Saturday, April 03, 2010

Who killed Wordsworth? Studying literature by studying something else

If you were wondering what was wrong with the humanities, you need go no further than a recent article in The New York Times Book section. The good news is that the silly parsing of texts according to race and sex may be coming to and end. The bad news is that something equally silly may be taking its place.

Several years back a book was published called Who Killed Homer? about the plight of classics departments that long ago abandoned the idea that there was something of value to be learned by simply learning what the great works of classical Greece and Rome had to tell us rather than dissecting them on the basis of the most recent politically correct theories. But of course the same thing goes on across the humanities.

Here is the Times, keeping its ear to the ground for newest way to euthanize the study of English:
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.
And what is the "Next Big Thing"? What is the "scientific" approach that is supposed to revitalize literature programs?
Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.
In other words, the best way to bring more interest and energy (and money) to the study of literature is to study something else. Chesterton used to joke about the idea of submitting a poem "to a calculating boy." These people seem to think that would be a good idea.

Wait. I've got it! Maybe they could focus on the books themselves to see what wisdom they might contain. It's radical, I know. And would require literature professors to actually read books and discuss what they say. And it would involve them in discussing the truths that might be there and how they might apply to our lives. Which would require that they actually belief in things like truth. And wisdom.

Why didn't anyone think about this before?

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