Saturday, July 8, 2017
Loose Canon, Coda
I've written here a couple of times this week about the evolution of the literary canon in my lifetime--about the books/writers that were once standard in school and college but that now, especially in the former, are fading away--like a vision of Brigadoon or Camelot.
One of the reasons I didn't mention before--or not too much--is the advent of standardized testing--and lots of it--in the public schools. (I've said in other posts that my older grandson, about to enter seventh grade, has already taken more standardized tests--by far--than I did, K-Ph.D.) Test scores have become the all-in-all. Scores figure heavily in the evaluation of teachers as well as kids and curricula and administrators and schools--and even states. And when tests matter the most (as they now do, I fear, in far too many places), then they become the curriculum.
If it ain't on the test, in other words, we ain't teachin' it!
So, if it's a mere reading score that matters--not what you've read--then why teach Moby-Dick when Willy the Whale will do? (I'm not sure there is such a book; I should write it!) And--as a result--Willy splashes happily in the pool of the public-school curriculum, and Moby sulks out in the ocean somewhere. (Does his white flush red with jealousy?)
Another big change in recent years: the equation of education with elitism.* It seems that so many Americans look upon the well educated among us as people who believe they're superior to others. And, to be fair, some (much?) of the blame does lie on the shoulders of the well-educated, people who sometimes ridicule rather than inform. So issues like climate change and evolution and vaccination and all sorts of other public issues remain issues of emotion and belief rather than issues subject to fact and/or convincing theory.
In my father's generation--the Depression/WW II generation--an education was something prized, something to be proud of. He came off an Oregon farm, endured the Depression, served in both theaters of WW II (earning a bronze star), and was proud to take advantage of the GI Bill to earn his graduate degrees (including an Ed.D. from the University of Oklahoma after the war). He was proud of what he'd done. Proud of where he'd gone to school. Proud to the last conscious moment of his life.
Nowadays, public figures have to be almost apologetic if they went to a fine university. Politicians can't really even mention any higher education for fear of being branded an "elitist." Have we really reached the point at which our level of higher education is something to be ashamed of? Is something to conceal?
I recall the snide comments about Pres. Obama and Harvard ...
Again ... I want to repeat that sometimes the educated bring disdain on themselves with their snotty, dismissive attitudes about others. No doubt about it.
But have we really gone from a country--the country that my father knew--that revered education to one that scorns it?
And all of this, I believe, has a deadening effect on the curriculum. We can't have kids going around spouting Shakespeare, you know!
Still ... without a little Bard, even a common comic will have little resonance. This was from the paper yesterday (July 7, The Flying McCoys)--the opening line of Sonnet 18, which I used to encourage (okay, force) my 8th-grade students to memorize.
Well, I realize I am holding up my hand to stop a tsunami. Cultural change occurs whether we like it or not. And with this current change? The decline of the literary canon? I am firmly a NOT.
*This is not really new--just a resurgence: See Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963!). You can get it online now as a .pdf. (Link to the book.)