Writing and the Dream of America

In The Humanities and the Dream of America Geoffrey Galt Harpham claims that whereas before the 1970s “the humanities ha[d] not been able to connect themselves so directly to wealth and well-being” by 1980 “liberal education at many leading institutions came to be focused less on values and heritage and more on skills or expertise.”

Chapter six of his book begins with a quote by John Adams –

I must study Politicks and War so that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (145)

Adam’s words draw a hierarchical taxonomy of knowledge that places the arts and the humanities at the top of the pyramid – in his view those subjects are indeed a privilege, but one worth fighting for. Adam’s interpellation allows Harpham to juxtapose the current state of the humanities and the consequences of the professionalization of the academy with the prominent views of one the founding fathers. (Footnote: Mike Bunn’s suggestions in “How to Read Like a Writer,” actually made me realize the efficacy in choosing a quote by a unifying and universally looked up figure such as Adam)

I want to use Harpham’s point of view to frame some of my thoughts on this week’s readings. All of them take us to the realm of reading – Mike Bunn suggests the specular relationship between writing and reading; John C. Bean provides an analysis of the difficulties students and a pragmatic set of tools to help us fix them; Mark Gaipa suggests that entering in conversation with other people – by means of reading their work – is a necessary step in infusing your own writing with authority. I appreciated how all the readings provided tools we can use in class. However, on the other hand, I was left with the impression that all these authors think of reading (and writing, as a natural consequence) as an overtly structured/disciplined activity. For example, Mark Gaipa’s claim that “an argument may be solid and interesting, but it will lack authority until its author clarifies its contribution to a larger critical community” (419) seemed excessive and – to be frank – quite elitist. Although it is true that entering an ongoing discourse may in itself represent a motive for a piece of writing, I do not believe it a requirement, since one’s claim can/should find its legitimacy in itself and in its own development. All of those pieces seemed to reinforce the idea that our teaching should be focused – as Harpham framed it – “less on values and heritage and more on skills or expertise”. Furthermore, that line reminded me of Ammiel Alcalay’s claim about “Methodists who detest authorship.” Alcalay continues

They prefer to maintain authority in their own hands and to scoff at the worthlessness and ignorance of writers, in order to enact their own rites of explication, or exploitation […] writing in turn gets relegated to the creative department which comes to mean the “non-thinking” department. (A Little History, 56-57)

I often acknowledge how, as a graduate student who had been working in marketing for five years, my composition class facilitated my work in a number of ways – e.g. it made me more aware of how to structure a press release than any of my classes in business communication ever did. Similarly, Gaipa certainly has a point when he claims that asking students to write in a real writerly context can both motivate them and help them find a practical reason to write. However, in a context where writing (and the humanities and knowledge itself) ought to be increasingly framed as something upon which one can capitalize, I do not think that we constantly need to justify our work in connection with its practical functions. The awareness that I gained since being exposed to a critical approach to literature and culture has determined considerable shifts in my values and political views – a considerably far more valuable achievement than a mere improvement of my technical/writing skills. Due to my personal experience (again, majoring in economics as an undergrad and working in marketing for half a decade before going back to school to take my master’s in American Studies) I cannot help but finding myself in agreement with Harpham’s idea of the humanities as a mean to make human beings “whole” – and as a consequence, of writing in an activity that finds its raison d’etre in itself, rather than in the discourse in which it participates.

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