A really good Facebooker writes:

“If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.”

Is that true? I need to know because I agree with the statement and am likely to say something like this. Are there crazy people who disagree and would get huffy?

45 thoughts on “Elitist?

    1. And I don’t think you need to read Dickens as a teenager for pleasure to be a great literature student, elitist or not. (But you need this read this for fun one time, for sure!)


      1. It doesn’t have to be Dickens. But people who read for pleasure in childhood develop intellectually in a way that non-readers don’t.

        I don’t know what’s elitist about stating this obvious fact.


        1. Of course, people who read for pleasure in childhood have a way better chance to become a great student, but it’s possible to become a great literature student without doing that, if you start one time to be passionate about novels.


  1. Not true, but we are in a scientific field. What is considered highly elitist/racist/sexist is the following: our major is currently heavily over-subscribed, and someone suggests that we increase the level of rigor in our lower division classes so that some of the less-motivated students drop out.

    Instead, apparently it is not racist/sexist/elitist to (a) keep teaching our huge major by hiring an army of adjuncts (because our regular faculty cannot keep up with the demand) or (b) let students into the major by lottery.


      1. Oh I completely agree with you – I think a lottery is highly irresponsible to boot. But the poor faculty member who suggested increasing the rigor was practically pilloried in our faculty meeting for being racist and anti-women by our lecturers. It’s a pity because this faculty member happens to be one of the best teachers in our department, has written a very well received textbook in the field, is a highly accomplished researcher who has practically started a new field of research almost single-handedly and has graduated a number of women trainees. He is also one of the nicest people in the department. But hey what do I know?


        1. That’s insane. We all need collectively to push back against this unhealthy habit of shutting people down with gratuitous accusations of racism, sexism, or classism.


  2. One of my big DISqualifications for the intellectual label – I have never finished a whole Dickens book. I do not like his style. I do not like his approach. I do not think I would like him as a person from the way his writing makes me feel. I quit English Literature studies as soon as I was allowed (I never had the “right” view of the book and although I cited evidence (as much as a 12 or 13 year old really understands textual evidence) to support my views my teacher just told me they were wrong without telling me why, and taking poems apart was like dissecting a bird to me, you end up with blood and feathers and sadness without any better insight into why they sing).

    There again, I read the complete works of Shakespeare with glee and comprehension, read the whole Norton Anthology of Literature for pleasure a year or two later, consumed novels by Trollope and Mrs Gaskell with no issue – so its not a reading or a period novel problem, I just really, really do not get on on with Charles Dickens.

    And honestly just identifying ANY students who read books at ALL makes them unusual and special around my current institution, I do not care WHAT they read, even nasty horror novels or tedious romances, because READING is what matters, and it shapes their ability to write. Although I do have a soft spot for the student who has found a pdf of a huge three volume over-wrought gothic novel from the early 1810s, loaded it onto their kindle, and reads especially over-written chunks out in tutorials as examples of how NOT to write – shall we say this one embraces its eccentricity and is thriving?


    1. I know, you are so right. Reading anything at all for personal enjoyment is rare. And the results are not great.

      Of course, it doesn’t have to be Dickens. Trollope and Gaskell are much more valuable writers, in my opinion, actually.


  3. It’s true, they would call you elitist, etc. I say it is the height of elitism NOT to recognize that people who get to do these things have advantages.


  4. “If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist.

    I question this notion. Perhaps it’s because of how I often read things as a kid?

    I often ended up reading things out of sheer boredom, like during summer vacations. I vaguely remember reading A Tale of Two Cities as a child during a long summer vacation in India. During another summer vacation I attempted to read Atlas Shrugged that way and failed to finish because Rand rambled, even though her only printed competition was the phone book. I also tried to read A House for Mr. Bishwas but due to the fact we were slowly driving in rising floodwaters to catch a train because the air was too foggy for planes to land in the mountains, I retain no memory of this novel. I know I read Little Women; I just remember none of it, and it wasn’t for school. During these vacations especially, there was little in the way of other distractions such as television and the internet did not exist until I was well into college. I still watched a shit-ton of television when it was available.

    I also read the following for fun: the encyclopedia, cereal boxes and reference books including a child parenting book aimed at adults. I was an average student, at best, in the milieu in which I went to school.


    1. Little Women is beyond bad. I hope nobody makes my Klara read it.

      I can’t wait until she’s old enough to like Frances Hodgson Burnett and I can read these books to her. It’s the best children literature ever. Unfortunately, I discovered it i adulthood but I still loved the books.


  5. The reference to Dickens is elitist – not every young person is going to have a bunch of Dickens sitting around on the shelves in their house and they may or may not stumble upon it in a school or public library. I think it would be enough to say that the good students are the ones who read extensively for pleasure when they were young. There are kids who read more books about science or machines or history than they do works of fiction. Those probably aren’t the kids who grow up to be literary scholars, but I’m sure they grow up to be very good students. I read more crappy mysteries and science fiction than I did better quality literature when I was young (though I did read some of that as well), and I also went through a phase of reading biographies and histories and I was obsessed with National Geographic magazine for a while. As I see it, reading literature or non-fiction extensively when you are young is a sign of curiosity ideas in general and about the world beyond your own surroundings and experiences. It’s that basic curiosity that is the foundation of a good student.


