Okay, I hope that embeds.

If not, it’s a video from Numberphile, one of my favorite YouTube channels, asking the question: “Why do people hate mathematics?” The answer, according to Prof. Edward Frenkel, is that they’ve only been taught the basic building blocks in school- just enough to get by and pass the test, but not anywhere near enough to appreciate the beauty and elegance of math.* I wonder if perhaps we could say a similar thing about the humanities- I’m speaking in particular of literature, since that is my field, but I’m sure similar arguments could apply across disciplines. When kids are little- elementary school, mostly- first, we make them learn spelling and penmanship, reading comprehension, and vocabulary words. Then, as they get older and move into middle and high school, they read the Great Books: Shakespeare, Greek mythology, Dickens, Poe, insert your own personal bete noire here. (Mine is Austen.) I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it is important to have a decent grasp on the largest cultural touchstones, especially before kids head off to college and get to choose (mostly) what they study.

On the other hand, there have been reams and reams of paper filled with reasons the Great Books/traditional canon is problematic. You know these: all male, all white, all Western, mostly hetero, mostly dead. I received an upper-end public school education and I did not read a single book by a woman (with one very notable exception; see below) until twelfth grade. Plato, yes. Homer, yes. Huxley, Hawthorne, Whitman, Locke, yes. But no women. Forget about queer people. There was a reason Twelfth Night captured me as soon as I picked it up; Viola was the very first character I’d ever encountered who could be called anything other than straight.

The one book I read (from the school curriculum) for twelve years that was written by a woman, and one of a handful of live authors, was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and it was not on the official curriculum. Each ninth-grade English teacher was allowed to pick one young adult fiction book to teach their classes, per district approval, of course.** I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the year I started becoming intrigued by literature proper, and how we “do” English, rather than the stories alone.

I think, if we want to give kids, or people in general, an appreciation for math, or science, or literature, or history, or whatever discipline you like, it’s not enough to give them the basics. They need to understand how those things can be taken outside the classroom- the Amazon.com algorithms, or how to apply critical thinking to advertisements, to name two rather simplistic examples- and they need to see how those building blocks come together in utterly magnificent ways. And (to return to an earlier theme I’ve discussed here), I think an essential component of conveying both those things is a genuine passion for the subject matter. That comes across in a teacher, and personally, I think it’s invaluable.

*I must admit to a personal affection for math, particularly calculus; two of the very few things that make me consider belief in God are Milton’s Nativity Ode and fractals.

**I still have absolutely no idea how Mrs. Farrell managed to get the very, very, very conservative school board to approve Speak. I suspect either drastic misrepresentation on her part or equally drastic laziness on theirs.

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It might have taken me a while, but after a couple days, I figured out why Leaving the Atocha Station got on my last nerve. I hate that book because it is exactly the kind of book that would make fun of me for hating it. If I hear what’s-his-face, Adam, say/write the words “genuine experience of art” in his stupid, smug, Ivy-league narrative voice again, I will punch him in his entirely fictional teeth. (How’s THAT for a genuine experience of art, buddy?) Stop dissing the people at the poetry reading because they look like they’re enjoying poetry that you consider bad! Who cares? Let them like it! Also, stop manipulating Isabelle. I don’t blame her for dumping your sorry asterisk. I was actually going to write about something that’s not a diatribe against a fictional character. Where was I? Oh, yes.

Leaving the Atocha Station, or at least the character of Adam in that book, is a really good example of this weird cultural thing we have where having an emotional reaction to something is seen as uncool, or inferior, or distasteful. Yes, this is a hipster thing (insert pizza joke here), but I can see threads of it going all the way back to the Victorian dandies and their cultivated air of world-weariness. See also: any news magazine story about “fangirls.” Somehow, it was deemed that passionate engagement with something is, somehow, the wrong way to engage.

