Friday, November 07, 2014

`Lest He Take a Dislike to Learning'

Read without a cover, title page excised, the book might be mistaken for having been published last week: 

“Education in the United States is a passion and a paradox. Millions want it and commend it, and are busy about it, at the same time as they are willing to degrade it by trying to get it free of charge and free of work.” 

How prescient of the late Jacques Barzun to have diagnosed fifty-five years ago the dawning symptoms of a disorder that today is pandemic. In his sense, as expressed in The House of Intellect (1959), we have virtually stopped educating children and young adults. We demean them by expecting so little of them. Hugh Fitzgerald at The Iconoclast, the blog of New English Review, praises the volume as “one of the most bracing and important  books ever produced in the United States,” and notes that in the year of its publication, “incoming freshman at Columbia College were assigned it as required summer reading, to be completed before beginning the school year.” Earlier this week we noted what passes for assigned summer reading for incoming freshmen by American colleges and universities. When I quoted one sentence from the National Association of Scholars report – “The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books.” – I was thinking not of Barzun but of another French writer, the great aphorist Chamfort (1741-1794): 

“Most books of the day seem to have been written in one day from books read the day before.” 

This is from a very good book indeed, Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort (trans. W.S. Merwin, North Point Press, 1984). Like Barzun, Chamfort possessed the recessive Gallic traits of clarity, honesty and wit. Both mourn the historical leveling that has taken place, the arrogance of the present in its contempt for and erasure of the past. When I was a student in public school, the chief obstacle to getting on with education were the dumb kids, the slow, lazy, distracted ones who every day gummed up the works with stupid questions and answers. Everyone, smart and middling kids, and teachers alike, recognized them for what they were and let them know it in ways both subtle and visceral. Today, the dumb kids have powerful allies, teachers and administrators who are often themselves former dumb kids. The curriculum has been radically recalibrated to suit their diminished capacities. Barzun saw all of this coming more than half a century ago: 

“As for keeping the schools `democratic’ in the sense of ignoring differences of ability and `giving’ a college career to all who ask for it, this is the scheme which has just broken down and brought many people to the realization that it is wasteful, dangerous, and unjust. Ability and achievement are too important to the country to be any longer trifled with, as has been done by maintaining that failure is something a child must invariably be shielded from, lest he take a dislike to learning.”

1 comment:

welker said...

I was introduced to Chamfort by Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave in my '60s youth - later I read Nietzsche's encomium of him as well. Sound-bites and the cut-and-pasted text are the death-knell of civilised society, but the aphorism and epigram are the opposite of that. If recreation wrecks the nation, concentration might save it.