Reading & Reacting: Why Teach and Study English? & Why Read Literature?

Comments on Adam Gopnik @ The New YorkerMicah Mattix @ First Things 

Although my undergraduate degree is not from the English department, nearly all of my teaching colleagues were English majors. Regardless, I have a deep connection with many who chose to study English at university. I also think there is genuine value in pursuing that degree.

Adam Gopnik is right. There has been a surge of defenses being published about English majors and the humanities being under threat. I have liked some of them, despite Gopnik’s charge that most of them have been weak persuasion as defenses or apologias. Often, to me, they are more effective in their emotional appeals.

Gopnik questions a lot of the is most successful in staking a claim for the value of an English degree by employing the most pragmatic of reasoning.

So why have English majors? Well, because many people like books. Most of those like to talk about them after they’ve read them, or while they’re in the middle. Some people like to talk about them so much that they want to spend their lives talking about them to other people who like to listen. Some of us do this all summer on the beach, and others all winter in a classroom. One might call this a natural or inevitable consequence of literacy. And it’s this living, irresistible, permanent interest in reading that supports English departments, and makes sense of English majors.

While I think that his reading first perception and justification for the English department is too rooted in a literature framework, excluding the writing component, I like the simplicity. However, I will say that it may not be enough to require a university department. What’s more, the dismissal of composition and rhetoric, a significant part of an English department, in his treatment creates a void regarding just what English majors potentially produce, which might be more important in justifying their existence.

To that end, another response to Gopnik’s piece actually addresses this, albeit with a different slant than I was inclined to take. Nevertheless, Micah Mattix in “Why Read Literature?” takes on the complicity of many English professors in marginalizing their own work and efforts the study of English as a discipline with increasingly idiosyncratic esoterica. Here is the nut of that piece.

One of the problems with English studies today, brought about in part by English professors themselves and in part by the modern research university, is the separation between “specialists” and the public. The sciences have a specialized vocabulary and knowledge that have developed organically, as it were, from its methods, and, because of this, scientists regularly must “translate” their discoveries for the public so that the their value can be understood. But the constraints of “discovery” and “original research,” which are part of the scientific disciplines but not the humanities, were applied (or adopted) by English studies, pushing English professors to abandon reviews and criticism and pursue increasingly esoteric “research agendas.” And because the jargon of English studies is often unnatural, any effort to “translate” it sounds absurd.

While this is a pretty valid indictment, in my thinking, the piece uses Gopnik’s essay more as a catalyst for building that indictment. It is as if Mattix had a point worth making and stumbled upon an opportunity for making it. In zeroing in on Gopnik’s use of Samuel Johnson as a point of comparison, Mattix could focus on English at the Academy. Even though this is more about writing, it too fails to address the gap I am suggesting.

I would submit that studying and teaching English, at the Academy or lower levels, must be about more than an ideal-book-club, and that is a bit of what my take away from Gopnik was. Also, while I appreciate Mattix’s point, it is too narrow for me. Gopnik’s conclusion is much more insightful to me than some of his build-up.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

Reading literature is important, but writing literature of all kinds, as well as writing about literature is equally important, if not potentially more so. Reading, while co-creative, begins more in consumption. The text dictates the thinking and the terms. Yet writing begins more centrally with creation. It is the expression of thinking.

So, although I appreciate Gopnik’s contention that “we need humanities because we’re human,” I am not sure that sentiment, as he develops it, is enough to transcend the the flawed persuasions and apologias he set out to eclipse. I believe the statement to be true. Nor do I think four years of reading is time wasted. It is just not necessarily the adequate justification Gopnik suggests. Learning how to write with greater sophistication and order of the mind would have helped make a stronger case.

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