Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Value of the Business

Posted by Daniel Green on 06/21/11 at 08:01 AM

Cross-posted from thereadingexperience.

In an essay at The New Yorker, Louis Menand recounts an episode from early in his career as a professor in which a student asked him, “Why did we have to buy this book?” Continuing in the student’s mercantile language, Menand avers that the student was “asking me to justify the return on investment in a college education. I just had never been called upon to think about this before. It wasn’t part of my training. We took the value of the business we were in for granted.”

Menand proposes three possible answers to the student’s question. The first simply asserts that “you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.” The second assures the student “You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” The most baldly utilitarian response has it that “advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation.”

The third answer is the one now implicitly given by the school as part of the state apparatus, and Menand expresses the usual dismay at the pass to which we have come when this is the primary justification for reading books in college (although he does also acknowledge that the situation isn’t likely to change). However, I can’t see that the other two answers are any better. The first would be true if this were 1935 and all college students were undergraduates at Yale, but it hardly describes the situation in 2011. The second, which is Menand’s own preferred answer, spells out perhaps the underlying justification for answer one, but if college students are no longer interested in learning “things about the world and yourself” in return for their “investment” in college (which in my experience they indeed are not, to the extent they ever were), this answer is no more compelling than the first.

The problem with all three answers, ultimately, is that they tie the value of reading a book (I’m assuming Menand has in mind primarily works of literature, since he’s an English professor) to its potential value to the institution of college, to the school (most charitably, to the goals of “education"). In my opinion, a better answer would be something like this: “You should read that book because it’s a significant book of its kind, one that anyone studying _____ needs to read.” In my opinion, a literature professor’s first allegiance is to literature, or to the period/genre/national literature the course covers, and as long as the college where the professor is employed requires or encourages its students to take courses in literature, this answer should suffice. All questions concerning the place of literature in a college curriculum need to be answered by administrators or campus committees, not by the individual professor otherwise just doing his/her job.

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the literature requirement, however. Most of the justifications that need to be made of reading assignments occur in courses in which the majority of students would not be there if taking such a course were not a degree requirement in “general education.” Although generally speaking I think it a good idea for as many people as possible to read as many worthwhile books as possible, I’m pretty sure that materializing this broad aspiration into specific college course requirements has not worked out that well. It has especially not worked out well for literature. Courses in “Introduction to Literature” or “American Literature, Beginnings to the Present” are hopelessly incapable of fulfilling the aspiration, at best providing some students with some “information” about the subject they might later be able to recall, at worst making most students resentful of being compelled to take the course and less likely to follow up on the assigned reading with voluntary reading of their own. Given the career and personal goals of most of the students who take such courses, there really isn’t a good answer for them to the question posed by Menand’s student. Frankly, I don’t see why these students should have to buy the books to take this sort of course, and I don’t really want to teach them.

Students who take literature courses voluntarily, or choose to major in English, Comparative Literature, etc., are implicitly agreeing to accept the instructor’s judgment about what books are appropriate for them to read. They would have cause for complaint only if it were determined the instructor’s judgment is demonstrably faulty or if the instructor is a demonstrably bad teacher of the subject. An instructor (not just in literature) should be asked to know his/her subject well and to present it with integrity. He/she should not be asked to justify the entire project of higher education as it currently stands.

Of course, a great deal of instruction in “literature,” particularly in the bigger universities and more pretigious liberal arts colleges (as opposed to, say, community colleges and many “regional” universities) is no longer instruction in literature. Literature is instead used to indeed “teach you things about the world” through cultural studies or to improve “thinking” through critical theory. Perhaps this development over the past twenty-five years or so has managed to keep what are still labeled as literature courses in the curriculum, but soon enough the question “why did we have to buy this book?” will be a question about some theorist’s magnum opus, not Melville. At that point, the utilitarian answer may actually be the most truthful one.


My more cynical side suggests that the reason for teaching literature is to provide jobs for people who have enough social skills to convince the world that they should not be unemployed or forced to take work they find distasteful.  Some of the answers require a belief that artists know more about the human condition than the rest of us, but very few writers seem to have been better human beings than average.  Some have been quite a bit worse.  Academia is basically a feudal institution, very hierarchal, requiring people to accept their ranks appropriately.  Students not accepting the values of their superiors are considered insubordinate.  Academics frequently can’t turn off their belief in their institutional power outside academic settings—I’m sure we all have tons of examples.  Mine is the professor poet who said, when I was 60 and headed for a tech writing job in DC, if I’d worked harder I could have been like her.  A few weeks later, I came back with the right come-back:  If I’d worked smarter, I could have been like Patti Smith.

The frequent antagonism toward what students really read (fantasy as of my own last adjunct experiences) tends to not be tremendously analytical but rather much more of the flavor of pulling rank.  Students tend to see this as training for the sorts of flattery of bosses they will continue to do in their working lives.  I’ve often felt that no one should get tenure until a survey of former students shows that five years after the classes, they’re still reading more complex works.

T.S. Eliot said that he saw no need to teach contemporary poetry, that students were already reading it.  Writers who haven’t relied on universities for jobs like Frank O’Hara more agree with Eliot than do most academics.

Most people in Jinotega, Nicaragua, seem as humanly competent as any number of people with college degrees from average US colleges who see doing tasks they don’t understand and don’t really care about as excellent preparation for the world they face.  And I can buy fairly decent books at a number of stores that sell books as a sideline.  A book peddler shows up from time to time in one of the restaurants.  I bought Kafka’s Metamorphosis in Spanish translation from the guy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that nothing written after 1800 needed to be taught, so his Princeton was more like Eliot’s Oxford and Cambridge than the typical third tier university.

Somewhere else, someone argued that we needed the military to keep people employed.  The reason many academics have jobs is that business has used the university as a screening device and so it’s a requirement for a middle class job.  Students taking the required courses don’t have to do anything other than convince the TAs and adjuncts teaching them that they read the material and wrote what they really believed in their journals and essays.  If the student is cynical enough but not all that bright, he writes what he really thinks in his journal and turns in a paper from the net for the course work, which the instructor found very quickly, having remembered how little the student liked the course.

At the lower levels, students and their instructors game each other—and there is an industry for detecting plagiarism.  In the end, I wasn’t the one to break through the cynicism.  As a writer, I hate having literature dragged into the obedience training program.

By on 06/21/11 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I’d worked smarter, I could have been like Patti Smith.


By Bill Benzon on 06/23/11 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: