Against Teaching Literature

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The WSJ has a piece by Lee Siegel arguing that studying literature in college is a harmful activity and the decline in students majoring in the humanities (especially English) should be seen as a positive step toward the elimination of the activity altogether. He recalls that while he was entranced with literature prior to college, once he began to “study” literature,

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.



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.

With the waning of religious authority, the humanities were born as a means of taking up the slack. Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare were now put in the service of ministering truth to souls parched for higher meaning. Anything more contemporary than Shakespeare, however, was seldom part of the curriculum.

Mind you, he’s not arguing that we shouldn’t read great books:

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.

So, you English literature professors, are you as unnecessary (or even as harmful) as Siegel suggests? Siegel, himself, seems to point toward the real problem (one that is not nearly as inflammatory as his essay’s general thrust:

The disheartening fact is that for every college professor who made Shakespeare or Lawrence come alive for the lucky few—the British scholar Frank Kermode kindled Shakespeare into an eternal flame in my head—there were countless others who made the reading of literary masterpieces seem like two hours in the periodontist’s chair. In their numbing hands, the term “humanities” became code for “and you don’t even have to show up to get an A.”

This seems to indicate that the real problem isn’t teaching literature but bad teachers teaching literature. Why so many bad teachers are teaching literature is a different question for a different essay, but that seems to be at the heart of what Siegel, despite himself, is trying to say.

h/t Meredith Schultz

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