Education, Features

Don’t Major in Literature

If you love literature and would like to study what you love, do not study literature. What you will in fact be majoring in is contemporary political correctness, French postmodern theory, politics and social critique devoid of any serious political import or aesthetic value, and perhaps most basically—pathetic scholarly debates over methodology.

The skepticism that the lay-person has of literature professors is in my opinion strongly justified: the discipline is so obsessed with trivial debates over literary methodologies that it can offer nothing to the non-academic reader except rightful contempt for the elitist literary egg head. So resentful of their low estimation in relation to the sciences that they are desperate for anything that smacks of rigor and technicality. By following the appearance of scientific gravitas they have obtained only posturing.

While perhaps less so than in the ’90s, French postmodernism can still be found all over. Students are assigned Paul de Man’s reading of texts as the tension between rhetoric and grammar; Lyotard’s desperate attempt at sociological novelty through a half baked juvenile Wittgensteinianism; Foucault’s facile epistemic cautionary tale—all of it oscillating between unintelligibly and a putrid pathetic nihilism without any sign of Nietzschean affirmation. As for the more openly Marxist literature professors: they will obsequiously put their syllabi together with scraps of apparently still relevant Frankfurt School critical theory. The desperate to be relevant professors will, in an attempt to appeal to the “average” reader, write a Judith Butler infused critique of Lady Gaga.

The unsophisticated English major will feel no longer at home – they were here to read great books! The more sophisticated just become babbling second rate philosophers—doomed to unquestioned years of sophistry, obscurantism, and theological worship for whatever sounds the most intense and deep (the literati have forgotten the lesson of their granddaddy Hegel—”where there is an intensity there is not always a content”). They are laughed at or blown out of the water by serious philosophers, and simultaneously have learned nothing about great art.

And this perhaps the greatest and saddest flaw—literature majors do not become attuned to literary values or to aesthetic experience. They look upon such things with suspicion—as marks of a “bourgeois” status. They learn to be nihilistic, to vacuously condemn liberal capitalism, and to revere thinkers who no one takes seriously (for good reason) outside of literature departments.

Sure, there are a few outliers — professors who still attempt to keep their classes focused on the literary. But most of them are looking to teach works outside of the Western Canon. So fearful that they’ll be lumped in with Harold Bloom and the “old white men” (forget that Bloom is Jewish) if they stick with the tradition that they teach courses on second and third rate fiction. And those who teach fiction honestly are so embedded in the literary establishment that their views, approaches, and concerns are simply boring to anyone interested in the value of literature.

To sum up: Literature departments, by and large, are pedagogically and artistically regressive. They pretend to approach scientific rigor when they are the farthest thing from science; they pretend to be philosophical when the professors don’t know any serious philosophy; they cultivate nihilism and a weak Marxism; and they are not even capable of developing aesthetic appreciation. It’s not my place to say that literature departments should be closed.  Perhaps with different lessons and professors they would be excellent. However, students who have to endure current departments should simply not major in literature. Read books on your own time. If you want to understand myth in literature study psychology and read Freud and Jung; if you want to understand philosophy then study philosophy; if you want to learn about language then study linguistics; if you want to learn about society then study economics or sociology; and if you want to learn about art, beauty, and literary value—read great writers and do nothing more than open yourself to them. Don’t pay and don’t let your parents mortgage their home to have your aesthetic sensibilities ruined and replaced by a hodgepodge pseudo discipline.

Filed under: Education, Features

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Max Diamond is a reporter in Raleigh. He has written for the Weekly Standard and the College Fix.

26 Comments

  1. Anomaly says

    At Duke, the Literature Department broke away from the English department. English teaches literature, but the Literature department teaches a bizarre and incongruous mix of Marxism, post-modernist drivel, and social constructionism about everything — sex, race, the universe itself. They see science as a tool to dominate the vulnerable and constitutional democracy as a way to colonize non-Western peoples. Yes: they actually say stuff like this.

    On a lighter note, I invite everyone to click on the following post-modernist essay generator: http://www.elsewhere.org/journal/pomo/

    It is based on an algorithm that uses the jargon you hear in modern Literature classes. Every time you refresh the page, you get a new essay! For more fun, Google the Sokal Hoax.

  2. If you want to understand myth in literature study psychology and read Freud and Jung;

    You were doing so well until that point. After mocking irrelevant, pretentious French philosophy, you opted for the two biggest pseuds the humanities ever shat out.

