Literature, Literary Criticism, and the American College Student

True Blue writes about his younger cousin, who just graduated from Columbia University. Previously, she attended a high school associated with the University of Chicago (where both of her parents are professors.).

Walking through a bookstore the other day, she asked me if “Dickens is worth reading.” I thought she was joking. Dear readers, I was very wrong. It so happens, through all of high school and college, she had never been assigned Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Austen, or Melville! The list went on and on. Needless to say, nary a Bible was cracked during all this time either.  

Effectively, my cousin was raised without a heritage. Her American/English-speaking birthright was denied her. Though she thought herself in possession of a stellar academic background, she knows worse than nothing about her civilization. I say “worse than nothing” because her head has been crammed full of multi-culti garbage.

It will come as no surprise when I tell you that she read Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison in high school.

Personally, I don’t have much useful to say about Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison; I’ve read very little by either of them and with what I’ve read, I was not very impressed. I have, however, heard some of Maya Angelou’s work referenced in very positive terms by people whose literary judgments I respect.  I think the point here is not that there’s anything bad about reading contemporary authors, but there’s plenty bad about reading contemporary (and highly trendy) authors to the exclusion of all other literature.

Thomas Bertonneau writes about his experiences teaching literary criticism in college:

Increasingly in our post-literate society, however, few students at the undergraduate level (and surprisingly few even at the master’s-degree level) bring with them much in the way of exposure to literature.  Today’s students have read few books. What they have read is typically the topical, published-yesterday fiction that the hucksters of the scholastic book market sell to the middle schools and high schools as “edgy,” “with it,” or “out-of-the-headlines” portrayals of teenage anxiety…

Since I occasionally teach my department’s Introduction to Literary Criticism, I have had to think the problem through. When I recently received the assignment to teach the course again, I moved “proactively.” 

A survey on the first day of class confirmed my expectations. Among them, the sixteen students could produce the titles of only eight novels that they had read (but that not all of them had read). Of the three most-mentioned (five students had read all three) were Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games (2008), its sequel Catching Fire (2009), and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005).  Four students listed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925); one listed Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Four out of the ten coeds, but none of the men, had read Jay Asher’s adolescent female suicide-story Thirteen Reasons Why(2007). A few students had read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but none had read Hamlet or The Tempest. No student could name a poem by William Wordsworth, John Keats, or Robert Frost.

Read the whole article to learn how Prof Bertonneau approached the problem of teaching literary criticism to these kids.


8 thoughts on “Literature, Literary Criticism, and the American College Student”

  1. If you are standing on the shoulders of giants with your head in the clouds, you may not notice the giants. And of course, everything is foggy.

  2. It’s depressing but education in Humanities is hopelessly politicized. I was an English Literature major when I went back to college to do my premed work. I had read a good amount of classical literature as a child on my own but the English courses were rigorous. I remember getting an F on a quiz because I did not recognize a stanza from Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems . We had to memorize long segments of plays’s dialog, as well.

    No motion has she now, no force;
    She neither hears nor sees;
    Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
    With rocks, and stones, and trees.

    That was the stanza. We had to describe the poem and the meaning of that stanza. Can anyone imagine a modern college student being asked to do that ? I remember it 53 years later.

  3. That’s a pretty narrow selection of “heritage.” I can’t stand to read any of those writers – and I have made sincere effort at doing so. (Shakespeare is an exception – I do enjoy both reading and attending his plays.) I intend to to get into the Bible someday soon. As to poetry, forget about it – what a waste of time.

    How about Gibbon, Thucydides, or Orwell? They deal with practical matters. Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs are great too.

    But then, I’m an engineer.

  4. I was an engineer who went back to school to do premed. The student loan program that began in 1960 would not loan money to premeds but would to English majors. I enjoyed my English courses nearly as much as premed courses. My tastes in poetry are limited. My professor once told the class that to read Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” he had taken a sea voyage on a freighter with no other book. It was the only way he could get through it.

    I had actually read a brief synopsis of it as a boy reading a book set called My Book House . I gave that set to my grandchildren. I hope they read some of it.

