Friday, May 29, 2009

`The Very Sewers of the Intellect'

The words written on the blackboard of the high-school history class left me chilled:

All Quiet on the Western Front
Idealism vs. disillusionment”

With visions of Lew Ayres and his damned butterfly dancing in my head, I briefly contemplated a career in the carwash industry. I wondered who had resurrected this pious claptrap when the answer walked in the door. She wore a generously cut Hawaiian shirt, delivered “high fives” to students and addressed one of them as “man.” After more of the same she launched into a Power Point-assisted lecture devoted to the 20th century. I’ve preserved the most lustrous of her pearls:

“A depression is kind of like a low budget of money.”

“Out of [World War I] came these who, like, say, `How does this happen?’”

“James Joyce reflected Freud’s ideas about the mind.”

“[Nietzsche] was very out there in his thinking.”

“During the war there was a wonderful poet there. He wrote A Raisin in the Sun. What was his name?”

“Stalin was in charge in Russia during World War I. What was his buddy’s name? Lenin!”

“Mussolini was an arrogant sort of guy. Very talkative.”

“A Farewell to Arms is about Italy during World War II.”

“I think my brother has read Mein Kempf [sic] nine times. He was an economics major.”

All of this was accompanied by the non-stop, non-sequitur commentary of the students – those who were conscious. At one point, a boy spat on the girl seated next to him and she punched him in the head. The teacher made her stand in the hall and “breathe deeply” for several minutes. At the end of class she played 15 minutes of All Quiet on the Western Front, though not the happy ending to Remarque’s pieties and Ayer’s over-emoting. I’m reluctant to bring out the big guns, but three years before Remarque published his novel in Germany, H.L. Mencken wrote “The Lower Depths,” a still-timely excoriation of “the slums of pedagogy,” specifically English teachers:

“It is positively dreadful to think that the young of the American species are exposed day in and day out to the contamination of such dark minds. What can be expected of education that is carried on in the very sewers of the intellect? How can morons teach anything that is worth knowing?”


Anonymous said...

Whoever certified her to be a teacher owes humanity a letter of apology.

Anonymous said...

Mencken is, of course, right. Dr. Johnson noted, as Mrs. Thrale reported, that the empty-headed are "a mill that goes without grist."

What would these students have thought of Johnson's imitation of a kangaroo?"The company stared...nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man, like Dr. Johnson, standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room." (from "Samuel Johnson" by W.Jackson Bate)