May 21, 2007

Aristotle was not Belgian

Filed under: Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 8:37 am

Update (5/21, 11:40 a.m.): Welcome to readers coming from Althouse’s blog! I appreciate the link from commenter Dan, and below have linked to effective points he and others have made over there. (The permalinks aren’t working right now, so look for Trevor and Dan on the first post and Jonathan on the second.)

Update II (5/22, 11:00 a.m.): Ann points out on her blog that my statement “Althouse correctly notes that reading comprehension skills among high-school students are on the decline” is incorrect, since she never wrote that reading comprehension skills are on the decline.  I’ve changed the post to correct this, and I apologize for calling Althouse “correct.”

Mike Erganian: What is the subject of your book? Non-fiction?
Miles Raymond: Uh, no. It’s… it’s a novel. Fiction. Yes. Although there is quite a bit from my own life, so I suppose that, technically some of it is non-fiction.
Mike: Good. I like non-fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented—waste of time.

Sideways, 2004

Let me get right to it: Ann Althouse (a law professor and blogger) is one of my very least favorite people on the internet, for reasons I won’t get into. I’ve come close to responding to a couple of things she’s said, but found that I couldn’t find anything to add to the effective takedowns posted elsewhere. Here’s one I’m going to address, though.

In two entries—an initial argument and a follow-up—Althouse discusses the best ways to teach students readings skills, which I agree is a crucial question; tests show that reading comprehension is on the decline, to which anyone teaching critical reading to college freshmen will attest. She says that the answer is not to abandon No Child Left Behind (“quit bitching about No Child Left Behind”), but rather to teach reading by using nonfiction books. She doesn’t mean using nonfiction books in addition to fiction (which I imagine we’re already doing); she means, drop fiction from school curricula,* and teach reading exclusively using nonfiction.

*In her follow-up, she notes that she’s not against elective literature classes “that teach students how to analyze texts in some fairly deep way, as long as they don’t destroy the pleasure and love of art.”

Althouse’s argument is that we should kill two birds with one stone and teach reading comprehension while simultaneously teaching useful disciplines like history and science, instead of inefficiently bringing recreational reading into the classroom with no long-term benefit. Tell me if you think that’s an inaccurate reading of the following (pardon me for quoting at length):

Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don’t, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It’s not tied to economic success in life and needn’t be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music. Leave kids alone to find out out what recreational activities enrich and satisfy them. Some may want to dance or play music or paint. Just because teachers tend to be the kind of people who love novels does not mean that this choice ought to be imposed on young people via compulsory education. Teach them about history, science, law, logic — something academic and substantive — and leave the fictional material for after hours.

Despite its lack of substance and low financial upside, Althouse is not against fiction. On the contrary, she thinks it’s delightful: throughout the discussion she mentions four times that kids, entirely on their own, love Harry Potter books. She sees this as evidence that fiction is best seen as “a leisure treat.” However, our kids are failing and triage must be performed: “I’m saying that [fiction] can be held for after hours pleasure reading.” In fact, this would be the best of both worlds, since fiction is more fun outside of that stuffy school environment: “Here’s this shelf of books that you can read when you finish your other work. You can take them home if you like. I think this would give them an aura of excitement.”

In her follow-up, Althouse responds to her outraged critics:

If you don’t like this idea, but can do nothing more than call it stupid, then I can’t respect your opinion.

Well, that’s fair. And I want to do more than call it stupid, though that seems like an important place to start. (A warning before I continue: Any arguments I make here may be suspect, since I have what Althouse calls “some conflicting interest in the publishing or education industry.” Obviously it’s mainly the latter conflict in my case, though I suppose since I’m about to be economically tied to a producer of fiction I’m laboring under the former conflict as well. So take all this with a grain of salt.)

What I find funny about this is that it is the exact inverse of a position I took in my column for my high school newspaper, sometime in late 1998. I argued that while the humanities and social sciences, and even mathematics, were important for our day-to-day lives (understanding the news, writing cogently, doing our taxes), the skills and knowledge taught by chemistry and biology were so specific (useful only to those working in the sciences, I said) that they should not be required for graduation from high school. Of course, I was wrong, and now believe that science should absolutely be required since, now more than ever, it is inextricably bound up with the question of who we are and what we can and should do. At age 17 I missed the same point Althouse misses: the purpose of elementary and secondary education, and even undergraduate education, is not to maximize our value to our Citibank accounts, but to teach us about ourselves and the worlds we live in, so we can be informed citizens regardless of our careers.

Obviously, some kids are autodidactic with literature, just as some are with music, or chemistry for that matter. But just as there is a difference between playing with a chemistry set and studying science in school, there is self-evidently a difference between reading fiction on your own time and being taught how to do so, and (what is more important) being taught to do so, being taught the value of doing so. Yes, many kids get this “on their own,” which is to say they get it from parents who read to them; others, generally from less privileged backgrounds, aren’t taught this by their parents and are let down by their schools, to the point that they say, as one girl said matter-of-factly to me in 10th grade English class, “I hate reading.” It is obvious that someone who hates reading is never going to acquire the reading comprehension skills that we’re talking about in the first place. (As to Harry Potter, I like those books, but the existence of a publishing fad has no bearing on whether kids are learning to love fiction in general, rather than just what all their friends are reading.)

