Jerry A. Coyne’s New Republic Piece, and Why Science Professors Should Stick to Science

In a recent article posted to both his blog and The New Republic, University of Chicago professor Jerry A. Coyne finds himself reluctantly siding with conservatives over the proposed use of “trigger warnings” in literature classes. Life is triggering he says, and literature prepares you for that.

Thank heavens we have a science professor to tell us how to teach literature, right?

Or, rather, what to teach (the canon, as well as newly canonical, formerly marginalized women, blacks, LGBT individuals, etc.). The how, though, is somewhat lacking. Coyne tells us that literature is meant to challenge us and expand our minds, which sounds excellent, right up until the moment you realize he doesn’t really mean anything by that.

Now, to be clear, I also (reluctantly) think there is some truth to the idea that there’s a point at which you simply have to seek help in dealing with potential triggers, since most of us just don’t have the luxury of living a life cocooned from anything that might be upsetting. For particularly sensitive topics (rape, suicide, war, etc.) a warning does seem in order, but it’s not really the instructor’s responsibility to act as a therapist. And frankly, having known a lot of college instructors, I doubt most students would want to book a session with them.

That much, at least, Coyne gets right. It’s when he gets down to the nitty-gritty that things become muddled.

Coyne tells us, for instance, that there are attitudes and identities which he as a professor does not want to “embrace”—homophobia being one. Fair enough: I don’t want to embrace that either. However, this runs flatly counter to his claim that we should expose ourselves to all kinds of unsavory phobias and isms in literature, solely (it seems) for the aim of toughening ourselves up. What’s character building on the page is apparently too nauseating to bear in real life.

The moral here, I would argue, is not that we should uncritically embrace all attitudes and identities, but rather that the idea of literature as something meant to build character is largely bankrupt. Can literature build character? Well, yes, of course. But the idea that that’s its whole—or even primary—purpose is a grossly utilitarian one that ignores at least 90% of what makes reading (and especially reading critically) a worthwhile endeavor.

Even setting to one side any questions of the subjective, escapist value of literature, consider the following. Coyne begins his article with an anecdote about a course on Ovid: a female survivor of sexual assault felt uncomfortable attending a lecture in which the rapes of Persephone and Daphne were discussed primarily from an aesthetic viewpoint. Coyne seems to think that the issue at hand here is whether to teach Ovid or, perhaps, whether to call it “offensive.” Coyne rightly points out that the bulk of literature contains material that someone, somewhere may find offensive, and thinks that it’s unreasonable to scrap all literature that contains potentially inflammatory material.

So do I. So, I’m sure, do most people. In fact, nowhere in the students’ letter is there any mention of jettisoning the literary canon—Western or otherwise. It’s odd, then, that Coyne feels the need to rescue literature from being deemed “offensive”; provided no one is set on ditching these texts entirely, does it really matter if we admit that they’re “potentially offensive”?

Only, I would argue, if you subscribe to an incredibly outdated understanding of the study of literature. Coyne is aware that the literary canon has been extensively revised, but he still seems to hold onto the idea that teaching literature means teaching the “great”—almost sacrosanct—works. He says, for example, that Shakespeare is “all about” showcasing “the full panoply of the human psyche, from its heights to its depths.” This is just a hair’s breadth away from claiming that we should read the great writers because they remind us of how, frankly, wonderful and brilliant humans are; even when we do terrible things, we do them with style. If Coyne knew anything about the study of literature, he’d know that it’s long since drifted away from this exclusively individualistic, humanistic understanding of what literature is and does (i.e. talk about how great we are, and make us great through reading).

For the record: I do think Shakespeare is a great writer. I also think there is something to be said for celebrating great literature as a pinnacle of human achievement. Unlike Coyne, though, I’m perfectly content to marvel at the beauty of Hamlet while also acknowledging—and, crucially, discussing—the fact that Hamlet himself is kind of a misogynist.

It’s that second element that’s largely missing from Coyne’s article. Presumably, he’s somewhat aware of the fact that studying literature means more than voting yea or nay on a particular work, but you’d never know it from reading this article. Coyne scoffs at the idea of removing Ovid from the syllabus, but acts as if the only other option is to ignore and/or tough out the misogyny. This is absurd. Not having attended the Columbia lecture, I can’t really pass judgment on how the professor handled the rape scenes in Ovid. I can, however, say what I might have done in that situation—namely, ask students to think about what it says (about Ovid, about literature, about our own society) that a rape is aestheticized in this way. Could that still be offensive to some students? Probably, and anyone with a history of sexual assault should be free to opt out of the discussion. It’s probably less triggering, though, than simply breezing past the fact that there’s a sexual assault going on. It’s also a much more fruitful approach than Coyne’s “like it or lump it” idea of literature, because it acknowledges that the misogyny of Ovid is more than some unfortunate, ultimately irrelevant detour in an otherwise magnificent work: the misogyny is woven into the very thing that makes the work magnificent.

In a way, I think the students who complained about the handling of the scenes in Ovid have a much better understanding of the nature of literature than Coyne himself. Coyne, as I said before, is somewhat attached to the “great works” theory of literature, but in spite (because?) of that, he basically understands literature as a realm apart from real life (witness, again, the distinction he draws between homophobia in literature and homophobia in social interactions). At most, reading is for Coyne a kind of training ground for the unpleasantness of everyday experience. In and of itself, it’s not “real,” so it doesn’t really matter whether it’s offensive, provided it serves a purpose.

In point of fact, though, it does matter. Not because any “potentially offensive” work is without value and should be ritually burned, but because literature is an arena where these kinds of issues are being worked through, codified, and reinforced. Literature doesn’t just exist; it acts, and not just by making us better, tougher human beings.

Which brings me full circle to my original point: there is a discussion worth having here, but it’s impossible to have when your columnist has a layman’s understanding of the field he’s discussing, yet feels qualified enough to pontificate about it. What bothers me about Coyne’s article isn’t so much the point he’s trying to make, although I do think the situation calls for a bit more tact and subtlety than he seems to allow for. What truly frustrates me, though, is the fact that Coyne is flattening out a complicated issue by talking about something he doesn’t really grasp. A good response to the students’ letter would have (among other things, perhaps) called on us to question the extent to which we’re still beholden to the great works theory of literature while, yes, also acknowledging that life is tough and sometimes you have to learn to cope with situations that you’re in no way responsible for. Coyne can’t do that, though, because he himself is still wrapped up in that early 20th-century literary theory.

Call in an English professor, next time, New Republic.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Jerry A. Coyne’s New Republic Piece, and Why Science Professors Should Stick to Science

  1. And academics wonder why real people find them ridiculous.

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