Chaucer, Milton, and the Greater Good; or, Happy Belated Fourth of July

Atlantic staff writer Heather Horn has jumped, and jumped hard, on the “I don’t understand the relevance outside the academy of the methodology of humanistic study” bandwagon. Her particular permutation of the bandwagon, while not precisely about the utility of STEM fields or the necessity of building career skills or the frustrating intangibility and apparent impermeability of humanistic study (as if STEM study is ever accessible to the untrained layperson!), is nevertheless pretty well intertwined with all these issues: she’s arguing for eliminating the teaching of close-reading in high-school English classes:

We should end it. Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway. Forced to pick out meaning in passages they don’t fully grasp to begin with, they begin to get the idea that English class is about simply making things up (Ah yes–the tree mentioned once on page 89 and then never again stands for weakness and loss!) and constructing increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support. (It’s because it’s an elm, and when you think elm, you think Dutch elm disease, and elms are dying out–sort of like their relationship, see?)


If a few students really want to do close reading, they can do it as an elective or jump in head first in college. Otherwise, let’s chuck the concept. We gain nothing by teaching kids to hate books–and hate them s-l-o-w-l-y.

I shudder to think what English teachers Horn must have had in high school and college to have gained the impression that close-reading entails “simply making things up,” but perhaps the curricula she learned under were not dissimilar from the AP English Language and Composition curriculum used by my English teacher in my junior year of high school. Taught to a test supposedly devised and graded by college professors, we were drilled in recognizing different forms of figurative language, and describing setting and tone. We were taught to write a formulaic five-paragraph essay in 45 minutes, in which we would argue that the author used the stylistic devices we had been taught to recognize in order to convey a specific theme (“the author’s message about life,” is the phrase that still rings in my ears), which we had also been taught to pull out and put on display. We were drilled in order to pass a test, mostly reading short expository prose passages instead of novels, plays, or poetry, and developed little understanding of how the work we were doing related to the study of literature outside the context of the exam for which we were preparing. Indeed, I always regarded that year of English as an aberration: in freshman, sophomore, and senior years, we read books and talked about them, and I never had the sense that what we did in those three years was in any way similar to the metaphor scavenger hunt we carried out junior year. And, like Horn, I graduated high school profoundly skeptical of English classes which did that kind of work.

But in the spring of my freshman year of college, I took my first college English class, and not only did my attitude towards the study of literature change, and my understanding of what I had and hadn’t been taught in high school change, my entire life changed. The class was a survey of 14th-18th-century English literature, which at Princeton all English majors are required to take—they’re fed canon in this course because it’s thought that they wouldn’t elect it otherwise, and because the Chaucer and Milton that the course assigns is good for teaching the fundamentals of close-reading. For this course also aims to prepare prospective majors to do well in their chosen field of study, and—as I think I must have been told in the first lecture of the semester—close-reading forms the backbone of the study of literature. As I soon discovered in my practice reading exercises for precept and in the papers I wrote about Alisoun in the Miller’s Tale and the narrative style in Book 6 of Paradise Lost, close attention to the detail of language completely changed how I engaged with texts. Once I had been persuaded (through admittedly, at first, a little willing suspension of disbelief) that Chaucer and Milton had carefully chosen every word, and that we should pay them the courtesy of reading their texts that way, I found not just important issues in the poems—tackling feminism and sex on one hand, and theology on the other—but true beauty. Neither my English classes which read for theme nor my English class which read for the metaphor scavenger hunt nor my own pleasure reading for plot had prepared me for the recognition of the transcendence of Milton’s blank verse, or the hilarity of Chaucer’s puns. Taking that class gave me—or perhaps restored to me—faith and joy in the beauty of language and the literature which puts language into a form that we can read and enjoy. I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and that transformation never happened through reading a light novel in an afternoon. It took being assigned weighty texts, and being asked to pay attention to their finest details, and to write on those details and consider what I thought about them. Contrary to Horn’s suggestion, I didn’t “[construct] increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support”: I believed in what I saw in the text, because I’d finally learned the importance of the details, and their connection to plot and themes. And now, Paradise Lost is one of the most wonderful pieces of literature I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. And despite being a history major, I have taken at least one English class every semester since, branching outside of the canon to women writers, African-American writers, literature for children, popular/pulp fiction, biography and autobiography, and (on my own time) queer literature. Since the first close-reading exercise I did on Chaucer, a silly scatological meander through the Miller’s Tale, I have maintained my faith that the careful study of literature will illuminate the high and the low, and that reading carefully and attentively—reading closely—will change the way you thought you understood everything.

