The Value of Teaching Literature

Fri Jan 18, 2008

Stanley Fish has attracted significant attention, at least from those of who us who feel compelled to comment on such things, with his NYT posts on the value of the humanities.

Before Fish’s posts, I read this response to an MLA panel. Dr. Crazy cogently notes that socialization to literature varies widely within different student populations. I want to respond to this paragraph in particular:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner - or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

I have student evaluations (for an American literature survey) that indicated that they felt that having suitable material to discuss at a dinner party was the main benefit they took away from that class. I was rather nonplussed after reading that at the time. A bit later, I began to wonder what type of dinner conversation this student imagined that would involve banter about Whitman, Pound, and Ishmael Reed–knowing what I did of the conversation of the pink-collar and of the pharmaceutical salesfleet. Of the banking demimonde of Atlanta and Birmingham. Of an SEC or ACC football reunion. Fearing that some snobbery was bubbling up, I then thought that the very possibility of the TLS’s latest piquance or even, more plausibly, some semi-learned etymological discussion of a nautical oddity from O’Brian could start the revolution. Such a moment alone would justify all that we do.

Part of where I’m going with this is my personal skepticism that Literature is discussed anywhere at all, outside of isolated pockets of Fussell’s X-factordom and the ideographic professions. (The entire Corrections on Oprah event supports this interpretation.) I believe that CR has agreed with this sentiment before, though I don’t remember where. Like Dr. Crazy, I have a working-class background, though I’ve never thought too much about it in the context of academia. For whatever reason, I entered very early into the universal fraternity of compulsive readers, with only the predictable consequence of having a reading vocabulary much larger than the spoken vocabulary I was accustomed to hearing being a noticeable shibboleth when I began to spend time with other voracious readers from higher class backgrounds.

I suspect that, whatever their class background (which tends to be quite uniform) literature professors are so differently oriented in their approach to reading that an admittedly useful indoctrination into NPR-values and the middle mind is unlikely to be anything other than an unanticipated consequence of our teaching. I then read A White Bear’s related post about the unconscious focus-group mentality and the need to develop the intensely subjective and meaningful responses that characterize the compulsive readers who teach. I doubt, however, that the critical apparatus and technical aesthetic vocabulary of much sound pedagogy is going to lead to that reaction, which AWB describes as a necessary–but missing–step. As any reader of “Mr. Squishy” knows, the applied demographers are far too subtle to combat this way. It is only through the cultivation of narcissus that the proper inner, resistant life, can be led.

But that doesn’t quite work either. I wanted to come around to Fish’s arguments in this post, but I tend to agree with a comment I read on the original post that suggested that arguing with Fish on his own terms is a waste of time.