Yesterday I was perusing the "top stories" on Boston.com, and amidst the stories about cats being rescued and people hating Rachael Ray I found an opinion article about the way college professors teach literature. The person who wrote the article, Elizabeth Kantor, is the author of a book titled The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature.
IT'S OFFICIAL: You spend tens of thousands of dollars to send your children to college. In return, the colleges turn out graduates who are more ignorant than when they enrolled.Some of us paid our own way to become more ignorant, lady. I'll check my bitterness at the door and move along.
According to a recent survey by the University of Connecticut and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of more than 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 50 colleges across the country, seniors actually know less about American history and government than entering freshmen.On the surface, that does indeed look damning. After watching any episode of "Jaywalking" on Leno, it's painfully apparent that Americans don't know that much about what used to be considered basic information. However, I wonder if the study takes into account that most college freshmen have just come from four years of history courses in high school while most college seniors fulfilled their general history requirements while they were a freshman in college. Once three years has passed and a student has taken more courses specific to his field, it stands to reason that what he learned in his freshman history class has moved to the foggy banks of his memory while the knowledge he needs to complete his degree is at the forefront.
But students don't just learn (or unlearn, as the case may be) facts in college. They also learn attitudes and principles. In other words, they form their characters, which, Aristotle pointed out more than 2,000 years ago, means learning to love and delight in certain things and spurn others. For example, American students used to learn more from the Gettysburg Address than just the facts of Civil War military history. They also learned to love self-government -- and its necessary condition, the courage and sacrifice of the patriotic soldier.
Students also learn the art of keg stands, one-night stands, flip-cup and high doses of No-Doze. I think we may be kicking it a little differently in 2006 than 6. And "courage and sacrifice of the patriotic soldier?" I think most would agree that the Civil War was much different than the war our troops are fighting overseas right now.
But too many of today's politically correct college professors aren't interested in persuading young Americans to adopt any such traditional attitudes as patriotism, civic responsibility, or traditional morality. In fact, many American colleges seem to be teaching students to spurn the very things that students used to learn to love and delight in.What? I'm pretty sure I never had a professor who told me to burn the flag and join the communist party. And "traditional morality" is a loaded phrase. Is it the college professors turning people gay? Because I went to Emerson, and I'm pretty sure most of those folks came to the party gayer than Christmas before college professors got ahold of them.
Finally, Kantor gets to the meat of her issue with college professors.
Universities are full of trendy English professors who don't read Shakespeare for the beauty of the poetry or its peerless insights into human nature. The point is to uncover the oppression that's supposed to define Western culture: the racism, "patriarchy," and imperialism that must lurk beneath the surface of everything written by those "dead white males." (The latest book from University of Pennsylvania professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, investigates how "Macbeth" contributed to the "domestication of women.") With their low opinion of Western civilization, it's no wonder that so many English professors teach material that isn't English literature at all: Marx and Derrida -- and even comic books, politically correct bestsellers from the '80s, foreign films, and pornography -- rather than Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
Granted, I went to a pretty liberal college. But I went to state school for a year as well, and neither environment ever emphasized the negative aspects of Shakespeare over the positive. I took two classes specifically in Shakespeare during college, and I'm sure he cropped up in other courses. Issues of the negative side of Western culture is going to come into reading Shakespeare-- The Merchant of Venice is basically a romp through Jewish stereotypes and violence against Jews that only Mel Gibson could love in 2006. (I'll be here all night-- tip your waitresses!) The Taming of the Shrew, while hilarious, has almost a whole act of the play in which Pertruchio abuses his new wife to "tame" her. I think you have to address the way Shakespeare's culture was compared to the way we live now in 2006, but doing so doesn't eliminate the fact that Shakespeare was doing some amazing writing. For example:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.Macbeth, 5. 5
To a lot of professors, Western culture is something students need to be liberated from. It is not something to pass on and preserve.
What a pity. Especially now, when we're under attack from enemies who want to replace our civilization with a very different kind of culture.Western culture isn't in our genes. It's learned. And despite what the typical 21st-century college professor may believe, Western civilization has conferred enormous benefits on the human race: extraordinary freedom and respect for women, workable self-government, freedom of speech and the press.
Okay. Kantor wants us to not read our social values into Shakespeare but wants us to learn from the "dead white males" who Western Civilization has brought about positive roles for women and free speech? I don't understand her argument. I took a Western Civ class with the amazing John Coffee at Emerson College, and he made us read the Bible because, as he put it, to understand Western Civilization you must read the Bible. Professor Coffee leaned to the liberal side of things, but he never encouraged open anarchy in his classes. He did, however, plainly state that Western Civilization has brought about some bad things. We endorsed slavery for hundreds of years. Once we got rid of slavery, we made life just as hard on the freed slaves and their descendants. The Crusades? Bueller? We've started pointless wars, such as Vietnam and what led to the current civil war in Iraq. I love the freedom that Western Civilization grants me to question our wars and call Mitt Romney a fucking idiot and not fear being dragged from my bed in the middle of the night. However, we paid a price for those freedoms that we need to acknowledge, and perhaps find a way to make sure the abuses Western Civilization has inflicted on some don't continue.
If students actually studied the classics of English and American literature under the guidance of sympathetic teachers, they'd learn many other politically incorrect truths as well. From "Beowulf," students could learn that military virtue is both necessary and noble. In Chaucer, they might come to understand chivalry, and see how it changed the position of women. In Shakespeare, students could glimpse the existence of universal underlying patterns that shape and define human character (as well as all our institutions, from marriage to government).... Some of these lessons are characteristically Western. Others -- respect for military virtue, for example -- are typical of almost any healthy culture. But English professors are detached not just from the heritage of the West but in a sense from culture at all, or even from objective reality. "Essentialist" is the term of abuse that feminists and "queer theorists" apply to anyone who suggests that the stubborn facts of nature -- the differences between men and women, for example -- limit or define human beings in any way.
Military virtue is necessary, noble, and a trait of a "healthy culture?" I guess I understand Kantor's point, but there's a flip side to the argument. A healthy culture also needs people who are against the military. I'm not saying to not support troops, but people need to question what our troops are doing before we end up in a quagmire like we're in now. We need people to question the people in power, because without it the Western culture Kantor very much wants preserved would be irrevocably changed, and, frankly, not worth defending with even the most noble of armies.
Maybe I didn't go to the right school for this, but I never read literature only to criticize the negative aspects of Western culture. I was a writing major: maybe that contributed to the focus on the words and not the historical background. But while I've been to Stratford-Upon-Avon twice to visit the book geek Disney attraction that is Shakespeare's digs, I wouldn't sit around and call for a pound of flesh from a Jew. I don't want to end up on Jesse Jackson's radio show begging for forgiveness. Shakespeare and the other great writers of Western culture had a way with words, but our culture has changed from theirs and that needs to be acknowledged.