the whys and wherefores of humanistic study

Louis Menand:

Reading Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not. We are not better or worse than anyone else. I have read and taught hundreds of books, including most of the books in the Columbia Core. I teach a great-books course now. I like my job, and I think I understand many things that are important to me much better than I did when I was seventeen. But I don’t think I’m a better person.

Sure, but have you tried to be?

I don’t want to be too flippant here. I have myself, many times, argued against the claim that reading great books is intrinsically ennobling. My argument has been that how we read — with whom, and with what purposes in mind — matters more than what we read. But I think it’s both possible and desirable for students and teachers to read and study together in search of wisdom. And that’s largely what Montás and Weinstein argue for. I do think they are a rather too reverent about the books officially designated as Great, rather too confident in the value of mere exposure to such books. Still, the purposes of education, of teaching and learning, are their chief theme.

They also — Menand complains about this at length — say that in the modern university the practices of reading associated with those true purposes of education are either marginalized or forbidden. Menand actually quotes Montás’s argument that “Too often professional practitioners of liberal education — professors and college administrators — have corrupted their activity by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic pursuits that only have meaning within their own institutional and career aspirations.” But isn’t it pretty obvious that someone who thinks this will not, indeed cannot, also think “that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth”?

Menand is so transparently impatient with the arguments of Montás and Weinstein that he gets similarly confused at several points in his essay. For instance, to Montás’s claim that Nietzsche is “Satan’s most acute theologian,” Menand replied that “Nietzsche wanted to free people to embrace life, not to send them to Hell. He didn’t believe in Hell. Or theology” — or, presumably, Satan. But maybe Montás believes in Satan, which would, surely, be the point.

Let’s try to focus on the key issue here: Both authors under review couldn’t be clearer that their main argument is not that we should all be reading great books but that we should be reading great books in light of what they believe to be “the fundamental goals of education.” So the proper question to ask is not, “Will reading great literature make me a better person?” The proper question is, “Will reading great literature in company with others who are in search of self-knowledge, meaning, and wisdom make me a better person?” (Answer: Maybe not. And not automatically. But it does give you certain opportunities for becoming wiser if in a disciplined way you choose to take them.)

Why does Menand teach in a university? I read his essay three times looking for evidence, and the only thing I find is this: “The university is a secular institution, and scientific research — more broadly, the production of new knowledge — is what it was designed for.” (He sets this in opposition to the argument of the writers he review that it’s vital to read for self-knowledge.) He says that “Humanists … should not be fighting a war against science. They should be defending their role in the knowledge business.”

With this point I’m in complete agreement. Wissenschaft should not be simply dismissed in favor of Bildung, and there can be real Wissenschaft in the humanities (though I’m not sure many of the critics and theorists Menand defends are interested in either educational tradition). I agree with Tom Stoppard’s A. E. Housman, in The Invention of Love:

A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.

Among my own writing and works, the ones I am proudest of are the ones — like my Auden editions — in which I am clearly if in a small way adding to our store of knowledge.

So two cheers, at least, for Wissenschaft. The chief point I’m wanting to make here is simply this: There’s something rather peculiar about a scholar who proudly disavows using professional teaching and study for personal moral formation and then says, as though he’s clinching a point, that his professional teaching and study have not contributed to his personal moral formation.