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English dept. head answers charges about nixing literature

Nico Woods

Shakespeare, Poe, Thoreau

Mr. Jeffrey McMurtry, English department head

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The following is an editorial response to “English Without Literature: A Practical Curriculum” by Clayton Jaksha.

In my first quarter as a student at Revelle college – the premiere science campus at UCSD at the time -, I settled into what had been reputed as one of the more rigorous courses of study at the school. Over the next two years, I had been told, I would take a sequence of five quarter-courses that would prepare me for the career upon which I was to embark – a career in applied science (in this case chemistry) and engineering. In the same two years, I would be taking four chemistry courses (and three labs), three advanced calculus courses, three physics courses (and their labs), and at least two computer language courses (and their labs). My dance card was full, to be certain. My best friend, on the other hand, was taking three lesser calculus courses, only three chemistry classes, almost no physics, but a whole boatload of biology units. And yet, there we were, destined for the same five courses in (I think you have already guessed it) Humanities – literature really – and lots of it. “What gives?” says I. And like many of my younger readers now, I pondered the validity of the sequence that Revelle still touts as the jewel in its curriculum requirements. Were they (and are they still) so enamored of the traditions of education that they could not sense the shift in the winds, the turning of the tide, or whatever more appropriate metaphor we might conjure for the simple fact that the production and subsequent appreciation of literature seems so distant from the nuts and bolts of existence into which I so longed to delve?

The simple answer was no, they weren’t. They aren’t. The explanation, however, is a bit more complicated: all things being equal, those who have experienced a very liberal, literary education will express themselves in a way that will be more appropriate, more appealing, and thus more convincing to their peers than those who have not. They will be the ones to win in court by the strength of their arguments and in politics by the eloquence of their appeals. They will be the ones to see their academic articles published and their grant proposals awarded. They will also compete better in a job marketplace already filled with those who cannot capture or express the universality of experience that formed the basis of your definition of literature, Mr. Jaksha. Why? For that ability makes one an attractive candidate in an interviewing process that still is mostly verbal and conducted in the language of the literature you seem to impugn: narrative. However, I think I risk presumption (and my readers’ sheer exhaustion) if I were to continue a general defense on the behalf of literature. There are others far more qualified than I am to do so. So, rather, let me just point out the flaws in this one attack made against this discipline.

Before I begin, however, I ask that you’ll excuse me, Mr. Jaksha, if I adopt the persona of one of your teachers, for, but by the grace of God and a glitch in Aeries, I would have been. And so, if I seem presumptuous, and border upon condescension, Iyou’re your indulgence.

First, let me address the matter of definitions. The ‘literature’ explicitly defined in “English without Literature: a Practical Curriculum” and the literature otherwise described in the article seem to be in conflict. The dictionary definition, “the body of artistic writings of a country or period that are characterized by beauty of expression and form and by universality of intellectual and emotional appeal,” seems later to be reduced to ‘novels’ (a rather recent literary genre) and, I can only imagine, poetry. Even allowing that, by ‘novel,’ you meant literary fiction, it still leaves the dictionary definition a bit under-filled. Literature is any form of verbal expression that aims at being anything other than a mundane form of interpersonal, pragmatic, and merely informative communication. The concept is really a more modern version of belles lettres (‘good’ letters) from which the term is derived.  The reduction of ‘literature’ to merely the production or study of literary fiction and poetry is a common enough mistake. And there are those that might embrace such simplification. Perhaps, therefore, I need not launch into a defense of literature at all, but merely those two, most recognizably artful categories of it.  And yet therein lies the problem with this rather factious vision of the arts. In the terms of your editorial, Mr. Jaksha, there seems to be an overall assumption that one who studies to be a bassoonist does not study the theory of music. Or that the thespian does not study singing, choreography, and other fields that, allied as they are with drama, cannot be so easily dismissed as irrelevant. But let me drop analogies. It is in literature we find – and from literature we draw – our appreciation of language (any use of it) as anything else but humdrum. And that means that we cannot so easily distinguish fiction from non-fiction literature when we approach the study of good language. I suggest that taking literary fiction and poetry aside from the ‘rest’ of literature is splitting hairs and making false distinctions between the sort of ‘good literature’ that is broadly worthwhile, and the sort of ‘good literature’ of limited appeal (as if wide appeal is what makes things worthwhile). It is not a matter of technique, you see. The technique of good fiction is the same as all good chronological narrative – including both historical and biographical narrative. And the subject matter is equally indivisible. For instance, our understanding of the each other as people is fundamentally indistinguishable from characterization – in many ways our conceptualization of each other, in fiction and reality, is the same. How could we divide the genres on this basis? It has never been otherwise, I assure you. Aristotle borrowed his term ethos – a term you learn in connection to rhetoric – from his Poetics, his study of dramatic literature. And to this day, character refers as much to a fictional as real quality. The Latin equivalent, persona, has the same clear equivalency in both reality and fiction. Upon what are we to make the division between the genres?