  6. I agree that the important thing is for children to read for pleasure, just exactly what they read is of secondary importance.

    I did read for pleasure as a child but wasn’t into Literachoor, the only author I really liked in that area was Edgar Allan Poe, there was something…. exhilarating about his prose.

    I did like Thomas Hardy (Return of the Native, the Mayor of Casterbridge but I couldn’t get past 50 pages or so of Jude the Obscure, though I tried three times).
    Shakespeare always bored me silly (it is not comprehensible for most modern Americans and I suspect most people who say they enjoy him to be pretending) though I can appreciate the scope and structure of what he did. I hated Moby Dick with a fevered passion though I managed to slog my way through the end.

    On the other hand, I took very naturally to opera when I discovered it in high school so it’s not like I’m a total prole.


    1. \ Shakespeare always bored me silly (it is not comprehensible for most modern Americans and I suspect most people who say they enjoy him to be pretending)

      If he truly is incomprehensible for most, I had the advantage of reading Russian translations of “Romeo and Juliet” and of a few comedies which are in modern, usual Russian.

      If I want to read more one day, I will read translations since the English text is too hard for me to be enjoyable.


    2. N recently read Moby Dick for the first time and loved it. For weeks, he quoted it in response to pretty much anything I said. You just never know.


      1. “N recently read Moby Dick ”

        Well if he read the unabridged version he now knows more about how to kill and take apart a whale than is liable to ever come in handy….


        1. Whither the whale oil industry?
          It’s useful knowledge if a whale washes up on shore. It occurs more often than you might think. :-p


  7. On a somewhat related note, today before reading this post I mused about reading and … Here we’re talking about reading as helping somebody in his studies later. What about the point of reading for adults? If one is an academic, one has a right to spend resources (time, money, energy) on reading interesting, serious books about nation state, neoliberalism and other subjects because it is part of one’s job. What about non academics who won’t do anything even if they read many books and increase their understanding? I talk about an inner feeling of having an inner right to read, of it not being a futile endeavour.

    Clarissa, you once noted that gathering experiences cannot be what makes one truly happy in life (my unexact paraphrase) since an adult must begin creating by himself at some point. So I applied it to each part of a life into which one invests a lot, f.e. reading serious literature.


    1. I know EXACTLY what you mean about this feeling of “I don’t have the right to sit here reading.” It tortured me, TORTURED me, throughout graduate school. Whenever I sat down with a book, voices in my head whispered that I shouldn’t be doing it. I had to drown them out with a bunch of self-destructive behaviors. It was one of the hardest battles of my life to accept myself as a reader, so I’m totally with you.

      Ultimately, reading is like sex. There’s sex for procreation and sex for fun. And there’s reading for a goal and reading as an end in itself. Reading Russo or Fallada obsessively won’t do anything for my career prospects. Neither am I having sex to procreate these days. But that doesn’t mean I should stop doing either, right?


      1. \ throughout graduate school. Whenever I sat down with a book, voices in my head whispered that I shouldn’t be doing it.

        If it’s not too private, why not? Were you not reading for your career?


        1. My mother didn’t want me to have a career. She wanted me to get married. On a rational level, I knew it was all bonk but this is never a rational thing. The knowledge of doing something that will make you be rejected by your mother produces an intense, crushing anxiety. Our foundational , earliest experience is that of a complete dependence on whether our mother likes us. And in adulthood, we are still defined by this early fear of what if she doesn’t feed me, what if she doesn’t pick me up and comfort me. As Freud said, the world looks at us through our mothers’ eyes.

          This is why I get so annoyed about the question of how many languages Klara will speak. She doesn’t have to be like me for me to love her. She doesn’t have to do anything.



  8. First, my choice of Dickens was overly narrow, but its very narrowness also serves to set up a test for the good student. If you’re the sort of person who can point to some other serious read and argue its merits over Dickens then clearly you have academic chops.

    But I do think you need to read something besides contemporary popular page-turners. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Stephen King when I was young, I devoured multi-volume fantasy series, and it warms my heart to see kids eagerly read 600+ pages of Harry Potter. But you should enjoy something in a slightly musty, somewhat older language. Dickens and other 19th century writers ably fill that niche. Maybe 100 years from now Harry Potter will fill that niche. It’s valuable to be able to enjoy the tastes of a different time, written in an older vocabulary. Argue the merits of Twain or whatever other literary greats of the 19th century and I won’t disagree. But a really good student will have found spontaneous enjoyment in such a writer.

    Dickens isn’t even my favorite writers, but I picked on Dickens because of a very specific episode that I was witness to several years ago: A few white, liberal males were showing each other how enlightened they are.* They were discussing how our students (STEM majors) tend to do poorly on the SAT verbal section, and how terribly it is that schools require it.** Race and culture were brought up, of course. (Never mind that we have free public libraries where any kid, regardless of background, can check out books.) One of them said “Well, as long as the schools require this test what we are going to do to help students*** build their vocabularies? Advise them to read 19th century British novels?” It was said in a manner to imply that this is a desperate and unreasonable measure. And my immediate thought was “Wait, I read Dickens on my own in middle school; why shouldn’t students interested in advanced degrees be avid readers?”

