June 14, 2010
Where language goes to die
Valiantly defending the value of a liberal arts education in the pages of the New York Times (i.e., dog bites man), David Brooks argues that
Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion . . . . [E]conomics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology . . . are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling.
It's not clear to me how institutions so reluctant to admit that there is a non-relativistic human nature or that there are non-relativistic universal truths will do any better. Brooks wants secular liberal arts programs to do the one thing they have been laboring valiantly for the past century to not do--preach that old time religion.
You don't need a humanities degree from Harvard to understand why "a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator." It's covered in the Bible (for starters), the part about David and Bathsheba. Nor do I find the utilitarian argument any more compelling. Stating the obvious, Brooks says that
[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.
Brooks overwhelms me with his low expectations for higher education. Writing a "clear and concise memo" is a subject that should be tackled in high school, or freshman English at the very latest. And according to Oxfordian Helena Echlin, attending graduate school in the U.S. may have exactly the opposite result. No one in her English and American literature classes
mentioned enjoying a book. Analysis is practised completely free of evaluation. Manifestly, analysis is more important than the texts themselves. In a class on The Canterbury Tales, the secondary literature dwarfs the Tales. We are asked to review books on Chaucer, and even review reviews of books on Chaucer. I see an infinite sequence of mirrors into which Chaucer has disappeared.
As far as Echlin is concerned, the study of literary criticism in the Ivy Leagues "is a hoax." She was not allowed graduate credit for a writing workshop taught by novelist Robert Stone ("Having Stone teach literature is like having a gorilla teach zoology"). So she audited the class and learned more from him "than from all my other professors put together."
Yale, she concluded, is "the place where language goes to die" (after emptying your pockets).