Gary Saul Morson, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, teaches a popular course on the Russian novel at this renowned school in Evanston, Illinois. As such, he might be expected to welcome a defense of the humanities from any quarter. But in his review of Martha Nussbaum’s latest book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, he shows how some self-styled friends of the humanities are to a great extent the cause of the doldrums into which they have fallen.
The standard diagnosis now being invoked for explaining declining enrollment in college-level humanities courses is economic. Whereas in the sixties the lament placed the blame on the philistinism of American culture, now market forces are made the scapegoat.
As David Brooks deftly puts it in a recent column: “When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.” Adding to the chorus of lament, Harvard’s president Drew Faust worries that “the market model [has] become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education.”
Morson isn’t buying. Since he teaches the most popular humanities course at Northwestern, he has ample opportunity to ask his students why they avoid taking more such classes. “Not materialism but a nose for nonsense drives them away,” he finds. That nonsense takes three forms: condescension, literature taught as a crossword puzzle, and historicism.
By condescension Morson means the tired trope of measuring Shakespeare, Milton, or Tolstoy against “our” values, which of course would be the norms of the academic left. Should the author in question not have denounced heterosexism or colonialism, he is denounced as “reactionary.” In other words, read in this way, “literature can teach us nothing because it presumes that the truth is already given.”
He even more deftly describes the crossword-puzzle approach, a paragraph so droll it must be quoted in full:
Even more often, interest in literature suffers because it is taught as a sort of crossword puzzle. The idea is that, for some reason, authors do not express anything directly, but instead devise a complex code of images, alliterations, obscure references, biblical allusions, interlingual puns, concealed quotations and—above all—symbols. Students rapidly learn how easy it is to find symbols. As a last resort, there is always water, because no matter what the story, somebody sooner or later is bound to wash and drink. And off the student goes, discovering allusions to baptism, the flood, or amniotic fluid. He earns his A and never again picks up a work of fiction.
The final approach is equally deadening: treating the work merely as a testimony to its times. Which of course it is. One does, after all, learn a lot about social conditions in Dickens’s times from reading Bleak House, but that store of information is not what makes the novel literature, which by definition transcends its times. “One does not read Tolstoy,” Morson rightly observes, “to learn about tsarist Russia; one becomes interested in tsarist Russia because it produced Tolstoy.”
He is willing to concede that Nussbaum is arguing on the side of the angels, especially when she defends the great novels as the best way to see the world from perspectives other than one’s own. But true to form for a self-congratulatory academic liberal, she fails to practice what she preaches: She discusses the social issues in Not for Profit, he writes, “but time after time, and without exception, she presents the leftist one as the only possible one for a decent person to hold.”
Her prescription to “think critically” never applies to the pieties of the American academic intelligentsia. Nor does the “tyranny of custom” ever include intellectuals’ custom of supporting or apologizing for tyrannical ideologies. … Nussbaum affirms the need for racial and gender equality while also endorsing affirmative action, without ever allowing that reasonable people might find a conflict between the two or asking whether affirmative action has always and everywhere produced desired results. In her world, the right intentions never have unintended consequences that opponents have witnessed before.
Then there is her repeated insistence that professors should teach “critical thinking” instead of mere facts. To a modest extent Morson agrees: “I would much rather my students acquire the skills to appreciate great realist prose than memorize the names and patronymics of minor characters in War and Peace.”
But there are surely limits to this insouciance toward these “mere” facts, as he mordantly notes here: “I wish more of my students, who are very bright but often woefully ignorant, came to class already knowing who Napoleon was. It would also help if I did not have to identify the Sermon on the Mount. Surely at some point factual ignorance impedes critical thinking itself.”
But maybe the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps undergraduates have not matured enough to appreciate great literature. I recall having to read George Eliot’s Middlemarch in college and absolutely hating it, but then I reread it one summer in my forties and thought it the best English novel I ever read. Of course, undergraduates have to have some exposure to great literature lest the faculties for appreciating it completely wither. But nothing can gainsay the growth in subjective powers of appreciation that increase only with the accumulation of experience in life.
In that regard, perhaps the real enemy of the humanities is time. I recall once mentioning a book I had just read to a college administrator, who lamented that her bureaucratic duties in a 9-to-5 desk job and her family responsibilities in the evening prevented her from reading more than a few books a year. I recommended she read The Intellectual Life by the French Dominican A. G. Sertillanges.
The book was written to encourage busy parish priests to keep abreast of theology (I recommend it to newly ordained priests all the time), but its advice applies to any busy person who wants to keep his mind active and enriched. I won’t repeat the advice here, since reading the whole book is part of the motivation for keeping active intellectually. But one reason for the book’s popularity can be mentioned here: if you follow the advice of the book, you’ll never have to rely on a professor again for the rest of your life.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Morson’s review appeared in the June 2010 issue of The New Criterion, and David Brooks’ comments may be found in History for Dollars .