Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Artsby Roger Shattuck
An urgent cry for meaning in a world where theory has often usurped substance, Candor and Perversion illuminates the world of twentieth-century literature.
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I read "Nineteen Theses" at a 1994 dinner in Boston after an all-day meeting to found the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. The theses represent no official document, nor even any consensus established by that group. Rather, they declare my view, widely shared, I believe, of a state of affairs that calls for the existence of such an association and of such a document.
Here, in brief, is the background for posting a set of theses.
At the close of the twentieth century, we should reasonably expect a liberal education in our high schools, colleges, and universities to serve two principal goals. The first goal is to present the historic basis of our complex culture and the political and moral standards that have evolved from it. The second is to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals, and its realities. The first explains and even justifies the status quo. The second questions it. In a democracy, both are necessary.
Those two opposed functions can take place together, almost simultaneously, thanks in great part to a collection of written works that both provide a basis for our Western tradition and challenge it. For instance, we find variations on the dialogue form in Plato, in Montaigne's essays, in Swift's imaginary voyages, and in Dostoevsky's fictional conversations. These supple works do not pronounce; rather, they probe and reflect. The shared reading of such foundational books gives us a basis for finding the principlesand the precedents by which we can live together as one country and one culture containing many parts and divisions, many classes and races.
Along with political and historical writings, literature and philosophy provide two of the most important categories of such "classic" works. They form a loose core curriculum, which has changed slowly over the years. Plutarch's The Parallel Lives and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress have faded into the background. Mary Shelley and Frederick Douglass have moved forward into a place they deserve. We also recognize non-Western works. In order to have a common frame of reference within which to reason together, I would argue that there are books everyone should read. And we should never stop discussing which ones those are.
In recent years, however, other considerations have begun to usurp the place of literary status and quality. It is a simplification, but not a distortion, to refer to two categories of interests that tend to displace literature: politics (including race, class, feminism, minority and cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies) and theory (reliance on a prior methodology or approach by which to read all works). These interests, perfectly legitimate as adjuncts to literature, have become increasingly dominant, specialized, and doctrinaire. Their cumulative effect is to eliminate the very category of literature. Current fashions favoring "interdisciplinary studies" also tend to weaken the basic disciplines of history and literature.
"Nineteen Theses" was written as a response to the attempt to dismiss literature as a central field of study and personal reward. The note of whimsy introduced in the "Interlude" should reinforce the conviction with which I offer these theses.
THE NINETEEN THESES
Literature in General
I. A real world of material things, sometimes called nature, exists around us. Nature includes us, and we share it imperfectly with one another through perception, action, memory, language, love, and wonder.
II. Material nature has gradually helped shape human behavior and consciousness into patterns we recognize as cultures and as common sense. Across millions of years under a great variety of social behaviors, we have evolved a fairly stable sociogenetic compound we refer to as human nature. Human nature contains an elusive element of freedom: freedom from blind chance and determinism, freedom to choose our actions.
III. There may be more than material nature and human nature. Words like spiritual and transcendent and ineffable may refer to more than mere yearnings. Much around us remains unknown.
IV. Works of literature, through their amalgam of representation and imagination, of clarity and mystery, of the particular and the general, offer revealing evidence about material nature and human nature and whatever may lie beyond. This is why we read and study and discuss literary works.
V. Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings, thoughts, and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.
VI. Works of literature are written by individual authors using an existing language with reference to material nature and human nature. The doctrine known as textuality makes a triple denial of these entities. Textuality denies the existence of the natural world, of literature, and of authors.
VII. No author has a claim to final authority. However, we do well to acknowledge, as all cultures do, sheer seniority. Works that have survived for centuries cannot be dismissed out of hand as stiflingly traditional, as part of the status quo, needing above all to be usurped by the modern.
VIII. In order to affirm literature in its full humanist sense, let us eschew the freestanding word text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Rather, let us take advantage of the full range of terms like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like "the text of" a work, and "sacred texts." But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting "text" in every other line of what we say and write.
