Beyond measure: How the humanities make us better humans

‘Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the age of the algorithm’ by Gayle Greene is published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gayle Greene’s Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the age of the algorithm belongs to the genre established by CP Snow in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution published in 1959. Snow decried the split in Western culture between scientists and the humanists, chiding the latter for proudly displaying their ignorance of, for example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the former for their ignorance of Shakespeare.

For Greene, the oafish scientist’s role is played by educational philistines like Bill Gates and the authors of George Bush’s (ill-fated) “Common Core” national syllabus which morphed into Barack Obama’s equally problematical “No Child Left Behind” national syllabus.

Gates’s, Bush’s and Obama’s educrats made common cause with far-right critics of public education funded in large measure by the Koch brothers to impose a culture of testing in primary and secondary schools that produces what they call data, but what for Greene is a betrayal of the purpose of education: the creation of better and more informed democratic citizens.

In chapters titled “Once Upon a Time in the Twentieth Century” and “De-Grading the Professors”, Greene sketches the rise and fall of the promise of higher education in the United States.

The story begins with the GI Bill and the massive increase in college and university students after the Second World War. Between 1945 and 1950, the number of students attending college and university in California tripled to 79,500. Six years later, more than 8.8 million veterans had gone through the nation’s colleges and universities.

To everyone’s surprise, these first-generation university students, the majority from farms and working-class families, took more humanities courses than vocational or business ones. This was “nothing short of a radical democratic event”, Greene quotes Wendy Brown, a historian of American education, saying. “For the first time in human history educational policy and practice were oriented toward the many, tacitly destining them for intelligent engagement with the world.”

It wouldn’t last. Student unrest on campus (ie, pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protests) in the 1960s scared big business and politicians. Ronald Reagan was one of the latter who rode this fear – and Koch brothers’ money – into office. During his successful run in 1965 for the governorship of California, Reagan promised to “clean up the mess in Berkeley”, meaning he’d teach the beatniks at the state’s flagship university a thing or two.

Reagan’s chosen instrument was the state’s financial contribution to the university. In 1971, 70% of Berkeley’s budget came from the state; today about 9% comes from Sacramento. The plan was simple: by cutting state funding, students would have to go into debt and that would make them less restive, more career focused, less interested in social justice issues and less interested in frills like the humanities, which conservatives blamed – and continue to blame – for being left wing.

All about the STEM train

However, as late as the mid-1980s, one in five graduates took a humanities degree. Today, after years of proselytising – by Gates et al – about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) being where the action is, the figure today is 1:20 and is expected to keep dropping.

Oddly, this is one case where self-professed data-driven educrats, politicians and administrators ignore the data: study after study showed humanities majors actually had little trouble finding jobs and, save for the highest earners in STEM, actually earned more. One of the saddest moments in the book is when Greene quotes Obama, himself a product of liberal arts education, urging students to climb aboard the STEM train.

Britons reading this last sentence should not feel smug. In May 2020, the United Kingdom’s education secretary Gavin Williamson lavished praise on students who turned their backs on “dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt” and towards “higher technical qualifications, modular learning, and our flagship institutes of technology” – all the while knowing that the prime minister he served under, Boris Johnson, took a classics degree at the University of Oxford.

The degrading of professors includes the ending of tenure in many states, but Greene saves her harshest criticism for the accreditation boards which require universities to be “accountable”.

In practice, what this has meant is micro-managing professors by imposing on them “outcomes-based education”. Outlines, which used to be a few pages long, are now 20 or so pages and are filled with terms like ‘models and measures’, ‘performance metrics’, ‘rubrics’ and ‘assessment standards’ that baffle and infantilise faculty.

To ensure that course outlines conform to these business terms, colleges and universities have created new positions: at Scripps College, where Greene is professor emerita, it’s ‘assessment officer’, ‘officer of instructional effectiveness’, ‘director of assessment and regional accreditation’.

As I did when I was a professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario, and outcomes-based education course outlines came in, Greene decries the abstract language of these documents.

“Students will learn basic skills in literary studies,” became “Student exhibits the ability to read primary texts closely. Student is able to pose effective questions about form, content and literary devices … (That’s the kind of garbage I try to purge from my student’s writing),” she writes.

(When I met with Algonquin’s expert on the newspeak of course outlines, he really did ask me, “Don’t you want to be proud of your course outline?” and blanched at my answer: “No.”)

Staving off an empathy deficit

The heart of Greene’s book is, however, an elegy about what turned out to be her final Shakespeare course, taught not to what had been the usual 25-35 students but to 18, which she declares to be “not bad”.

Against the tyranny of the syllabus, she explains that in a seminar what mattered was “trust” among the freshman and between the freshmen and their professor who was nearing three score and ten.

In the early going, she’s fighting against a strong current. Yes, these students have registered in Shakespeare, but they’re of the age group that as far back as 2007 reported not reading for leisure – and have gone through an education system that has assiduously stripped imaginative literature from the curriculum.

The removal of imaginative literature from the curriculum, Greene notes, coincided with an alarming trend discovered by sociologists: the decline in empathy among young people. In the case of her class, this empathy deficit could undercut the ability of her students to imagine themselves in Othello’s, Hamlet’s, Macbeth’s or Lady Macbeth’s situation.

