Shaffer: A critical education

On Truth and Lies

There’s a great joke in The Record. It’s a fake letter that goes like this: “Dear Directed Studies Freshman, Thank you for your criticisms of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Gee, I guess I really hadn’t thought that through. Yours, Friedrich Nietzsche.”

The joke hits me hard as I write my senior thesis on Nietzsche, and it sums up what is wrong with humanistic scholarship today.

There’s a formula for a good paper in academe. Avoid all semblance of style, never go three sentences without a direct quote; say nothing bold or imaginative; and construct an original thesis that contains a modest criticism of previous works. Then receive an A. If you miss a step, receive a B+ (only awarded in extreme circumstances), and never get tenure or become a respected member of the Bar.

We are to adopt a critical stance toward and contribute something new to everything we read. Your Ph.D. and tenure are awarded not according to your breadth and depth of knowledge, but according to your original contributions and “research.”

But freshmen aren’t qualified to correct Nietzsche; neither am I, and neither are most academics. As I read Nietzsche, I have more and more eureka moments, more desire to share his wisdom with the world. But Nietzsche is so beyond me that I’m not sure I really have anything to add — no criticism, no grand original thesis, no great ideas. Mostly, he just strips me of my great ideas. I just like letting him change the way I live and see. But if I tell my adviser that I partied at Feb Club, instead of writing, because Nietzsche taught me the joys of intoxication, he’ll give me a B+.

The critical stance is stunting. Education should slough off our old certainties and destroy the aggressive ignorance of our adolescence. We should inhabit greater minds, let them take a critical perspective on us, losing ourselves for the moment. But criticisms and theses have made reading into a process of self-assertion. We dismiss Shakespeare for classism; we ignore Marx, imagining him discredited by history (there’s irony in that). And we miss chances to lose our narrowness, because we’re critics before we’re readers.

Every evening last July, I walked three blocks to Central Park, and made an effort read a novel a night. Through 31 books I identified no themes, had no opinions, adopted no critical attitude. I just read. I have nothing to show for the experience, no intellectual credential or writing samples. But I think I’m a more whole person, a step closer to passing some small wisdom, some sense for beauty, to my children someday. It’s a feeling I don’t get when I contrive awkward theses and criticisms I only half believe, as we all do, for papers each exam week.

Orthodox Jews and observant Catholics have told me that it is not their place to stand in judgment of their sacred texts, but to let their sacred texts stand in judgment of them. Something of that attitude should be adopted toward our best literature and philosophy. Real critical reading leads us to the most difficult of all criticisms — self-criticism. We require literary and philosophical traditions precisely because no man can be judge in his own cause, because we need people smarter than us to challenge our stances and theses, the narrowness or our little individual minds.

Some time ago, I wanted to become an academic. While in Harold Bloom’s seminar I decided I couldn’t envision a future that wasn’t devoted to great books. I still want to be Bloom, but now, I’m not as keen on graduate school. The university is no longer devoted to wisdom. It researches. It’s about me, me, me — the student, the scholar, the academic. My perspective, what I can contribute, what flaws in the text I see.

The humanities have switched from tradition to research. Humanistic research ought to be an oxymoron. It was invented to give the humanities more credibility, for the benefit of scientists and philistines, the kind of people who ask, “So what do you plan to do with that English degree?” We don’t do anything with the humanities. They help us understand our lives, recollect our childhood, find the words to express our love and hate. They civilize us, a tradition of wisdom to be passed down, not a series of math problems to be solved. We should contribute to them, no doubt, but as conversant artists inspired by them, not as scientists picking them apart.

And we should also realize how much more they have to contribute to us than we do to them.

I hope that in the future, more of our intellectual life will resemble students meeting in a professor’s house to talk about books they love, and less like college freshmen (or seniors) offering their corrections to Nietzsche. And I hope that academe as a whole will realize that the real life of the mind is an immersion in tradition, a devotion to conversation — little like scholarship, as it exists today.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.


  • The Contrarian

    Good luck on your path to wisdom. You’ll may be sidetracked by more than a few over-inflated self-important Little Geniuses along the way.

    And most of that so-called “research” in the humanities might be more accurately described as “typing”.

  • 2010

    You did it again — another wonderful piece of writing and perspective. I now find myself looking forward to your column every week.

  • dmw

    “And we miss chances to lose our narrowness, because we’re critics before we’re readers.”

    Fabulous, Matt.


    Except that a degree in English does not make you more qualified to read a book and understand its meaning. In fact, most humanities students today have no ability to think coherently about the texts they are reading.

    It is the science majors I see that have the ability to think critically and logically about the content of the books they read.

  • Matt Gerken

    A wonderful column. I remember just that feeling of total inadequacy when trying to crank out my first DS papers on Herodotus and Plato, and it’s still there most of the time. Kudos for exposing the encroachment of the “research” mindset on the humanities.

