22.4.09

FOUNDATIONS MATTER. I have maintained that introductory economics ought not be a survey of the Ph.D. theory sequence. Now comes Virginia's Mark Edmunson (via Minding the Campus) suggesting something similar for literature.

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we'd declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we'd give readings a rest.

This wish will strike most academic literary critics and perhaps others as well as — let me put it politely — counterintuitive. Readings, many think, are what we do. Readings are what literary criticism is all about. They are the bread and butter of the profession.

The beginning of wisdom, in teaching economics to new students, is recognizing that there is much benefit in understanding the concepts, without getting into the Kuhn-Tucker conditions and subgame perfection that is what economics professors do.

So too, with teaching literature to new students.
In my view — a view informed by, among others, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Matthew Arnold — the best way to think of a literary education is as a great second chance. We all get socialized once. We spend the first years of our lives learning the usages of our families, our neighborhoods, our religions, our schools, and our nations. We come to an understanding of what's expected: We come to see what the world takes to be good and bad, right and wrong. We figure out ways to square the ethics of our church with the ethics of our neighborhood — they aren't always the same, but one reason that religions survive and thrive is that they can enter into productive commerce with the values present in other spheres of life. Kids go to primary school so that they can learn their ABC's and math facts, certainly. But they also go to be socialized: They go to acquire a set of more or less public values. Then it's up to them (and their parents) to square those values with the home truths they've acquired in their families. Socialization isn't a simple process, but when it works well, it can produce individuals who thrive in themselves and either do no harm to others or make a genuine contribution to society at large.
Wouldn't hurt for those individuals to understand something about scarcity, opportunity costs, tradeoffs, the margin. Wouldn't hurt for those common schools to inculcate the Habits of Effective People either.
But primary socialization doesn't work for everyone. There are always people — how many it's tough to know, but surely a minority — who don't see their own natures fully reflected in the values that they're supposed to inherit or assume. They feel out of joint with their times. The gay kid grows up in a family that thinks homosexuality is a sin. The young guy with a potent individualistic streak can't bear the drippy collectivism foisted on him by his ex-hippie parents and his purportedly progressive school. The girl who is supposed to be a chip off the old legal block and sit some day on the Court only wants to draw and paint; the guy destined (in his mom's heart) for Princeton is born to be a carpenter and has no real worldly ambitions, no matter how often he's upbraided.
Wasn't I just talking about tradeoffs? Including the Faustian bargain called Living Up to the Wrong Expectations?

To be young is often to know, or to sense, what others have in mind for you and not to like it. But what is harder for a person who has gone unhappily through the first rites of passage into the tribe is to know how to replace the values she's had imposed on her with something better. She's learned a lot of socially sanctioned languages, and still none of them are hers. But are there any that truly might be? Is there something she might be or do in the world that's truly in keeping with the insistent, but often speechless, self that presses forward internally?

This, I think, is where literature can come in — as can all of the other arts and in some measure the sciences, too. By venturing into what Arnold memorably called "the best that has been known and thought," a young person has the chance to discover new vital possibilities.

I'll stop quoting. Go. Read and understand. I'll be here when you get back.

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