Tuesday, February 2, 2010

And remember, kiddies, suicide is the coward's way out.

My other half and I got to talking, the other night. We were discussing the Glenn Beck documentary on socialism: the Fox executives’ fears that the American public wouldn’t watch because it was too complex, and too information filled, and doesn’t follow the accepted format of 40 seconds spent on a story to keep America’s short attention span focused; how high the ratings actually were; how many more have watched it on YouTube; and the way history has been “progressivised” (for lack of a better term) in modern public schools.

It’s not just history that’s been done that way. Literature has been emasculated as well. Literally.

Mary Grabar, in her essay “Death by Suicide,” discusses—quite well, for the most part—why English Departments in universities are hemorrhaging students: literature has been abandoned in favor of studying anything but. She describes an incident at a conference at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, where the panel speaker (in analyzing a comic book) dismisses the actual written and drawn text in favor of analyzing the empty spaces between panels. Because, you know, “Lots of stuff happens in that silent space.”

Like nothing actually happens in the text and art of the comic book—sorry, graphic novel.

She goes on to say that literary critics are the ones who have done the most to murder their own discipline, their jobs, their relevance—explaining her title.

She’s completely right, as far as it goes. However, she doesn’t go far enough.

I work in a small English Department at a small Midwestern university. There are fewer than thirty of us, counting both full-time and part-time instructors, teaching English. Out of those, most have not read Chaucer. Or Beowulf (either in the original, or in any of the various translations). Or Shakespeare. No, they focus on their own tiny area. And even then, it’s not well understood, because they use the literature to forward their own tiny, irrelevant theories.

While I was in graduate school, I found out just how many of my current colleagues—many of whom are actually recently graduated PhDs—have not read, and do not plan to read, the literature they “study.”

In my first year of study for my MA, I had a second year classmate who was in the process of writing his masters’ thesis on postcolonial influences in Shakespeare’s work who (I was certain) hadn’t read any of Shakespeare’s actual work. I suspected he hadn’t read enough to have the expertise he claimed when I met him, and he wasn’t doing the reading for the class we were in together. I was certain he didn’t when, around Halloween, he jogged up to me in the hall and asked what the reading assignment (which he hadn’t done) had been, with a copy of Cliff’s Notes in his hand. I hadn’t recognized him, because he was dressed up for Halloween, in a purple velour jogging suit over a white tee-shirt, with white Nikes, and a black fedora with a purple hat band. I said “I’m sorry; I took thee for a fishmonger.”

He recognized the reference as being from Hamlet, from when Ophelia’s father had approached Hamlet about his daughter, and Hamlet compared his efforts with those of a pimp trying to talk up his rent-girls: “So, you recognized me?”

He missed the point, though—the next line is “Would thou wert so honest a man.” Basically, I wasn’t complimenting him on his costume, I was telling him that his lack of academic integrity made a pimp look good. And he simply didn’t get that.

A year later, when I was in my second year, I heard a first year talking about his planned thesis. He planned to do a study of one of my favorite novels’ main characters, Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, through the lens of queer theory. His idea was that Heathcliff was miserable because he was denying his latent homosexuality.

At this point I had to step in. Anyone who has read the novel knows damn well that Heathcliff is in no way gay. Necropheliac, certainly; but certainly not gay. And I quoted the actual text to back me up, complete with page numbers from the edition I owned, had been reading for my own pleasure, and had in my purse. His response? “No fair; I haven’t actually read the book, just the criticism.”

One of my classes in grad school focused on Restoration and 18th Century plays. The teacher mentioned that most of the plays we’d read were written by men, and that women didn’t write much because, for the most part, they weren’t as educated as their male counterparts. I’d heard the same from my teachers as an undergrad student when I asked why the later British literature class wasn’t teaching Kipling—and was further told that something had to be sacrificed to include those authors who’d been excluded.

I will agree with my colleagues that it’s likely that the women and minorities are under a handicap of lower levels (and lower quality) of education; however, whether or not it’s fair, it’s a fact of life that most of the “newly discovered” works of literature did not stand the test of time because they simply aren’t as good as what used to be taught as the classics. They’ve replaced Homer with Sappho. They’ve replaced Chaucer with Marie de France. They’ve replaced Kipling with some low-quality women’s writing that don’t resonate with readers through the years, decades, and probably centuries.

And my colleagues that are stripping quality from our curriculum are the ones shaping the teachers of tomorrow. My colleagues are teaching the teachers of tomorrow that quality doesn’t matter nearly as much as gender and sexual orientation and social equality.

And the crap they’re replacing the classics with is teaching a whole different lesson: that there’s nothing there to study, so the study of English isn’t worth our time.

It’s sad, and infuriating, that students aren’t being introduced to the masters of literature in public schools anymore. It’s sad, because by calling those works that form the foundation of culture irrelevant, modern culture is becoming irrelevant, and edging toward becoming nonexistent.

And it’s infuriating because it’s the most highly educated among us that are busily making themselves irrelevant.


  1. Ooops.....

    I can not remember the last book I have read.......not sure how I got into the habit of not reading books.

    My mother read a book a day and did the NY TIMES Crossword puzzle, daily, well within the 'allotted' time.

    My sister read almost as much.

  2. You may not read books, but you spend a lot of time reading news and politics, and you *have* read enough to catch most of the literary allusions that I make. You definitely caught the meaning behind my pen name for this blog--perhaps one of the only ones to have done so.

    You never would have done so had you not been educated when you were, as well as you were. Most kids today simply don't have the depth of study into the roots of our shared American culture as kids educated in our public schools used to.

  3. Huh. When I was in school, we had a word for people who only read the stuff like the Cliffs Notes and not the assigned work. And it wasn't "Ph.D. Candidate."

    I'm really glad that a friend of mine warned me off of majoring in literature; I wound up in biology instead (Yes, I loved both). I'm actually making it a life-project to read my way through all of Shakespeare's plays. They are wonderful and it makes me sad to think that someone would try to write a thesis on Shakespeare without actually referring to the original works.

  4. Agreed, Ricki.

    I sometimes wish I hadn't majored in English, as well. As much as I love my job, I'm always worried about being fired because I accidentally let slip my political opinions. Beyond that, I've never understood how and why someone would tear apart a piece of beautifully written prose or poetry, full of imagery and meaning, to look for the author's underlying prejudices and mental aberrations.