My friend the smart young writing student was in town the other day, talking of Pynchon and Paley and the other rather arcane matters that writing students are liable to discuss these days. He also had some things to say about Shakespeare, Milton and other golden oldies -- things that should curl the hair of anyone who has a sober interest in the drift higher education is taking these days.
This fellow has just completed three years of undergraduate study. The first two were spent as a student in the writing program of a major Middle Atlantic university; the third was as a writing student at a prestigious college in the Northeast, to which he will return in the fall to complete his "studies." He will then receive a degree from this college, which will certify him as an educated man and a practitioner of the literary arts.
He will receive this degree without having read a word of Shakespeare or Milton in any undergraduate course. Nor will he have read any Pope, Dickens, Eliot (George), Fielding, Melville or Hawthorne. He has read Faulkner, but only because his crusty friend here practically bullied him into doing so. For the most part, though, when it comes to the great literature of western civilization, this student will emerge a year from now in almost total ignorance; he will be acquainted only with what he read in high school (a once-over-lightly through "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet," for example) and what little he has read on his own. But as for college, none of the people who have taught him to write seems to have found it necessary to teach him to read -- except, of course, to read the "contemporary literature" that is written and read in the writing schools.
This young man's experience cannot be dismissed as atypical. A recent evening in the company of a dozen college students, most of them writing majors, produced confessions -- and laments -- remarkably similar to his. The students spoke of spending hours in intense scrutiny of poems and stories published by (three guesses) their professors, but none in reading those works that are the foundation of western literature. To be sure, they could have wandered over to the English department and filled those gaps with elective courses -- but for the writing department to place this burden on its students is an utter abrogation of its responsibilities.
At least one person in a writing program seems to recognize this. Richard Tillinghast, who is acting director of the master of fine arts program at the University of Michigan, unburdened himself of a few thoughts on the subject in a recent newsletter of the writing-programs association. He wrote: "Many contemporary writers -- and that also means many graduates of MFA programs -- share the current American aversion to the written word . . . We live in a literary environment that is radically anti-literary. Yet the best writers, it will be observed, tend -- with a curiosity that grows out of their obsession with their art -- to be prodigious readers . . . The desire to write without a corresponding desire to read is curious at the very least." Tillinghast then wrote:
"What is almost as bad is that many young writers, when they do read, read only contemporary literature. This is part of our national fascination with the contemporary writing scene -- literature as lifestyle. And what's wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing but tunnel vision, lack of perspective, and the absence of any basis for comparison between what one is trying to write and what has already been tried. If one is attempting the long poem, for instance, it is good to know 'Paterson,' 'The Cantos' and 'The Bridge,' but one can approach the task with more savvy if one has also looked at 'The Prelude,' 'Paradise Lost,' Pope's long poems, 'Beowulf' and 'The Canterbury Tales.' Not to mention the efforts of Dante, Virgil and Homer. Anyone can read these books outside school, but why is a person studying for a degree if not to learn? The value of broad literary knowledge to the writer is clear. An MFA graduate who hopes to make his or her living by teaching will most likely have to function within an English department and will find the job easier if he or she can swim in the same waters with the rest of the department."
Tillinghast said the right things, in other words, for the wrong reason: A writing student should read the "efforts" (!) of Dante, Virgil and Homer in order to become a more attractive commodity in the academic meat market. Well, at least he said them, which is more than many other people in the writing-school business have done recently. The writing schools seem all too content with the way things are, with a system that emphasizes "contemporary literature" to the exclusion of all else -- that denies, to all intents and purposes, the existence of the past.
Needless to say this is not an attitude unique to the writing schools. Throughout higher education there has been, ever since the upheavals of the '60s and '70s, a widespread repudiation of the difficult past in favor of the easy, familiar present; in teaching Sam Shepard and ignoring William Shakespeare, the writing schools are simply going with the universal flow. But there is something especially galling about this rejection of the past by schools that ostensibly are devoted to the perpetuation of literature -- which is, after all, what writing strives to be. If it is true, as Tillinghast writes, that "the desire to write without a corresponding desire to read is curious at the very least," then it is even more curious that the schools of writing are so indifferent to the reading of any writing except their own.
The people who operate these schools apparently believe, and are teaching their students to believe, that the writing of the present exists in some sort of vacuum, unconnected to anything more ancient than James Joyce or Marcel Proust. They are telling their students -- people they eventually will send out into the world with degrees certifying them as "writers" -- that literature is a clean slate, that nothing in the past has made any impression upon it. This is roughly comparable to a teacher of history telling his students that nothing happened before Hiroshima -- that the Age of Anxiety is all that matters, that nothing before it has consequence.
Is this an exaggeration? Certainly not. To deny Shakespeare and Milton, Dickens and Melville, is to deny literature itself. In so doing the writing schools may serve their own interests, but the disservice they do to their students -- and to our culture -- is incalculable.