I need not go into further defense except to point out that in every anthology of literature meant for general education, the mix of genres demonstrate that what we deem to be literature cannot be fruitfully divided into ‘more and less artful’ categories. You yourself, Mr. Jaksha, have probably studied as much non-fiction as fiction literature in your life. And you have read much more, I’d warrant. Much of what you deem valuable rhetoric and philosophy, for instance, is only to be found in the canon of literature. Remember, the actual works of both fields are, by definition – yours or mine – literary. So where would you place Emerson’s Nature? Where would Machiavelli’s Prince fit? Swift’s A Modest Proposal? Answer as you may, you already know where you ran across them. And the methods by which you studied them to break open the mysteries of philosophy or of politics found within were literary ones.

However, even if I win that literature cannot be divided, I have not effectively countered the statistics you offer, Mr. Jaksha, that might convince us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The removal of literature from our curriculum may still seem expedient to many based on your analysis of the current career environment. But do not those figures construct and then ignite a ‘straw man’ discipline? Is it your assumption that each core course of study in our pre-college years has the express purpose of crafting majors in that field? Does that not, in truth, contradict what you yourself indicate is a general course of study? I will warrant that your support of philosophy and rhetoric is not based on this assumption. In your paradigm, there would be no more needless careers than those; indeed, there would be even fewer majors there than in English. Let me stop here. I doubt I really need to embark upon an argument that urges us to forego requirements in math for those not pursuing careers in business or hard science. Nor would I allow those involved in technology a ‘pass’ on the hard sciences. An ironic approach is not the way. Let me say that we have come to a cultural agreement that all these fields are requisite for success in 21st century academia and the careers that lie beyond. Why would that be? Because they are modes of thought, methods of inquiry, and practice of multiple perspectives with which to view the world of objects and ideas. Each field offers this bounty, and each is, for some, also a career path. We should not mistake the one for the other too eagerly, or we shall leave a world bereft of the very general education you seem, Mr. Jaksha, to be protecting.

This leads me to my primary defense of literature of all kinds, even those ‘artful genres’ so often maligned in arguments for a pragmatic education. Such arguments are based on a rather dim perception of the relationship between the study of literature and the goal for such an education. The goal has never been merely, or even mainly, the appreciation of an art or the production of artists. “English,” as you have named my field, is a shortened version of English Language Arts. True. But that does not make it an art appreciation course. Granted, we are not talking about a course equivalent to Spanish, which is evidently a pragmatic language acquisition course. And yet, we all have acquired a certain form of language from these courses, have we not? Mr. Jaksha, you yourself have acquired a ‘good sounding,’ ‘expressive,’ ‘moving,’ even ‘pleasantly idiomatic’ kind of language (meaning the sort that our culture, in particular, would understand and enjoy). And I must offer a far more important element to this list – ‘persuasive.’ If you think you can be persuasive without the rest, I think you are not only mistaken, but also hardly able to appreciate the effect that your own education in this field has had on you. Revisit the original definition and come to see that the “universality of intellectual and emotional appeal” is not merely an artistic quality, but a basic and pragmatic communicative goal. Indeed, it is the foundation of the study of rhetoric in general. And, I would add, it is the reason why rhetoric is not, and has never been taught, before literature. As a culture, we have no sense of what sounds right and good outside of literature.

Let me say it in another way. Your argument, I must tell you, is itself an example of a literary genre. Does this upset you? It shouldn’t; it was artfully done. For instance, if I applaud your apt use of diction, parallelism, and analogy to equate literary studies with the precise practice of a single instrument, to what rigor would you attribute it? If I say I enjoyed your choice, even, of glockenspiel and bassoon – how would you say you gained the skill to have made the choice of peculiar rather than generic names? Knack? The sonorousness of the s’s and long ‘oo’ of the one and the foreign multisyllabic wonder of the other had far greater impact than, say, ‘viola’ and ‘flute.’  In what field of study are we to achieve this sense? If your essay successfully convinces us, it does so literarily; not pragmatically. And that is as it should be.

Literature, as a course of study, will become optional at some point, Mr. Jaksha. For some, that point will come sooner than for others. For those who would like to ‘do things with words,’ however, that time will not be all that soon – and for good (and pragmatic) reasons. Certainly, one can get a job without a secondary study in literature. One may even find a career and a fortune. Many have. But statistics say that your boss, and their bosses, will almost certainly have had the general education that you will lack. I’m sorry: not you, Mr. Jaksha, you’re covered.

Click here to view “English Without Literature: A Practical Curriculum” by Clayton Jaksha.

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English dept. head answers charges about nixing literature