Another Passionate Apology for the Humanities

Eliot Image

A Review of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead….

President Obama’s recent remark about art history majors at an appearance at a Wisconsin manufacturing plant was distressing. He told the students in the audience that they have a better prospect for employment and prosperity if they majored in industrial manufacturing rather than art history, a discipline that has become a sort of punching bags for comics and sober citizens alike.  Obama’s remarks might be excused as an off-the-cuff remark by a president speaking spontaneously, one that he would apologize for making.. But behind the crowd-pleasing and place-appropriate statement is an indication of the shift that has taken place in the national educational culture over the last two or three decades. The promotion of the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and the widespread use of standardized testing of “basic skills” has apparently driven the humanities — characterized as esoteric subjects for dilettantes and superfluous in tough economic times —  to the margins of the educational enterprise. Further eroding the time spent on the humanities is the seductive appeal of the social media in our leisure. While Dr. Klump (“When Social Media Gets It Right,” February 4th ) may applaud the new  Facebook Lookback feature — a customized movie of each user’s life-time contributions — I see it as yet another activity that crowds out less self-absorbing endeavors. Why should Ashley read Middlemarch or even recent Nobel Prize Alice Munro when she can run a constant loop of her Timeline highlights?

If there is a positive outcome to this shift, it is the ways in which teachers of the humanities and supporters of humanities education have risen to the challenge of vigorously arguing for its many benefits. Obama’s remarks were met with consternation, even anger, by art history teachers and they have spoken out on behalf of their disciplines. And they are not alone in their advocacy.

In a previous blog (“Why Read Literature,” January 16) I synthesized the arguments of the contributors to Standing on the Precipice: Why Read Literature in a Digital Age and concluded the entry with a short list of recent titles that also make the case for the pleasures and personal benefits of reading long-form literature. To that list I would add the personal testimonials of columnist Anne Quindlen (How Reading Changed My Life) Wendy Lesser (Why I Read Literature).

See as well my blog on A Soldier’s Heart a work that describes teaching literature to a special population (West Point cadets). Others in the same vein: Laura Bates’ Shakespeare Saved My Life documents her 10 year of teaching the dramatist to prisoners, and Azar Nafisi’s popular Reading Lolita in Tehran describes her efforts to clandestinely teach a variety of young Iranian women in the wake of the Islamic Fundamentalist Revolution.

There is another sub-genre to this burgeoning collection of apologies for the humanities: works in which authors share rich stories of their enthusiasm for and devotion to one particular author or one particular work.  A number of these books have a “how Shakespeare (or Proust or Melville) saved my life” thesis and others, like Nicholson Baker’s U and I ( the U is for John Updike) and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education, offer lively descriptions of resisting readers’ tussles with and enlightenment by an important writer.

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch has many of the ambitions of the subcategory and artfully weaves together many of the goals.

First, is a close reading – chapter by chapter, eight in all – of George Eliot’s (nee Mary Ann Evans) famous 1871 novel. Like any good critic, she teases out themes and explains the impact of the narrative structure. An effective teacher, she points out the elegance of Eliot’s prose and the subtlety of her wit. She shows us the pleasures to be had in reading the text. She positions herself within the spectrum of Eliot criticism, at times respectfully disagreeing with her predecessors.

Second, she places the salient features of Eliot’s biography alongside the novel in order to account for her contemporaries who served as models for her fictional creations and shows how factors such as her modest background, her searing intelligence, her rather plain appearance, her love relationships and most of all her sensibility are refracted in the creation of Dorothea Brooke, the novel’s heroine, and many of the other characters in the novel.

Third, the book lays out her life as an investigator-scholar. In search of Eliot, she visits the locations where the author lives and the museums and libraries where her manuscripts (drafts, correspondence, essays) are located. Mead is an intrepid fan who can’t get enough of this astonishing woman. She makes her scholarly adventure exciting.

The fourth strand is what ties together almost all of the works mentioned above, a feature not often  found in older, more objective criticism. It’s the disclosure of self and the revelation of the ways in which the encounters with the author and her works are transformative experiences for the reader. Like Deresiewicz’s book on working through Austen’s six novels, Mead, now in her 40s, shows how she has made use of Middlemarch and other works by Eliot at critical stages in her life: her movement into adolescence in small town Weymouth, England; her first serious job as a journalist for a New York publication; a hopeless love affair in her 20s, her marriage to a man who had three boys from a previous marriage, and the birth of her own son, considerably younger than his step-brothers. One should not think that individuals like Mead — Oxford-educated members of the creative class who work in the knowledge industries — are exempted from life’s troubles.

The claim that she makes is that Eliot and her creation Dorothea have taught her how to live. Author and character have been a vital part of Mead’s self-fashioning, her sometimes unsteady presentation of self in a shifting social world. Dorothea has offered her a dress rehearsal for forming expectations, rebounding from disappointments and failures, and achieving adult contentment. And the secular Eliot, who uncoupled morality and religion, has shown her how to be good without God.

Mead fully embraces Eliot’s stated goals for her fiction: “…that those who read [my novels] should be better able to imagine and to feel the pain and joy of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling human creatures.” For Mead, the expansion of one’s sympathy and generosity are necessary endeavors.

Our own persistence through My Life in Middlemarch is due to Mead’s lively intelligence but, in greater part, it is due to Mead’s ability to convince us that we too have the same potential for self-improvement, if not by reading George Eliot then with another high-caliber author who commands our attention. If President Obama would place a book like Mead’s on his night stand, he might refrain from making misguided remarks about the study of art history and join the many advocates for the humanities both inside and outside the academy. If the Facebook-addicted Ashley were to study art history, a course that has at its core the critical reading of visual images, she might even be a more discerning interpreter of her selfies after following the history of the self-portrait.





About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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