IX. Like our terrestrial environment, our literary, intellectual, and moral environment needs to be wisely cultivated and protected. We have as many strip miners and clear-cutters operating in the areas of literature, philosophy, and history as we have operating on the planet Earth. You know their names and their schools. Some of them believe that we who devote ourselves to literature and inquiry are an endangered speciesand should fade away. We, for our part, are resolved to survive and to flourish.
X. "Our lives are a fierce attempt to find an aspect of this world not open to interpretation" (David Mamet, Kafka's Grave).
XI. In the fullness of time a poet-oracle came forth upon the mountaintop, whence one could see a great distance in all directions. To the innumerable questions put to this fierce yet gentle seer, only two answers have come down to us:
1. "Everything exists in order to end up in a book."
2. "Nothing will survive unless it has been uttered."
XII. To those preparing to be shipwrecked on a desert island, I offer a miniaturized library of world literature that can be memorized in a few days. It consists of 3,001 bullsnot Papal: Irish. Bulls combine succinct style, compacted logic, and a sharp (if blunted) point; for example:
At your age Mozart was dead.
Reader's report to a textbook publisher: "This book does nothing for
the nonreading student."
No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It's too crowded.
We teach what we hope to learn.
Count no man happy till he dies.
Freedom is the absence of choice.
Stop it some more.
I can never kiss her properly. Her face always gets in the way.
He died cured.
Don't go near the water till you've learned to swim.
This book fills a badly needed gap.
XIII. The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks.
XIV. Everything has been said. But nobody listens. Therefore it has to be said all over againonly better. In order to say it better, we have to know how it was said before.
XV. A friend in Missouri recently sent me a book-length manuscript. In the past, she has written intense studies of the relation between German and French philosophy as it has influenced literary theory since 1950. In her letter, my friend declared that she has undergone a profound change of heart. She now rejects the reigning schools of literary theory and attacks them in this manuscript. It is time for a more direct and less abstract approach to literature. Would I write an introduction to her book?
My friend's new book vehemently rebuts Heidegger and Adorno, Barthes and Derrida on their own ground. It reads like her earlier bookswith all the signs changed. She has without question changed sides; she has not left the battlefield. As before, her discussions do not refer to any primarily literary works. The only authors she mentions from before 1950 are Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.
I wrote my friend that I applaud her change of heart. When is she going to change her reading accordingly? I could not write an introduction to a book still transfixed by her earlier theoretical concerns, even though she has joined the other side.
I did not write to my friend that I would like to know the titles of the books she keeps within easy reach around her desk or workstation. Does she still work surrounded by Saussure and Foucault? Or does she keep beside her again now the works she loved as a graduate student: Stendhal and Balzac, George Eliot and Dickens, Hawthorne and Melville?
XVI. In literary study as in everyday life, we have entered the Age of Appliances. More and more scholars and critics write and teach by applying an ideology or a methodology to a cultural "text." This reliance on appliances tends to eliminate the experience and the love of literature.
Literature in Education
XVII. We have brought ourselves to great perplexity about the basic role of education. Should education socialize the young within an existing culture and offer them the basic means to succeed in that culture? Or should education give to the young the means to challenge and overthrow the existing culture, presumably in order to achieve a better life? Here I shall appeal to analogy.
Almost immediately after fertilization, the human embryo sets aside a few cells that are sheltered from the rest of the organism and from the environment. These cells retain a special ability to divide by meiosis into haploid cells needed for sexual reproduction. Our gonads represent the most stable and protected element in the body and are usually able to pass on unchanged to the next generation the genetic material we were born with. In this way, the sins of fathers and mothers during their lifetime are not visited upon their children. Except for radiation and a few diseases, the life we live does not affect our gonads.
No such biological process is built into cultures. But all cultures have discovered something similaran activity, sometimes developed into an institution, we call education. By education, we pass on to the young the customs, restrictions, discoveries, and wisdom that have afforded survival so far.
There is good reason to maintain that, unlike many other institutionspolitical, social, and artisticwhich may criticize and rebel against the status quo, education should remain primarily a conservative institution, like our gonads. We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia into its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform. The university need not provide the principal home for political, social, and artistic dissidents. The primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage. As the heritage is passed along, both teachers and students will test it, criticize it, and seek to improve it. That healthy modification should not supplant the essential process of transmission.
XVIII. Out of the 1960s and 1970s, one item we should not forget is the counter slogan to relevance. It reads: Curriculum kills. There was great merit in the nineteenth-century ground rule for college programs that specified: no living authors. Students can read them perfectly well on their own. Why invite stuffy old professors to paint contemporary authors over with interpretations and theories? We need scholars in the classroom to help students with the genuine otherness of the past. We need cultivated readers and discriminating critics to deal with contemporary literature. But not in the classroom. Curriculum kills.
XIX. In planning the day-to-day work of education, we shall forever be selecting curricula and programs. In so doing, let us desist from referring to "the canon," or canons orGod save uscanonicity. The term canon was smuggled out of theology into education and literature only a few years ago by those who desperately need something to attack and subvert, something to transgress and deconstruct. Otherwise, what would they do? But they are talking about a figment of their own making. Who knows if Pilgrim's Progress or The Parallel Lives or Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is in the canon? No one. We deal primarily with the curriculum that lies before us in the courses we teach. Here lies our path through knowledge, a path we may choose over and over again, like love in marriage. Our love of literature does not remain the same. Yet its constancy sustains us.
LESSONS: IS THERE
A CORE TRADITION
IN THE HUMANITIES?
The eighth chapter of Life on the Mississippi reads like a parable on education. Mark Twain gave it a cleverly appropriate title, "Perplexing Lessons." Urged on by Mr. Bixby, an experienced river boat pilot, the narrator and cub pilot has "managed to pack my head full of islands, towns, bars, 'points,' and bends." One day when the boy has learned most of the names, Mr. Bixby turns on him.
"What is the shape of Walnut Bend?"
He might as well have asked me my grandmother's opinion of photoplasm.
By and by he said,
"My boy, you've got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night.... You learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's in your head, and never mind the one that's before your eyes."
With no time to adjust to his new task, the cub pilot learns a further factor: that the river's shape keeps changing.
Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.
How much comment belongs here? The classroom teacher might have a hard time with this secular American version of Pilgrim's Progress. How far need a teacher go to pick out the name writ large over the whole book: The River of Life? Mark Twain is content to keep the reader laughing at Twain's bedraggled self as a boy. For us to cogitate about cores and traditions in the humanities, Mark Twain has provided a vivid metaphor for education itself. To gain initiation into the culture, you have to know the shape of things, not the names only. We shall come back to Mr. Bixby in the wheelhouse sputtering at his inept pupil.
All of us are concerned with these cultural rites of passage not only because we may be professional educators but primarily because we are citizens and parents. I envision the challenge that faces us in education as a two-headed dragon demanding daily human sacrifice to keep it placated and to prevent it from devouring the city. One awful head stands for the tens of millions of young minds all over the country waiting to receive nourishment, an almost sensible hunger for some form of knowledge that will make life possible and worth living. The second head rearing up with gaping jaws represents the other side of the same situation. It symbolizes the nearly one thousand hours each student and each teacher must spend in a classroom every year, time occupied by the long battle between boredom and alertness.
These two insatiable mouths must be fed. You know as well as I the enormous obstacles that stand in our way. For two centuries now, well-meaning and convinced educationalists have been telling us to allow children to follow their natural proclivities. The great defender of childhood as the period of natural freedom, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proposed a notion that should have opened our eyes long ago to his program. "The first education must be purely negative" (Emile, Book II). He means that we should withhold any systematic or formal education, including reading, until the age of twelve. We have practiced negative education so effectively that today many students are admitted to college still unschooled and have to educate themselves six years too late, when their memories are slowing down, their doubts increasing. Rousseau devised negative education theory for a very special, highly tractable, and imaginary pupil with a full-time tutor and other privileges. Carried on by progressive schools, the misbegotten scheme of negative education intersects another present dangernot a theory but a mood. For thirty years, we have been living through a series of searing national traumas. Three major assassinations, the crises of Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, and a failed impeachment may have left us disenchanted with the still-fragile progress we have made toward true democracy and equal justice. Is it worth trying to maintain a rigorous universal education in an open, pluralistic society?
I shall not answer for others. Response must come primarily as a declaration of personal faith in chosen ideals. What I can insist on is a principle that operates as inexorably in a society as it does in physics. Nature abhors a vacuum. If we do not provide adequate knowledge to fill those hungry minds and occupy empty schoolroom hours, something else will. That something else may well be deadening and corruptingestrangement, anomie, idle vandalism, drugs, crime, suicide. These things cannot be said too often. In schools more than anywhere else, we can make an effort to establish the principle of equal opportunity by leveling everyone upward as far as possible. Family upbringing and college education quite properly tend to increase inequalities. Free public schools constitute our only major institution serving both all individuals and the national interest.
Yet think for a moment. No authoritative document sets out what high school students should know. Powerful legal suits challenge school boards for doing or not doing their duty. Can we blame state boards of education for wobbling? One readily available reference is the booklet Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do, published by the College Board (1983). With regard to science and mathematics, the booklet describes fairly well-defined content requirements. In terms of the humanities (English, the arts, and foreign languages), the emphasis falls entirely on what I call "empty skills"to read, to write, to analyze, to describe, to evaluate. To what specifics or content are these skills to be applied?
Silence. Not a single work of art or literature is mentioned. One could surmise that basic academic competencies can be acquired by working with any materials at all. Still, someone will decide on substance; too often the buck is passed down to the individual teacher, who must fill all rolesplanner, helper, taskmaster, and final judge. We must reflect on the question "Is there a core tradition in the humanities?" Our answers should do something to help embattled teachers trying to maintain standards and should help put substance back into the humanitiesand do so for the majority of students, not exclusively for the college-bound who read the College Board booklet.
The core of the humanities, as I envision it, is shaped less like the proverbial onion than like a simplified orange with three large sections or segments fitted closely together. My analysis leans inevitably toward a definition of culture, a term we have had in English in its general sense for barely a hundred years.
1. Official rituals and ceremonies and celebrations; monuments like the Statue of Liberty; the flag; the national anthem; the Pledge of Allegiance. These elements are mostly associated with some form of public enactment.
2. A loose, shared store of stories (legendary and historic); folklore (including proverbs); ideas and concepts; historical and presumed facts. This common knowledge may remain unwritten and orally transmitted.
3. A collection of concrete, lasting works (images, buildings, music, writings in poetry and prose) considered significant, or revealed, or great, or beautiful.
All I ask of this schematic division is to help us deal with questions of content in education. Segment two, the common fund of lore and knowledge, corresponds to all the names cub pilot Mark Twain learnedand did well to learnin order to begin to know the river. Segment three, the lasting works and particularly books used in schools, provide Mr. Bixby's "shape of the river"never beheld all at once, endlessly changing, yet a shape held in the mind to refer to under the most difficult conditions. Reading is the principal activity that allows us to move between these two segments, a kind of two-way membrane or circuitry that makes the connections between an amorphous mass of materials and a collection of recognized forms. Reading gains pertinence when it mediates between our available cultural knowledge and another realm loosely called literature.
Schools are concerned with all three segments of the humanistic orange. Fortunately, I am not going to have to talk about the whole fruit. Recently, my colleague E. D. Hirsch, at the University of Virginia, published a book entitled Cultural Literacy. This intelligent synthesis of the history of education, developmental psychology, and the recent research on perception, memory, and reading eloquently reaffirms the principles of universal education in a democratic society. He diagnoses our national illness as a condition based on misguided educational theory after Rousseau and on a faulty conception of pluralism that dismisses a common culture. What Hirsch establishes persuasively is a truism we shouldn't have to be shown again.
But we do. Unless you know enoughenough facts and names and ideasyou cannot read. Decoding words and sentences will not produce meaning unless the reader knows the variety of items to which the passage refers. Then Hirsch has the imagination and the courage to go a step further. He answers the sassy question that may follow: So who's to decide what every American needs to know? He takes the dare himself. In sixty pages and about five thousand entries, he and two collaborators list the items you probably have to be able to recognize and identify in order to read and understand a newspaper. Later, he produced a dictionary and a curriculum.
Of course, such a list makes addictive reading, something between a quiz program and a collective psychoanalysis. Any citizen, reasonable or bigoted, can find fault with the entries. Most directly and importantly, the list represents a challenge to all those of us educators who have evaded the task of defining what we expect students to know. Hirsch's book is a wonderful reciprocating engine: In order to read, you have to know a lot about the world as our culture conceives it; in order to acquire that knowledge, you have to read writing that will expand your mind. Here, to help in that process, is the best existing approximation of what you have to know and what our schools should aim to teach as a minimum. A list won't do the job; a list will help set the sights. If we put our minds to it, many more citizens could really read. No utopia here; rather, a concise and exciting contribution.
Hirsch calls his list "the extensive curriculum," by which he means the basics of generally held information. Such basics will make available to everyone who masters them the elements of the culture through which we communicate with one another, particularly in writing. He hopes and I hope that more of these basics can be conveyed to students by revising our readers, by modifying our current approach to reading as a mere skill, and by making sure that all students, not just those from middle-class homes, learn the facts and ideas essential to understanding prose on the level of newspapers. Hirsch does not address except in passing the matter of the intensive curriculum what specific books Johnny and Jenny should read in order to learn and apply these enhanced reading abilities of full literacy. Hirsch is perfectly right to proceed one step at a time. He already has an undeclared war on his hands with what I shall callnaturally"vested educational interests." Still, someone will have to talk and finally decide about the intensive curriculum; we shall talk about it here and now.
Hirsch, then, to my great satisfaction and with my vigorous support, has demonstrated the crucial role of section two in my three-section humanities orange. He has picked up the challenge of collecting what Mark Twain refers to as the names of the places and features along the river. You have to know them in order to talk with others about the river. As the cub pilot soon learned, however, the names do not give you the river's shape. That shape, elusive, mysterious, frequently changing in detail, belongs to section three, around which I wish to build the centerpiece of my sermon.
Any discussion of a humanistic core, of how to recognize a classic or a masterpiece, of what makes up a canon, rests on three tacit presuppositions. Perhaps there are more. We assume a profound continuity in human life; to track and to measure that continuity, we turn first of all to the immense palace-archive of history, which sits at the heart of the humanities. We expect to find continuity both in the macro realm of culturemores, institutions, artifactsand in the micro realm of human character, of human nature.
Here, I can do no better than produce two of my favorite quotations. Ortega y Gasset saw very deep. "Man has no nature. What he has is history." Emerson had passed that way earlier and left his unmistakable markings. "Properly speaking, there is no such thing as history. There is only biography." Whatever its precise formhistory, biography, literature, the artsa belief in the continuity of the human over many millennia lies behind any discussion of a tradition in the humanities.
Second, within that continuity of perception and imagination we have developed a limited number of versions of human greatness. These idealswarriors, saints, martyrs, explorers, prophets, chiefs, sages, artistsprovide several scales of human eminence, qualities to admire and perhaps to emulate. I cannot think of a culture or imagine a culture, without its accepted versions of greatness.
Third, human beings long ago came to believe that continuity and greatness are effectively conveyed and celebrated in lasting artifacts or classics. Greek theater, medieval stained-glass windows, modern Islamic festivals for reciting The Qur'an serve the purpose of broadcasting cultural traditions to a large audience. As that cultural function has become increasingly concentrated for developed societies in organized public schools, school systems have universally found that the most practical and economic instrument of acculturation is the printed book. No other teaching aid even begins to rival it. The world has three great faiths that speak of themselves as the religions of the book. In its schools at least, the United States remains, and should remain for the foreseeable future, a culture of the book.
These presuppositionshuman continuity, greatness, and recognition of them in major worksoften remain undiscussed. Yet they belong to my definition of the humanitiesindeed, to my deepest sense of humanity. I shall proceed to how, as a teacher of a course in masterworks of Western literature since 1650, I deal with the task of selecting books from the vast number put forward by tradition and by available anthologies. A classic that stands up through years of teaching will display a series of what I used to see as polarities. I now consider them to be complementaries. A classic will make its historical moment vivid and important; it will also have other features that make it remain contemporary. In other words, it is at the same time a period piece and forever young. In my course, I would cite Molière to illustrate the point; Shakespeare does so even better.
