Whenever I participate in interviews for prospective administrators or humanities teacher candidates at my school, my first question goes something like this:
Matthew Arnold once wrote that education’s primary purpose was “getting to know [. . .] the best that has been thought and said in the world.” I’ve recently attended a couple of conferences devoted to the brave new world of “21st Century education.” The lecturers at these conferences argue we should be preparing students for global capitalism, making sure they can command computers, work together in groups, plan and implement projects, etc. A survey of British literature, for example, comes off as impractical in this context. After all, understanding how WWI’s shattering of Western Civilization’s stained glass window relates to the fragmentary nature of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” isn’t going to have much practical value in negotiating an international real estate transaction.
What’s your take on this dichotomy? Should we jettison the great books and literature survey courses in exchange for a more practical, hands-on approach to dealing with data? Does understanding the sequence of the history of thought have any practical value?
Of course, it’s not an easy question, but that’s the point. And, of course, an astute listener will detect my bias in framing the question.
The truth of the matter is that British literature surveys in high schools are hobbling towards extinction. Only my school’s sophomore honors classes encounter the historical sequence that features, among other riches, Romanticism’s rejection of Augustan rationality (cf. the 60’s vis-à-visthe 50’s); the non-honor classes explore the British canon thematically, e.g., Beowulf and Frankenstein headlining a unit on “monsters.”
Instead of a tapestry, they get a quilt.
The counterargument, which I concede has merit, is that students need to understand non-Western cultures in our rapidly shrinking world. On the other hand, reading a Chinese poem in translation means forsaking sound, which is what poetry is all about. I would argue that understanding how Keats employs caesura to slow down the lines of “An Ode to a Nightingale” to convey exhaustion might have more analytical merit that engaging with naked poetic ideas from afar stripped of the original interconnections of sound and sense that enhanced their meanings.
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What has sparked this post is a happy coincidence that has occurred in the 9th grade genre course I teach. This year in the 9th grade we replaced 1984 with The Picture of Dorian Gray as our second semester novel. As my fortitudinous non-plan planning has had it, I find myself simultaneously teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to freshmen and Heart of Darkness (1899), to sophomores.
Although I concede you could teach both in the monster unit — Gray versus Kurtz – students would be ignorant of the Victorian background that makes the contrasts of these two works and their characters so meaningful. They would miss out the connection between this:
[Dorian] was seated at the piano, with his back to them, turning over the pages of Schumann’s “Forest Scenes.”
And this, Marlow in “Heart of Darkness” talking about his European colleagues in the Belgium Congo:
“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.”
“21st Century” educational question: “Are Dorian/Lord Henry/Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ complicit in the slaughter of African elephants?”
Dig this; here’s our first peek at Lord Henry, the villain of TPoDG:
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum . . . [my italics]
Here’s our first peek at Conrad’s alter ego:
Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. [my italics]
Indulge me on last contrast, a contrast in how one feels about lying, which is of particular political import right now in the USA.
“Let’s go to the theater tonight,” said Lord Henry. “There is sure to be something on, somewhere. I have promised to dine at White’s, but it is only with an old friend, so I can send him a wire to say I am ill, or that I’m prevented from coming in consequence of a subsequent engagement.”
Marlow, on the other hand:
You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.
I’ve been highlighting snippets from the other novel to both ninth and tenth grade classes. I pretend that the two events, Marlow’s telling his horrific story of what he saw in Africa on the Nellie in the Thames and Lord Henry lounging on the divan in Mayfield, are taking place simultaneously.
And, of course, they were.