Paging Alan Jacobs

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to tempt you back to The American Scene. And I’ve finally found an article in your wheelhouse that justifies a response in excess of 140 characters. Can you resist weighing in on this provocation?

UPDATE: Despite popular demand for his unique style of learned commentary and insights, Professor Jacobs declines to take this story on. My own reaction is going to be less enlightening, but I do have something to say about this excerpt:

The annual meetings of the Modern Language Association have become somber opportunities for scholars to engage in painful rituals of self-diagnosis and confessions of despair. In 2006, Marjorie Perloff, then president of the organization and herself a productive and learned critic, admonished her colleagues that, unlike other members of the university community, they might well have been plying their trade without proper credentials: “Whereas economists or physicists, geologists or climatologists, physicians or lawyers must master a body of knowledge before they can even think of being licensed to practice,” she said, “we literary scholars, it is tacitly assumed, have no definable expertise.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.
Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

As someone who aspired to be a writer, consumed novels with passion and enjoyment, completed the high school English honors track, and received the highest marks on the AP exam, it strikes me as strange in hindsight that I didn’t even consider an English major in college.

But I know the reason.

In high school, honors English students are graded largely on essays written about whatever books the class is assigned. On the whole, I studied under teachers who used those essays to improve certain aspects of my writing — upon graduation from high school I could capably organize a long essay, deploy literary devices in my prose, and polish my syntax to a sheen. I also learned that the substance of what I wrote mattered hardly at all. Perhaps I would’ve gotten points off for being logically inconsistent. Assigned an essay on a given novel, however, I could garner an A irrespective of the interpretation I offered, even when I believed my own interpretation to be utter bullshit. It hardly mattered how outlandish were my claims. I played on a competitive athletic team in high school, so I’d often get home at 7 or 8pm, dead tired from practice, facing 5 or 6 hours of homework. One assignment might be an 10 page paper on Beloved based on some essay prompt, and requiring that at least 5 quotes from the test were used to back up one’s argument. More often than not, I’d open the book, look for places where I’d starred or highlighted a paragraph (or even where previous owners of the book had highlighted!) and write whatever was required to incorporate those particular passages into some coherent argument.

Understand that I never myself believed that all interpretations of a work were equally valid, or that serious, no bullshit analysis wasn’t a worthwhile enterprise — I just didn’t have the time for it, given five AP classes, a 35 minute drive to school, and a tennis team competitive in California’s state playoffs. So I didn’t stop reading serious literature. But I did conclude that I wasn’t getting anything in English class that I couldn’t get reading a novel myself, delving into a few pieces of criticism, and mulling things over.

When I went to Pomona College I sorta hoped that the English courses there would be better, and in truth I didn’t investigate enough to make a judgment about whether or not they are, but I remember thinking as a freshman — having audited a couple English courses — that the conversation seemed just as empty of any notion that some interpretations of a novel are wrong. I figured that majoring in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, I’d glean more benefit from professors, and learn stuff I wouldn’t be able to manage on my own. If I had it to do again, I’d probably major in history, force myself to get through more than one semester of statistics, only take introductory classes in micro and macro-economics, pick and choose a few politics and philosophy classes, and spend the rest of my time taking English classes, but I’ve got a lot more discipline now than I did then.