June 9, 2007
Education at Its FinestBy Henry P. Wickham, Jr.
In a bygone era, a child sent to study the humanities was expected to drink deeply from the collected wisdom of the finest writers and artists, emerging with a heightened sense of mankind's potential for greatness as well the flaws inherent in human nature. But today, the forces of the left reign supreme, and agendas have pushed aside the deep truths of the human predicatment.
To get a better picture of the contemporary humanities, one can read books such as Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature, John M. Ellis's Literature Lost, R. V. Young's At War With the Word, and Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, to name only a few among many.
These books portray the dreary state of the study of the humanities generally, and of literature in particular. The importance of the humanities is no longer the aesthetic experience and the exploration of those mysteries and conundrums that have puzzled humankind for millennia. Rather, these subjects often now serve as mere illustrations for the political and social agendas of our trendy and alienated professoriate.
For these professors, words and the literature that they make up have no inherent meaning or value. Grammar itself is merely an artificial construct. To the extent that any interpretation or work prevails, it is an indication of only the power of those who espouse that interpretation or work rather than any value intrinsic to the work itself. No work, according to these professors, is inherently more valuable than any other, and the racial or sexual identity of the author is always more important. A perusal of the agenda of the Modern Language Association's annual convention, as used to be noted regularly in the "New Criterion," suggests the ubiquity of this debasement.
Franz Kafka once compared the study of law to the chewing of sawdust. When contrasting the current condition of the humanities in academia, and my experience with a gifted teacher and with what education can be at its best, the differences could not be more stark.
I had the late William G. Moore III as a high school teacher my freshman and senior years. Early freshman year we spent weeks doing grammatical drills, which must have been drudgery for him. However, he explained the logic of grammar and its importance to the translation of our thoughts, however muddled, into clear and coherent written expression.
He understood that "self esteem" must be earned from rigor and not simply and gratuitously conferred. This rigor was manifest to us not only in what he expected from us, but in the quality of what he assigned. We read Ben Jonson's Alchemist, whose style is still difficult for me. We read Homer, Waugh, Dickens, Forster, Swift, Shaw, and C. S. Lewis. We read and were taught to judge writers on their literary merit rather than group identity or political positions. We were spared the likes of Virginia Tech's Nikki Giovanni as an affirmative action literary assignment.
We were assigned Shakespeare's Henry IV, Pt I to read over Thanksgiving of our freshman year. Mr. Moore distinctly warned us against using the crutch of Cliffs Notes. "Summaries produced by second rate minds for the benefit of third rate minds," he told us. I remember sitting in my living room struggling with these opening lines:
Was this English? What could this possibly mean? It took so long to get the gist. To this 14 year old, this assignment was cruel and unusual punishment. So, maybe mine was just the sort of third rate mind for whom Cliff Notes was written.
With few exceptions I think that most of us struggled with this nearly 400 year old language, but Mr. Moore would not be deterred. He would have several of us stand in front of the room and read parts of the play. He would play recordings of portions of the play. Perhaps if we heard Hotspur's proud anger or Falstaff's great speech lampooning honor, we would begin to understand and appreciate this work. Somehow we never quite made it to those discussions so prevalent today of Shakespeare's alleged racism, support for colonialism, or bi-curious sexuality.
Simply figuring out the plot was not enough. Mr. Moore wanted us to know why Shakespeare was so revered. We studied his methods. We learned about those techniques used by so many great writers such as metonymy and metaphor. He taught us about blank verse and iambic pentameter in its rich variations. We learned about how a great work of literature has a structure, and how this structure enhances that work of literature.
We were taught that study involved a close reading the text. We did not spend much time on the author's biography or historical circumstances, and certainly not on his race or ethnic background. When answering his pointed questions about the work itself, we had to have some textual support for our position. He emphasized that the answer was in the text itself, in the language that the author very deliberately chose. Unlike current dogma on the arbitrariness of words and their meanings, these words had real meaning.
Mr. Moore was in college in the 1950s. I did not realize it at the time that much of what we learned from him was based upon the tenets of the "New Criticism." In the 1940s and 1950s the New Criticism was at its peak in the literary world. The New Critics, as they were called, were mostly associated with John Crowe Ransom, and they included luminaries such as Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and Rene Welleck, among others. They generally clustered around The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Sewanee Review. For them the exploration of artistic expression and the nature of literature and its effects were paramount as a means of reflection on and understanding of the human condition.
As I look back on those days, I remember well the adolescent eagerness with which we all left for college after graduation. How we longed for the counter-culture where we would finally get to take our walk on the wild side, and where we would supposedly set the standards and schedules and make our own rules.
After nearly 40 years, America has now evolved into a much different place and the counter-culture has become the culture. It is interesting that Mr. Moore with his love of literature, his formality, his demand for seriousness and rigorous work, has become the real counter-culture; that is, counter to the culture that is now ours.
In an age of amusing ourselves to death, where the half-life of what is considered profound is measured in days, I now understand that it was Mr. Moore's serious examination of the mysteries of life through literature that is the real walk on the wild side. So in high school I not very wittingly began that walk, and that is a walk that I would not have missed for anything.
I am sure that there are professors who love the humanities and the moral and aesthetic questions that they pose. There must be those who believe that not all study must be infused with politics, grievances, group identities, and social agendas, and who can rise above the dreck illustrated so well by the current state of academia. Tenured radicals, like kidney stones, must pass. The only questions are the extent of the damage they inflict and the condition of the body politic once they pass.