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How an ex-Mormon novel became a case for the liberal arts

November 9, 2011

A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day novelOver the past month and a half, I’ve had a novel on my to read list. I’ve probably mentioned it hundreds of times…but I’m not a fast reader. On top of that, reading isn’t one of the things I generally turn to first when I have free time (unless it’s the copious amount of reading I do on internet message boards or blogs…but people don’t usually count that as reading.)

Nevertheless, I took on Therese Doucet’s A Lost Argument: A Latter-Day Novel (the companion review to this article will be published at Wheat & Tares on Thursday).

One thing that definitely helped (and no, I’m not a shill for Amazon) was my Amazon Kindle. I don’t know how it did it, but after I’ve gotten my Kindle, it’s been really easy just to zip through novels…I finally understand what people mean about getting absorbed into books.

So, as this article implies, I was able to finish A Lost Argument (although everyone who’s really a reader will probably think I’m a joke…since I know my brother and mother can digest books in a day, but from start to finish, I took about a month. [Full disclosure: most days, there was no reading going on.]) That presented me with my second challenge: how to write a book review.

See: I’ve never written a book review. I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing. You’ll just have to wait until the W&T post goes up (Thursday) to see whether you think I did a good job or not.

I subconsciously tried to discern an ideal audience for the book when I was reading A Lost Argument. Therese is an ex-Mormon, so does that make it an ex-Mormon novel? Are ex-Mormons capable of writing novels for Mormons, or is the divide just too large? Is this a romance novel? Is this a thinly veiled autobiography with names changed to protect the innocent? Is this a novel in which nothing happens?

I think that the novel defies exclusive categorization. In some ways, it is a Mormon novel…but if you have assumptions about how Mormon novels should go (or whether an Mormon novel can apply to ex-Mormons), then you are missing out. I can’t deny that it is an ex-Mormon novel as well…but if you have assumptions about how those should go, then you are missing out. Same thing with romance, philosophy, etc., There are all of these aspects, and so they come together to make something rather differently.

The one thing I will say that A Lost Argument does that I definitely did not expect was that it makes a case for the liberal arts educational ideal. In that sense, any proponent of the liberal arts should read this book.

The Case for Liberal Arts

I’ll say that this section will probably sound strange and perverse, but I think this novel is a case for the liberal arts ideal. Maybe this is because of my personal background going into reading the novel, as well as some conversations I’ve recently had, but hey…this is my book review, and I’ll go where I want to.

At Texas A&M, where I currently study, some students have expressed doubts about the value of the liberal arts pedagogy. What’s the use of a university education if it doesn’t prepare people for careers?

The answer I hear back from my professorial friends (at least, the ones who are proponents of the liberal arts ideal), is that the university’s goal is to teach modes of critical thinking (whatever critical thinking is). Unfortunately, how can students be aware of this value when they are taking classes that seem utterly irrelevant to them at the time? Who really cares what this novel meant or what that old dead white philosopher said? Especially when these things seem to lead to a dead end when it comes to employment.

I’m an accounting major. I’d like to think that I’m not an academic or intellectual dud, but at the same time, I have to admit, as the point I made way at the top of the article, that I’m a poor reader. Even worse, I’m poorly read. I sometimes read philosophical blog posts and articles, and I’ll read wikipedia pages, but I haven’t gotten into a lot of the authors’ actual treatises.

And so, as I was going through A Lost Argument, the one thing that I felt was missing out on was knowledge about protagonist Marguerite’s reading, or the way that she likened what she was reading to herself. It was philosophy: Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Plato, Socrates, Levinas (most of whom I’m fortunate to have a cursory awareness of through various blog articles, wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page, etc.,)…but it was also literature in general: Joyce, Mann, and other people whose names I don’t even recall or remember now. At many times in the novel, I asked myself, “Do people actually do that? Do people actually compare themselves to the protagonists of novels they are reading?” One uncomfortable answer that poked through was: maybe non-business majors do that.

…What happens throughout A Lost Argument is that Marguerite transforms and matures (fitfully and awkwardly at points)…but how does she do that? She transforms through a dialectic not only with the conflicting parts of herself, not only with the other people she has met and with whom she has engaged, but through writers and philosophers. Ideas.

This novel goes through her academic career. It starts in the middle of her undergrad at BYU during a summer break in which she is taking classes in Arizona, but progresses through to her fellowship in Germany, and ends with her at the University of Chicago for grad school (hmm…) So, A Lost Argument really does give a sense of her comprehensive educational experience and how she actually applies that to her life. Regardless of whether or not A Lost Argument is a novel in which nothing happens, it turns out to be a novel in which everything happens (to be an allusion). To that extent, it feels like in order to get the full impact of the novel, then you have to read the same things Marguerite was reading, because in a way, the ideas and philosophies and writers  with which she interacts are more important of characters than the “real” people with whom Marguerite interacts.