    So there’s the liberal disdain for the written word. We also see it in the enthusiasm that so many people with “Technology and Learning” interests proclaim for replacing (at least some) reading assignments with videos. It’s a dangerous thing, on par with the dangers of conservative anti-intellectualism. Conservatives will tell one receptive audience “You don’t need to read those books written by liberal intellectual types!” and liberals will tell another receptive audience “Now, now, we’d never expect you to read those books” and the result will be the destruction of our civilization. Any day now the American people will probably vote for a “reality” TV star who can only communicate in bursts of 140 characters at a…Oh. I see.


    *At one point I was afraid that trousers might be removed; thankfully they spared us the logical conclusion of their competitive posturing.
    **I’m not here to argue that the GRE is the be-all and end-all of selecting students, but I find it amusing to hear demonstratively liberal guys lamenting the GRE verbal section when in other contexts they will go on about how communication skills and human factors are given short shrift compared to quantitative skills.
    ***Remember, these are college students. If they still don’t have the vocabulary and reading comprehension typical of an avid reader, I question whether graduate study is really for them.


    1. All of the pre-1946 literature is available online for free in addition to public libraries. So it can’t be about who grew up too poor to buy books. This is all about the truly crazy taboo on mentioning that the family that raises you has a massive impact on you in a way that no school or college can offset on a mass scale. There are exceptions but they are rare.

      I bristle at taboos on stating facts of objective reality. It’s not ok to deny evolution or global warming but why is it ok to pretend that the family environment is not formative? You can’t help students if you don’t identify the problem. Of course, kids who are introduced early by their parents into the culture of readership and learning have an advantage.

      This is akin to my field’s dogma that it’s racist to correct the grammar of black students in academic essays. Drives me nuts. I’m supposed to have different grading criteria for students based on their race? I also need to evaluate thrir appearance and guess what their race is? People have actually argued that I should correct an immigrant student’s double negatives but not correct them in a black student’s essay. When I ask who’ll hire a black student with these poor writing skills, nobody has an answer, of course.


      1. All of the pre-1946 literature is available online for free in addition to public libraries.
        There are people who are poor enough that the 1)library is their only access to a computer with internet* and 2)public libraries that impose onerous requirements to get a card. In one municipality, they required a driver’s license. In another one, when I first moved there, they wanted $100 from me for a library card at a public library. In addition, the libraries here impose a time limit on how long you can use their computers. I’ve said nothing of being within traveling distance of a library.

        As for the private university libraries, even if they theoretically are open to the public during certain hours, the university itself is very hostile. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been dramatically shooed out by the cops fifteen minutes early.

        With the program I’m in, they’ve moved from classrooms to Pearson. And it is garbage. They charge you for a license that expires at the end of the semester. If they have a book, it’s some ridiculous unbound thing which you need to buy an additional binder to use and which is printed on newsprint quality paper.

        It frankly boggles me.

        *Not everyone has a smartphone. I have never done any serious novel length reading on a smartphone.


        1. All I can say is that I grew up in a big city with a large poor, urban, minority population, and public library cards were free for children. And there were libraries all over the city.

          So while I can’t say that access to libraries is equally easy for everyone everywhere, I can say that there are large and diverse populations that have access to libraries. Lack of library access isn’t a key variable for a big chunk of the population.


          1. In our little town, we have those free book exchange boxes. The kids of my friend who’s a fellow professor, are on those boxes luke flies on honey. She has to literally drag them away screaming and fighting because they want more books. And their small house is already bursting at the seams with books.


        2. In our medium sized town which is undergoing massive budget cuts, public libraries are still free. In my neighborhood branch, you can hang out and read for as long as you want, and they seem to actively encourage kids. They have a small area full of kids books and toys, and one day a week they have story hour where a librarian reads out children’s books aloud. The event is aimed at three to four year olds, judging by the books read, but all kids and their parents are welcome to attend.


  9. Yes and no.

    I don’t think it’s elitist to want students to have read Dickens as children, but I think that maintaining that those who do are the best students might be a little prejudiced.

    I think kids should read whatever they enjoy reading, and the more the better. Then they’ll read Dickens when they’re ready.

    I’ve been re-reading some of the Enid Blyton books I must enjoyed as a child, partly to see what the appeal was. Snobby librarians sometimes say they are bad for children, but perhaps they are being elitist. Or perhaps the books are elitist because all the characters are so middle class – or is that just bourgeois?


    1. Unfortunately, these days, when I ask college students what was the last book they read, they have nothing to say. It’s hard to teach when people recoil at the concept of reading “this whole book.”


  10. I believe it is profoundly sad to grow up in a fundamentalist Christian environment; however, I had one advantage: Having grown up reading the King James Bible, I have never had any trouble at all reading and enjoying Shakespeare. I started reading him in about sixth grade.


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