Of course, the academy is part of the culture too. At least in my experience, it’s unusual to be genuinely enthusiastic about your object of study. I study Shakespeare in large part because I love Shakespeare, in the least eloquent and dorkiest way possible. You could easily call me a Shakespeare fangirl. I got chills down my back when I read the Ghost’s speech for the first time; I go all swoony whenever a production of Henry V (any Henry V; yes, I know it’s weird) gets to that final scene with him and Katherine and it’s all just too adorable to endure; I have been known to sniffle a little bit during the last scene of Twelfth Night. I have never gotten the feeling that this kind of wholehearted engagement with one’s object is something to be acknowledged in an academic context. The proper scholar always remains detached, somehow; it’s bad form to acknowledge that you cannot stand All’s Well that Ends Well not because of some meterical or narrative flaw, but because Bertram is such a dick.* There’s obviously a place for that reserved attitude, but I’m having a hard time finding a place for the contrary. Why is it seen as immature or unprofessional to have (or acknowledge having) an emotional reaction to your scholarly object? We’re not expected to take neutral positions on questions about theory or methodology, so why should we suddenly become equivocal when it comes to our actual object? In a nutshell, I suppose what I want to know is this: where is the Shakespeare fandom? Where are the fandoms for James Joyce and baroque painting and T. S. Eliot? and Mary Shelley?* I don’t know, but I hope they’re out there somewhere.

*Obviously, since I’m talking about late sixteenth to early seventeenth-century plays, I am using this word in the contemporaneous sense of “dude.” It didn’t take on any sexual connotation until the 1800s, so clearly it is not profanity here. HA.

*I see you, Austenites, and I congratulate you on your recent run of successful movies. Particularly Austenland, because Shannon Hale is AMAZING. That phenomenon is a whole other post in itself.

Aside

Whenever we or the scholars we’re reading talk about what possible use the humanities can be in the “real world,” I can’t help but think that something is missing. There is already an arena where so many of the things we consider academic are directly, vitally useful: theatre. I participated in the Buffalo theatre scene for five years, acting, crewing, stage managing, or other times as an usher or set construction crew member or envelope stuffer. I did my theatre BA at the same time as my English literature BA. If you are a theatre person who also happens to passionately adore academia, you start noticing places where your conversations start merging or crossing over in strange ways. Not just the theatrical bleeding into the academic, like reading plays out loud in class, but talking about how blocking can affect the interpretation of Iago’s character, and then going home to memorize your blocking. One of the things I miss most about being involved with theatrical practice is not just learning some kind of skill- though how practical it is depends on who you’re talking to- but also having a direct, immediate application for almost everything I learned. As a theatre person- especially if you’re involved in several different areas- you either already have a humanities education, or you get it the hard way.
If you’re the actor who gets to drop the title line in a play, you had better be able to explain exactly why that title fits the play, and what it means in context. Sometimes you have to call a meeting with the director and the lighting designer to try and preserve the essential aspects of their artistic vision because there’s a dance concert on the mainstage and we’ll only have 60 Source 4s, so we need to rethink the dramatic red shadows in the murder scene. Or, conversely, sometimes you need to be the one to convince your director and producers that it is worth spending $45 on a single prop that is absolutely central to the story you’re trying to tell- both of which mean, of course, that you have to be able to figure out which parts of that story are the most important to your theme as well as being able to suggest creative solutions. Sometimes you need to mediate between scene partners who are both utterly devoted to completely incompatible readings of the same line, and sometimes you’re one of the scene partners, and you need to revise the way you’re thinking of your scene in order to accommodate the other person’s (wrong) interpretation- which means you need to be able to formulate a cogent argument for your reading of a text, as well as reconcile drastically different readings, or come up with a compromise. Putting together an informational packet as a dramaturge means you have to be able to identify, summarize, and relate major advances in the dramatic, and often scholarly, criticism of whatever play you’re working on.

I’m not trying to paint the theatrical world as some kind of humanistic utopia. There’s never enough gigs, they never pay well enough, and plenty of people- particularly on the business side- don’t give a flying Foucault about artistic and theoretical integrity. There are probably environments where you can go ten, fifteen years without ever engaging in the kind of intellectual labor we do in the humanities- but there are definitely those where you have to do it every day. I simply want to suggest that if humanist scholars want to see one example of how theory and practice (are forced to) get along, they could do a lot worse than going to the theater.

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