Greene claims to disdain literary theory, which she calls “thin gruel”. She takes a cheap shot at Marxist, feminist, postmodern, postcolonial and queer theories by implying they are no different than the cookie-cutter lesson plans of the Common Core.

In fact, her classes are shot through with theory, though, like most professors who were trained during the New Criticism of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she professes to be only a close reader. She betrays herself time and again, such as when she declares herself a feminist and when she brings into class important historical points that her students did not know and Shakespeare’s audience could not have.

Exhibit ‘A’ is the fascinating discussion in the middle of the chapter named “The Reading Thing”. She tells her class that according to legend, about the time the Ancient Greeks created (albeit, a flawed version of) democracy, Thespis (from which we get the word thespian) decided that instead of standing on stage and speaking to his audience, two people would speak to each other.

Quoting from Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, she tells her class: “The storyteller – who has had this authorial, god-like unified presence [think Homer] – isn’t ‘right’ anymore … He is one of two points of view that are on the stage. At that juncture we realise that truth resides not in the storyteller – truth resides somehow in the dialogue, in the space between two people.”

Later, in their discussions about various characters’ views of Hamlet’s madness – and his own – her students show that they’ve absorbed this extra-textual lesson.

Exhibit ‘B’ is her turn to Karl Marx in her discussion of King Lear. Marx allows her to explain the beginnings of the “moneyed economy” as she places the writing of Lear at the beginning of merchant capitalism. She claims that, among much else, Shakespeare is showing the collapse of the feudal order. “What Marx calls ‘the cold, cash nexus’ takes the place of non-mercantile bounds, kinship, fealty, cooperation, that knit medieval communities together.”

Class impressions

Most importantly, Greene’s book is fun. Watching her students cope when they learn that Shakespeare is responsible for 1,700 neologisms, including assassination, frugal, obscene and zany made me recall the years long before my Complete Works of William Shakespeare was not held together with duct tape.

I’d forgotten that since the Globe Theatre had almost no scenery, little time elapsed between scenes and the plays were much faster. This gave the Bard’s audience an advantage no Playbill given to present-day audiences can match. Even though hundreds stood in the pit to watch the plays, it was easier for Shakespeare’s original audiences to hear in one character’s speech echoes of another character spoken just a few moments earlier.

It came as little surprise that Greene’s students approached The Taming of the Shrew thinking it little more than an advertisement for patriarchy. Seeing them debate whether Kate actually does put her hand under Petruchio’s foot in a sign of submission, as she verbally offers to do, showed Greene’s skill in getting them to engage with the text – and understand what it means not to have stage directions.

Several times during the semester, Greene, who on the first day of class wrote a word or two of her impression of each student on the class list, is honest enough to record when she was wrong, as she was about the quiet Lydia.

Greene asked what the line, “As we are weaker in our bodies, so are we weaker in our minds, in need of guidance from our lord”, calls to mind. The quiet Lydia said, “That’s in the Bible. St Paul,” and then pulled one out of her backpack and read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

But Kate’s lines are, Greene shows, Renaissance clichés. Not everyone bought Greene’s point that the verbal repartee between Kate and Petruchio shows that, unlike another husband, he did not rape her or strike her, but the professor’s argument registered.

Studied towards the end of the semester, Hamlet occasioned a few humorous moments. To the question, “Why doesn’t Hamlet kill Claudius immediately as he pledges to do in Act I?” Brent answers, “[it would lead to a] short play”. A few moments earlier, he’d deadpanned “dead” when Greene asked, “Where do they [the characters] start from, where do they end?”

Hamlet also brings out their amateur psychologists. First, they defined “rationalisation” as “making up reasons, but you don’t know the real reason”, for why Hamlet dithers in killing Claudius.

Then, they considered the Oedipus complex, which Trevor (one of several male students who enrolled in Greene’s course from nearby colleges) referred to when he quoted Hamlet saying of Claudius, “He that hath killed my king and whored my mother./ Popp’d in between the election and my hopes”, before emphasising the phallic “Popp’d in.”

For her part, Allison was having none of it. “Well, he [Hamlet] never comes out and says why he’s not doing it, does he? I mean, all those soliloquies [which are supposed to reveal the character’s inner thoughts and motivation] … if he’s repressed, he wouldn’t know it.”

The discussion of Hamlet ends with a discussion of how Hamlet undercuts the expectations embodied in traditional revenge tragedy such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

Centuries-old skin

The point of Greene’s performances and those of her students is not to present a final view of any of Shakespeare’s characters, still less of his plays. Rather, it is to show what jargon-laden course outlines cannot encompass. It is to show that over the course of a semester, students who are willing to follow a trained, dedicated teacher develop finely tuned reading skills and link what they read to their lives.

Greene’s classroom stories show that their empathy expands as they force themselves to inhabit centuries-old skin, so to speak. The semester recounted in Immeasurable Outcomes shows that teaching and learning Shakespeare and, by extension, the rest of the humanities, is an exploration of oneself as much as it is of the play, painting, novel or poem.

In the beginning of the book, Greene enters a classroom in the humanities building and, not yet aware she will decide to retire at the end of the semester, thinks, “I’ve grown old in this room”.

This sentence could be written by an AI program. But then it would be mere information. It would lack the wistful melancholy that reading it evoked, reminding me of my time decades ago reading Shakespeare under the tutelage of extraordinary professors and the years I led my own students into the theatre of the mind.