Why Read? In Defense of Uselessness

by on August 18, 2014 · 3 comments

in Culture, Education, Under the Perfect Sun

happyfaceBy Jim Miller

While I still deeply love my chosen profession of teaching after twenty-five years of work at various colleges with the last seventeen of those at San Diego City College, it’s hard not to notice the constant drumbeat of critics casting doubt on the value of my life’s work in the humanities.

Whether they be corporate education reformers bent on imposing a business model on colleges or techno-boosters with a zeal to toss all that I hold dear into the dustbin of history, there is a long line of naysayers.

As David Masciotra recently noted in “Pulling the Plug on English Departments” in The Daily Beast, “The armies of soft philistinism are on the march and eager to ditch traditional literature instruction in favor of more utilitarian approaches . . . It is easy to observe the sad and sickly decline of American intellectual life, through the cultural and institutional lowering of standards, when prestigious publications promote the defense, if not the celebration, of lower standards.”

Masciotra goes on to outline arguments like those of James Pulizzi in The New Republic who celebrates what he is sure will be the impending extinction of “contemporary literature departments” which will be replaced by “communications, composition, and media studies.” Central to Pulizzi’s case is his incredulity that college students should have to read “narrative prose” when they “get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games.”

In essence, the question that he asks is “why read?”

While I spend plenty of time teaching composition, frequently incorporate media studies into my classes, and write a weekly column for this online publication, I share Masciotra’s dismay in the face of such glib proclamations.

As he goes on to document, studies show that the reading of “narrative prose” on the printed page has a different effect on the brain than the other forms of narrative that Pulizzi lists. It strengthens attention spans, reading comprehension, retention, and “increases and enhances the ability to empathize.” When we read, Masciotra reminds us, we enter the consciousness of others through a hard, lonely process, and, further, “Solitude activates the imagination, and invites introspection.”

Of course, this process is resisted because, “The American attitude of utilitarianism, and the fixation on practicality, means that young people, even in the humanities, want to know they are doing something tangible with the knowledge they require, and not just reading and thinking.”

Nonetheless, Masciotra argues, colleges should insist that students read as “The culture, however, needs to provide space for the readers and thinkers, and it needs to elevate literature to a place of prominence.”

In a similar article in The New Yorker, “Why Teach English?”, Adam Gopnik, observes that “The English major is vanishing from our colleges” and that defenses have been mounted, “none of them terribly persuasive,” which argue either that the humanities makes you a better person or that they make for a better society. And while Gopnik is unconvinced of the merits of the various apologias he outlines, he takes a stab at his own defense nonetheless:

So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose.

We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.

If there is a central insight in both Masciotra’s and Gopnik’s pieces it is that we are at a place in our cultural life where American “utilitarianism” and our obsession with whether we “produce goods and services efficiently” has become nearly totalitarian. But the seeds of our present fundamentalist instrumentalism go way back and are rooted in the corporate world’s longstanding distrust of higher education and the humanities in particular.

As Frank Donoghue argues in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, “The hostility amongst the corporate world toward higher education was unabashed with “Unregulated monopolistic capitalists such as Carnegie and Crane” seeing much of higher education as “literally worthless.” More specifically, Donoghue notes that, “America’s early twentieth century capitalists were motivated by an ethically based anti-intellectualism that transcended interest in the financial bottom line. Their distrust of the ideal of intellectual inquiry for its own sake led them to insist that if universities were to be preserved at all, they must operate on a different set of principles from those governing the liberal arts.”

For this principle they looked to Fredrick Winslow Taylor, whose ideas in Principles of Scientific Management became the core of the corporate world’s gospel of efficiency and launched a nationwide campaign to systematize labor at the turn of the 20th century.

Taylor’s entry into American higher education came in 1909 when MIT president, Henry S. Pritchett, wrote to him and asked how he could do an “economic study” of education. In response, Taylor personally recommended Morris Llewellyn Cooke, whose Academic and Industrial Inefficiency provided the blueprint for academic Taylorism. As Donoghue notes:

Cooke’s recommendations are very farsighted. They accurately anticipate the business model for today’s for profit universities . . . Not surprisingly, Cooke calls for the abolition of tenure, since tenure, the ultimate worker autonomy, has no place in Taylor’s system. Two of his other findings are far more subtle: Cooke recommends that to maximize efficiency and organizational control, (1) textbooks and lecture notes for all of a university’s ‘elementary and medium branches’ of instruction should be standardized and (2), that those materials plus every professor’s lectures and ‘pedagogical mechanisms’ should be the property of the university. Cooke’s recommended policies would eventually form the lines of battle between faculty who wish to preserve their professional individuality and university administrators eager to control the growing costs of multifaceted institutions of higher learning.

