There was a moment in one of my composition classes this past spring when America’s barely submerged hostility toward the humanities surfaced and snapped its teeth before resubmerging, lambent under fathoms of boredom and the kind of businesspeak that pollutes the discourse of and about higher education, rendering the hostility hard to recognize despite the fact that one is looking directly at it. The class was struggling with Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues” largely because Smith employs literary allusions to illustrate and expand upon her fairly subtle ideas. Some even felt the allusions were suspicious or intentionally obfuscatory, as if Smith hadn’t much to say so she dressed it up to make it sound more important or worse to sound confusing because her ideas weren’t really worth understanding in the first place. Of course, none but one or two of roughly eighty students looked up the allusions to see what Smith was getting at. Rather, most simply stopped reading the essay, complaining it was too difficult and uninteresting to bother with.
Knowing that almost none of my students have use for drama, poetry, literary novels, or movies made outside of the United States and/or before the year 2000, we spent time in class examining Smith’s discussion of G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion to see how she used the play to illustrate and deepen her points. Then I lectured my students about why reading literature matters, how it can enrich their lives by fostering engaged reading skills and opening doors to experiences and ideas that can broaden their perspectives. For the most part, the class just sat there and took it. Most simply looked like they usually do—zoned out. But then, to signal that my admittedly heated lecture had come to an end, a girl who at that point in the semester had completed almost none of the assignments let out a barely stifled laugh. It wasn’t an invitation for conversation—I asked her if she wanted to respond to what I’d just said, and she declined—rather, it was a dismissal, a small act of aggression against what she saw as a waste of time.
Her snigger brought to mind a verbal image from Wallace Shawn’s provocative 1996 play The Designated Mourner. The play’s protagonist, Jack, describing himself as “a former student of English literature who went downhill from there,” is the self-designated mourner of America’s literati, who vanished after violent extremists took over the government, imprisoning and killing writers and intellectual dissidents. Jack survives the purge by distancing himself from his friends and cutting all links to his father-in-law, Howard, a celebrated poet who had once written a scabrous essay with which most people identify him and who was the target of ever-increasing acts of violence until he was finally executed in his home after serving a five-year prison sentence. As part of his distancing, Jack confides to the audience that he’d never really enjoyed reading poetry before he ultimately confesses to an odd little experiment he had undertaken: “One morning in my new apartment I did something funny—at least I thought it was funny. I put a book of poetry in the bathtub, and I urinated on it. An interesting experiment. Then I left it in the tub, and then, later, when I needed to shit … I shat on the book.”
That’s the image that came to my mind in the classroom. And it speaks not only to that girl’s laugh, but to incessant, bleating accusations of “elitism” whenever somebody displays the slightest degree of erudition, the constant threat of the underenrollment of literature classes in my twelve years of teaching college level English, the ever-shrinking budgets for Liberal Arts departments, the constant rhetoric among education experts and administrators that going to college is about obtaining job skills, the increasing pressure to produce quantitative measures to determine student learning, and so much more that indicts all levels of our society.
The most troubling items on that list are the last few. They often come from people who extol a Liberal Arts education on one hand, while basically reducing education to job training and the imparting of information on the other. The study of literature, in particular, comes under attack in such an etiolated vision of what constitutes a college education. After all, studying literature requires analysis and is limited only by the rigor and imagination of your thinking. As the great literary critic Walter Benjamin, when writing about the value of storytelling, contended, “It is up to [the reader] to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.” Studying literature is a kind of knowledge that is rooted in action, it is protean, dynamic, immeasurable. A story read at the age of twenty may look wholly different at the age of forty, as well it should. The study of literature, then, isn’t merely about memorizing nomenclature, dates, or names—though it may be about that too—it’s about ideas. Try quantifying that.
That you can’t is what will forever threaten the humanities in higher education. Worse, not being directly practical puts the humanities at odds with America’s much-celebrated and maligned pragmatism. If I can’t use it on my job, then it must be worthless, unless it distracts me from everything that isn’t my job. As the same girl who laughed in my class wrote in an essay at the end of the semester, English instructors might think that reading essays are important, but Nursing instructors would probably tell you they aren’t. If true, that would be sad. Indeed, this student had already forgotten that two of the more compelling essays we’d discussed in class were written by health professionals—a nurse and an ophthalmologist. If we stop reading literature and leave it to the English professors, we will, figuratively if not literally, end up like Jack at the end of The Designated Mourner, reduced to consuming porn until the thrill’s no long there. As Jack puts it: “So I spent a lot of time with the somewhat arbitrarily selected group of people who happened to appear in those particular magazines. In fact, I got to know them awfully well—their foibles, whatever—their idiosyncracies—poses, gestures, expressions, smiles. And then that too was gone one day. One day it went. I looked at the pictures and got absolutely nothing. I felt nothing. I saw nothing. The pictures were dead. They were paper. They were nothing.”