(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Rivka Maizlish, who blogged last week about Django Unchained, will be guest-blogging for us each Wednesday. This is her post for this week. — Ben Alpers)
Do your students also love to say “reading too much into this”?
I remember this remark as a buzz-kill that frequently deflated discussions in high school English. Just when we had begun to dig into the precious details of a novel or poem and unearth some larger idea, someone would inevitably scoff, “we’re reading too much into this.” Today, my students, indignant, ask “isn’t that reading too much into it?” about almost every attempt to find meaning in the art, literature, and cultural artifacts of the past.? I cringe every time I hear it. The sentiment strikes me as exquisitely anti-intellectual, creating an image of the useless scholar wasting time on meaningless trivialities, like Socrates measuring how far a flea can jump in Aristophanes’s anti-intellectual comedy, The Clouds. “Reading too much into this” seems equivalent to saying “there’s too much thought going on here,” a complaint that has no place in a history class!
When I hear the dreaded five words, I ask my students to reformulate their critique in a way that raises specific problems with the offending analysis or offers a better interpretation, whereupon they almost always say something about money. When asked whether Jewish performer Al Jolson’s blackface routines represented an attempt by Jews to “become white” by engaging in a practice created to demean African Americans, or whether Jolson’s performance in blackface represented Jewish identification with blacks as a minority group with a history of slavery facing discrimination in America, a third of my students firmly declared: “neither.” Jolson, these students insisted, simply wanted to make money. Blackface sold. To ascribe any larger meaning about race in America to Jewish blackface performance was to “read too much into” this cultural phenomenon. When asked what the cover art on the album Free to be You and Me, released in 1972, suggested about American culture and values in the 1970s or the ideological commitments of the album’s producers, severals students insisted that the album primarily existed to sell copies, thus the cover art simply indicated an attempt to attract potential buyers—nothing more. To suggest any larger meaning was to “read too much into” the image. Aside from reflecting the troubling assumption that people are motivated, above all else, or even exclusively, by economics, these responses suggest an inability to distinguish intent from meaning. Indeed, my discussions about the meaning of a text or cultural artifact from the past are often limited to musings about the intent of the creator. While acknowledging the importance of the author’s experience, social context, and intent, I suggest to my students that a source may have meaning regardless of or beyond its intended purpose. Yet students are simply afraid to find meaning. Yesterday a student prefaced an incisive and valuable observation with a defensive “this may be a stretch, but….” Why are students so suspicious of meaning? Why is it comforting to them to believe that culture demonstrates nothing about a society other than economics?
This pernicious form of disenchantment reveals atrophy in the historical and intellectual imagination. Students must learn to exercise those muscles. The vitality of the humanities, which are largely in the business of “reading into,” is at stake, as is the use of past thought as a source of enchantment, something that, as an intellectual historian and teacher, I care deeply about. I tell my students that in college courses they have the unique opportunity to make wild and outlandish arguments, as long as they can support them with evidence. College is a time to try out new, bold, and perhaps uncomfortable ideas. A large part of that project involves finding and creatively producing meaning. The suspicion of meaning students reinforce with every “reading too much into this” harms intellectual inquiry and disenchants and depletes experience at a time when both should be most vibrant.
I don’t want to sound like Allan Bloom (who did, my students would be delighted to hear, write The Closing of the American Mind to make money!) carping about students and their incomplete souls. I believe most of the “reading too much into this” complaints I hear do stem from an anti-intellectual discomfort with meaning. However, when “we’re reading too much into this” is a protest for the life of a text over the cold instruments of analysis, teachers should listen. Discomfort with meaning can reflect an affirmation of life, a desire to keep a work of art or literature alive and sacred, rather than “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” analyzed to death.* If “the will to believe” inspires students, why should they care what James owed to Peirce or Nietzsche, or under what definition of Pragmatism historians place his thought? If Norma Rae’s relentless courage speaks to students, what do they care for the film as a source for understanding ideas about labor and the working class in the 1970s? Of course, we should guide our students to think critically about James and Pragmatism, Norma Rae and labor history. Students should learn to read, contextualize, and analyze sources closely and deeply. But they should learn to listen and to be moved by sources as well. And so should we.
* T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.