For reasons I have gone into before, I am not an English major, but perhaps this has attuned me more closely to the need to involve methodologies taught in literature departments in the work of other disciplines. The history papers where I have deployed my close-reading skills in the service of addressing the subjectivity of primary sources have, I believe, been the ones where I’ve gotten the closest to saying something interesting; treating the themes and theories of the past like those advanced by fiction has spurred on my greatest intellectual passions. I don’t think I had necessarily forgotten the good that learning and knowledge and careful analysis can do, but being taught actual close-reading, and not just the metaphor hunt, reawakened my sense that reading and interpreting texts and text-like media (which is what we all do, in the humanities) is not a game of pleasure-reading, nor one of baseless speculation, nor one of stringing together citations, but rather a route towards understanding the world we live in. This realization, whenever I think about it, produces an attitude of utter pleasure of which I could never have conceived in high school. Just think what could have happened if my close-reading education had been well-executed then!

Today, in the course of having a political discussion/debate/thing, I found myself reduced to tears by the liberal guilt and 20-year-old’s existential confusion which I so often find is never far away from my mind. I asked myself—as I so often do—whether I am doing the morally right thing by choosing an academic life, whether such a life helps other people in addition to myself, and whether I do in fact have a greater obligation towards selflessness and utilitarianism by virtue of being an Ivy League legacy and the child of academic parents. Every time I find myself frustrated by this problem, I desperately seek for the validation that will tell me I am not selfish to want things which will make me happy, and that furthermore I can do good from behind a lectern, on one side of a seminar table, across an office desk, at committee in a conference room, or seated next to a student in the dining hall. But when I read about human rights abuses such as those being carried out against LGBT people in Iraq (aside: read that story and then call your Congressional delegation, or, if you’re British, your MP about it. I’m serious), I wonder whether I can continue to talk about unhistoric acts when the world is in such desperate need of some historic ones.

But—as it has proved to be in opening up the world of art—close-reading can serve to illuminate these more pragmatic matters too. Last week, the Supreme Court determined—though by a narrow majority—that the precise semantic significance of the 45 words in the First Amendment to the highest law of the land does not permit religious organizations at public universities to exclude those (like LGBT people) protected by the university’s non-discrimination policy. The Court has read those 45 words time and again, and whether they have been understood to strike down school prayer, or to uphold the right of the Ku Klux Klan to walk down the street, the nine (or more, or less) justices have historically achieved their decisions through the very close reading of those 45 words. Likewise, they have read the Fourteenth Amendment to uphold or to overturn public segregation; to uphold or to overturn sodomy laws; to uphold or to overturn miscegenation laws. Reading and misreading and re-reading, those nine (or more, or less) men and women deploy the skills of my freshman-year Chaucer-and-Milton class to change the way life is lived in America, to hold back or to push forward the progress of the arc of justice. If we are to take seriously (as we must) the mission and the necessity of the mission of the Supreme Court, we must embrace the value of a practice of reading which examines the significance, the meaning and the placement, the connotations and at times the critical history, of every word in the United States’ founding document. This has been part of the mission of our country since 1787, and continues to be the integral piece of making it a more equitable and fairer place for anyone to pursue her or his happiness—as integral, indeed, as close-reading is to the study of literature.

Perhaps Heather Horn never had the luck to enroll in an English class which taught her what I have learned in mine since that one disastrous experience junior year of high school. Perhaps she only experienced dull and poorly-taught classes which put her off the study of literature altogether, as happened to so many of my peers without humanities-professor parents and the odd teacher who really knew what she was doing. For that, I am absolutely sorry, because learning how to read literature (and, with it, art) has been my greatest source of joy and hope. I only ask Horn not to condemn the careful examination of literature out of hand—because without people in the public sphere willing to invest in the necessity of the humanities and the close study of texts which they entail, our society doesn’t just forfeit the personal pleasures of a few nerds like me. Our project of “form[ing] a more perfect Union” (note that “more,” edging the project ever onward—not just “perfect” but “more perfect”!), our very nation, is at stake.

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