Saturday, January 26, 2013

Worth pondering …

 PJ Media — Understanding the Educational Mess We’re In. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Everything considered, and allowances made for cultural and historical differences, the Merchant Taylors’ School, in the early to middle period of English pedagogy, was a far superior secondary school to anything our contemporary ideologues and planners, whose ignorance of educational history is impressively catholic, have managed to install today. We no longer teach the classics, those documents — in the words of Melville scholar and Norton anthologist Hershel Parker — that “afford the most rich, complex, aesthetic experiences…most likely to work transforming enlightenment…in all earnest young students.” On the contrary, our current methodology, pursued in a cognitive vacancy, constitutes nothing more than another pedagogical talisman which testifies only to the bankruptcy, or the magical thinking, that has overtaken the culture of education to which we unthinkingly contribute. We have long passed the time, laments Welsh poet Gillian Clarke in her new book Ice, “when the map of the earth was something we knew by/heart.” It is as if we have simply forgotten the central axiom of human development: if you know very little, you cannot do very much. Method can never be a surrogate for substance. You must work to have something there if there is ever to be something there to work with.


  1. Proof that there is still life 15 years after one retires as a professor from a school a few miles south of Philadelphia: MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. Quick quick before it is gone: see the NEW YORKER blog for January--Books to Watch Out For. Thank you, thank you. Old professors live freshly when they are quoted.

  2. 1990 talk (printed 1991):

    I confess to some wishful thinking of my own, a lingering hope that there can be at least an eleventh-grade high school class and a sophomore or junior college class in which all students will have a chance to read works of American literature which have entered most deeply into the collective American consciousness--the American scriptures. This is problematical. Aesthetic evaluation really is, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith says, contingent on many factors; but some literary works really are better than other literary works, and anyone imbued both with a sense of the preciousness of time and a love of literature will feel that he or she is better occupied teaching the best literature most of the time. In chapter three of Walden Thoreau described popular literature of his time as "Little Reading" which could be consumed without strain by the barely literate, in pathetic contrast to the classics, which students always have to stand "on tiptoe" to read, which can be truly read only by those whose lives are changed by the experience of reading. In teaching (and anthologizing) I act on Thoreau's assumption--that documents which afford the most rich, complex aesthetic experiences might also be the very documents most likely to work transforming enlightenment--social, cultural, political enlightenment--in all earnest young students. We may survive as a people without knowledge of a common body of literature, but if we read the casual writings of the day, the Times, as Thoreau says, rather than reading literature meant for Eternity (or if we forsake the pleasures of reading altogether, even Little Reading, for the pleasures of the other media) we lose something that all civilized societies have held sacred, the aesthetic and richly socializing experience of absorbing a set of national classics, an experience that just might be worth passing on to the next generation.

    This is from a talk I gave long ago on what we put into American textbooks as American literature--a talk published in the October 1991 COLLEGE LITERATURE as "The Price of Diversity: An Ambivalent Minority Report on the American Literary Canon."