‘Literature is too sacred to be taught’: Lee Siegel on the downfall of the humanities

July 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am sending this article around to my friends, family and colleagues, probably to the point of annoyance. But it’s that good. Authored by Lee Siegel, the article runs in today’s Wall Street Journal and is titled “Who Ruined the Humanities?”

I think it’s great for a lot of reasons, but especially because it advances a counter-intuitive and original point. Siegel argues against literature for the sake of literature. More precisely, he argues that the merging of literature (and, more broadly, the “humanities”) into formal academic environments has deprived literature of its soul-shaping power. Instead of feeling that intuitive contact with inspiring words or characters, instead of letting plots and characters speak to us in our natural, meaning-seeking humanity, stories are now broken down into obscure themes and ruthlessly deconstructed into impossibly arcane questions that have to be answered in boring exams. A telling 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.

Siegel offers a beautiful description of the power of literature, perhaps the best I’ve ever read:

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.

Find the rest here. Would enjoy hearing feedback.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


§ One Response to ‘Literature is too sacred to be taught’: Lee Siegel on the downfall of the humanities

  • Val says:

    As a born writer who was essentially raised by my English teachers, the trouble with his position is that if you leave literature as a choice in the salad bar of reading options, people don’t often pick it. It’s funny to fibd this on this particular afternoon, as I was reading the McGrath bio of C.S. Lewis this morning, and was working through the section of Lewis deciding to pursue further studies at Oxford in English Literature, and the controversy of establishing the degree in English Literature at Oxford because it was felt NOT to be too high brow, but to be too base to be worthy of study. My primary academic studies have been in the social sciences, but I made much of my money in junior college tutoring writing to literature students. I would argue that the format of literature course that works well is when literature is paired with critical thinking. When it is reduced to a rubbish multiple choice test, it’s not being effectively taught. What the humanities contribute to our lives is a richer, deeper, better understanding of the human experience by examining how others have interpreted the human experience through art and storytelling. I lived for six years in a community that place NO value on cultural literacy. I promise you, there is a level of cultural illiteracy that detracts from a person’s humanity and promotes a degree of ignorance. Literature matters, as does literature effectively taught.

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