Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem with "Studying" the Humanities

So, my students are getting ready for the AP Lang & Comp exam, and that reminded me of a piece of commentary on the problem with "studying literature." Certainly, Shakespeare and Dickens and Fitzgerald  and Steinbeck and Updike and Delillo and others did not create masterpieces of literature and great narratives so teenagers and college students would be "forced" to read them and answer mind-numbing questions of analysis. Yet, that's what the study of literature can actually do to the great works. It's a complaint of my students that I can certainly understand, and it can give me pause when I think about what I ask students to do. Lee Seigel asks a similar question is his piece "Who Ruined the Humanities" in the Saturday review section of the Wall Street Journal.  

Here's a sample of the kind absurdity in the study of humanities that he challenges:

Question: "Compare Homer's prolepsis to Shakespeare's ghosts and to Dante's premonitions, then contrast these with Ibsen's reversals, Chekhov's irresolution, and Kafka's absurdity in light of omniscient narrators in Jane Austen, narrative delay in Henry James, and free indirect speech in James Joyce." [time limit: one hour]


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