Short-Circuiting the Natural Love of Learning in Young People

There can be little doubt that the majority of today’s students are largely incapable of literate performance. They are also collectively devoid of humility before the majesty of the Great Tradition and the lessons of experience that would allow them to grapple with a strenuous and comprehensive curriculum of study.

They have been deprived of genuine instruction in the academic disciplines, indoctrinated in the political shibboleths of the time, and coddled into a state of self-assured autonomy of judgment. This is common knowledge.

Willing to support failed, dystfucntional policies (Photo via Facebook)

Grasping the rudiments of grammar and style, learning how to write coherently (by which I mean both the cursive of penmanship and the cursive of thought), and reading with comprehension in history, literature, philosophy and politics have become dead letters, quite literally. The state of juvenility and ineptitude in which they loiter bodes ill for the culture.

The default procedure among administrators and teachers is to ignore the obvious, to install largely useless computer instruction in the acquisition of writing skills and language proficiency, insist that “fairness” justifies weakening admission standards at the expense of quality, and that ‘social justice” rather than scholarly achievement and disciplinary merit is the aim of education.  

While these institutional debits and failures remain in place, the crux of the issue lies elsewhere. Nothing can supplant early reading -- that is, actual reading and being read to -- in the home. This is an advantage that cannot be overestimated. Education, as the adage has it, begins in the home with loving and responsible parents. According to Aristotle in the Politics, a child’s character and potentialities are formed by the age of seven, and there is considerble truth to that. Failing such parental supervision, students enter the education system at a deficit. Reclamation is always difficult though differentially possible, assuming native and untapped inclination in the student, a curriculum stressing the basics and expanding outward, an administration concerned with education rather than entrenchment, and teachers who are themselves well-educated and professionally accountable -- a Sisyphean proposition.

Only a decade or so ago, there were intermittent signs of sanity in the general debacle. I was moderately encouraged by the fact that some of my students proceeded to develop, with whatever assistance I could offer, their own bibliographic odysseys into the future. I can confidently attest that an extensive reading program undertaken in earnestness and duly proctored over time contributes to a growing love of books and a building command of grammar, syntax, usage, and vocabulary as well as to increasing mental agility.

My own optional week-end seminars for interested students held in my home for a number of years produced demonstrable results. Many picked up a love of reading and studied the books I recommended and discussed with them in a leisurely and convivial atmosphere. Their classroom performance and writing ability improved, as did their grades.

I would set them tasks like comparing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, readings more often than not beyond their immediate capabilities but enlivened and leavened by discussion. Students registered in the Faculty of Science and taking their compulsory English course were fascinated by our discussion of The Divine Comedy and its relation to scientific discovery; measuring the coordinates of Dante’s imaginary Inferno led to Galileo’s discovery of the square-cube law and the science of scaling theory. Our conversations about the nature of humanism flowed from selective readings in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The students would read out short essays for group commentary. Errors would be flagged, duly noted and corrected. These informal efforts ultimately “took.”

Another way of putting the issue is in medieval terms, where we find a learning model as pertinent today as it was centuries ago. The subjects taught in the Liberal Arts university were divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music). One could not rise to the level of the quadrivium unless one had first assimilated the trivium. But there is a twist in the sequence. In today’s “learning environment,” an oxymoron if ever there were one, students must first be convinced that the quadrivium is a value in itself and a goal to be sought if they are to apply themselves to mastering the trivium. And both endeavors can be pursued at the same time. In other words, serious reading and remedial grammar instruction are coterminous.

Such was the working principle behind the home classes I offered my students. And it was effective. Fit though few, students who desired to improve their writing, reading and conversational skills and who had internalized the grammatical, syntactical, phrasal and structural conventions of the language could proceed happily to the next phase, which is “pantagruelizing” -- defined by Rabelais as drinking to your heart’s desire while reading of the fearsome exploits of his towering humanist, Pantagruel. (The name seems to be a conflation of Greek for “all” or “always” and Arabic dialect -- or Hagarene -- for “thirsty.” Makes sense.) This is the stage of reading-intoxication and assimilative joy that complete the educative process.

I still receive occasional messages and visits from former students who were grateful for this variant form of “home schooling,” many saying that these sessions conducted over several semesters signaled a turning point in both their academic careers and their lives. “Thanks for Pantagruel,” one of my visitors and now an avid reader said over coffee and biscuits. Another, remembering his Coriolanus, wrote “The Volscians are all around us” -- and he was right. I recall fondly a “hopeless case” and something of a street thug in whom I sensed a latent talent and whom I coaxed to try out our weekend confabs. He became in time an exemplary student, earned the second highest marks in my satire and poetry classes, and, now an engineer, still professes a love for Jonathan Swift and Philip Larkin.

Moving out into the real world, one or two became teachers.  Most went into business, the professions, the sciences and engineering. Another is a writer who has sent me his manuscripts for vetting. Everyone with whom I remained in contact was successful in his or her chosen field and a productive member of society. Several of the girls, now married women, would send photos of their growing families.

Obviously, much has changed in the years since I decided to take early retirement, at a rate of acceleration that is frankly astonishing. What I see around me today resembles a different planet and the students I observe in the public schools and universities -- the snowflakes, the social justice warriors, the budding feminists, the proto-Marxists, the Antifas -- seem like extra-terrestrials. Spelling, grammar, syntax and logical concinnity, as well as what E.D. Hirsch called “cultural literacy,” are regarded as conspiracies waged against the millennials’ self-appointed virtuosity, abetted by teachers who are equally sub-standard and an education system dedicated to failure. The point was emphatically made by Thomas Sowell in Inside American Education: what students are learning is “presumptuous superficiality, taught by practitioners of it.”

Recipients of what may be called “trophy education” in which they receive participation awards and inflated grades for manifest trivialities, students and graduates are for the most part almost dysfunctional, some in their schooled ignorance believing they have been mandated to redeem a nation and civilization they do not understand and have been taught to abhor, others assuming that their feelings are the only criterion of excellence, attainment and even truth. Many are victims, as Tyler O’Neil writes, of “progressive intersectional leftism,” indoctrinated to believe that education is about critiquing white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, racism, capitalism and “other forms of power and oppression.” They have become not literate citizens but institutional hoplites. The loss to civil society is incalculable. As Jordan Peterson remarks, they are bent on cleaning up the world, but their rooms are a mess.