Saturday, April 5, 2014


I had the great good pleasure of teaching Donne in my literature class yesterday, focusing on "The Flea" and a couple of the Holy Sonnets. Despite that I am a medievalist by inclination and training, Donne is perhaps my favorite poet. Something about his far-ranging conceits speaks to me, the multiple layers of meaning that all support a single end (lascivious as often as not) bespeaking a command of language and of reference that I envy and hope to be able to emulate in some small way. Too, the kinds of paradoxes he almost backhandedly throws out for consideration offer, partly through their balance and partly through how jarring they are, ways to open the mind to yet deeper understandings of the physical and metaphysical world.

I am fortunate in the makeup of the literature class. Most still in it are English majors or minors, or education majors who hope to teach English; they have a stake in the material. The few others have been open to learning the jokes that are contained in the writing and to appreciating the intricacies of meaning that grow up from the words, their arrangement, and, sometimes, from their situation on the page. (After my dissertation, I have paid more attention to such things. My students get the opportunity to do so, too, as a result. Research drives teaching.) As such, I am not having to fight against the intransigence of students dedicated to not reading, particularly not reading "old stuff," as I know many of my coworkers and colleagues are. And that frees me to revel in the joys of the writing.

Some might comment that the fight some students conduct against literature classes is appropriate. Their reasons have been repeatedly stated--and loudly. I am aware that the study of literature is an extravagance, something that has been restricted in human history to idle moments of the high and mighty rather than an obligation incumbent upon a large chunk of the young adult population. I am also aware that it serves as a vehicle for the transmission of cultural ideas and standards (which is the root cause of having standard reading lists in middle and high school, and to a lesser extent the university). And I am aware that college itself is something that has traditionally been a restricted activity, even if it is now seen as obligatory (although not so much as it used to be, nor so helpful). Perhaps it follows that amid a culturally elite activity there ought to be some training in the markers of the culturally elite.

Perhaps also it ought to be a point of pride that the young adults who attend colleges and universities are obliged to take courses away from their majors (whatever the major, and whatever the course). Perhaps we ought to look upon it as a marker of the great good fortune enjoyed by those who go to college that they have the opportunity to study outside their chosen fields because it means that they are doing well enough that they can take the time to do so. Engineers can take the time to read outside their field because they are doing and have done well enough to be able to take the time to do so. In addition to the many other reasons education in the academic humanities is valuable (and there are many), that it is a marker of how well off college students are and can be is worth considering.

*Those who will condemn me for invoking the metaphysical may stop reading now. They will have decided that I am in error, but the error is one of first principles, of postulates. Some, including the Good Doctor--in "Belief"--have pointed out that such things are underlying assumptions from which systems of reasoning arise. They exist outside argumentation--which is why participants in the "debate" cannot convince one another.

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