This is a long post, larded with quotes. If you don’t want to read it, take a number, get in line, and. . .
When I was in college at William & Mary, I was lucky enough to be taught by professors not only oriented more toward students than toward research (so we got lots of personal attention), but who were more or less advocates of the New Criticism: the school of thought that artistic objects, be they buildings or novels, should be approached as self-contained works of art. The alternative, practiced today, is to use works of art as ideological exemplars, to mine them for messages about politics, or to claim that they have a multiplicity of “meanings,” all equally valid.
Had I been taught to largely ignore the aesthetic and personal experience of art—the ways it changes how we think and feel—I don’t think I’d still be going to art galleries or reading novels. One of the greatest gifts I got from my professors at William & Mary (besides, of course, a first-rate education in biology) was an excitement about art that has made me want to keep on reading, to keep on looking at art and architecture. (Sadly, my musical education and appreciation has always been deficient). I can still remember my introduction to fine art, in which the professor was so enthused about it that I can’t resist a museum even today. Likewise with my courses in Old English and Beowulf, taught by a professor who really loved the material and didn’t use it to convey some ideology, or to teach us to mine the works for “symbols” in a way that leads one to ignore the text as a whole.
So I was really pleased to read a wonderful article in Commentary on the failure of teaching literature, “Why college kids are avoiding the study of literature.” And it’s by a local boy, Gary Saul Morson, the Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities as well as Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University, just to the north in Evanston. I was equally pleased to see that the most frequent work he cited as a way to teach literature properly happened to be my favorite novel, Anna Karenina. Morson’s piece is the most sensible thing I’ve read in years about how to approach literature and learn what it’s about.
He begins by offering a scathing indictment of the way literature is usually taught in American colleges—a way that has permanently immunized Americans against good books. Here, for example is the result of a recent Pew survey:
Among all Americans, the average (mean) number of books read in the previous year was 12 and the median (midpoint) number of books read was four. Some 27% of adults said they hadn’t read any books over the past year, while 1% said they did not know or refused to answer.
And, based on my impressionistic survey of what people read on planes and the subway, not many of those books are substantive. What I see are crime novels, books like Fifty Shades of Grey, or Eat, Pray, Love, or self-improvement books.
Morson sees three places where the teaching of literature in both college and high schools has quashed student interest in the genre. His words are indented below, and though my excerpts are substantial, the article is very long, containing much more than I reproduce here:
The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. It is easy enough to discover Christ symbols. Water symbolism can almost always be found, since someone sooner or later will see a river, wash, or drink. In Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi symbolizes freedom, while the Widow Douglas’s house symbolizes civilization. In Anna Karenina, trains symbolize fate. Or modernization. Or the transports of love.
At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle? Would he have attracted a mass audience if he had?
Literary works are not texts in that sense. The text is simply the way the author creates an experience for the reader. It is no more the work itself than a score is a concert or a blueprint a creation capable of keeping out the rain.
The second most common way to kill interest in literature is death by judgment. One faults or excuses author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today, by which I mean those standards shared by professional interpreters of literature. These courses are really ways of inculcating those values and making students into good little detectors of deviant thoughts.
“If only divorce laws had been more enlightened, Anna Karenina would not have had such a hard time!” And if she had shared our views about [insert urgent concern here], she would have been so much wiser. I asked one of my students, who had never enjoyed reading literature, what books she had been assigned, and she mentioned Huckleberry Finn. Pondering how to kill a book as much fun as that, I asked how it had been taught. She explained: “We learned it shows that slavery is wrong.” All I could think was: If you didn’t know that already, you have more serious problems than not appreciating literature.
In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. . . . What makes a work literary is that it is interesting to people who do not care about its original context. Literariness begins where documentariness ends.
One can kill a work a third way: by treating it as a document of its time. “The author didn’t write in a vacuum, you know!” In other words, Dickens is notable because he depicts the deplorable conditions of workers of his age. True enough, but a factory inspector’s report might do even better.
This approach puts the cart before the horse. One does not read Dostoevsky to learn about Russian history; one becomes interested in Russian history from reading its classics. After all, every culture has many periods, and one can’t be interested in each period of every culture, so the argument about Russian history is bound to fail except with people already interested in Russian history.
That’s a very good summary. In fact, I know a very good writer and teacher who left one of the country’s best English departments, where he’d been chairman, simply because literature in his university was being demolished in precisely these ways.
So how do you teach literature? Morson describes his methods, and I wish I had him as a teacher. His method is to use literature as a vehicle for putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and imagining their feelings. In short, it’s a way of gaining empathy. And if you read a lot of literature, you put yourself in many people’s shoes, constantly honing your emotions and understanding of others. That’s not really becoming “politically correct,” but becoming able to analyze, criticize, and expand your own views. In other words, it’s the opposite of political correctness: a willingness to suspend not just disbelief but judgment, so that you can, for example, get some empathy out of Huckleberry Finn rather than (as one student told Morson), simply learning that “slavery is wrong”. As he says:
When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I.No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place.
. . . It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to besomeone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.
. . . Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type. Those broad categories turn out to be insufficient, precisely because they are general and experienced by each person differently; and we learn not only the general but also what it is to be a different specific person. By practice, we learn what it is like to perceive, experience, and evaluate the world in various ways. This is the very opposite of measuring people in terms of our values.
And this is why colleges should stop censoring, shouting down, and no-platforming others—why untrammeled free speech is so valuable.
I’m nearly done quoting here, though Morson’s excellent analysis goes on; but I want to add one more thing that he says—a pearl of wisdom hidden in the mantle of the essay. After discussing Chekhov’s great story “Enemies,” in which two men lose their empathy for each other because circumstances make each feel like a victim, Morson says this (my emphasis):
Nothing makes us less capable of empathy than consciousness of victimhood. Self-conscious victimhood leads to cruelty that calls itself righteousness and thereby generates more victims. Students who encounter this idea experience a thrill of recognition.
And that, in a nutshell, is a diagnosis of what’s wrong with many college students, Lefists, and, indeed, atheist bloggers. I often sense that someone whose self-identity is wholly bound up with victimhood is someone who has little empathy for others. But I’ll leave it there and make two more points.
One could read Morson’s essay as showing that good literature is like a therapy session: learning to read well means learning empathy. I don’t think he means that, but I want to add that good literature is good writing as well, and the quality of words themselves—their arrangements, their tones, their sonority—can give one an emotional experience akin to that of great music. For example, read the last few pages of Joyce’s The Dead, or this passage from Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, and see if it doesn’t stir your feelings, even making you see things differently or more acutely than you did before. I know of no good literature that isn’t also good writing.
For example, here’s a passage that doesn’t teach empathy but gives us another way of seeing Africa. The prose is gorgeous and sumptuous:
I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.
The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it. was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
Here’s another passage from the same book that, equally beautiful, gives us insight into the feelings of the author, Karen Blixen. I take it to mean that she’s wondering if her temporary incursion into that continent will leave any trace of her presence, or if that great land will abide as it is, oblivious to her passing:
If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
Finally, I looked hard at Morson’s piece to see if he touted literature as “another way of knowing,” which I take to mean “a way of understanding things about the world not accessible to science (construed broadly)”. And I didn’t find any mention of that. Rather, Morson sees literature as giving us a way of feeling—of putting yourself in hypothetical situations to ponder how you’d react. That, of course, is a valuable function of literature, one that keeps me coming back to it. But it does not mean, as I’ve argued before, that the humanities—much less religion—tells us anything about the world that we can’t learn through observation, testing, replication, and hypothesis—that is, science construed broadly.