Friday, February 09, 2007

'Hey Jack Kerouac, I think of your mother'

Due to a post at "The Little Professor" I came across this article at the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' website, in which a professor at UC-Davis bemoans the fact that his undergraduates have never read Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, and have never seen Citizen Kane. Well, I can't say much in response except that I've never read Mailer or Kerouac, nor ever seen Citizen Kane, and I seem to have turned out tolerably well. In my undergraduate days, I would only have even heard about Citizen Kane because it was mentioned in an episode of The Adventures of Lois & Clark, and would largely have known the name 'Jack Kerouac' only from the 10000 Maniacs song, "Hey Jack Kerouac". And Natalie Merchant is not exactly the premium source for information. Conceivably I would have known the title On the Road, again probably from some coffeehouse poetry reference in some movie or television show. Mailer I can guarantee I had never heard of; even now I don't know much more than the name. I'm the sort of person he's bemoaning.

Which is rather funny, because there's no question that I was an exceptionally well-read undergraduate; certainly what virtually any English professor would have considered crème de la crème among incoming students. I aced the AP English test for credit; for that test I wrote an essay on the role of epiphany in the plot of Jane Eyre. I had read almost all the works of Nathanael Hawthorne (my favorite book was The House of Seven Gables, although I preferred his short stories); I could have told you that my three favorite Melville works were Moby Dick, Typee, and The Confidence Man. The Mark Twain works I enjoyed most were The Prince and the Pauper and Huckleberry Finn; I found Tom Sawyer amusing but only mildly so; Letters from the Earth mostly just puzzled me. Alcott's Little Women, which I had read over and over again for much of my teenage life, had led me to Pilgrim's Progress, and I remember my delight when I found Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, a short story that satirizes transcendentalism and liberal Christianity in a Bunyanesque style. I had read Dante's Divine Comedy and Goethe's Faust (in translation, of course); I had also read all the plays of Shakespeare (my favorite then, as now, was Henry V, although as a rule I had found the tragedies the easiest to go through and the histories the hardest -- the comedies mostly just blurred together). Much of this was through my own reading; but all of it was sparked by reading I had had to do for school. But I would have been as utterly mystified by Abramsky's references to Mailer and Kerouac and Citizen Kane as someone who had scarcely picked up a book in his life.

To an extent, what Abramsky is doing is something that all who teach are tempted to do. I know that I've been shocked -- utterly shocked -- to find students who didn't know what a pons asinorum was, or couldn't catch the reference in the phrase 'Ariadne's thread'. I even wrote a post about it; although I certainly wouldn't be so put out now that I am less naive. But there's a fine line here between seeing a lack of education and merely seeing a lack of education into your particular tastes. I agree with Miriam; one can well imagine some major Victorian mind, or someone from some other period, brought to the future and shocked -- utterly shocked -- by the fact that our system of education lets people all the way through without having read Euclid in the original Greek and Virgil in the original Latin.

The question that should be asked is not what students come to the classroom not having learned, since that is bound to be virtually infinite no matter how well they have been educated (and is virtually infinite for us all) but what they have learned instead of that. That's the question that uncovers whether they are being educated well or not. I suspect that there will often -- perhaps almost always -- be serious cause for worry in that question. But it's important to be clear that it's entirely a different question.

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