Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Classics

Reading Stanley Fish's encomium to classical education in yesterday's New York Times has me wishing I had had one.  "[F]our years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics," along with extra-curricular activities and clubs, sounds like too perfect a high-school curriculum ... and to think it was at one time the norm of American public education!

Instead, at the Christian school I graduated from, I got a Darwin-free biology class, a civics class with a focus on end-times prophesies, and one year of Spanish, taught to me by a tiny lady with a frosted beehive, who took us all to the Taco Bell in Hialeah on a field trip.

Even with a PhD degree from the University of Miami, I am awestruck at the thought of how much knowing all those languages and sciences at eighteen might have changed the course of my life.

And now as a teacher at a community college, where students think a word count is the key to a quality essay and a twelve-page reading assignment is exhausting, I am at the front lines of the dumbing down of America.  (I was flabbergasted last year when I heard that one of my colleagues, an extroverted and popular instructor, bluffed her way through the first three weeks of British Literature by showing her students a DVD of the 2003 film Luther, starring the very shaggable Joseph Fiennes as the sixteenth-century German reformer, ostensibly because it would illustrate what life was like in the days of Beowulf!)

At least at the Christian school (and colleges, sad to say) I attended, I got a hefty dose of the bible, which is about one third of humanities education right there.  Most of my students--and I'm including the ardent bible believers among them--know less about the bible than I remember after twenty-seven years of apostasy.  They can barely communicate clearly in their first language, much less make do in a second or third one--and only a few of them, mostly Hispanic students, speak better Spanish than I do (and this is me:  Me habloy espanol uno pequito ... which roughly translates as "I habloy a pequito Spanish").

Gore Vidal once quipped that every American school child knows his country is a world leader, yet hardly a one can name a tenth of the 195 nations of the world or find more than ten on a globe.

My mother once showed me my grandfather's sixth-grade spelling book from a one-room schoolhouse in Goshen, Alabama.  I never met the man; he died a year or two before I was born.  He never went to college.  The book could barely hold itself together, its leaves more browned than yellowed; there are Old Kingdom mummies in better shape.  And yet the vocabulary words in it averaged five or six syllables each, words like "eleemosynary" (well, that's outdated), "acculturation," and "heterogeneity" ... sixth grade.

Instead of knowing who Herodotus was, how photosynthesis occurs, what a fermata is, why Jephthah killed (or perhaps didn't kill) his daughter, or where the Caspian Sea is, high-school students are expected, I am told, to develop amazing eye-hand coordination and visuospatial skills playing World of Warcraft.  (I will have to admit that their thumbs move impressively fast as they text.)

Perhaps four years of Latin would be redundant in a country where most people aspire to have their own reality television shows and a holiday weekend in Forks, Washington--and that's among those who read sometimes.  We're a nation who by and large still believes in the devil.

Most of us suffer information overload watching CNN, while 81-year-old Noam Chomsky reads six newspapers a day, front to back.  How long he will be able to keep that up is hard to say.  I'm not talking about Chomsky's longevity here; I mean, How much longer can we expect there to be six daily newspapers in the world?

Still, as Chomsky once observed, Americans who claim not to be able to follow the ins and outs of American politics (while nineteen year olds in Roman coffee shops follow it avidly) can cite baseball stats dating back to the 1910s.

And then, of course, there's Twitter, in case Demi Moore should hiccup and we are the last to know.


  1. I had the education you envy, Joe,and like you, much more, but trust me, reading all your blogs I'd say you turned out all right. Most of our education is self-taught anyway,as you well know,and you've more than compensated for an ill-fated start at 18 on your way to Miami. Your essays display an eloquence,an insight, and a vast cultural information that most would envy. And these are informal essays!


  2. I attended a "liberal arts" college with a "humanities" focus, which meant four ungodly semesters stuffed with team-taught Western Civilization (art, music, literature) and crammed down the throats of every student. To pass, you had to memorize and regurgitate massive amounts of information, in multiple choice and essays. The essays required that you do zero thinking or analyzing, and simply spit back the perspectives given in class, to prove you had absorbed them. Any thoughts you had the urge to include, if not covered in class, resulted in points subtracted.

    It nearly turned me off to humanities for life.

    I suspect that if we could instill intellectual curiosity and a love of reading in every high school student, plus engage them in the habit of using the public library system, we'd come out ahead of most classical education curricula.

    Then again, maybe my brief exposure to classical education was the exception rather than the rule.

    (Our lack of foreign language proficiency is my biggest complaint about the American education system. My mother, a Venezuelan, speaks five languages. I can hobble through a conversation in Portuguese or Spanish, because of my family background, and I'm always surprised when Americans think that having a fair grasp of three languages is a sign of great intelligence. It's a matter of exposure, interest, and a bit of study.)



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