Fear not, teachers of Homer and Virgil, you pastors of dwindling congregations, for your pews may yet be full. And all thanks to brain imaging research.
So debilitated is the current condition of literature, as the Post-Gazette recently reported in "How Reading Jane Austen Stimulates Your Brain," its teachers now solicit the assistance of neuroscience for validation. Academia makes strange bedfellows.
In the brave new world, evidently, no cultural tradition is worthwhile unless its benefits can be measured in a lab and charted neuron by neuron. Self-evident no longer, one would suspect, is the value of playing a musical instrument, or touring a museum, or attending a play.
Not until brain scans conducted by a team of Harvard researchers prove that memorizing the opening stanza of "The Canterbury Tales" enhances dopamine receptivity will Chaucer be anything more than "busy work" for soon-to-be pre-med and engineering majors.
Of course, I overstate the case. Reports of the death of the humanities have been much exaggerated. After all, Shakespeare remains a Hollywood staple. Austen adaptations do reliably well. Dickens has his own theme park!
Needless to say, literature needs more friends than film and Ferris wheels. If complex cognition research helps to preserve the great books, then so be it.
Still, the notion that an education in the arts needs scientific backing seems unwise.
To the extent that neuroscience proves what is already obvious to our intuition, perhaps no harm at all results.
In fact, the annals of science attest to the worth of apparently worthless findings. In his 1939 essay "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge," Princeton scientist Abraham Flexner argued that "science, like the Mississippi, begins in a tiny rivulet in the distant forest."
But the need to present MRI screenshots in defense of reading Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" reflects something other than what Prof. Flexner praised as "curiosity-driven" research. It makes clear just how far the reach of quantitative verifiability has expanded into fields quite foreign to arithmetic means, bar graphs and standard deviations.
Nearly 300 years ago, as Europe was riding the wave of the Enlightenment, the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift sent Gulliver on a voyage to the Academy of Lagado, where self-absorbed scientists extract sunbeams from cucumbers while the rest of the island languishes in poverty.
Today, the annual Ig Noble Prizes, which lampoon the excesses of research, have recently saluted studies exploring the side effects of sword swallowing, the reason pregnant women don't tip over and the difference between having a full bottle of beer and an empty one smashed over your head.
In the academic world itself, the encroachment of authoritative data-driven methodologies is steadily turning teaching into more of a science than an art. One awaits the day when education researchers arrive at a formula for determining the collateral costs of leaving no child behind and racing to the top.
As a teacher, I see a variant of this urge to quantify value in the statewide teacher evaluation system about to roll down the pike from Harrisburg.
Like many of my classroom colleagues, I believe teaching is far more art than science. The fundamental task of the job is engagement, which must originate in content knowledge and work ethic. But the essential third component of great teaching is style, absent which an advanced computer could deliver identical results.
Among the vast store of teachers' stylistic reserves are techniques that resist measurement, such as humor, surprise, suspense, encouragement and calculated criticism. To teach is to perform, and central to the performance is empathy. The best teachers are mind readers.
Insofar as the work remains an art, the clamor over numerical evaluations of teachers calls to mind John Keating's quip in "Dead Poets Society": "I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can't dance to it."
For now, the proposed teacher evaluation system involves elements in addition to test scores, such as supervisory observations. Regardless, the state tool with all its variables aims to use empirical data to measure teachers. As to its value, the jury is still out.
Perhaps this new science will have much the same effect as the Jane Austen study, vindicating what we already know by formally recognizing high-performing teachers. Perhaps the evaluations will go a step further in better enabling school administrators to remove incompetence from their classrooms.
To extrapolate to the optimistic extreme, perhaps the end of our pursuit to quantify all fields of human endeavor will be, as T.S. Eliot wrote, "to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time."
David Morris teaches English at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless (firstname.lastname@example.org).