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We Murder To Dissect

Yesterday Rod Dreher reflected briefly on Lee Siegel’s lengthy July essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Who Ruined the Humanities?” in a post called “Against High School Literature” and it’s right up the CiRCE-reader alley. He offers this from Siegel:

Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies.

In my opinion the greatest flaw of modern education is the insistance that literature be taught like sciene. As Brian Phillips and I discussed in our recent podcast, it’s like teaching your child about a frog by dissecting it. A dissection will teach him what a frog has, what it’s made of, what its parts are. But it won’t teach him what a frog actually is. To learn that he’ll have to frequent a pond; he’ll have to learn to see, to observe; he’ll have to let a frog be a frog and do frog things.

When we treat literature like science we fundamentally alter it’s nature, or at least we present it to our students in a way that is fundamentally unnatural. We can’t force literature to be something it’s not. And the more we focus only on what literature has the less time we can spend watching literature do literature things.

In responding to Siegel, Dreher quoted Wordsworth: “We murder to dissect”.

Yep, pretty much.

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