Matthew Arnold vs. Thomas Friedman

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.[1]  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.

* * *

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.


[1]Not surprisingly, this information is provided via lecture, rather than having the attendees discover it in group work,

Oh Boy, Oh Boy, It’s the 21st Century!

After listening to the SOTU address the other night, I’ve decided that If I had the dictatorial power to outlaw any adjective in contemporary English usage, it would be 21st Century – as in 21st-century economy, 21st-century technology, 21st century classroom.

After all, we’re a decade and a half into the century, so, c’mon, let’s drop the term and simply say current economy, current technology, etc., or future economy, future technology. I’m certain no one will think you’re talking about the 5th century BCE when the conversation turns to contemporary pedagogical practices.

definitionAs a teacher, I hear the phrase 21st Century education or 21st century classroom virtually every day, thanks, I suspect, to Thomas Friedman,* whose bestseller The World Is Flat spawned scores of educational entrepreneurs seeking fortunes by informing parents and teachers in books and lectures that books and lectures are relics of the past.

21st education, they say, demands “new building blocks for learning in a complex world,” and for students “to survive and thrive” in “[this] complex and connected world,” teachers must ditch abaci, slide rules, TRS-80s, and equip classrooms with state of the art technology. We need to abandon lectures and tests and embrace project-based, collaborative learning so we can produce technologically literate capitalists who, though they might think the Ottoman Empire is an HBO mini-series, know how to collaborate and find answers to their questions in a rapidly changing, increasingly interdependent world.

You see, I got the rap down myself.

my classroom

my classroom

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against technology. For example, in the accompanying photo of my classroom, you can see I use a table and chairs.

(Technology is, after all, defined as “the embodiment of a technique,” so strictly speaking chalk, slate blackboards, bobby pins, and bongs all fall under the category of technology).

Tables, invented by the Egyptians circa 3300 BCE, are not common in contemporary classrooms, unlike puzzle-like individual desks that interlock in threes for group work; nevertheless, I find that having students sitting in an oval facing one another facilitates polite discussions, as King Arthur himself realized, he being on the cutting edge of 6th century CE innovation.

Around the table we can tackle a subject in depth, learn from each other, disagree, counter argue, explain, and question without the distraction of open laptops and cell phone notifications. And, by the way, how do you efficiently provide students with all the information they need to fully understand a comprehensive subject without lecturing? How am I going to provide them with an overview of 18th Century British culture unless I explain empiricism, deism, coffeehouses, etc?  And by lecture, I mean Socratic lecturing, asking questions, soliciting opinions, not merely standing there behind a lecturn droning on about Juvenalian satire or neoclassic architecture.

As far as introducing students to technology, it seems to me that the authors of these books must not hang around many 21st century children. Whenever I have problem with hard or software, I can count a student coming quickly to my aid, and it has been my experience that sometimes they are even more adept than our IT department (which is excellent) in quickly finding a solution.

On the other hand, their vocabularies have shrunk appreciably since I started this gig in 1985, as have their attention spans, which I blame on quick-editing on Sesame Street and ear buds. (Click HERE on my invaluable guide to childrearing).

10.25-6Of course, this minor irritation of people echoing the 21st century cliché is bound to abate as we get further and further into the century. I suspect that the denizens of the American dystopia of 2075 will have stopped using 21st-century as an adjective, as they scrounge around the depleted planet exercising their 2nd Amendment rights because their grandparents voted for politicians who didn’t believe in science, but, alas, I won’t be around to enjoy not hearing it.

*The same Tom Friedman who from the Op-ed pages of the NY Times urged us to invade Iraq and depose Saddam because it would engender the spread of democracy across the Middle East. So much for his soothsaying.