In comments and in her follow-up, Althouse notes that she’s not talking about having students read dry textbooks all the time; she means engaging works of non-fiction, written with kids in mind. Fine, but do you think (as apparently she does) that topics like motive, psychological cause and effect, and irony—pretty important for the study of history—are innate? We learn these things by reading about fictional people acting in a realistic way. In fact, if you look at books for children about history, quite a few of them are written as fiction, with titles like Why Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? Kids’ history books teach history as a narrative, but have to teach it simplistically in order to reach a 4th-grade audience (“Abraham Lincoln was very sad about slavery”). It seems obvious that there is more potential harm in this than in teaching explicitly fictional narratives and thus teaching children the nuances of interpreting actions and words. (To be clear, I’m not against kids’ history books like these, unless they’re taught without also teaching what fiction is and how we identify it.)

And anyway, does Althouse think that kids read fiction on their own, but can’t find the kids’ nonfiction section of the library without some kind of teacher guidance? Easily half of all my reading as a young child was nonfiction: history, science and technology, sports. I was interested in those subjects largely because I had come across them in works of fiction and wanted to learn more.

I could go on and on; some of her commenters already have. However, I have to confess that my first reaction to Althouse’s argument wasn’t incensed or defensive; it was exhaustion, and boredom. This is strange, since as a professional literature scholar the question of the value of teaching literature is pretty vital to me, but nonetheless I can’t get exercised about it here. Obviously, part of this is that I’m studying for my exams, but there’s something else: Althouse’s claims here have been made in one form or another dozens of times, and effectively refuted just as many times. Someone will always be there to write against fiction, or to write that fiction is all well and good but the State has more pressing needs right now; start with The Republic and go from there. I don’t know if Althouse, and the people like her, think that anything will come of this, but it’s a chance to re-marginalize the arts and re-assert the privilege of coming from a background where literacy, including fictional literacy, is assumed. It is a very old story.

So even though I’ve written a great deal on this already, ignore it as just prickled ranting. Let the body of my critique be the following words from Sir Philip Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry,” in which Sidney describes the qualities that make literature as useful as the useful disciplines Althouse mentions—and not only useful, but morally essential:

So then the best of the historian is subject to the poet; for whatsoever action, or faction, whatsoever counsel, policy, or war strategem the historian is bound to recite, that may the poet (if he list) with his imitation make his own, beautifying it both for further teaching, and more delighting, as it pleaseth him, having all, from Dante’s heaven to his hell, under the authority of his pen.



  1. Well said. It is amazing that we still have to form these arguments, but it’s healthy, I think. What’s the line? If the devil didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him? Amazingly, we didn’t have to invent Ann Althouse. Who’d believe us if we did?

    Comment by Trevor — May 21, 2007 @ 11:56 am

  2. […] (thanks to tomemos for the link; he has responded to Althouse insightfully here) […]

    Pingback by Getting Lincoln Wrong: Ann Althouse, The New York Times, and the American Student « The Kugelmass Episodes — May 22, 2007 @ 12:13 am

  3. Plato is on Althouse’s side.

    Comment by Malfeasancio — May 22, 2007 @ 7:51 am

  4. Malfeasancio, you’re completely right; my writing was unclear. I meant that Plato is an early example of the anti-fictional argument, not that he’s an early defender. I give him some credit for being the original, though.

    Comment by tomemos — May 22, 2007 @ 9:42 am

  5. I doubt that Ms. Althouse knows Plato from Piaget, but her argument is essentially another lightweight variation on Plato’s admonishments against poetry found in the Republic.

    In a sense it’s sort of a Praxis question: yeah kids may not need immersion in Bless Me Ultima, or even Grapes of Wrath, 1984, and all the other pulp chestnuts of modern juvenile lit: Julius Caesar (non-ebonicized, as well), should not be verboten say for the preppy sorts, right. Althouse does correctly perceive that fiction may be used to serve the political agendas of left or right (though I do not think she realizes the implications of her own agenda). The fictional nightmares of Winston Smith may be somewhat relevant: but a few accounts of putsches and purges a bit more relevant. Really though I don’t think many edu-femmes would want hard-core historical scholarship in place in the school-y schools: far too ugly and quotidian, and not conducive to developing the proper sort of mall-awareness.

    Comment by Malfeasancio — May 22, 2007 @ 10:24 am

  6. Malfeasancio, I was right with you up until the last sentence. I won’t go into the number of women I’ve known at every level of education who could think circles around you (and anyone else), because I don’t want to give this kind of ugliness any legitimacy with a full response. Suffice it to say, if you don’t know women who can handle “hard-core historical scholarship,” it says more about you and your circle of friends than it does about women.

    Comment by tomemos — May 22, 2007 @ 10:34 am

  7. next up from AA: the dangerous Moslem movement in the UK, the London Underground.

    she’s -fun-, isn’t she? god bless.

    Comment by belledame222 — June 15, 2007 @ 3:21 pm

  8. >Amazingly, we didn’t have to invent Ann Althouse. Who’d believe us if we did?>

    aHA! so THAT’S why she doesn’t want us to read fiction! she’s a fictional character that escaped, and she doesn’t want us to find out from which book! she’s never going back! never never never I say!

    Comment by belledame222 — June 15, 2007 @ 3:22 pm

  9. …oh, right. Malfie, just because everything you know about women comes from the “math is hard!” Barbie doesn’t mean that that’s, you know, a terribly accurate portrayal of -half the human race-. But yes; by all means, do it to Julia, and you can pluck that chocolate right away from your sister, too, she’s just a -girl.-


    Comment by belledame222 — June 15, 2007 @ 3:27 pm

  10. and yes, of course we -all- learned Julius Caesar in “ebonics.”

    and then we learned armchair philosophy in Pretentious Reactionary Dickhead.

    it is nice to be fluent in several vernaculars, isn’t it, Daddy-O?

    Comment by belledame222 — June 15, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

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