Archive for the ‘English Literature’ Category

Crafting a Literature Program

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

The liberal arts are, to great measure, founded on written remains, from the earliest times to our own. Literature (broadly construed to take in both fiction and non-fiction) encompasses a bewildering variety of texts, genres, attitudes, belief systems, and just about everything else. Like history (which can reasonably be construed to cover everything we know, with the possible, but incomplete, exception of pure logic and mathematics), literature is a problematic area of instruction: it is both enormously important and virtually impossible to reduce to a clear and manageable number of postulates. 

In modern educational circles, literary studies are often dominated by critical schools, the grinding of pedagogical axes, and dogmatic or interpretive agendas of all sorts — social, political, psychological, or completely idiosyncratic. Often these things loom so large as to eclipse the reality that they claim to investigate. It is as if the study of astronomy had become exclusively bound up with the technology of telescope manufacture, but no longer bothered with turning them toward the stars and planets. Other difficulties attend the field as well.

We’re sailing on an ocean here…

The first is just the sheer size of the field. Yes, astronomy may investigate a vast number of stars, and biology may look at a vast number of organisms and biological systems, but the effort there is to elicit what is common to the diverse phenomena (which did not in and of themselves come into being as objects of human contemplation) and produce a coherent system to account for them. Literature doesn’t work that way. There is an unimaginably huge body of literature out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. Unlike science or milk, the old material doesn’t spoil or go off; it just keeps accumulating. Even if (by your standards or Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of it is garbage, that still leaves an enormous volume of good material to cover. There’s no way to examine more than the tiniest part of that.

…on which the waves never stop moving…

Every item you will encounter in a study of literature is itself an overt attempt to communicate something to someone. That means that each piece expresses its author’s identity and personality; in the process it inevitably reflects a range of underlying social and cultural suppositions. In their turn, these may be common to that author’s time and place, or they may represent resistance to the norms of the time. Any given work may reach us through few or many intermediaries, some of which will have left their stamp on it, one way or the other. Finally, every reader receives every literary product he or she encounters differently, too. That allows virtually infinite room for ongoing negotiation between author and reader in shaping the experience and its meaning — which is the perennially shifting middle ground between them.

…while no two compasses agree…

I haven’t seen this discussed very much out in the open, though perhaps I just don’t frequent the right websites, email lists, or conferences. But the reality — the elephant in the room — is that no two teachers agree on what qualifies as good and bad literature. Everyone has ideas about that, but they remain somewhat hidden, and often they are derived viscerally rather than systematically. For example, I teach (among other things) The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn; I have seen both attacked, in a national forum of English teachers, as having no place in the curriculum because they are (for one reason or another) either not good literature or because they are seen as conveying pernicious social or cultural messages. I disagree with their conclusion, at least — obviously, since I do in fact teach them, but the people holding these positions are not stupid. In fact, they make some very strong arguments. They’re proceeding from basic assumptions different from my own…but, then again, so does just about everyone. That’s life.

…nor can anyone name the destination:

Nobody talks about this much, either, but it’s basic: our literature teachers don’t even remotely agree on what they’re doing. Again, I don’t mean that they are incompetent or foolish, but merely that there is no universally agreed-upon description of what success in a literature program looks like. Success in a science or math program, or even a foreign language program, is relatively simple to quantify and consequently reasonably simple to assess. Not so here. Every teacher seems to bring a different yardstick to the table. Some see their courses as morally neutral instruction in the history and techniques of an art form; others see it as a mode of indoctrination in values, according to their lights. For some, that’s Marxism. For some, it’s conservative Christianity. For some, it’s a liberal secular humanism. For others…well, there is no accounting for all the stripes of opinion people bring with the to the table — but the range is very broad.

is it any wonder people are confused?

So where are we, then, anyway? The sum is so chaotic that most public high students I have asked in the past two decades appear to have simply checked out: they play the game and endure their English classes, but the shocking fact is that, even while enrolled in them at the time, almost all have been unable to tell me what they were reading for those classes. This is not a furtive examination: I’ve simply asked them, “So, what are you reading for English?” If one or two didn’t know, I’d take that as a deficiency in the student or a sudden momentary diffidence on the subject. When all of them seem not to know, however, I suspect some more systemic shortfall. I would suggest that this is not because they are stupid either, but because their own literary instruction has been so chaotic as to stymie real engagement with the material.

It’s not particularly surprising, then, that literature is seen as somehow suspect, and that homeschooling parents looking for literature courses for their students feel that they are buying a pig in a poke. They are. They have to be wondering — will this course or that respect my beliefs or betray them? Will the whole project really add up to anything? Will the time spend on it add in any meaningful sense to my students’ lives, or is this just some gravy we could just as well do without? Some parents believe (rightly or wrongly: it would be a conflict of interest for me even to speculate which) that they probably can do just as well on such a “soft” subject as some program they don’t fully understand or trust. 

One teacher’s approach

These questions are critical, and I encourage any parent to get some satisfactory answers before enrolling in any program of literary instruction, including mine. Here are my answers: if they satisfy you, I hope you’ll consider our program. If not, look elsewhere with my blessing, but keep asking the questions.

In the first instance, my project is fairly simple. I am trying to teach my students to read well. Of course, by now they have mastered the mechanical art of deciphering letters, combining them into words, and extracting meaning from sentences on a page. But there’s more to reading than that: one must associate those individual sentences with each other and weigh them together to come to a synthetic understanding of what the author is doing. They need in the long run to consider nuance, irony, tonality, and the myriad inflections an author imparts to the text with his or her own persona. Moreover, they need t consider what a given position or set of ideas means within its own cultural conversation. All those things change the big picture.

There’s a lot there to know, and a lot to learn. I don’t pretend to know it all myself either, but I think I know at least some of the basic questions, and I have for about a generation now been encouraging students to ask them, probe them, and keep worrying at the feedback like a dog with a favorite bone. In some areas, my own perspectives are doubtless deficient. I do, on the other hand, know enough about ancient and medieval literature, language, and culture that I usually can open some doors that students hadn’t hitherto suspected. Once one develops a habit of looking at these things, one can often see where to push on other kinds of literature as well. The payoff is cumulative.

There are some things I generally do not do. I do not try to use literary instruction as a reductive occasion or pretext for moral or religious indoctrination. Most of our students come from families already seriously engaged with questions of faith and morals, and I prefer to respect that fact, leaving it to their parents and clergy. I also don’t believe that any work of literature can be entirely encompassed by such questions, and hence it would be more than a little arrogant of me to try to constrain the discussion to those points.

This is not to say that I shy away from moral and religious topics either (as teachers in our public schools often have to do perforce). Moral and theological issues come up naturally in our conversations, and I do not suppress them; I try to deal with them honestly from my own perspective as a fairly conservative reader and as a Christian while leaving respectful room for divergence of opinion as well. (I do believe that my own salvation is not contingent upon my having all the right answers, so I’m willing to be proven wrong on the particulars.)

It is never my purpose to mine literary works for “teachable points” or to find disembodied sententiae that I can use as an excuse to exalt this work or dismiss that one. This is for two reasons. First of all, I have too much respect for the literary art to think that it can or should be reduced to a platitudinous substrate. Second, story in particular (which is a large part of what literature involves) is a powerful and largely autonomous entity. It cannot well be tamed; any attempt to subvert it with tendentious arguments (from either the author’s point of view or from the reader’s) almost invariably produces bad art and bad reading. An attempt to tell a student “You should like this work, but must appreciate it only in the following way,” is merely tyrannical — tyrannical in the worst way, since it sees itself as being entirely in the interest of and for the benefit of the student. Fortunately, for most students, it’s also almost wholly ineffectual, though a sorry side effect is that a number find the whole process so off-putting that they ditch literature altogether. That’s probably the worst possible outcome for a literature program.

I also do not insist on canons of my own taste. If students disagree with me (positively or negatively) about the value of a given work, I’m fine with that. I don’t require anyone to like what I like. I deal in classics (in a variety of senses of the term) but the idea of an absolute canon of literature is a foolish attempt to control what cannot be controlled. It does not erode my appreciation for a work of literature that a student doesn’t like it. The fact that twenty generations have liked another won’t itself make me like it either, if I don’t, though it does make me reticent to reject it out of hand. It takes a little humility to revisit something on which you have already formed an opinion, but it’s salutary. It’s not just the verdict of the generations that can force me back to a work again, either: if a student can see something in a work that I have hitherto missed and can show me how to appreciate it, I gain by that. At the worst, I’m not harmed; at the best, I’m a beneficiary. Many teachers seem eager to enforce their evaluations of works on their students. I don’t know why. I have learned more from my students than from any other source, I suspect. Why would I not want that to continue?

Being primarily a language scholar, I do attempt to dig into texts for things like grammatical function — both as a way of ascertaining the exact surface meanings and as a way of uncovering the hidden complexities. Those who haven’t read Shakespeare with an eye on his brilliant syntactical ambiguity in mind are missing a lot. He was a master of complex expression, and what may initially seem oddly phrased but obvious statements can unfold into far less obvious questions or bivalent confessions. After thirty years of picking at it, I still have never seen an adequate discussion in the critical literature on Macbeth’s “Here had we now our country’s honour roofed / Were the graced person of our Banquo present (Macbeth 3.4.39-40).”  The odd phrasing is routinely explained as something like “All the nobility of Scotland would be gathered under one roof if only Banquo were present,” but I think he is saying considerably more than that, thanks to the formation of contrary-to-fact conditions and the English subjunctive.

My broadest approach to literature is more fully elaborated in Reading and Christian Charity, an earlier posting on this blog and also one of the “White Papers” on the school website. I hope all parents (and their students) considering taking any of my courses will read it, because it contains the essential core of my own approach to literature, which differs from many others, both in the secular world and in the community flying the banner of Classical Christian Education. If it is what you’re looking for, I hope you will consider our courses. 

[Some of the foregoing appeared at the Scholars Online Website as ancillary to the description of the literature offerings. It has been considerably revised and extended here.]

The King of Quotations

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

This summer I’m planning on teaching the second of my three Summer Shakespeare courses. Accordingly, I’ve been putting together a web site for it, and have been thinking about Shakespeare a good deal in general; in addition, our son recently played Hamlet in Minneapolis, and we were fortunate enough to get to see him in it.

Shakespeare is probably the single most revered author in the English language — the gold standard. He wrote brilliant plays containing intriguing situations, characters, and philosophical problems, of course, but most particularly he was a master of language. His words can still move, transform, and amaze us. Probably for this latter reason in particular, his plays have been mined, ever since they were written, as sources of pithy quotations, aphorisms, and the like.

The mere fact that Shakespeare wrote something, however, does not inoculate it against banal misuse. This is the more likely, inasmuch as Shakespeare is more often revered than read, and more often read than understood. Accordingly, one commonly encounters extracts taken out of context, presented as the wisdom of the ages condensed into lapidary iambic pentameters.

One particularly amusing — and common — example is from Hamlet I.iii: the final advice of the old courtier Polonius to his son Laertes, who is about to take ship to return to Paris:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This is prettily turned, with a certain rhetorical flourish on “true” and “false”. Being true to yourself sounds like a good idea, surely, especially if it leads to being true to others as well. The sentence is so often quoted out of context that one might well encounter it a dozen different places without ever realizing that it was apparently meant to characterize the speaker as either a buffoon or a villain or both.

There are a number of ways to understand Polonius, but none of them should particularly commend him to us. The simplest is as a mere self-important windbag. Surely he is at least that. He is constantly spouting florid phrases without any sense of proportion or context; he’s so wrapped up in his own rhetoric that he’s lost track of content. He distracts himself and derails his own discourse.

He can also plausibly be seen (as David Ball argues in his brilliant little Backwards and Forwards) as a much cagier fellow — perhaps relying on an affected persona of the buffoon to mask the fact that he is a cold behind-the-scenes manipulator, who manages, in the cynical pursuit of his own advancement, to destroy his son, his daughter, and himself, and to steer most of the events of the Danish court into pure disaster.

In either case, however, three lines come as the consummation of a lengthy run of advice, almost all of which tells Laertes how to behave — but having nothing much to do with being true to himself in any sense of the term, either ancient or modern. Much of it has to do with creating an impression upon others — an impression that at least Polonius believes is a false one. Immediately after seeing his son off, he sends out a spy (Reynaldo, in a scene cut from almost every commercial production of the play) to keep an eye on him and find out — largely by slandering Laertes — what he may learn of him that is to his discredit. Polonius is not a trusting man — even so far as his own son (who deserves better) is concerned — and certainly he’s not one to be trusted himself. He is not true to himself; he is not true to anyone else.

That of course does not necessarily vitiate the advice: it probably remains a good idea to be true to oneself and so to others. But taking that as the sum and substance of the matter — a golden apothegm because The Bard said it — is largely to miss its point.

My point here is that any author — whether Shakespeare or anyone else — needs to be read with an eye to the whole. Any author can be the source of extracts that seem lofty and laudable, or reprehensible, without those things having any real relation to what the author was saying. Reading well, and reading charitably, involves pushing past those limitations and engaging with the text itself in context. The reader is the richer for it.