There has been a lot of angst expressed on academic and especially on literary studies-focused weblogs this past week regarding the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University. Apparently, the fact that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was an English major, as well as a creative writer, has inspired a crisis among some that, at the end of the day, the humanities and liberal arts don’t actually humanize anyone. I thought it might be productive, especially in light of Emma Smith’s post on the recent Shakespeare Association of America conference [in which she muses that, at conferences, the important meta-questions of the discipline rarely get confronted], to highlight here some excerpts from conversations on this subject unfolding elsewhere on the blogospshere, add some of my own thoughts, and see if we might have a collective conversation here as well.
Over at the literary studies group weblog The Valve, Scott Eric Kaufmann [our friend of Acephalous, where his thoughts are cross-posted] wrote the following [see similar threads unfolding at In The Middle here and at Quod She here]:
Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech. I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind. Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them. His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us. Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic. He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described.
As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c. My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is. One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist. On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read.
In the responses to Scott’s post, at both The Valve and Acephalous [which also deals at length with teaching Huckleberry Finn and with Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World--on which point and related to the idea that literature could contribute to democracy, see also the Victorian scholar Caroline Levine's post on Claybaugh's book here], the following comments were offered:
[Joseph Kugelmass]: None of the things we value in ordinary, practical life, come with the guarantees we seem to expect from literature. Medical treatments are almost never 100% effective, particularly psychiatric treatments and medications. Nor are supportive environments and close-knit families always able to produce happy, well-adjusted individuals. Still, none of this leads us to consider such things to be without merit.
[Rich Pulasky]: In terms of the humanization of ordinary people by the humanites—I think that if this really occured, you’d expect grad students in the humanites to be significantly more humane than a sample of the population. I don’t think that this is observationally true. They are certainly more educated and articulate, of course, and can rationalize their choices better than the average person. . . . I think that there really is a sense in which novels are effective, and which education is effective at being “micropolitical”, that has nothing to do with making individuals more humane. Attitudes of reform within literature become class markers. Being racist, sexist, or homophobic, for instance, is socially disapproved for more than just humane reasons—it’s also lower class. I think that a lot of good has been done by this element of class emulation.
[Simon]: if we think blaming violent films and video games for massacres is silly (and I think we can all agree that it is) then it is equally silly to expect reading novels to prevent them. Literature can be as lurid in its description of violence as film can, but drawing a connection between cultural consumption and behaviour is impossible; simply, the determining factors are far too complex. If they were all that simple, perhaps horrific crimes could be more easily prevented, but culture - and life in general - would be pretty dull.
Of course, many blog commentators have pointed out in various ways that, as a possibly deeply insane [or psychotic] person, Cho Seung-Hui needed the help of mental health professionals more than he needed the help of literature or creative writing professors [and Michael Uebel has pointed out here how, even within mental health circles this incident poses troubling questions]. My own feelings [for the moment, anyway], as I posted in similar fashion at The Valve, are as follows:
I never thought reading literature humanized anyone or made them better citizens or better persons or more moral or whatever. My favorite two books on this point are James Anderson Winn’s The Pale of Words and Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins [Readings’ book, especially, is a must-read, I think, for anyone planning a future working in the humanities at the university level–it is a pessimistic but also hopeful book]. Furthermore, what Cho did at Va. Tech. has nothing to do with his being an English major [or even a creative writer] and it really surprises me how many people are anguishing over that fact. Art and literature attract devils as well as angels and both sane and insane men and women create art and literature. Of course, as a professor of medieval and other literatures and as a scholar of literature [and of literary and cultural thought], obviously I have to have some faith that what might be called the cultivation of good reading [and interpretive] practices [which practices, further, would not be couched in overt ideological contexts] and how the teaching of those practices might matter somehow in the inculcation of certain types of moral [and other] understanding in our students. But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer. Remember that moment in the 1931 movie Frankenstein where the monster is stumbling around in a field somewhere and he sees a girl throwing flowers into a well and he’s like, “ooooo, ugh, oooo, cool” [said in his inimitable inarticulate way]? And then he’s also throwing flowers in the well and having fun? And then said girl ends up at the bottom of the well? In this sense, the “beautiful” can inspire wildly different responses–both good and evil–in different persons. In any case, the incident at Virginia Tech does not indict the humanities; I thought we stopped carrying that flag a long time ago. You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it, in imperfect fits and starts, and only with the recognition that morality is more related to affect than it is to principles or rules or even final actions.
As to the relation of pedagogy to leading students to the better sorts of lives, I stopped agonizing about that a while ago. I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or humanism [or, humaness] or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or a more subtle and laudably non-ideological method. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel–”to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature into the lives of other persons. There is some kind of predisposition, I think, to being “open” to that possibility, without which ethics, of any sort, cannot be possible.
Is it possible to discuss this issue in a way that does not necessitate either arguing that: a) the study of literature contributes to a process of “humanizing” or “making better” certain human subjects, or b) the study of literature could never contribute to a process whereby certain human subjects could be led to living better lives?