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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fiction, Real Life and the Escape from "Idiocracy"

Recently, a sarcastically-intended-yet-serious-enough essay (Unsafe at Any Read) was published in the Book Review section of the NYT. In it, one Lee Seigel argues that reading to learn something valuable about life is a ruse, a lie that has been told over millennial and now needs to come to an end for the sake of.... I don't know, market trends and competition, commercialism, the global economy, 21st Century education and skills? Seigel's thesis, if I read the essay correctly, goes something like this: "If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble."

Perhaps I am being over-defensive about literature. I know how literature changed my life, how it made all the difference at the most critical juncture/life or dead moment in my personal history. Perhaps the question should not be aimed at great literature and its benefits/lack thereof, but at that almost indiscernible American whisper that says: "Conform... Don't Make Waves... Be Productive (rather than Reflective)... Compete... Win... repeat as needed." Harold Bloom wrote another one of his masterpieces in which he asks us, as the title so effectively seems to shout out to the world, "Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?" It seems we have a dwindling number of scholars advocating the humanities and the value of a reflective life, but the blame, again, should be pointed somewhere else. Why are so many young people NOT turning to great literature for enlightenment? I know I am being over-simplistic, but I can't help it: our society has changed. The United States' obsession with "leading the world" has turned our campuses into vocational schools. Colleges and universities were fertile ground in which young people explored the great questions (What is life's great purpose? What is existence? Does God really exist and what is His role in my life? Are Sartre and Camus really that full of shit?, etc.), school are now turning more and more young people determined to have 1) a higher standard of living (as opposed to quality of life), 2) more toys than the previous generation, and who knows what else. I hate to sound dismal, but the fact is we are running out of certified teachers, Peace Corps volunteer numbers are at an all-time low, and social services are being cut out of every single State Budget in America. If, as the general argument goes, great literature can help us become more human, then I think Mr. Siegel's argument (whether humorously intended or not) is highlighting a problematic trend: The more great literature you read, the less adaptable and more difficulty you will have "fitting in" in modern American society.

Mr. Seigel's essay goes a long way to explain my own experience, especially at the inter-personal/relationship level. Yes, great literature can indeed feed unreachable goals and expectations into your brain, but there's also great literature out there that offers insightful and REALISTIC advice. When Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that we were all geniuses and that self-reliance was the way to go, Herman Melville was writing "Bartleby, the Scrivener" to prove to Emerson that life was not as "peachy" as he proposed. That's the great thing about great literature that even our great Democracy lacks... Check and Balances... all you have to do is "balance out" your reading list and you'll have the answers to life's persistent questions from all available angles.

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At 8:57 PM, Blogger Imani said...

Honestly, I couldn't read more than half of the essay before I labelled it as trivial tripe and closed the tab. There is merit in questioning the old virtuous adages about literature but Siegel clearly wasn't interested in finding it.

I've recently joined a group at my school that is fighting against the growing commercialism of education at our university. More and more the "quality" of education is being measured by how much outside money a department can attract. Spaces in the curriculum are being sold off to corporations as "special programmes". And, of course, few in the Arts are interested in such pap except, possibly, the Econ/Accounts people.

Beyond the intellectual, humanist and obvious practical benefit of the humanities, the Arts department of my school consistently has the highest enrolment so I can't see why *that's* not enough to justify its existence.

I'll stop now before I get any more upset. :p This degradation of a university education where those in charge are simply interested in how far intellectual endeavour can get everyone cash is soul numbing. I begin to feel like Thomas More and feel a strong desire to burn the heretics. All in fun, of course.


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