A great work displays aspects that allow us to perceive in it a strong element of simplicity and clarity. It also awes us by the mystery and complexity it contains. We may well find it both reassuring and scary. Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" will serve as an example. A classic will create the sense of confronting concrete, individual situations and characters, which at the same time reach toward the domain of the general, the universal. In her best poems, Emily Dickinson's literary persona becomes a very concrete universal.
My three presuppositions and my rules of thumb for recognizing masterworks bring me to a far more important point about a core tradition in the humanities. A meeting such as the present one would never have occurred in Europe before the eighteenth century, nor would it occur in most Islamic countries today. For those societies, the core has been revealed from on high and creates a center around which most aspects of life find an appointed place. For us, perhaps because some of us have lost our faith, certainly because of our hard-won "wall of separation" between church and state in public schools, the core cannot be presented as revealed. I would go so far as to say that in this open, pluralist society, the core is not even given. We have traditions and institutions and conventions. But they must answer to many pressures, political and commercial and religious. It seems more accurate to say that the past constantly offers a core tradition in the humanities, an offer each of us plays some role in refusing or accepting. Can one say that each generation comes to a decision about these traditions? But what is a generation? School principals and school boards and college professors wrestle with these decisions in terms of curriculum and requirements. As long as the people involved are acting on the basis of actual reading on their part and careful reflection about cultural literacy and the shape of the river, these debates can be exciting and fruitful. The "intensive" curriculum of books read in class should not be handed down from on high by a minister of education to all schools in the nation, as happens in most parts of the world for reasons of national unity. There are less implacable ways of establishing a core, especially for a system like ours that must incorporate into its curriculum such essentials as healthy skepticism, verification of asserted facts, scrutiny of logical argument, minority views, and "critical thinking."
Teachers and professors all over the country should be spurring one another on to select the knowledge students need most in order to face a citizen's responsibilitiesnot just empty skillsand the books they should not leave school without having read. Choices will vary; a few brash committees will seek consensus. The federal government may wish to favor selected programs. States may decide to establish lists of works from which school districts may choose. Publishers will play a major, yet unpredictable, role. Blue-ribbon panels may make useful recommendations.
All this swirl of seeking and dissent will contribute to the improvement of education at all levels as long as one principle stands. Even in our pluralistic society, the humanities have a core the way the river has a shape. The very process of discovering and gradually modifying that shape lends meaning and excitement to the intellectual life of a community. The most stimulating discussions I have had with my colleagues have dealt with the specific content of curriculum change and how to define the knowledge we would require of all students and why. The answers may not satisfy everyone, but without those questions seriously pressed, we resign ourselves to an invasion of empty skills and a confusing dispersion of minds. The Greeks, of course, already had a word for this state of things in which one learns primarily from the search, from the debate itself. A heuristic exchange of this kind will help us prevent education from becoming empty, the way it tends to be now, or rigid, the way some would like to see it. Established lists and recently published surveys demonstrate that a good deal of agreement already exists among educated citizens about the shape of our river. My own informal soundings on this subject over the past twenty years tell me that even a randomly picked group of intelligent and educated people will agree on a handful of books that everyone should read at some point, in some form. Then the going becomes very slow. Mark Twain seems to point at these dilemmas with his title "Perplexing Dreams."
It is time for a few specifics. If we are going to pick schoolbooks not entirely by reading level and word frequency, but by culturally useful content and effective writing, then the whole category of biography and autobiography falls beautifully into place. One of the most eloquently written and humanly valuable personal accounts available to us used to fill many classroom shelves. Helen Keller's The Story of My Life makes the essential revelation that what we too easily think of as a given, the very condition of being human, is not given but learned. Deprived of the two senses we rely on most, living by touch alone, this magnificent woman gave us an example that can help us learn courage and imagination and appreciation of the simplest acts of living. Every detail provokes reflection. Only late in her childhood under a teacher of genius did Keller learn not to register on her face, as though through a window or on a screen, all her inner feelings. She discovered how to write fine English without ever hearing the language.
