Wednesday, January 01, 2003

How to alienate potential allies

The long-running discussion on Andrea Harris' blog/journal and the way that ACD "argues" has gotten me thinking about the state of the humanities in academia and our relationship to the wider world of people who are interested in books, art, music, culture, etc. Right now I'm going to set aside ad hominem and petitio principii problems (i.e., asserting without ever offering evidence, etc.) because for anyone who knows me, my teaching and my research and the various battles I've fought on behalf of traditional works, the idea that I'm 'typical of my generation' of academics (using scare quotes b/c I don't have time to dig up the post to get the exact words) is beyond silly. But I think that at the core of ACD's invective is an important critique of the humanities that we neglect at our peril.

It's very sobering to read through the blogosphere and see the contempt and even hatred with which people in academia are held. Sadly, I think that there are a lot of professors out there who deserve it: I've had teachers myself, up through the Ph.D. level (though not my advisor, thank God), who attempted to politically indoctrinate their students, who were mendacious in grading and classroom behavior, or (and this is actually worse) who were betraying their calling by not really doing their jobs. I think ACD and I would be on the same side against the professor at Carnegie Mellon who wasted a semester of literature class critiquing advertisements (n.b. to professors: your students will always be able to do this better than you can; they are, and will always be, more media literate). Gerald Graff's assertion that it doesn't matter what one studies as long as 'important' questions are being asked might have sounded really cool in the 1980's, but it's obviously a huge waste of time to critique commercials instead of reading good literature. So up to this point, I'm with the conservatives.

But the same people who would find me an ally for fighting indoctrination and avoiding silly media-related stuff (and don't get me started on the six schools of resentment...) then always go and take things a few steps too far. It's not enough to try to spend class time on quality literature instead of on ephemera: there has to be a huge hissy fit about what's quality, and the only judgments allowed standing are those made 50 years ago. The objects of study can only be approached with an almost mindless veneration, simply held up so that we can say "how beautiful," rather than critiqued and taken apart to see how they work. The author function is always in place, so that we must only consider what X "intended" (as if one could ever come to a definitive answer). And never can anything new, whether from an old period or not, enter the canon. [n.b., I am exaggerating, in that few individuals assert all of these points at once, but in my experience most share the world view]

Well, if you want the humanities, and the study and enjoyment of culture, to be the preserve of a tiny band of high priests who are busy toasting each other's brilliance while the roof falls in, this is definitely the way to go. But if you want to avoid the fate of Old English study in the US (which is just barely keeping out of the death spiral of classics), then you need to think of ways to excite students about material so that they'll at least show up for the classes. I had the largest Anglo-Saxon class in the US this year (as best I can tell). 37 students, at our tiny liberal arts college, learned Old English, memorizing paradigms, doing 100 lines of translation per night, memorizing Caedmon's Hymn and the first 11 lines of Beowulf. I don't think you could find a more canonical, traditional class than that. But the students weren't all there due to my sparkling personality. And they weren't there because the course was a requirement and they were forced to go. They were there because I was able to draw connections between The Lord of the Rings and the class material. And I was able to do that because I approach both LotR and medieval lit with a great deal of love, but also with a deliberate attempt to avoid snobbery.

Alcuin, the great English monk who organized Charlemagne's educational system, once wrote a letter back to England in which he admonished monks for listening to heroic stories in the refectory. "Verba Dei legantur in sacerdotali convivio; ibi decet lectorem audiri, no citharistam, sermones patrum, non carmina gentilium. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo? Angusta est domus; utrosque tenere non poterit" (Let the words of God be read in the refectory of the priests; there it is fitting for the lector to be heard, not the lyre-player, the sermons of the fathers, not the songs of the heathens. What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Narrow is the house; it cannot hold both of them.")

If the house is made narrow, does anyone have any doubt which works will be the first ones forced out the door?

No comments: