Teaching the Humanities as Terribly as Possible

Vasily Perov, Portrait of Dostoevsky, 1872.

The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and co-operation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men.

—W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk (1903)

The learning of the gentleman enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. His smallest movement can serve as a model.

The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out his mouth.

Xunzi (c. 250 BC)

Not long ago I began to read Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment for the first time. As I often do when reading something interesting or unfamiliar, I decided to Google the topic in question along with the word “syllabus” to see how folks more experienced and intelligent than myself go about studying it. In this fashion I have littered my computer with PDFs of old university syllabi. I have profited a greatly from this practice and recommend it to all readers.

One syllabus that I found today caught my attention for an unenviable reason. The syllabus was for a course titled “The Theology of Dostoevsky.” The course is offered at Trinity College in Toronto. The course readings were the standard Dostoevsky catalogue:  Notes From the Underground, The Idiot, The Brothers Karazamov, and so forth. With these readings I have no argument. More dispiriting was the rationale given for reading them. Here is the full list of  ‘course outcomes’ that the syllabus hopes reading and discussing Dostoevsky will bring about:

Identify key literary, historical and political influences on Dostoevsky. (Lectures; assigned secondary readings).

Contextualize Dostoevsky’s literature within his theological and anthropological milieu. (Lectures; assigned secondary readings).

Analyze philosophical, theological and anthropological discourse as presented through fiction, with attention to the unique interpretive problems inherent in studying creative genres. (Class discussion; primary source readings; written assignments).

Construct coherent descriptions of philosophical, theological and anthropological assumptions and arguments as presented through fiction and creative writing. (Class discussion; primary course readings; written assignments; presentation).

Communicate more effectively, verbally and in writing, about theological literature by making effective arguments about primary materials, engaging relevant secondary sources, and meeting academic standards for writing and annotation. (Class discussion; written assignments; presentation).[1]

It is unclear whether this list of course aims was an independent invention of the professor teaching the class, or was merely his attempt to line the course up with pre-determined learning outcomes forced upon him by university administrators. In either case my feelings are the same: this syllabus is a perfect distillation with everything wrong and broken in the humanities.

When writers get loud about crises in the humanities, they are usually referring to some trouble inside ivory towers. Folks of this sort often measure the health of the humanities through course enrollments and declared majors. This has always struck me as a bit silly: the humanities existed long before the American university system was invented, and they shall persist long after its destruction. The crisis lies not in the colleges but within the greater culture. It is not the slump in university freshmen enrolling in English poetry seminars grieves, but plummeting popular interest in poetry at all. It is not the flagging interest in literature seminars that disturbs, but utter lack of interest in literary critique in the first place. Psychologists, philosophers, linguists, biologists, businessmen, politicians, journalists, and pundits all have their place on the public stage, but as the second decade of the 21st century comes to its close it is hard to find any living poet, playwright, artist, or critic with similar standing. American culture has turned against the humanists.

It is mostly their own fault.

This is not a screed against the political agenda of the humanist set (though their tendency to strip down the beautiful and profound to garish “archaeologies of power” is part of the problem). Nor is it an attack on the sort of literary theories that deaden love for literature, leaving poor graduate students “hardly [able to] locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel… as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance” (though this is also a part of the problem). [2] My critique is broader: those who teach the humanities—and those who create its more ‘literary’ forms—do not know what their profession is for.

 I sympathize with the humanist who feels besieged. It seems like the poet (and her expounders) are always on the defensive: no one asks a biologist to justify the existence of her field, but the same is constantly demanded of those who study comparative literature or the classics. This is not a new problem. Humanists have always needed to justify their existence. It interesting to see how the terms of their justifications have shifted over time.

Here is a how one famous 17th century poet described the purpose of a literary education:

“But here the main skill and groundwork will be, to temper them such Lectures and Explanations upon every opportunity, as may lead and draw them in willing obedience, enflam’d with the study of Learning, and the admiration of Vertue; stirr’d up with high hopes of living to be brave men, and worthy Patriots, dear to God, and famous to all ages. That they may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberall Exercises: which he who hath the Art, and proper Eloquence to catch them with, what with mild and effectual perswasions, and what with the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example, might in a short space gain them to an incredible diligence and courage: infusing into their young brests such an ingenuous and noble ardor, as would not fail to make many of them renowned and matchless men.” [3]

In this passage Milton gives equal weight to teacher and subject taught. Daniel Webster offered similar sentiments two centuries later. This particular excerpt dwells solely on the ‘subject taught’ side of things:

The question, after all, if it be a question, is, whether literature, ancient as well as modern, does not assist a good understanding, improve natural good taste, add polished armor to native strength, and render its possessor, not only more capable of deriving private happiness from contemplation and reflection, but more accomplished also for action in the affairs of life, and especially for public action.[4]

Add these two quotations to the two in the epitaph of this post: do you see the connecting thread? It is a thread that twines thousands of years of history into one web, linking teachers and thinkers across civilizations and continents. Dive into the past and you will see this theme will emerge time and again: the purpose of studying history, philosophy, and poetry is to help us lead better lives and be better people. The humanities are an education for the soul.

Placed next to these paeans to education, the aims of the “Theology of Dostoevsky” course are crippling. Reading Dostoevsky will help students will learn how to “contextualize literature within its anthropological milieu.” Dostoevsky will teach them to see “the unique interpretive problems inherent in studying creative genres” and discussing his works will help them “communicate more effectively, verbally and in writing, about theological literature.” That is the purpose of reading a man regularly called the best novelist in human history! We read him to “meet academics standards for writing and notation!”

How painfully limited.

There is nothing baneful in learning the historical context of a great book. There is nothing shameful about learning how to write a proper term paper. But notice what is really being taught: a suite of technical skills whose utility does not extend far past the classroom. The likelihood students will ever have need to recall the social history of mid-19th century St. Petersburg is small. The odds they will ever be asked to write anything resembling a term paper after graduation is even smaller. Graduate students may gain something from this exercise; the blessed few who pass on to tenure will be charged with teaching the incantations of their trade on to the next generation. That is what the modern humanities are for. Small wonder the poets and professors are accused of ruling a perpetual pyramid scheme! Small wonder those outside the academy care so little about the ideas of the humanists who have sought refuge inside it!

It does not have to be this way. I was delighted to find that the most popular course at Harvard is a primer in Chinese philosophy. Its tagline?

“This course will change your life.”[5]

Every course in the humanities should be able to make something of this claim. If studying history, reading literature, and memorizing poetry does not provide strength for the day of trial, solace for the day sorrow, wisdom for those who know little, humility for those who know much, and a new perspective from which to understand and endure the challenges of our mortal lives, then the humanities have no purpose. Reclaiming a role for humanities in public life means reclaiming the idea that the things humanists study should change one’s life. Until then, we must expect the study of literature, history, and art to dwindle in desuetude.


[1] Daniel Operwall, “The Theology of Dostoevsky,” course syllabus (Winter/Spring 2018).

[2] Lisa Rudick, “When Nothing is Cool,The Point (December 2015).

[3] John Milton, “Of Education,” Milton Reading Room (accessed 18 November 2018).

[4] Daniel Webster, “Eulogy for Adams and Jefferson,” in The Great Orations and Senatorial Speeches of Daniel Webster (Rochester, NY: Wilbur Hayward and co., 1853), 17.

[5] Christine Gross-Loh, “Why are Hundreds of Students Studying Chinese Philosophy?,The Atlantic (8 October 2013).

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Well, yes.

However, why did this change occur? The way the humanities were traditionally taught did not eliminate (for Europe) two world wars. Which lead to some scepticism about the traditional forms of education, the humanities and humanity.

And the jargon-ridden stuff is also a descendant of the (European) Enlightenment – especially procedural reason.

I do think we need to get back behind the (European) Enlightenment. If reality doesn't reduce to a set of intellectual propositions (Eastern thought is much more open to this than Western) then I think Virtue Ethics and Care Ethics need attention. And the way that people are actually educated.

Fully agree, however I’d add that this issue is also within K-12 education, where standardized tests are what rule the minds of most literature teachers (whether AP exams or state tests). While wisdom can’t be assessed in any quantitative measure, term papers, meaningless facts, and reading comprehension questions on random passages can, and since these tests are what literature teachers are held accountable for, this is what occupies the class…