  • yale10

    An excellent exploration of the consequences of the academization of the humanities. This is a problem only furthered by universities treating graduate students as cheap TA labor — when the only route to even marginal academic success and financial solvency is a quick reading and an even quicker critique of some already-trampled-over minutia, who can blame the students?

    A question, though, Matt: Do you think your argument holds for History as a discipline, as well? If not precisely, what do the comparison is?

  • yes

    Matt is the quintessential Yale man. He reminds me of what Yale embodied 100+ years ago and what it should, but does not today represent — understated class coupled with a sharp mind.

  • Jacob

    Great one, Matt. Maybe your best yet.

  • anonymous

    Dear Matthew,

    Just please, please, don’t do anything with humanities/reading/literature in your future life. Especially don’t go into grad school in the humanities, since you obviously don’t understand what they are about.
    And, by the way, by dismissing humanistic scholarship the way you did, you commit the same kind of arrogance you accuse the humanities of.

  • ’11

    This is a fantastic piece, and it rings very true to the ears of this former Directed Studies student. Well done.

  • @#9

    From your writing style you don’t seem like a great scholar. You’ve wildly misread the piece.

  • roflcopter

    wasn’t this piece already published last week? or maybe it was the week before that? or the week before that?

  • Was that you?

    I’m surprised by this. I think it was you who quoted Bloom to me as saying that criticism is “making the implicit explicit.” Saying Fred was right or wrong is not really the point.

  • roflcopter

    @ #12

    Stop impersonating me, you ROFLCOPTER impersonator impersonator.

  • Beware Grad School

    Please don’t bother with grad school. It will only lead you to a life of adjuncting and marginalized misery. And you can definitely do better.

  • Pongo Zynka

    I know several professors with “breadth and depth of knowledge,” who do very little. Surely, one needs to do more that simply be intelligent.

  • Y’10


    Your complete rejection of critical practice is yet another form of arrogance – no matter how much you cloak it in modesty. So you admit that you have much to learn from Nietzsche but little to learn from most professors at Yale? Critical practice, at it’s best, is the process of rewriting and honoring traditions – as Bloom says in a quote above, making the implicit explicit – as such, it can be a form of poetry.
    Seriously, wasn’t Wittgenstein engaging in academic criticism with Nietsche? To name just one example

  • saybrook997

    William F. Buckley, Jr. is smiling somewhere. Although you may not be a God and Man at Yale type, you actually used Noonan’s words that he was educated broadly and deeply at a time when great universities (Yale) taught broadly and deeply.

    #7 got it, even if it was Yale only 60 years ago. Now there are 79 majors (some with 2 or 4 students for PC reasons) and a cafeteria of 2,000 courses and seminars, and no core corriculum of even 6 courses (including writing and speaking-physical expression-acting) in the fresh. and soph. years.

    Would it be nice to know that everyone sitting at graduation had read at least one book in common?–Dante, Plato. DS is the closest thing for 10% of freshman. Instead, everyone does Psych 110?–sorry Psych majors, I learned nothing broad or deep there.

  • M. Shaf DC ’10

    It is generally a bad idea to start an argument about one’s own piece. So I won’t argue, just clarify what I mean. Also, this piece was partly me talking myself through the question of whether or not to go to grad school, so I’d love to continue the conversation.

    First, I’m flattered that my piece could be considered hard-hitting enough that somebody I don’t know would accuse me of arrogance. I thought my claims were comparatively shy. Nowhere did I suggest I had “little to learn from most professors at Yale.” Far from it. I think humanist academics are at their best when they teach, when they engage in tradition–the passing down to younger generations. I’ve learned so much from my professors and am infinitely indebted to all. My modest criticism was never of my professors but of what I perceive to be the pressures in academia to make original contribution one’s first priority. This ‘research ideal’–not my professors, not humanists in general, not the the study of the humanities itself–is the object of my criticism.

    Second, we should free ourselves from the tyranny of words. ‘Criticism’ is one word but it has multiple meanings. #17’s definition of criticism, “the process of rewriting and honoring traditions,” is beautiful, precisely what we should be doing. Thank you for that turn of phrase, I may steal it in the future.

    What I mean by ‘criticism’–and I didn’t have space to flesh this out in 800 words–is the stance we students too often adopt. It is when we judge books and works for the sake of our papers before we have fully inhabited them, the tendency to be critics before we are readers, the prioritizing of our contributions to the text over the text’s contributions to us.

    I make no “complete rejection of critical practice,” I am not “dismissing humanistic scholarship.” I am suggesting that the academy’s incentives are imperfectly aligned and we students are imperfect readers, in ways that hurt true humanistic learning.

  • ’11

    Wow, Matt. See what you can do when you stop writing unfunny satires in which you claim to speak for the shallow liberal masses, and needlessly overstated pieces which alienate all scientists. When you just write honestly and simply about something you care about, you get by far your best piece yet. I don’t agree with everything in this column, but I find it genuinely wise and thought-provoking. Keep it up.