College professors are killing students’ interest in literature, writes Gary Saul Morson, a Northwestern humanities professor, in Commentary. That’s bad for democracy.
Some professors teach a “dense thicket of theory” focused on “the text.” Students look for symbols. Others encourage students to judge the “author, character, or the society depicted according to the moral and social standards prevalent today.” A third interest-killing variation sees literature as a documentary of its times.
These approaches “fail to give a reason for reading literature,” writes Morson.
Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values, and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender, or personality type.
Literature provides practice in empathy, he writes. “We follow the life of Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield moment to moment, and we live with them for hundreds of hours, always living into their experience, growing along with them, approving or disapproving their choices, and perhaps changing our minds as they change theirs.”
Here’s the money quote:
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. . . . 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.
. . . 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.
“Great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel,” concludes Morson.
Students don’t judge contemporary art, writes Michael J. Lewis, also in Commentary. They don’t care. “While the fine arts can survive a hostile or ignorant public, or even a fanatically prudish one, they cannot long survive an indifferent one. And that is the nature of the present Western response to art, visual and otherwise: indifference.”
“High Art has removed itself from a conversation with the culture, and now lectures from barren cul-de-sacs to acolytes in sack-cloths,” responds James Lileks.