Stephen den Beste has some interesting remarks today on the lack of rational thinking in the humanities (he is, in turn, responding to one of Jane Galt’s posts). Obviously it shouldn’t surprise anyone to read that the humanities are more about prose than about proofs, but Stephen’s and Jane’s discussion gave me a flashback to my own days as an English major.

I attended San Jose State University from about 1992-1996. I think that was right on the cusp of when things started to get really ugly in humanities departments in colleges and universities, since some of my teachers were clearly “old guard” in their attitudes and methods, and a small few were more — shall we say — subjective in their approach to literature.

Mathematics has never been a favorite subject of mine, and all through school I avoided it to the greatest extent possible that still let me advance through the curriculum. I met “hard sciences” requirements by taking courses such as Stellar Astronomy and Solar Astronomy (which while focused on facts and reality, did not involve actual math to any great extent). All in all, I managed to get through 6 years of college (2 at junior college, 4 at SJSU) without taking anything higher than Intermediate Algebra (aka “Algebra II”).

Yet I have also throughout my life been called “Einstein”, “Brainiac”, “Spock”, and various other less hostile names. As a child, I was more interesting in toys that let me build and deconstruct, things that functioned mechanically. I attribute this to a natural tendency toward logic and logical thinking, and the fact that my parents are a biologist and a mechanical engineer. So I grew up with a respect for what was real and what was not, the difference between wishing and truth.

So you may be asking, why was I an English major of all things? The answer is pretty simple: I’m a writer. It’s what I am, what I do, and what I work hardest to perfect among my skills. There is creativity in writing, obviously. But there is also logic and analysis, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either an idiot or a bad writer (possibly both).

I was taking a lot of English Lit classes (which is actually the absolute wrong path for someone who aspires to writing, but it wasn’t until I had been out of college for a few years that I figured that out). Traditionally, literature courses involve a lot of analysis of literature, a lot of reading. There is extensive exploration of concepts like symbolism, allegory, tragedy vs. comedy, the historical contexts of works (most of the classic Greek plays don’t make any damn sense unless you have some cultural context for them).

There were two courses, however, that stand out in my mind as examples of the humanities gone wrong. I have been told about a phenomenon called “deconstructionism” in which literature is taught as an extreme abstract in which the author isn’t actually imparting any fixed meaning or purpose to the work. Instead, it means what the reader wants it to mean.

I’ve had people (my own father-in-law, in fact) tell me point-blank that they don’t think authors intentionally put any meaning or symbolism into their writing. My jaw dropped. I’ve been writing for 16 years and I can tell you unequivocally that my works are constructed with purpose and intricacy. It means something, and that’s why there is a legitimate field of study in literature. It can be analyzed, and there is a lot to be learned in the analysis.

It is true that a reader brings a meaning to something they read that is unique and individual, and it affects how they respond to the work (this is called “personal text”), but it is a tiny part of the overall field of study. It is not a legitimate basis for explication of literature.

Now back to my two college courses. One of them was a required course (for English majors) called “Multiculturalism In Literature”. Scared already? I was too. The class was taught by a Prof. Neilsen, and it was the sorriest excuse for academic study I’ve ever experienced.

Course readings consisted of a number of authors and works which I had never heard of (many were local), of various minorities; aka “ethnic writers”. The one exception was Amy Tan, who I understand does not consider herself an ethnic writer. Not coincidentally, her story was the one selection in the course that was coherent and well written.

Our assignments were to read the literature selections. Term papers and “tests” were infrequent and consisted essentially of summarizing the work in question. That’s it. No analysis, no explication, no discourse. I’m not sure I was even required to write in complete sentences. Show up and get an A, basically.

Which is probably fortunate since there wasn’t anything in the assigned reading to analyze. These stories weren’t about anything. They were like verbal still lifes, descriptions of environment, things, but no motion. No conflict. No action. No meaning. They didn’t go anywhere. Most of the time I couldn’t even figure out what was being described, because it was so abstract that the author seemed to have neglected any concepts like a setting, a theme, characterization, etc.

