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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Why I don't like English literature

There's an article on the PBS website that's making the rounds. It's by Wendy Thomas Russell and the bottom line is admirable. She's proud of the fact that her husband is getting their daughter interested in science by telling stories [Skip the fairy tales, and tell your daughter science bedtime stories].

That's not the part that's attracting the attention of science bloggers. What bothers us is the opening part of the article where Wendy Thomas Russell explains why she never liked science.

I decided to re-write those opening paragraphs with a slight twist. Hopefully you will see what's wrong.
I was never very good at English. Mostly because it was taught to me the same way history was taught to me: It wasn’t. I mean it was, technically. But not in a way that inspired me or held my interest for very long.

In elementary school, English literature was something contained in a much-too-heavy textbook adorned with things I didn’t care about: sonnets, Shakespeare in a funny collar, grammar, the elements of style, pathetic fallacy. (I hated pathetic!) Not even the occasional picture of Jane Austen could save English literature for me. As much as I would have loved to meet James Joyce, learning in school about his drinking habits or various abodes just made him seem more distant from me.

In high school, most of my English teachers were middle-aged women who seemed to aim their instruction right over my head. Everything struck me as dry and unemotional. I always felt I was missing something — some basic brain function. I learned things as though they were random pieces of information to be memorized and quickly forgotten, rather than stacks of wisdom neatly piled on a solid foundation of understanding.

Later, at the University of Nebraska, I was able to avoid English and the humanities for the most part (the biology department was kind to me). I did take one history class — and was pretty excited about it! — until I realized that the teacher was a very old Japanese man whose heavy accent destroyed any chance I had at making sense of the universe.

He pronounced “war” like this: “wah-waaaah.” I barely scraped by with a C-.
Most people would react negatively to something like that. They would quickly recognize that the problem was me, and not my teachers. After all, what kind of person can't manage to learn English literature? I must be very stupid.

Why is it socially acceptable for a woman to write those things about her inability to appreciate science?

Note: I really don't hate English literature.


  1. I'm must be a bit slow myself as I am not sure what you're saying here... But for an interesting take on her point... another here: . This has been around for awhile... and once I happened on this wonderful essay, I purchased a copy of his "Measurements". One of the best damn books I ever read!

    1. I am not sure what you're saying here...

      I'm sorry to hear that.

  2. Two words: Wuthering Heights. In high school. If I don't hate English Literature (and I very much don't), it's despite that experience.....

    (If you've never read it, this is all you need to know:

    1. I loved Wuthering Heights. I was sad when I discovered that Emily Brontë hadn't written anything else so I read a novel written by her sister, Charlotte. It was called Jane Eyre and it was even better.

    2. Steve, is funny (as in cute), but it is not all people need to know about Wuthering Heights

    3. Jane Eyre and MacBeth were two of the standouts that fed my early interest in Victorian literature and Shakespeare respectively. Our highscholl teacher actually showed us Roman Polanski's MacBeth in class, which was absolutely wonderful.

    4. yet I never learned how to spell highschool properly.

  3. The title of this post had me going for a minute, but of course, it didn't take me long to realize you were joking.

    In fact, if people read and appreciate English literature, they learn a little bit about science, which will lead them to read science literature.

    A good example is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters:

    "It’s been often pointed out that the character of Roger Hamley was modeled after Charles Darwin, a distant cousin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s. Like Darwin, Roger is a keen collector of insects."

  4. While I agree that there are probably more people who see no problem saying that they hate science or math than say they hate literature, the literature hating scientist isn't entirely a straw man. I've met tenured science professors who have proudly said that they've never read a book for enjoyment, for example. The two culture divide hits both ways.

  5. Actually, your rewritten version of Wendy Thomas Russell's opening describes my experience with English literature quite well. I don't hate it; but I never have come to enjoy it.

  6. These days WHO can say what is based on a establishment and what it backs up.
    Thats why creationism is censored. nothing to do with intellectual credibility of law.
    Just some boss says so.
    i admit I've never read fiction since high school or so.

    1. i admit I've never read fiction since high school or so.

      Don't be so modest: you read about creationism, don't you?

      Perhaps you should read some (intentionally) fictional works. It might help to improve your prose.

    2. Ouch. I avoided the joke of saying i read fiction by reading evo stuff.!!
      Ouch. Lets keep the humour at a high standard of funny.Just be funnier is all I'm saying. You work on your humour and I'll work on my prose!

    3. Ouch. I avoided the joke of saying i read fiction by reading evo stuff.!!

      Indeed, you avoided the joke by not reading anything about evolutionary biology that is actually written from a mainstream perspective by experts in evolutionary biology. All your information about evolution is secondhand and seen through the distorting lens of creationist propaganda.

    4. How do you know? how could you know even if true?
      Kreskin couldn't know that?

    5. How do you know? how could you know even if true?

      For one very basic reason that is nevertheless completely foreign to you: competence. People who actually know subject X can tell when others are speaking nonsense about X. Your persistent misapprehensions about the most basic issues in evolutionary biology reveal to everyone else here that you couldn't have possibly gotten your information from people who are actually experts themselves.