"On the one hand, it's entertainment and rock 'n' roll music, and something that you can look at as furniture or as wallpaper, or clean the dishes to. Or if you want to dig deeper, it's something that you can think about, something that might provoke you towards investigating particular things."
-Michael Stipe, from my copy of It Crawled From the South
I've been puzzling over something Helen wrote. That something, in particular:
Some forms of low art don’t have any intellectual content, but there’s a lot of middle ground between dance music on one hand and Shakespeare on the other. A man who has an opinion about Humphrey Bogart has given serious thought to existentialism, even if he didn’t know to call it that. You don’t have to deconstruct James Bond and Indiana Jones to see that, if both of them are “heroes,” heroism has to be something complicated. If you have a working knowledge of “cheatin’ songs,” you’ve confronted the power of the flesh over good sense, the perversely noble stoicism of the sacrifices that adulterous couples make, and the way that infidelity destabilizes a marriage in ways that the guilty party could never have foreseen. A lifetime with George Jones is as educational as four years with Wittgenstein.
Now, part of what Helen's opposing is the much-discussed Atlantic article on teaching people who probably don't belong in college. I think Professor X in part anticipates an objection of this kind:
One of the things I try to do on the first night of English 102 is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture. To Kill a Mockingbird? Nope. (And I thought everyone had read that!) Animal Farm? No. If they have read it, they don’t remember it. The Outsiders? The Chocolate War? No and no. Charlotte’s Web? You’d think so, but no. So then I expand the exercise to general works of narrative art, meaning movies, but that doesn’t work much better. Oddly, there are no movies that they all have seen—well, except for one. They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz.
Part of the problem, in other words, is that there's no one thing that can function as the bridge between popular culture as his students know it, and more ambitious artistic works (and though he doesn't provide a syllabus, English 102 as he describes it is not very ambitious, though attempting to cover both prose and poetry may be too much). In a class of any size whatsoever, the professor is unlikely to be positioned so he can facilitate the sort of connections Helen mentions, unless the students are already prepared to do so themselves.
It's this latter point that becomes most complicated. I don't doubt, for example, that one can approach The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, etc etc and come away with an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart and, by extension, existentialism. But it doesn't strike me as a necessary result of having watched them: otherwise America in the 1940s should've looked like a postwar Le Deux Magots on a Friday night. As Michael Stipe reminds us, deep aesthetic contemplation is one possible outcome of art, but so is having something to listen to while washing dishes.* Cheating songs may be in part about confronting "the power of the flesh over good sense, the perversely noble stoicism of the sacrifices that adulterous couples make, and the way that infidelity destabilizes a marriage in ways that the guilty party could never have foreseen," but they're also catchy songs, or they need to be if they're going to be popular (one may also observe, in this vein, the radical difference in tone between lyrics and music in almost any Motown song).
That is to say, the ability to pull a certain deeper meaning out of a work arises only in part from that work, where multiple layers of meaning might be available (or perhaps only one); it depends more on the disposition of the person approaching the work.
*As much as possible, I wish to stress this is not a judgment. My favorite professor as an undergrad worked on American political behavior, a line of work that can make you very cynical about democracy. Instead of criticizing Americans for knowing virtually nothing about politics, he'd point out that he'd made a life decision to study politics, and so it was very important to him; other people had different passions and interests and jobs on topics he knew little about, and one just has to accept that level of difference.