I wondered if I was the only person in the class who was baffled by the readings, until one day I overheard two people behind me quietly discussing the latest inflicted trash. They were trying to decide what it was about. I turned around and said, “It isn’t about anything. None of this stuff makes any sense.” They both looked extremely relieved, and it didn’t take us long to determine that most of the class was just as bewildered as we were.

I think the professor knew it, too, which is why the “exams” and grading criteria were so laughably nonexistent. It was like the system had decreed this class was to be taught, and he’d drawn the short straw. He struggled to come up with something to talk about during classtime, and more often than not it degenerated into a class-wide chat session about something totally off-topic. I resented the waste of my time, so I didn’t even go to class most days, unless it was to work on something else while I was sitting there. I read the stories, showed up for tests, got an A, and moved on.

The second class I took was not as big of a joke as that one, but it comes to mind because of an incident that highlights the bizarre religious worship that some academicians seem to have toward certain canonical writers.

In this case it was Hemingway. I am not a big fan of Hemingway. I think the guy was a hack whose work was, at best, pulp level. There is nothing remarkable about it, including its heavy-handed allegorical tendencies (which some people seem to think is subtle — Conrad did it better). My teacher, however, was obviously enamored of the man, and inflicted a few of his short stories on us. We were divided into groups of 5 or 6 and asked to analyze the work in question.

I don’t remember the name of the story we studied (thank God), but what I did notice was that there was a very strong homoerotic subtext to it. This is a feature of Hemingway’s work that I think is perfectly obvious and easily defensible. I presented this idea to the group and they agreed, although had been unwilling to bring it up initially.

Homosexuality, of course, is a taboo subject where Hemingway is concerned, I suppose because of his romantic image as a “man’s man”. My group’s analysis was reasoned and certainly supported by the text. Our teacher was not amused. I sure was, though.

It’s reasonable to ask if college courses like these are the cause or the result of a lack of logical thinking in literature. I think it’s both. Students are exposed to this, believe it is normal and sophisticated, and do not inquire further. Also, truly classic works may be assigned but not studied in context, which makes them sort of look like the same meaningless babble as the modern stuff (to the untrained mind anyway). Some of the students go on to become the same kinds of incoherent, meaningless writers that they studied, perpetuating the cycle ad infinitum.

The writing that I do typically gets published on the web as fan fiction of one flavor or another. Over the years I’ve received a lot of commentary from various readers about my style, and two things keep coming up over and over. One is their amazement (and appreciation) for the fact that I know how to spell, use punctuation, etc. The other is their shock that my writing is coherent.

So it doesn’t surprise me that the humanities as a whole is currently devoid of any attention to reality or rational thinking. It’s in pretty short supply in the field anyway, and the post-modern obsession with further diluting it creates busloads of students who can’t make even simple cause-effect connections in the starkest circumstances.

Is it any wonder I married a software engineer and hang out with geeks instead of art students?

2 Responses to “Logic and the Humanities (repost)”
  1. Candice Smith says:

    I am currently inrolled in a intermediate algebra course in college. My professor gave me a question to answer, but I don’t understand it because it is in technical terms. The question is, there are four graphical behaviors of linear equations. What are they? How can each graphical behavior be determined by evaluating their slopes? Can you help me with this assignment in a language that I can understand?

  2. Kyle Haight says:

    I took a whack at this, but the blog ate it and I don’t feel like retyping it all.

    Short version: a straight line can have 4 behaviors. It can slant upwards, it can slant downwards, it can be horizontal or it can be vertical. Horizontal lines have a slope of 0. Vertical lines have an infinite slope.

    Lines that slant upwards have a positive but finite slope; the steeper the slant the larger the slope. Lines that slant downwards have a negative slope; the steeper the slant the more negative the slope.

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