Learning to be blind

Yesterday’s thought was unfinished and badly written, to boot. It was unfinished by necessity. A full exploration of the idea would require an essay at the very least. And it was badly written because I was tired.

Being tired is also why I wrote about a subject that I could not possibly do justice to in a blog post. When I am tired, I don’t have the energy to come up with a new thought. So I had to spit out one that I was actually thinking about during the day even though I knew I could not possibly do it justice.

But even granting that I can’t do these thoughts justice with blog posts, I still would like to poke at the subject a little more. However, I shall endeavor to do so in a more readable way then I did yesterday.

For today, I shall limit my observations to sketching out what is wrong with the modern way of reading.

The first problem with the modern way of reading is its obsession with how the material in question makes the reader “feel.” People have a natural weakness to value how they feel more highly than they ought, in any case. But this is exacerbated by the fact that modern teachers actively teach their students to obsess about how they feel. I have heard enough first hand accounts of college professors asking their students to explore how a written work makes them “feel” to believe that such teachers are now the rule rather than the exception. This ought to be a national scandal.

The problem with focusing on how you “feel” when you read something should be obvious. If you were talking to somebody who was focused on how your words made them feel as opposed to what you where trying to convey to them, you would think that they were not very good listeners.

And you would be right. A good listener is focused on the person that he is listening to, not on himself. The same is true for a good reader. By teaching people who read things to think about how they feel, teachers are teaching their students to be blind. And people don’t need any help learning to be blind.

The second problem with the modern way of reading is more scholarly and it is a little hard to articulate. Basically, it boils down to an obsession with demonstrating one’s superiority to the author of the work that you are reading. It typically involves “deconstructing” a written work to show what is “really” true about the work. Usually this involves relating everything to the author’s gender/race/economic station. But sometimes it also involves type casting the author by his place in time (i.e. people of this time period believed this, and thus the author is a helpless captive of those thoughts). It is analogous to somebody telling you why you “really” think as you do without paying any attention to your own explanation for why you think as you do.

This mindset was captured in by J. R. R. Tolkien in “Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics” when he wrote…

“I would express the whole industry in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”

Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics was J. R. R. Tolkien’s only noteworthy contribution to the scholarly literature of his field. In it, he revolutionized the commonly accepted ideas that the scholars of his time had about the ancient poem Beowulf. And he accomplished that by simply taking Beowulf seriously as the expression of one man’s artistic vision.

Scholars previous to Tolkien had been obsessed with what was real about Beowulf. They tried to figure out what parts of Beowulf were newer and what parts were older. They tried to figure out how the older stuff was distorted. But they never put much effort into figuring out what the man who wrote Beowulf as we have it today was trying to convey.

The reason for this oversight was that they started their readings of Beowulf with the idea that they were superior to the author who wrote it. Thus, they focused their efforts on proving that they were smart enough to figure out which parts of Beowulf were “stolen” from earlier sources and as a result they failed to understand why the author used those earlier sources in the way that he did.

This is a common problem of modern “professional” readers (i.e. English professors and the like). They don’t try to understand what the author was trying to say. Rather, they focus their efforts on “explaining” what the author did not know about himself. From this arrogant starting point come the attempts to relate all aspects of an author to gender, race, or economic background. In doing so, they turn all authors into stereotypes and projections of their own ideas about people.

Basically, this is just a more sophisticated way of focusing on how a written work makes them “feel”. And its effects are the same. They teach themselves to be blind.

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