We are living in an age characterized by what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the "tyranny of the visual," where we now have an overabundance of information and cheap, accessible forms of entertainment coming at us from all directions: The internet, video games, television, cinema. In this deluge of data, with no framework to guide us, we have become lost in a sea of trivia and in the process have forsaken the treasured resource we have heretofore relied upon for guidance and self-discovery: Books. We now read very infrequently, and what we do read is often without lasting import. To make matters worse, many students these days see little value in the humanities and are keen to lay derision on those who study subjects that seem to have little practical value or that cannot be readily monetized. "What are you going to do with a degree in literature?" they sneer. We have been led to believe that if what one chooses to study does not lead to a remunerative career, it is studied in vain.
As a result of this widespread shift in values, most of our universities have become institutions not for imparting wisdom, but for training students for future employment. The focus has shifted from the development of the mind to job prospects, tests, and the collection of grades and credentials, and all of the worries and anxieties that attend such a shift have become recurrent topics of discussion on this forum and elsewhere. The pressure for students to succeed in this type of environment is immense and arguably detrimental to our well-being. The purpose of this thread is to counteract some of these influences and try to provide a new perspective on what it means to be educated, as well as to open a dialogue. Included are excerpts of interviews from two well-known thinkers here in the US, the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and the aforementioned literary critic and humanities professor Harold Bloom, interspersed with my own summarization and comments.
So why should we bother to sit down and read great works of the past? One ultimately reads for self-discovery; to have all of those vague, unarticulated concepts, notions, and feelings swirling around in our heads filled out and elucidated by men and women who had similar ideas and feelings and the skill to put them into words for our benefit; to learn of the events and ideas that have shaped the world we live in today so that we may avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and better cope with the realities of the present; to understand the human condition and how we fit into the world; to conduct an internal dialogue with the great minds of antiquity; and most importantly to learn how to think. Harold Bloom:
"You can't think at all clearly or well without memory, and it matters a great deal what you remember, and if what you remember is mediocre stuff, you're not going to be able to think very well."
"I think that unless you read deeply and in your own interest, unless you explore what is most profound in what has come before you, then you never will get down to the recesses of your own self, you'll never learn what Ralph Waldo Emerson rightly called self-trust and self-reliance, and most deeply perhaps, you never will heal the self. I think that in a culture which has all of the peculiar difficulties and complexities of the one currently developing around us, there is nothing more profoundly healing than the act of solitary reading provided that what is being read is indeed permanent, deep, lasting work: Work that calls for all of your faculties in response; work that calls you out of your own deep, as it were; work that transforms you."
"Reading is in the end a solitary activity. You're not really learning, I believe, how to speak to other people when you are deeply engaged in reading Shakespeare or deeply engaged in reading Dante or deeply engaged even in reading Cervantes. You're fundamentally learning how to speak to yourself. You're learning how to listen to yourself. You're learning the discipline of yourself. You are indeed in the act of discovering yourself."
"But can we not achieve the same results simply by surfing the internet? Surely with the advent of Wikipedia, there is no need to return to these dusty old tomes," some will protest. The internet is a fabulous resource for discovery, but in order for it to be used for that purpose, one must have a preexisting understanding of things in order to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. With its many hyperlinks, advertisements, pictures, and other distractions, it is a medium which also encourages a superficial understanding of what is being read. Noam Chomsky:
"You have to know what you're looking for. If you're flooded with a mass of information and you sort of try to wade through it, you're totally paralyzed. You have to know what to look for. You have to have a framework of understanding, some background conception of what's going on. The framework can't be rigid; you have to be willing to let it be modified, but it's indispensable. If you don't have it, you're just flooded with meaningless information."
Where does one go to obtain this framework? If one has the opportunity, he or she studies the humanities in the classroom. But ultimately it comes from the reading of books, the sustained and uninterrupted narrative on the page, and the internalization of the ideas contained therein. This is where the memory that Mr. Bloom believes is so crucial to thought is formed. The internet can serve as a fine supplement in the process, but it cannot replace the book entirely. Until this framework is achieved, its use should be minimized, for, as Bloom warns, we only have so much time:
"[We] cannot just as it were surf endlessly forever. None of us live forever. There is only so much time in the end to read.... If we all basically lived let us say not 80 years...but 160, if in fact we could look forward to lifetimes twice our current length...I would say there would be world enough and time in which people will find what is most worth finding, but time is limited. We read against the clock. We read ultimately in the shadow of mortality, and I think it does matter immensely what you read and how you read it."
Can one go directly to the books and forgo the classroom? My own experience suggests that while this is possible, it is not at all optimal. The classroom provides a structured environment where what is most important is presented up front, without the need for any guesswork on the part of the student, and where one can benefit from the feedback and discussion with a professor knowledgeable in the subject. Not having these things I have found to be a significant disadvantage, and if I were to return to school today, I would seek out a more rigorous grounding in the humanities.