    Freud and Jung have as much to do with modern psychology as Nostradamus has to do with astronomy. They are steam-age practitioners of a field that had barely entered the Here be Dragons stage of knowledge.

    Nobody has taken them seriously since the Fifties. They barely register as footnotes in modern psychology text books. Their reputations are only kept alive in by the literature departments you rightly mock because they have long since been laughed out of the psychology department.

    • @Speaker to Animals. I am not sure on which planet you live but Jung in particular continues to inspire and teach those who are not afraid to think for themselves.

      The fact that modern psychiatry is a dope clinic does not detract from the brilliance of the work of Jung in particular but also Freud.

      • How is regurgitating mystical crap from the prehistory of psychiatry ‘thinking for yourself’?

        And there’s a damn sight more to modern psychology than pharmacology – which, by the way – and unlike psychoanalysis – actually works. Psychoanalysis has precisely the opposite effect: it actually extends the period of recovery.

        Psychoanalysis is an epistemology based on knob-gags. The best that can be said of it is that it was more effective at screwing money out of people with too much of it than Marxism ever was.

        Freud and Jung were, at best, pseudoscientists; the cults they left behind have no firmer scientific basis than Scientology.

        • So, the pharmacology works does it?

          Increased paranoia, suicide rates, aggression – I can really see how that works as a treatment.

          There are varying forms of psychoanalysis and no one system works for everyone, but anything beats drug-pushing which never leads to any sort of healing or cure and simply suppresses symptoms, for a time anyway.

          Pseudo-scientists is a silly term used today to dismiss issues or people where a coherent and substantive case cannot be made.

          There is no pseudo-science. There cannot be. Science is a system of enquiry, a system based on questions, all questions, any questions, all research, any research, all practices and experiences.

          Science itself is heading toward pseudo-science given its taste for censorship and denial.

          https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/may/12/psychiatric-drugs-more-harm-than-good-expert

    • DiscoveredJoys says

      There’s an argument that Jung was a poor psychologist but a much better guru of mystical ideas. So as long as you wish to understand myth, that is certainly one possible thread to follow.

      • The argument that Jung was a poor psychiatrist – he was not what we now call a psychologist – is a retrofit of the past. His views and methods may not appeal to all – he was highly intelligent – but they resonate with many.

        Jung took the sensible view that human beings were more than the material and mechanical and on that path he broke new ground, uncovered great treasurers and offered a gift to many.

        Jung is dismissed now because he treated not just mind and body, but Soul. Quelle Horreur for materialist reductionist mechanical science-medicine where psychiatrists just want to belong and feel they are as important as engineers and those who work in fields which can be reduced to the material and mechanical.

    • Declan says

      You should check out clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s lectures on youtube. He refers heavily to Freud and Jung.

      As the author correctly points out, if you wish to explore the connection between myth and literature, or myth and psychology, they are the two authors, par excellence, to explore.

      • Does Paterson provide any evidence that boys fear castration by their fathers because they want to fuck their mothers?

        • You would do well to look up the meaning of context and perspective. To seek to project the views of Freud in particular, a man very much of his time and his culture, onto humanity would be unwise and erroneous.

          Understanding the times in which people think, feel and work helps to understand their perspective. Context is crucial.

    • smw299 says

      This is advice for someone who wants to be well read, not a professional psychologist. Would you just discard Aristotle entirely because many of his ideas are clearly scientifically false? Freud and Jung weren’t scientists, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have something interesting to say, and they are unquestionably important in the development of Western thought.

      • Freud and Jung unquestionably influenced Western thought by taking it up a dead end for half a century.

        Can I ask how many people defending Freud and Jung actually studied psychology and not some other discipline psychoanalysis took root in?

        At the very least a theory of the mind should tell us something about the mind – and a theory which tells us that women subconsciously believe they have been castrated, or that an orgasm should transfer from the clitoris to the vagina, should be expected to show some empirical evidence before we stop laughing.

        • Joseph Miller says

          I studied Psych and discovered Jung years later. Agree with smw299 – Jung may not be scientifically rigorous, but he’s got a fantastic breadth of knowledge and a knack for drawing unlikely connections. Provided you keep your bullshit detector charged, he’s a fantastic source of information and an impetus to creative thinking.

      • Exactly. Don’t insult Freud by calling him a psychologist. But since Harold Bloom was mentioned earlier…:

        “… all of Freud that matters most is there in Shakespeare already, with a persuasive critique of Freud besides. The Freudian map of the mind is Shakespeare’s; Freud seems only to have prosified it.”

