I finally finished reading The Iliad. It happened yesterday. I feel like a runaway slave.
I got one good thing out of it: new empathy for my college-age self. I had forgotten how mind-numbingly boring liberal arts courses are, and The Iliad brought it all back to me. I criticize myself for being lazy in college, and I am correct to do so, but in my partial defense, college is really, really dull.
It’s not always dull. It’s mainly dull when you’re taking
stupid the wrong courses.
I always did well at verbal tasks when I was a kid, winning the city spelling bee and so forth. I was an excellent writer. I understood literature without much help. I won a couple of statewide prizes in French.
When I was ready to apply to college, the head of the English department at Columbia College of Columbia University, a Mr. Carl Hovde, sent me a letter inviting me to apply. Columbia was top five, as American universities go. They claimed.
It was sort of assumed that I would be a liberal arts guy.
Further [seeming] confirmation came from my poor grades in math. I didn’t dislike math, but you can’t cram very well in math courses, so it’s an area where lazy students get eaten alive. I procrastinated doggedly, and my grades reflected it. My advisor “recommended” I stop taking math courses after the 11th grade.
It was bizarre, really. I got a D- in Algebra II, and then I got an A- in Geometry the class that followed it. Then I believe I failed the next course, which was called Math Analysis.
Why would anyone get an A- between a D- and an F?
In subjects like history and literature, you can do almost nothing until right before your exams and still get A’s or B’s. This is why most students gravitate toward them.
Incidentally, I always feel funny using the term “liberal arts” to describe the basket-weaving, distaffy side of the curriculum. Today we use it to mean anything except math, engineering, and science, but in reality, it’s supposed to include math and science. I don’t know where we lost track of that.
But I will persist in using the misnomer.
I thought of myself as someone not destined to be involved with math or science, and that was a big mistake. When I got to college and started taking classes in subjects like literature and philosophy, I did not have a good time. It was a lot like the past week. “I can’t believe how boring this is.” “I can’t believe they’re paying this guy to tell me about Don Quixote.” “Why does this book have to be so long?”
The literature courses I took were generally a complete waste of money and time. I am not saying that as a surly kid with a weed habit. I am saying that as a surly old person who actually knows.
Having graduated from college and ready many books, and having sat through many literature lectures, I can say with assurance that there is nothing, nothing, nothing you can learn from a literature professor that you can’t learn with a library card or an Internet connection. College runs around a thousand dollars per credit, so if you take a literature course, it will cost you several thousand dollars to have an old hippie explain Huckleberry Finn to you. There is no way in HELL you can convince a reasonable person that this makes sense.
I’ll bet there are literature lectures online for nothing, if you are really determined to suffer. I’ll check.
Of COURSE. There was no way I could have been wrong. Here’s a Harvard Shakespeare course, presented free of charge.
On top of the issue of waste, when you let other people charge you to explain books to you, you are very likely to be taught ancient, revered error few have the guts to correct.
I’ve been going through the Columbia College Literature Humanities syllabus, and today I read Sappho’s Lyrics. Don’t read it; trust me. I’m just mentioning it in order to make a point. Everyone thinks Sappho was a lesbian. The word “lesbian” comes from “Lesbos,” which is where she lived. “Sapphic” means “lesbian.” If you go to college, there’s a good chance your prof will tell you Sappho was a lesbian. I read her book today, and there is absolutely no way you can conclude that from the fragments of manic-depressive verse she left behind.
I went online and read up on her. Guess what? There is no proof that she was a lesbian. There are real scholars who say so. They must be lesbian deniers; they reject settled literary consensus.
Liberal arts professors generally aren’t all that smart, and they’re not original. They memorize and parrot. If one makes a mistake in 1100 A.D., another is likely to repeat it for money in 2016. Think about that while your life savings are paying for creaky, dubious insights on Dickens and Proust.
If you’re smart, you’re smart enough to make your own mistakes instead of swallowing someone else’s.
I realize our culture has to be preserved, and people have to take literature and art courses and pay for them. I’m just suggesting that you–the person reading this–would be smart to let someone else shoulder the burden. Take something useful instead. It doesn’t have to be math or science. Learn a language…well, Rosetta Stone software is probably better than college. Okay; study music. It’s tough to form a jazz orchestra on your own.
Some liberal arts professors are really good, but come on. No literature or history teacher is $3000-per-semester good. Especially not in the age of Youtube.
When I finally took some left-brain courses, it was a lot more fun than poring over the grey pages of Machiavelli and Joyce. I still did badly. I had never learned study habits, and I was perpetually depressed about the divorce-related drama going on in my family, so I didn’t have much energy. I had no self-confidence at all, as a result of growing up with abuse. But at least I enjoyed the lectures and labs.
I did well at gut courses I hated, because they were easy. I did poorly in great courses I liked, because they were hard.
Liberal arts people love to say left-brain people are not smarter; just different. That’s a load. They’re smarter. No one ever graduates from college and says, “Man, Survey of American Cinema was tough.” Everyone complains about physics.
Left-brain people are usually less capable when it comes to verbal stuff, but they are not as stupid as right-brain people trying to do math.
I thought I was a right-brainer because I did well in that area, but in reality I was just a shocking left-brained underachiever.
I could never be a literature professor. I can read it. I can understand it. I can come up with BS insights with the best of them. It’s still dull. It’s fun to read for recreational purposes, but choking down boring tomes in 100-page daily doses in order to be prepared for mildewed lectures your prof wrote 50 years ago and never revised…that’s not my idea of stimulation.
I still plan to read these books, for the same reason kids memorize the alphabet. There are some things a civilized person should know, and also, I will feel like I’ve partially compensated for avoiding reading them when I was young.
I got started on The Odyssey today. It’s only 400 pages, and some of that is surely notes which I can ignore. After that comes Genesis, which I can skip for obvious reasons. Then Herodotus, which I skipped in high school as well as college. Herodotus isn’t literature, so I plan to get a translation I can read, not one that makes literature profs happy.
It looks like The Iliad is the real Sunday punch of first semester Literature Humanities. It’s the longest and presumably most boring book.
When this is over, my understanding of the classics will be not unlike the understanding of Europe you get from a ten-cities-in-three-days tour of Europe. But that will more than suffice.
I expect praise. People may even say this was my aristeia.