Thus, as we tumble further into the post-literate era, we can expect to witness ever more hideous alterations in our society. Mass conformity must increase, as the examples of past lives, imparted by a knowledge of history, fades from men’s minds; the average life of our fellow citizens must become ever more confined, ever more directed towards trivial goals, ever more consumed with petty concerns. Magnanimity, in policy and personal choice, must evaporate, as the ideals of our ancestors fall into quiescence; vulgarity will become ubiquitous, and manifest itself in our arts, our laws, and our manners. Fraudulent movements of every stripe will proliferate, as even the most credentialed persons – for educated we can hardly call them – will lack the rational capacity to detect their fraudulence. Our politics will become a chaos, as public discourse transforms into rancorous and fruitless abuse, the arts of government grow identical with the arts of deceit, and arbitrary will increasingly usurps the place of reason. Freedom, which has no other arms than the truth, will disappear entirely. Mark Signorelli
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“The Second Coming” William Butler Yeats
It doesn’t seem a small matter that modern education has turned away from the past–and the standards set by the past–in its student-centered quest to appease the self’s desires through endless innovation and experiment (science and experience). The use of history and philosophy to understand truth recedes, and we use social science (surveys and polls) to measure effectiveness.
Democracy itself was greatly feared by some of its greatest advocates, including Dewey, because they could see the danger that it might dissolve all standards, since it does not itself contain or suggest any.
In our increasingly democratized society, there are those among us who still vaguely suspect that some books are better than others, but the educational “standards” that are being imposed upon us don’t quite say that and certainly don’t offer any list of what books might be important enough to be suggested to teachers. Those who are imposing the standards make no credible argument that they have any authority to do such a thing. Indeed, they go to great lengths to pretend they are not doing such a thing, creating a theatrical pretense that the standards are voluntary.
So we face mere power imposing standards, but when it comes specifically to literature the standards are not standards at all. Who would dare suggest that all students should have an acquaintance with, say, Homer or Shakespeare? In an age when democracy (choice) trumps everything, doesn’t belief in any standard come to be a mere superstition?
Truth is problematized away, which leaves power. In a democracy, power flows from numbers, and so the lowest common denominator leads the processes of decadence. What is easy, base, and cheap outsells what is difficult, sublime and costly. Dewey drives out Socrates, Glee replaces Shakespeare, and our positivist measures distract from what has been lost.
The favoring of “evidence-based” this or “research-based” that derives in part from Dewey’s emphasis on “science” and “experiment” as the basis of educational practice. “Evidence” in these cases nearly always refers to measurements, although other forms of evidence are often reasonable–such as logical deduction or even common sense. Much of common sense lacks an empirical data base simply because nobody has thought to make a study. Did an education based on studying a thousand years of Greek and Roman culture and politics through what were once understood as “the classics” lead to citizens with a better understanding of human nature and politics? Reading Jefferson, Adams, and Madison might lead one to suspect that it did, but I’ve not been able to find any studies supporting that thesis.
That emphasis on positivist data is a turn away from the attempt to understand humane values through historical and philosophical methods.
When education was based on philosophy it made perfect sense, for example, to continue teaching the ideal of nobility even if positivist research showed that many people were not particularly noble. Ideals, it was understood, were precisely what needed to be taught because they were, to some extent, contrary to much of human nature. Virtues–generosity, sexual discipline, thrift–were the focus of education not because surveys provided data confirming this was what students wanted but because philosophy argued that these were important to creating a society more “humane” than society often appeared in practice to be.
If it is true that paper and pencil tests along with common educational research methods leave out much that should concern us because many important things are difficult to measure simply and efficiently and with high levels of validity and reliability, and if it is further true that our choices of what is in the curriculum are driven by what we test and measure, then it follows logically that the schools we are building will ignore much that should concern us.
This includes nearly everything that was once the heart of a humane education.
Occasionally I come across an essay that’s useful in my personal project of rethinking the curriculum by rethinking the Canon–to the extent I can with my limited time and abilities. Such is Cicero Bruce’s review of Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation by Glenn C. Arbery.
Arbery makes the by now familiar arguments about the “decimation of the humanities in the culture wars,” and he links this to the undermining of the discipline of literary studies in the pursuit of reputation by modern professors. “Unless literature itself, not the academic industry around it, not the competition for tenured positions or endowed chairs, is the central concern, then perhaps the academy deserves to fall,” he says.
Often, he claims, the meaning of great works is distorted to make some point related to a professors’ own agenda.
That interests me, but only in passing. Perhaps the academy will fail–such are the passing affairs of the world. What interests me more is what Arbery says about The Illiad: “Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual Scripture aside, but including the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad most.”
This did not seem like a strange claim to me. Bruce summarizes what this means:
That Homer’s epic would be pleasing to God is not surprising, at least not to Arbery. For it depicts “the broken world as it is, fallen and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaselessly for redemption but without undue self-pity; conscious of being kingly, masterful, and godlike, yet also mortally aware of being subject to every loss and humiliation, including the ultimate form, mortality itself.”
Finding nobility and tenderness amid mortality by achieving form. It’s something I learned, in part, from Keats’ “When I Have Fears.” Why would one compose a lament of absolute despair in an intricate sonnet form?
Literature functions as a mode of knowledge that finds its completion in the achievement of form. It follows that a story, poem, or play is excellent to the degree that it is well wrought. Yet, to infer from what Arbery posits between the lines, it should be said that the test of enduring literary merit begins and ends with abiding questions something like these: Does the given work look from the standpoint of eternity at material things and transitory wants? Does it function as a medium for apprehending unchanging truths? Does it plumb the depths of being “with an intelligence,” as Arbery puts it in his final paragraph, “that increases in power the more it explores the most unbearable dimensions of joy and suffering”?
Our “momentary stays against confusion” achieved by creating form are always metaphors–things of this world that give us glimpses of the transcendent, an order beyond us which we realize. Our despair has its origins in a world we know by sensing our lostness from it. The poem may be about despair, but the existence of the poem is an argument of hope. Great literature reveals to us more than it can say.