Another modern autobiography has been almost entirely forgotten by school programs. After a colorful early life as barnstormer, army pilot, and mail carrier, Charles Lindbergh helped design the single-engine, high-wing, almost windowless monoplane in which he had to fight sleep for hours and navigate alone and without a radio from New Jersey to Paris. We, the book he wrote himself the same year, at age twenty-five, about his youth and that historic flight, rivals Plutarch in its depiction of small qualities of character that add up to greatness.
Allow me to pick another example perhaps too close to home. I would like to think that in a book for high schools it took me five years to write, The Forbidden Experiment, I learned something from Keller and Lindbergh. For the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyronnot necessarily in my versiondeserves its place, in my estimate, among these stories and in the core we are seeking and constituting.
I am not going to propose an exhaustive list for a core curriculum or even a short list. Rather, I advocate the heuristic goal of arguing over and drawing up such lists without neglecting modest candidates like Sherlock Holmes, folktales and fairy tales, the great religious works of the Greeks, the Jews, and the Christians, along with biography and autobiography.
Two prickly problems raise their heads immediately before we even begin to outline a core. First, the question of timing. Is there an optimum moment to read Hamlet?. When should we read Huckleberry Finn? The Republic? Candide? Should there be a national agreement on which works will be kept for college students? Which could be read in primary schoolperhaps in a simplified version? And there is the second problem already. Should we tolerate or even encourage the rewriting and adaptation of significant works in the humanities? Don Quixote? War and Peace for the schools? I once read and remembered large parts of Moby-Dick in such a version. There is no categorical answer to any of these questions. My own experience tells me that skillful editorial work or even a complete retelling (like the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare) can serve a valuable function in schools and in homes. But edited and truncated versions must be prepared with enormous skill and devotion.
Everything I have said up to now will come to nothing unless we adopt in our schools and maintain in colleges a coherent set of examinations on the subjects taught, on the content of books read. I shall have to summarize here an argument I set out at greater length in another place ("Helping Teachers Do What They Cannot Do Alone," The Virginia Assembly, Institute of Government, University of Virginia, 1984). Our present high school diplomas certify very littlemostly perseverance. Probably on a voluntary basis to start, our high schools should offer a state diploma based on a defined curriculum and on examinations in five basic subjects (English, history and geography; mathematics, science, foreign language). The New York State Regents examinations and the International Baccalaureate program adopted by a number of public high schools demonstrate the feasibility of such a scheme.
Objections will come tumbling out from all sides. Standardized examinations lead to teaching to the test. Some teachers will feel that their autonomy is being invaded. But the advantages outweigh the criticisms, I believe. Only outside examinations will establish anything resembling quality control. Grades given by classroom teachers make an unreliable guide to what their students have learned. State certification based on examinations will give genuine integrity to the high school diploma, help employers choose workers, and begin to break the pro-higher education prejudice, which implies that in order to be adequately educated you have to go to college. The reinstitution of meaningful, earned high school diplomas will help every aspect of our society. Furthermore, classroom teachers could benefit enormously from the coach-helper relationship that obtains in athletics and dramatics. An outside examination provides a kind of performance in preparation for which everyone can work together without the adversary relation that may set in between a student and the teacher who awards the final grade.
I began by comparing the core tradition in the humanities to the shape of Mark Twains elusive and shifting Mississippi. I shall close by reaffirming the analogy, presented in Thesis XVII of the preceding chapter, of our biological germ line to represent the transmission of knowledge in education. A core tradition in the humanities, the three aspects of it that we expect schools to convey to all our children, operates on the essentially conservative principle of gonads. A dynamic culture needs a steady center. After we have been to school, we may decide to test the center, or challenge it, or revise it in the give-and-take of democratic process. First, we should know where the center lies. It is not idealism but, rather, deep skepticism about meliorism and about the witless inflation of our needs and desires that leads me to this analogy. Unless we teach in our schools a fairly steady sense of our humanistic traditions, of what has been called our "civil religion," I envision a runaway culture seeking all extremes at once.
Meet the Author
Roger Shattuck, author of Forbidden Knowledge and Proust's Way, has won the National Book Award. He lives in Vermont.
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