A reader in Canada writes:
“I wonder if your more pessimistic post recently about the future of literacy in our society can be linked to your experiences in the classrooms of the twenty-first century. I know that encountering some of [his niece’s] teachers, who think proper spelling is bad for children's self-esteem and knowledge of parts of speech is unimportant, provokes in me at times a sense of despair.”
I draw one conclusion from my recent return to the classroom: I prefer working with grade-school students to their older, angrier, less attentive brothers and sisters, and the differences are rooted only partially in hormonal surges. High-school students have had more experience of popular culture, lousy teachers and indifferent parents, and it shows. When expectations are minimal or non-existent, and self-esteem is judged more important than working after knowledge, it’s only human to be lazy, self-centered and contemptuous of learning, authority, tradition and civility. More than 50 years ago, in “On Being Conservative,” Michael Oakeshott calmly diagnosed the problem:
“To rein-in one’s own beliefs and desires, to acknowledge the current shape of things, to feel the balance of things in one’s hands, to tolerate what is abominable, to distinguish between crime and sin, to respect formality even when it appears to be leading to error, these are difficult achievements; and they are achievements not to be looked for in the young.”
Oakeshott’s virtues are absent not only in most students but in parents, teachers and the rest of the body politic. The centrality of a right sizing of one’s self in the world is unacknowledged or held in contempt. I watched a high-school boy push three chairs together, lie down across them and fall asleep. When I pointed this out to an English teacher, she shrugged and said, “Well, at least he’s not causing any trouble.” Another kid in the same class put his head on the desk and slept. A third visited a Hooters web site.
The first difference I observed in contemporary classrooms from my own experience decades ago – after tattoos, cell phones, mp3 players, male students with earrings and females dressed in streetwalker chic, I mean – was their decentralized nature. The teacher is just another member of the mob. Seldom is he or she in charge, the object of attention and at least putative respect. Education, the acquisition of knowledge, is a dim, mirthless joke.
The only pleasure in books I’ve witnessed in school has been among students in fourth grade or younger. Of course, the curriculum calls for high-school kids to read tripe – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. No wonder they and most of their teachers associate literature with tedium. For years I’ve meditated on the final sentence of Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (also collected in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays). I’ve concluded it applies not only to poetry in the strict sense but all literary work:
“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”
A sort of truancy our schools ought to encourage.