  5. Literary education standards vary state to state. Students from Massachusetts have a much higher standard than students from Utah face.

    I (a living, breathing millennial!) graduated high school in Minnesota. In the two years previous we had read:

    Epic of Gilgamesh
    Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles
    Hamlet by William Shakespeare
    A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
    The Awakening by Kate Chopin
    Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
    1984 by George Orwell
    The Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
    A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Native Son by Richard Wright
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    The Things They Carried by Tim o Brien
    Farewell to Arms by Earnest hemingway
    Macbeth by William Shakespeare
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
    Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
    Anthem by Ayn Rand
    Sophies World by Jostein Gaarder
    Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
    Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
    Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
    Two Gentleman of Verona by William Shakespeare

    And also a anthology of modernist poetry with lots of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Path and the like one of those standard world literature textbooks with lots of short stories and poems from across the world.

    All of that was for four classes: Junior Year Honors English (World Literature), Senior Year AP Lit, Senior Year English Elective (Drama), and Senior Year Humanities Honors Elective (“Values”).

    I was not in MN for sophomore year, when they study American lit/history, but I am told the honors students read half of the Federalist Papers, Thoureu’s Civil Disobedience and other writings The Scarlett Letter, Tom Sawyer, the Jungle, and The Crucible.

    In Freshman year I am pretty sure they all read Night by Elie Wessel, A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Romeo and Juliet (depending on the teacher, The Odyssey, and then a few other random book depending on the teacher.

    I studied Freshman and Sophomore year in New Mexico, where the educational standards were not quite as high. The books I remember from that are:

    The Epic of Gilgamesh
    The Liberation Bearers by Aeschylus
    The Book of Job
    Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime by Mark Haddon
    Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Lord of the FLies by William Golding

    I am sure there were a few others but I do not remember them.

    If you look at the Minnesotan’s case, matters are not so bad. Three Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet. Ibsen shows up multiple times, as do classic Greek works. Political stuff like Orwell are pretty common too (in fact, I count four dystopian novels on the list!)

    Pattern seems to be:

    Greek plays and other ancient epics – Shakespeare – Ibsen – 19th century American lit- a lot of 20th century stuff. Continental Europe is short-changed, and Shakespeare is British lit’s main representative. No non-Western works were read in their entirety (Life of Pi and Persepolis don’t count; they are Western values with a colorful veneer). Realism gets much more play than Romanticism. Poetry barely registers.

  6. In college I studied business but enjoyed English and actually took more classes than required. I’ll never forget the dread of my fellow classmates at having to actually slog through a book. They viewed it as torture.

    Somewhere along the line the pleasure of reading had been wrenched out of them and it was nothing but a chore. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the liberal arts students even bothered to attend class if that was their opinion. However, everyone needs to get a degree, and this was the easiest route available, apparently.

    Many literature teachers (or should I say “English teachers” since that’s what we called it) would pick the hardest, nastiest books for the students to read and I think this really killed the pleasure for many of them. While I wouldn’t recommend a diet solely consisting of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games at least the kids actually WANT to read those books, so that is a start.

    We can talk in circles on this all day but in my experience a liberal arts degree is wasted time since you can gain this sort of information on your own by following your passions. College is for something to get a job (unless you are wealthy) and the arts are something to be pursued in your spare or available time. But that’s just my 2 cents.

    In business I have seen people from all walks of life with all sorts of degrees become executives. However, many of these are older people, when going to college was a rarer thing and they subsequently all got legal degrees or MBA’s or technical masters’ degrees so their undergraduate degrees are lost to the sands of time.

    Probably pretty much any degree from a super elite university (the ivies, Standford, etc…) is worthwhile just because of all the connections with the other uber-elite that you make. Many, many of these kids come from super rich families in the US or abroad and those relationships are priceless.

    If you aren’t going to a super elite college then you need to get something practical, or prepared to wait tables under the crushing pressure of debts that you will never be able to repay.

    Back to teaching literature. But in general if you are teaching at a non-elite university you might reach a few people (like me) who are practical but interested in learning and the rest of the non elite liberal arts majors are just all tracking the wrong way. Best of luck to you and them.

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