Ross Douthat made a good point today, although it’s a depressing one.
In the column, “I’m What’s Wrong With the Humanities,” he brought up the subject addressed in a sobering recent piece in The New Yorker, “The End of the English Major.”
We all have shaken our heads over those stupid kids today who can’t seem to make their way through so much as a sentence of 19th-century prose:
Like all the others who managed to make their way through Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school, I read this with a mix of smugness and horror. Then, naturally, I scrolled to the next declinist indicator, the next sign of the cultural apocalypse.
What I did not do was click through and read the whole Heller piece (though I have read it now, I swear it!). Even more conspicuously, I definitely did not go pick up a copy of “The Scarlet Letter” or any other 19th-century novel and begin reading it for pleasure.
“The answer to the question, ‘What is wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong,’” G.K. Chesterton once wrote. And any response to the question of what’s happened to the humanities has to include the same answer. The Harvard undergraduates who can’t parse a complex sentence from the American Renaissance are part of the problem. But so is the Harvard-educated newspaper columnist and self-styled cultural conservative who regularly unburdens himself of deep thoughts on pop TV but hasn’t read a complete 19th -century novel for his own private enjoyment in — well, let’s just say it’s been a while…
Oh, Douthat lets us know he’s started to read, say, Les Misérables, but only gotten a hundred or so pages into it. He has similarly failed with shorter works.
He cites some of the things that he lets get in the way: website browsing; looking at his iPhone, “even at a live performance;” and long-form television, an obsession he attempts to justify by talking up Golden Age TV’s supposed literary virtues.
I have to confess to all of those, plus:
- The little work I do these days to pay the bills.
- Naps, which fortunately I’m able to blame on my stroke.
- My fitful blogging.
- And other stuff…
So it is that, while I have boasted a number of times here about how awesome “Moby Dick” truly is, and how I’m reading it with great enjoyment and a commitment to finishing it, I have failed to get anywhere near the point at which they finally find the white whale.
I’ve been saying that since — well, since I was still working as a newspaper editor. That’s quite a while, in blog terms.
Douthat goes on from moaning about the problem to prescription, but I’m not sure how workable his medications are. For instance, he refers to a piece in the WSJ headlined, “College Should Be More Like Prison.” To be fair, the idea is more reasonable than it sounds — the author of that piece (which, alas, I cannot read, since I let that subscription lapse) was referring to things she has learned from teaching maximum-security inmates. But I find it hard to imagine it being a practical cure for the rest of us.
I’ve gone on and on about, for instance, what diving down the Rabbit Hole has done to our ability to think, and to have a functioning representative democracy. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten, and I’m still at the whiteboard working on the diagnosis. I await the inspiration that leads to a remedy…
These days people love to quote Pogo’s twist on a famous saying: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Which works in this instance.
But I’m thinking of the saying that Walt Kelly was playing on, from Commodore Perry: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Perry had captured two ships, two brigs, a schooner and a sloop from the British at the Battle of Lake Erie.
I, for one, cannot yet claim that the current enemy is ours. In darker moments, I fear that we have struck our colors, and we are his…