Donoghue observes that the power of this kind of academic Taylorism comes from Americans’ readiness to accept “an ethic of productivity for its own sake as the irrefutable measure of success of any kind.” For Corporate America, this has been a useful tool in their efforts to externalize the cost of worker training to the state, which it can then chastise regularly for failing to produce workers ready to compete in the marketplace. Hence the battle has been going on for a century.

But if we move beyond the history of corporate skepticism toward academia to the core values of the Taylorist worldview, the larger importance of the humanities becomes clearer. As Neil Postman expertly outlined in his seminal book Technopoly, the essential philosophy of Taylorism is founded on six key assumptions:

[T]hat the primary, if not the only goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that, in fact, human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.

Thus it is easy to see how nicely Taylor’s philosophy has come to occupy the heart of the neoliberal worldview with its market fundamentalism, unthinking technophilia, and disdain for all that can not be measured or made part of the totalitarian gospel of efficiency. Of course what is left out of such a worldview is most of what makes it good to be alive. That of course can’t be measured.

And what kind of world and people are we creating by moving heedlessly in this direction? One clue, perhaps, comes from a recent study of college students asked to sit alone in a room with their thoughts for 15 minutes:

A research team led by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson reports that, in a series of studies, “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.”

“Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electronic shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

What’s more, in the researchers’ most remarkable result, “many preferred to administer electronic shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.”

“The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson and his colleagues conclude in the journal Science.

Hence, apparently for some of us, the unexamined life is vastly preferable to the examined one. Indeed, for a shockingly high number of us it seems an electric jolt is preferable to what the Buddhists call “just sitting.”

How did this happen? George Monbiot ponders this very question in a column in The Guardian where he examines what psychoanalysis is telling us about the kinds of personalities created by the values of our market-based society:

The market was meant to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness.

The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear.

So maybe it’s just easier never to think about it, to stay distracted, and amuse ourselves to death.

In this context, the boring, stodgy activity of reading a novel or poem and actually enjoying it could almost be described as a kind of counter-cultural act. It stops us and makes us think and reflect on our lives. It gives us useless beauty, pleasure, and feeling. Sometimes it unsettles us, makes us cry, or shatters our expectations.

So when I walk into my class, I will ask the same questions I always do: “Why are you here? What’s the point? Why engage in such a useless activity?”

My students usually laugh but I’m always pleased to see how quickly they jump to the defense of the beautiful uselessness of literature and the humanities.

None of the corporate reformers or education “experts” care about this but you’d be surprised how many times my students tell me that they love coming to talk about books because in much of the rest of their lives nobody really cares what they think about anything. But here, in the extraordinary space of the classroom, it’s the only thing that matters.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc Snelling August 18, 2014 at 10:07 am

Stories and ‘just sitting’ are a big part of who we are as humans. Without them we don’t really know who we are. There may be lots of people who prefer an electric shock to being alone with their thoughts. But what effect will that have on their future?

In the information age not reading has more of an effect. People who don’t read are placing themselves at a bigger disadvantage then ever. Reading and telling stories are behaviors so ingrained in the human psyche that it seems there has to be a survival reason for it.


Aging Hippie August 18, 2014 at 12:20 pm

The inevitable result of the privatization of education. We should nationalize all our universities and make the tuition free, as Norway has done.


mjt August 19, 2014 at 9:30 am

Linear thought is the product of the left hemisphere of the brain, non-linear the right hemisphere. This organized, legalistic, law and order society that is America today is left hemisphere dominance.
Western thought and it’s aggressive, organized ways, gets things done, and at the same time loses it’s humanity. The left side is incapable of empathy. it does not feel, it reasons.
Quiet the mind, by meditating, reading, exercise, and spiritual thoughts and the right side comes alive. Feelings of the heart come forth, creative thought, a different perspective is attained.


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