Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the values of literature

Amen, brother!

Read this talk of his.

I’m also struck by the contrast between this essay in the NYTimes Book Review (Oct. 31) and Marjorie Perloff’s depressing and deluded essay in a recent issues of the LA Review of Books arguing that Humanities and literature departments have lost their way because we don’t teach literature as a self-referential “system.” (Perloff advocates returning to Roman Jakobson and Russian Formalism as some sort of cure. Ugh. The Russian formalists had some genius ideas about form but—unlike great Russian novelists and poets!—they disdained thinking that literature had any way valid way of engaging with ethical questions.).

If we teachers of literature are going to engage with and inspire the new generation of students—the majority of whom are students of color, btw—we have to be able to teach reading literature as more than just a set of techniques. Gates provides one good way of thinking of literature as soul- and citizen-making. In the same issue of the Times Book Review (for Oct. 31), a review of Farah Jasmine Griffin’s new book on Toni Morrison gives those of us in the humanities another way forward.

Swarthmore students want freedom dreams; they don’t just want a tool kit—though we give ’em cool interpretive tool kits too ? What good is a tool kit if you don’t know how to _use_ it properly?

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