Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Re: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower


The article George Leef links to, written by a part-time college English teacher, is quite well-done — vivid, informative, and blessedly free of preachiness. My problem with it is that it’s really two articles that the author tries unsuccessfully to merge into one. Professor X teaches two classes, Introduction to College Writing and Introduction to College Literature. He seems to approach these two subjects in the same way, when in fact they are very different: Writing is a skill to be learned, while literature is a taste to be acquired.


Just about everyone would benefit from knowing how to write, and for the unskilled, writing can be broken down fairly successfully into a set of rules and principles and a series of steps. As with most skills — cooking, for example — once you become good at it, there’s plenty of room for creativity, but you have to master the basics first.


Literature is completely different. Professor X laments his pupils’ lack of interest in Faulkner, Joyce, and Shakespeare; I wonder at his naiveté in expecting novice students, most of whom have trouble putting a sentence together, to even make sense of these recondite authors, let alone enjoy them. That’s like making a metalhead listen to Chopin etudes. Some people may get a kick out of being forced to endure things that bore them, but most will consider it an affliction.


Then, like every English teacher from grade school to college, he makes it worse for his students by bombarding them with jargon (quest narrative, foreshadowing, climax, theme). You might just as well try to increase your appreciation of the girl you have a crush on by studying an anatomical diagram. And he tops it off by making his students reread, analyze, and discuss something most of them could barely stay awake through. While this process is particularly wrong-headed with beginners, it’s a poor idea with any students who are made to take literature classes unwillingly. Composition, as a skill taught to beginners, benefits from systematization, but literature perishes from it.


What are the students supposed to get from reading these works? Professor X gives his agenda away near the end, when he reels off an assortment of liberal causes and then lists the books that supposedly would instill correct beliefs regarding them. He goes on to admit that “such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold,” though even if they did, fiction is a remarkably inefficient way to inform people that racism is bad, or that poor people don’t have a lot of money. By the same token, one might get a general sense of what academic life is like by reading a Kingsley Amis novel or Leo Rosten’s Hyman Kaplan stories, but Professor X’s article gets the point across much better and faster.


After half-admitting all this, Professor X falls back on the old standby: “Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone.” Maybe so, but it only works if the student is predisposed to thinking spaciously and absorbing profound ideas. If the student is not, the class will be an ordeal, and he or she will learn only that reading literature at the college level is dreary and annoying.


That’s why required literature classes don’t make sense on any educational level. Among highly talented and motivated students, perhaps, great works can be taught to everyone for their historical importance and influence: Like them or not, it’s important to know what’s in these books. But for the great majority of students, it’s hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than requiring them to suffer through books they don’t like, and then compounding the offense by making them rehash the books in class and write papers on them. You might just as well force people to hit themselves over the head with a two-by-four, then wonder why they don’t enjoy it.


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