    • Smegma says

      Speaker I agree with you that Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis is total crap psychology. Most schools only offer psychoanalysis as additional optional course in psych because it has little to no empirical or scientific basis. With that being said, Freud, and more so Jung, are actually quite good resources for studying myth in literature, particularly when used to examine literature of their times. But that’s about it.

    • Speaker … Much of what “is” modern psychology owes it’s roots to Freud who gets routinely trampled upon by those who haven’t read him. Yes, it’s retrograde material in psychology. No modern psychology, including CBT approaches doesn’t do a whole lot better in many cases, and has nothing that works with extreme abnormal mental patterns, e.g.: borderline or sociopathology. So the “field” of psychology is playing at being “scientific” since Experimental Psychology became the rage, and yet the more neuroscience evolves the less the “experiments” seem valid. Yet without the advantages of MRI, CAT, PET, fMRI and other tech Freud intuited a huge amount of what neuroscience is uncovering as having deep validity. His pet theories of sexual repression and thanos, as well as much of his dream therapy can be rightly criticized against modern knowlege, but at it’s time it was cutting edge thinking that spurred many other to their own pet theories, some of which proved instrumental in psychology’s march forward from the early 1900s. The “field” is full of quackery, then and now, the most significant difference being the quackery of establishing “norms” … “means” … and stats for “average” human behavior or the psychological process in the more modern approach to psychology. Then of course “modern psychology” which so quickly dismisses the mysticism of Jung has DSM V … right???

  3. Political correctness has sucked the guts out of academia and sabotaged science.

  4. Steep says

    As someone who studied Creative Writing (which is essentially a literature degree program only with fewer classes about dead people’s writing and more classes focusing on our OWN writing) as an undergraduate, I see where Mr. Diamond is coming from. Literary studies can, at its worst, turn out to be a second-rate philosophy program in disguise, filled with pompous jackasses who care more about political correctness than they do about actual literature.

    Nevertheless, I’m going to have to approach this from a “not all literature programs” perspective. Now, it’s true that my program was a bit different from the average English major’s (I had to take classes on screenwriting and fiction instead of Milton and Chaucer, though I did indeed have to take a few lit crit classes as well), but based on my experiences within the English department of a small public university in upstate NY (SUNY Oswego, to be exact), I’d say that my alma mater, at least, did a decent job of not totally turning students into literati drones. True, the kinds of writers being studied tend to be the Foucaults and Butlers of the world, but none of the professors that I had were openly dismissive of alternative viewpoints. Of course, it just may be that I’m a lot less susceptible to political bullshit, and have been able to get away with not toeing the PC line by acting largely ignorant of the French critical theory canon. But if so, I certainly can’t be the only one.

    In the end, I’d say that, if anything, the decision to study literature should be seen not as a bad one but as something not to be undergone without caution. Remember: professors may control syllabi, but they can’t deny your ability to learn outside of class, or necessarily MAKE you take any one viewpoint outside of the classroom. If a student is willing to think and challenge their belief and those of others, even if no one else will, then literature might not be the worst major for them.

    Essentially, majors like philosophy and English are not for the weak-minded.

  5. It comes as a shock that you hold out hope that philosophy, linguistics, economics, and sociology departments of university are free of the post-modern/nihilist dreck.

    Or are you saying to simply read in those realms? Very little hope there, either.

    There’s nothing for it: give rebirth to Harold Bloom and wear the stretch marks of bourgeois status.

    Starting with Homer.

  6. Is their evidence that studying literature makes better writers? That really ought to be the deciding factor of whether these courses are worthwhile.

    • Joe says

      How I loved the Ringworld sagas. I take your name is a play on Larry Niven’s Known Universe series?

  7. I write poetry and have never felt that the lack of a degree in english literature has, in any sense detracted from my ability to write. I hold a BA in history and politics and a MA in political theory which are rather removed from the world of literary studies. I am, incidentally often surprised at readers interpretation of my work. Kevin

    • Poetry does not require a degree in anything but life. Ditto for any creative writing. And probably ditto for most things of the mind, psyche and soul.

      More so today in this mechanical and rationalist age.

  8. I suspect that Foucault and Derrida got away with so much because French is such a beautiful language. Of course, once you translate their writing into English, the impracticality is shown up without mercy.

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