As seen in The GREAT COURSES® and Professor Arnold Weinstein gets his essay 37 years later, in late December 2020, Arnold Weinstein — my former professor at Brown University who still teaches at age 81 — and I collaborated on an essay looking back at his 1983 class, Order and Chaos in Literature, and also covering his career as a Great Courses® instructor.
I sent 37 years later to several Brown alumni class facebook pages. The reception was remarkable. Decades later people had vivid memories of his classes. A few sent along Weinstein’s famous one-page essays they had also kept for decades, now added to the article.So I was especially excited when my Dec 21, 2021 issue of The New Yorker arrived. The issue includes a review by Louis Menand of Weinstein’s then-forthcoming book, The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing: “What’s So Great About Great-Books Courses? The humanities are in danger, but humanists can’t agree on how—or why they should be saved.”
Menand also reviews Roosevelt Montás’ Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.
I expected an essay echoing the sentiments found in Advance Praise: the charming story an 81-year-old university professor still passionate about his field and still grappling with the big questions of existence, including his own mortality.
Instead, Menand dyspeptic essay offers withering criticisms. His biggest gripe is that Weinstein elevates the study of literature — seemingly — over all other academic disciplines. When Weinstein says, “Math, science, philosophy, history: they are invaluable” but can’t offer what literature does, “the finest cultural bargain ever to come your way,” Menand cringes. When Weinstein says, “My claim: literature alone affords us an adequate picture of the human heart,” Menand cringes more.
Furthermore, Menand rejects the idea that studying literature is any more of a path to virtue, discovering the good life or gaining self-knowledge than any other field of inquiry.
He is particularly caustic, if not personal, when he says of Weinstein:
What qualifies a man like Arnold Weinstein, who has spent his entire adult life in the literature departments of Ivy League universities, to guide eighteen-year-olds in ruminations on the state of their souls and the nature of the good life?
Literature’s bottom line, Weinstein says, is that it has no bottom line. It all sounds a lot like “Trust us. We can’t explain it, but we know what we’re doing.”
And if, as these authors insist, education is about self-knowledge and the nature of the good, what are those things supposed to look like? How do we know them when we get there? What does it mean to be human? What exactly is the good life? Oh, they can’t say. The whole business is ineffable.
Isn’t it a little arrogant for humanists like the authors of these books to presume that economics professors and life-science professors and computer-science professors don’t care about their students’ personal development? The humanities do not have a monopoly on moral insight. Reading Weinstein and Montás, you might conclude that English professors, having spent their entire lives reading and discussing works of literature, must be the wisest and most humane people on earth. Take my word for it, we are not.
I was surprised by Menand’s rather intemperate rhetoric. So was the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Leonard Cassuto who wrote in “Great Books, Graduate Students, and the Value of Fun in Higher Education: A generalist-versus-specialist debate is burgeoning, and it’s one that academe badly needs to have — out in the open.”:
Louis Menand, a writer and professor of English at Harvard University, has the soul of an anatomist. His best writing calmly takes things apart to discover how they were built and how they work. But Menand lost his cool last month [in The New Yorker review].
As Cassuto shows, what exorcises Menand most — why he lost his cool — is that Weinstein and Montás’ emphasis “on primary texts and student relatability rather than on scholarly literature and disciplinary training” is actually contributing to the decline of the humanities: a decline for which Menand grimly catalogues the hemorrhaging of humanities majors and with it an impending collapse of the humanities professoriate.
I ordered Weinstein’s book and also sent Menand 37 years later and a short note. He responded:
Thanks for writing. I’m afraid I was a little mean but I did react strongly to the views he expresses in the new book.
When Lives of Literature arrived, I thought Menand’s pique was overblown. But I am biased. I took Weinstein’s classes at Brown and have listened to several of his audio courses. I know what I am getting with Weinstein. While he sprinkles in theory here and there — for example, showing that Foucault helps explain Dickens’ Bleak House — he treads lightly on race, class, gender and interesectionality. I will get a full throated defense of old fashioned reader-response or reader-identification.¹ I will get a gifted, and often self-deprecatory, story teller.² I’ll get my money’s worth.
By coincidence, just as Weinstein’s book was to be released, I received an unlikely note from Shirzad Alipour, a teacher of English as a second language in Iran, Shirzad saw 37 years later. In a touching request, he asked if had any photos of Weinstein when he was young. He wanted to frame any photos.
Dear Professor Kramer,
I hope you remain safe during these hard times.
I am Shirzad Alipour and I am writing from Iran just to thank you for the wise comments you have shared on the Internet about professor Arnold Weinstein’s 1983 essay. I have been infatuated with Dr. Weinstein’s books and lectures for the “Great Courses” since I first got them in 2011. I have worked through all of his 258 lectures several times and they have been so insightful that they changed the current tack of my life. I love this man and his way of presenting literature material in his lectures. I wrote to him last year and thanked him by email. I wish to have his “youth” photos if there are any.
Is the black and white photo on the net Professor Weinstein in 1983?
Do you carry any photos of this wonderful man?
If yes, please send some of them so that I can frame them and hang them in my personal library – which includes 999 books, novels and stories.
Shirzad Alipour library in Iran with 999 books [Provided by Shirzad]
I am an English teacher, 32, (also fluent in French). I earned an M.A from Tehran University in English Literature and I have written on Henry James.
I will be waiting to receive an answer…. You can find my poetry recitations on You Tube…
If anyone had reservations about Weinstein, it is not his Iranian fan.³
Later, I received another note from Shirzad about his remarkable feat. By hand he transcribed all the GREAT COURSES®. It took 7-8 years. He also weighed in on Menand’s critique. Finally, he mentioned he may not read The Lives of Literature for a long time. Western books can be hard to find in Iran.
Dear David Kramer, thanks for your latest.
I had completely lost hope in getting a response from you, but I owe you a debt of gratitude for doing that. Let’s see:
I have got “ALL” of the courses from the GREAT COURSES. I transcribed ‘manually’ all of the courses!!!! It took me 7-8 years!!
I have even extra copies of the great novels like Don Quixote and tens of others.
Professor Weinstein’s courses:
1991: Soul and the City (8 lectures)
1993: Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition (80 lectures)
1995: Understanding Lit: Drama, poetry and Narrative- 64 lectures-Video format
1995: Using Lit to Understand the Human Side of Medicine (Audio-10 lectures)
1997: 20th Century American Fiction (32 lectures)
1998: Classics of American Lit (84 lectures)
2007: Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Lit (Video-36 lectures)
2012: A Day’s Read (the first 12 lectures) only audio.
I believe he is a wonderful analyzer and interpreter of the world’s great books. If others are critical, it’s their view. Believe it or not, he has influenced me a lot. Unfortunately, in Iran no go-to sources are available. Hence, I cannot get hold of his book.
Former M.A. Student of English Literature,
Faculty of Humanities,
1 Personally, I can find reader identification irksome. That is, when students think of characters as real people who they like or don’t like just as they would or would not like real people. Weinstein, however, complicates the notion of reader identification in a discussion of Rousseau and Brecht:
That Rousseau in his critique of spectator identification would dislike theater goers walking past beggars is not surprising. But Brecht’s even more radical critique would be striking in practice: we would cry at sitcoms and laugh at tragedies.
2 Weinstein can be honest about what might be a blind spot:
He knows it’s easier to be a connoisseur of literature when you’ve been tenured for over 40 years and teach at an elite Ivy League school.
3 I later learned that Shirzad wrote this email on his wedding day.
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