The age of knowing: college students fail to study literature because they fear free thinking
Prof. Gary Saul Morson of Northwestern University considers why college students are not longer studying literature. In Commentary magazine he wonders why it is “that students are choosing to study economics or chemistry rather than literature?…Could it be that the problem lies not with the students but with the professors themselves?”
What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. All courses are expensive, in money, time, and opportunity costs.
The teacher is failing:
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. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?
Banish the trigger warning:
We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.
Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie. It is a short step, John Stuart Mill argues, from the view that one’s opponents are necessarily guided by evil intentions to the rule of what we have come to call a one-party state or what Putin today calls “managed democracy.” If universities embody the future, then we are about to take that step. Literature, by teaching us to imagine the other’s perspective, teaches the habits of mind that prevent that from happening. That is one reason the Soviets took such enormous efforts to censor it and control its interpretation.
Read it all – it’s superb.