaching that does justice to the rich, complex, and immensely satisfying world of great, and even not so great, books?

And why shouldn’t we literature professors seek to teach in this dynamic and life-affirming and genuinely critical (not merely cynical) way not just for our majors, but for all the other students who are passing through our classes, including those who are there by general-education-requirement compulsion? The humanities will thrive not when we have a given percentage of humanities majors but when we have a strong culture of devoted and serious and, yes, whimsical readers.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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