Friday, April 24, 2009

BACK TO SCHOOLDAYS. Kathryn J. Lopez is pimping the hell out of a very old list of 30 books William "Book of Virtues" Bennett once promoted as a mandatory reading list for American high school students. (Some of the Cornerites plead for the inclusion of science fiction. Christ Jesus, what dorks.)

I don't know what fit came over the poor woman, but as a former amateur pedagogue, as well as a former high school student, I have something to say about this. First, I approve of the general idea (and of the listmakers' prejudice for Shakespeare's tragedies over his comedies, as the comedies are much too hard). Most students will neither apprehend nor enjoy the books, but I think they should get some of them down, as they do (or once did) times tables and key historical dates, as an introduction, however awkward, to the world of ideas.

Even if they are frog-marched through Crime and Punishment, they will at least retain some vague memory of it into adulthood, and with any luck it will resonate when they brush up against even informal discussions of right, wrong, justice, religion, free will, alienation, etc. It might prompt a shock of recognition that they have not been entirely left out of the conversation that the smart people are having. Also, just getting through big books, even if they test badly on them, may be a point of pride for them, and give them the salutary notion that they are not dummies after all.

If this sounds harsh -- if you think students should be inculcated with the joy of reading, rather than frog-marched through big books -- please take a moment to gather your memories of high school, and not just your own experience but also those of your classmates, as you perceived them. Then, consider: at which are schools better -- at instruction, or at enlightenment? If your mind was awakened in high school, congratulations, but chances are it would have awakened in any case, whether you had school or not. But you were less likely to have learned on your own polynomial equations, how to write a paper, historical analysis, or other such building blocks of intellectual life. I didn't want to learn these things, but I was taught them nonetheless, and I'm grateful for the experience.

In fact, the frog-march approach has an even more serious advantage when it comes to literature.

This approach would make sure that these books are not apprehended, as Bennett's Book of Virtues sought to have simpler works apprehended, as "a reliable moral reference point that will help anchor our children and ourselves in our culture, our history, and our traditions." This is not to say that I have anything against that culture, history, or traditions. But, for one thing, I doubt Bennett and myself have quite the same idea of them as I do -- or, for that matter, as the authors of these great works did. Works of literature are more elusive than any political operative's talking points.

Can you imagine Bennett's lesson plan for Moby-Dick? It would probably have something about Ahab's sin of pride. Okay, let the kids run with that; they won't have time, certainly, to think much about it as they slog through the endless pages and references to whaling arcana. Let them get the story, details, and characters straight, and then let them be haunted through life by it. Maybe they will spend years wondering, as I have wondered, about the sky-hawk that goes down with the Pequod, held by the hammer of Tashtego, "his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab." Later they can come to stuff like this, which is fun for grown-ups but would in their first reading only interfere.

Remember, a whole generation of American progressives was educated with "The boy stood on the burning deck" and stuff like that. They were no less propagandized than we are, and their teachers were no better or worse than ours. But their rote education gave them room to think and dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment