Who Ruined the Humanities: A Response to Lee Siegel’s WSJ Essay

Reading Walden?

In his recent WSJ essay[1], Lee Siegel argues that it is acceptable and perhaps even laudable that the humanities are falling out of college curriculums as fewer and fewer students choose to major in the classical liberal arts such as: English, History, Philosophy, Classics, and Theology. I think he’s dead wrong. Though I appreciate the main point, which is that literature belongs to everyday life and is not something that ought to languish locked in an academic safe.

Siegel’s argument goes as follows:

”The classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.”

“Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

Here’s what Siegel’s right about:

1)      Reading novels, attending plays and soaking in poetry is truly something that is part of a good human life, and these activities should be within the purview of all humans in all walks of life.

2)      He’s also right that the treatment of literature in today’s universities doesn’t do it justice and tends rather towards over-analyzing, deconstructing, and generally vivisecting the life out of worthy books.

Here’s where he’s wrong: 

1)      Mr. Siegel’s argument only applies to literature, not all the humanities (or liberal arts) as the title suggests. In the main body of the text, there is no mention of any of the other subjects (history, philosophy, classics, theology). This is actually rather important. It’s true that literature fits well into an ordinary life well-lived, though few people nowadays (or ever) actually spend the time on it (which is my second point). Continue reading