And…perhaps it’ll sound cliche, or like a “gotcha” coming from an atheist, but the novel tells a coherent story of how the liberal arts teaches people “how to think.” Marguerite progresses through the novel from someone who is quite uncritical about her religion and philosophy…someone who has poor self-esteem and is kinda sad…to someone who is intensely critical — and willing to write a dissertation on faith in search of her own. (The way it might sound as if that is a “gotcha” is because it just so happens that she is becoming more critical about her religion and in the end, it just so happens that she loses religious belief. But I don’t the novel is an atheist “gotcha” against religion at all…I could easily see people like the permabloggers at Faith Promoting Rumor reading this and having a lot of it match with their experiences. I think anyone who has progressed from a “simple” view of faith to an increasingly complex and nuanced view of faith through critical study of philosophy, theology, and the scriptures would find something to appreciate in A Lost Argument, even if they would characterize their current place as being under the umbrella of Mormonism, religion and faith, whereas Marguerite does not.)

In this way, it’s clear that after all is said and done…regardless of whether you believe anything “happened” in the novel, you come away feeling that Marguerite is a far deeper-thinking person than she started out as. She already started out stunningly intelligent, but she’s really grown up in a way that you can think at the end of the novel, “she’s going to be ok” whereas earlier in the novel, there are a lot of doubts.

So, with that in mind, I think that, Mormon or not, theist or not, anyone who advocates for the liberal arts and its capacity to develop and sharpen a person’s thinking should read this novel.

  1. Seth R. permalink

    Personally, I think the only way to produce anything worthwhile in the liberal arts is when you have to suffer for it.

    Which means those who are really great at the liberal arts will be those who have to fight tooth and nail to cultivate their interest in it while trying to make a living doing something that actually pays. If you look at the past great minds in in the liberal arts, you’ll see that tends to be their story. The world doesn’t care about their art and doesn’t reward it. They have to barely get by to earn their lunch. And while struggling, they manage to beat the odds and reach for greatness.

    I think this is why we don’t have any great minds in liberal arts today, and haven’t for decades.

    Because we pay them to be liberal.

    No suffering – no greatness.

    That may change though, now that society seems to be realizing that we simply can’t afford to reward liberal arts college degrees anymore.

    • And Seth – given the terribleness of most academics’ salaries up through most of their careers untill they become tenured profs, I have to disagree that liberal arts academics, whether liberal or conservative, are living lives of ease or luxury. Also – no great minds in the liberal arts today, really? None at all? Also – conservatives sometimes like the liberal arts too, you know …

      • Seth R. permalink

        I don’t think the threshold is luxury.

        The threshold is making a decent living at it.

        That’s enough to get my argument where it needs to be.

  2. Then, isn’t it possible that someone could “suffer” for their studies in a personal, rather than fiscal way? Wouldn’t, then, a faith crisis or religious crisis apply?

    • Ah, but “liberal arts academics” suffer through the exploitation of their students. The adjuncts they exploit, and such.

      For example, if you follow you know that outside of about 25% of the philosophy graduate programs, none of them place anyone in tenure track positions. Those other graduate programs exist to generate adjuncts and students and then detritus.

      So, to be a liberal arts academic in one of those programs, you have to suffer immense moral pain since you are battening off the work of the adjuncts (who teach the classes you do not want to teach) and students (who are taking graduate classes from you in the hopes of a tenure track job they will never find) and in order to sustain your life you have to defraud them into hope of the impossible.

      The author of the book you are reviewing was at Chicago and realized that she had no reasonable chance at a tenure track job — she lost her faith in her academic discipline and its value in many ways.

      But yes, there are people who see echos of everything they read in their lives. Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans come to mind, as do various literary and classical studies majors.

      Personally, I see a good deal of value in classical studies. I’ve a nephew who graduated first in his class from a U.C. school in classical studies. Of course that was part of a triple major (he also graduated first in physics and first in math, then went on to get his PhD from MIT). Everyone in the family was pleased with that choice.

      But yes, everyone in liberal arts graduate programs has a number of personal crisis that apply.

  3. Seth R. permalink


    But I find the climate of paying people to be liberal is probably acting as a brake on our culture producing a lot of worthwhile stuff.

  4. Andrew,

    I loved this post. That wasn’t a take on the book I’d expected, although I don’t know what I *would* have expected. But between trying to assure potential Mormon readers that the book just isn’t a devious ploy to deconvert them, and trying to assure potential non-Mormon readers that there’s stuff in it for them too, it’s easy to forget that yes, it’s a book that revolves around the transformative potential of studying the humanities.

    As for your comments about your own education – well, you’re obviously very modest there. I’ve been impressed and comforted and inspired since subscribing to your blog by the sharpness of thought, the calm even-handed respectfulness, and the intellectual daring I always find here. Maybe you’re a testament to the educational power of the internet in honing critical thinking skills through debate and the open exchange of ideas. 🙂

  5. Looks like a good book!

    • Did I mention in this post that I was really interested in hearing what some of the FPR folks thought about the novel..?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Novels In Which Everything Happens (to be an allusion) | Wheat and Tares
  2. Andrew S and Irresistible (Dis)Grace in the 2011 Brodies! « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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