16 September 2020

Why Do We Teach Literary Criticism So Intensely?

Despite the fact that the U.S. spends years of college prep track students' lives teaching them to produce literary criticism, and produces many tens of thousands of English majors each year with the same skill set, exceedingly little literary criticism beyond short book reviews in news periodicals do it, very few people consume it, and what is done isn't easily accessible.

We should cut back on literary criticism education long before we cut back on Algebra as many proponents of some new "more useful" curricular content often suggest to make room for their proposals.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there shouldn't be some academic instruction in writing essays about classic works of literature, or that we should abolish the English major. It is a question of emphasis, magnitude and weight. This is an area we devote more time to than makes sense, while we devote fewer resources than we should to other things that the classroom setting education of teenagers and people in their early 20s could be focusing upon instead. 

In much the same way, for most of its history, the primary admissions criteria to Harvard was a good ability to read and write in ancient Greek and Latin. As recently as the 1950s, almost everyone who was college bound studied Latin in high school, and likewise studied the works of Classical Greek and Roman authors. 

Latin is still taught in some high schools, and colleges still have some Classics majors. But lots of high schools and lots of colleges don't teach Latin or ancient Greek, and don't have Classics programs. The number of professional academics, graduate students and undergraduate college majors in the field has dwindled to a trickle. And, yet, our civilization has done just fine without it. 

Classics was a cultural field primarily used to sort the educated from the educated, with minimal intrinsic value, just as English literature is today. Both humanities disciplines provide historical context and encourage the development of reason and empathy. But there are myriad other ways that the same general intellectual capacities and factual knowledge can be conveyed.


Dave Barnes said...

"And, yet, our civilization has done just fine without" Latin.
datum, data
stadium, stadia—stadiums!

Guy said...

And most lit-crit should just be labeled Social Marxism, if there was a truth in labeling law for college courses. If 'they' were honest the lit-crit classes would become comparative political theory classes. And in a better world, there would be some liberal classes to counter balance the social marxism.