Brush Up on Your Shakespeare

To the editor:
I thought essays like Heather Mac Donald’s [“The Humanities and Us,” Winter 2014] went out of style in 1990. What she writes is ill-informed nonsense. Has theory driven some students away from literature? Yes. Was the aesthetic approach she recommends loved by all students? No. There is room in between, as suggested by the following classes taught in the English department at UCLA in Fall 2013: Chaucer: Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare: Poems and Early Plays; and Shakespeare: Later Plays.

Gareth Evans
Bloomington, IN

To the editor:
Mac Donald has a great point: study the classics and appreciate them in their own context. But she did a terrible job of fact-checking. The MLA conference was about much more than what she suggested, and she obviously did not check the current UCLA English department offerings, which include many classes on the classics.


To the editor:
In a recent survey, 88 percent of college students said that their primary reason for going to college was to get a job. Choosing a major they enjoy (especially in the humanities) fell considerably down the list of importance. Sadly, they are willing to trade the importance of landing a job for critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, which are intrinsic components of humanities courses.


To the editor:
Why insist on “Western” humanities? What about Sanskrit literature, or even the humanistic works of other nonwhite cultures? The debate should be humanities versus social-science-pretending-to-be humanities, not East versus West.


Heather Mac Donald responds:
I never claimed that UCLA had halted its literature offerings. Rather, I pointed out that it had replaced its requirements that all English majors take courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton with a requirement that they enroll in gender, sexuality, postcolonial, and other such shallow “studies.” With this change, UCLA’s English faculty has signaled to its students that exposure to identity and oppression theory is more central to their education than knowledge of actual English literature.

Likewise, I never claimed that the only topics under discussion at the MLA conference were “embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed.” These topics constituted the central theme of the conference as well as of its Presidential Forum, however, and they suggest how far the literature professoriate has drifted from its core mission.

It is true that many students feel pressure to choose an allegedly marketable major. But colleges themselves are responsible for the skyrocketing tuitions that drive this demand for bankable majors. Every college could instantaneously remove the economic excuse for not studying the humanities by eliminating its massive diversity bureaucracy and other administrative sinecures, and passing the savings on to students.

As for the chestnut about privileging “ ‘Western’ humanities”: in an ideal world with no constraints of time, students would immerse themselves in the best from all civilizations. Until students can claim even a modest possession of the rudiments of their own civilization, Sanskrit literature is an optional—if no doubt desirable—add-on. And I await the moment when a multiculturalist berates, say, Africa’s educational systems for focusing on African narrative traditions rather than on Jane Austen and James Joyce.


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