Monday, November 14, 2005
Reading List: Why Literature Is Bad for You
- Thorpe, Peter. Why Literature Is Bad for You. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0-88229-745-7.
Techies like myself often have little patience with students of
the humanities, particularly those argumentative types ill-informed
in anything outside their speciality often found around university
campuses. After escaping from an encounter with one of these
creatures, a common reaction is to shrug one's shoulders and
mutter "English majors. . .". I'd always assumed it
was a selection effect: a career which involves
reading made-up stories and then arguing vociferously about
small details in them just naturally appeals to dopey people who
those more engaged in the real world inevitably find
tedious and irritating. But here's a book written by
a professor of English Literature who argues that immersion in
the humanities manufactures such people, wrecking
the minds and often the lives of those who would have otherwise made
well-balanced and successful accountants, scientists, physicians,
engineers, or members of other productive professions.
This is either one of the most astonishing exemplars of academic
apostasy ever written, or such a dry satire (which, it should be
noted, is one of the author's fields of professional interest) that
it slips beneath the radar of almost everybody who reads it.
Peter Thorpe was a tenured (to be sure, otherwise this book would
have been career suicide) associate professor of English at the
University of Colorado when, around 1980, he went through what must
have been a king-Hell existential mid-life crisis and penned this
book which, for all its heresies, didn't wreck his career: here's a
In any case, the message is incendiary. A professor of English
Literature steps up to the podium to argue that intensive exposure to
the Great Books which undergraduate and graduate students in English
and their professors consider their "day job" is highly destructive
to their psyches, as can be observed by the dysfunctional behaviour
manifest in the denizens of a university department of humanities. So
dubious is Thorpe that such departments have anything to do with
human values, that he consistently encloses "humanities" in scare
Rather than attempting to recapitulate the arguments of this short and
immensely entertaining polemic, I will simply cite the titles of the
five parts and list the ways in which Thorpe
deems the study of literature pernicious in each.
- Seven Types of Immaturity
"Outgrowing" loved ones; addiction to and fomenting crises; refusal to co-operate deemed a virtue; fatalism as an excuse; self-centredness instead of self-knowledge; lust for revenge; hatred and disrespect for elders and authority.
- Seven Avenues to Unawareness
Imputing "motivation" where it doesn't exist; pigeonholing people into categories; projecting one's own feelings onto others; replacement of one's own feelings with those of others; encouragement of laziness--it's easier to read than to do; excessive tolerance for incompetence; encouraging hostility and aggression.
- Five Avenues to Unhappiness
Clinically or borderline paranoia, obsession with the past, materialism or irrational anti-materialism, expectation of gratitude when none is due, and being so worry-prone as to risk stomach ulcers (lighten up--this book was published two years before the discovery of H. pylori).
- Four Ways to Decrease Our Mental Powers
Misuse of opinion, faulty and false memories, dishonest use of evidence, and belief that ideas do not have consequences.
- Four Ways to Failing to Communicate
Distorting the language, writing poorly, gossipping and invading the privacy of others, and advocating or tolerating censorship.
- Seven Types of Immaturity
Posted at November 14, 2005 21:48