Monday, December 15, 2014

`Other Debasements Will Follow'

In Conversation with Max (1960), S.N. Behrman informs Beerbohm (retelling an anecdote from his friend Dudley Fitts at Andover Academy) that a student made the “flat statement” in a paper that Pontius Pilate was one of the twelve Apostles. Beerbohm, he reports, was amused and saddened, as most of us would be. In recent decades, critics of American education have amassed anthologies of student howlers, usually with the implied corollary that “it wasn’t like that when I was in school.” Well, often it was. I knew plenty of dumb, indifferent kids who, while nominally literate, knew little beyond their suburban block. What’s different today is that many teachers can’t identify Pilate or, for that matter, Andrew, Simon and the others. I graduated from high school in 1970. My English teacher, who remains a friend, remembers that year as the Great Divide. She had us reading Dante and Saul Bellow. Within a few years, her students couldn’t identify Winston Churchill. She retired a few years later. Behrman quotes Beerbohm’s reaction to Fitts’ story: 

“`Gladstone used to quote whole strings of Latin hexameters, mostly from the Aeneid, in his parliamentary speeches, and the House understood him,’ Max said. `Already one discerns a debasement of English, and other debasements will follow that. With the blunting of precision of language, don’t you know, comes muddiness in political policy, in morality, and in conduct.’”
How odd to be living in a time of prophecy fulfilled. Vanity customarily casts us in the role of Cassandra – doubly satisfying because not only are we prescient but doubted until proven right. Beerbohm was speaking some sixty years ago, and it’s worse than his gentle but deeply ironic imagination could have conceived. The pleasing sense of Schadenfreude I experience when hearing tales of student ignorance always leaves me uneasy. It’s just too easy to feel superior. Sure, they’re dumb, but they’ve grown up in a culture that no longer values learning and, in some quarters, condemns it as “elitist” or whatever the fashionable platitude du jour happens to be. Those of us who love books and history must try to avoid hectoring and sermonizing. That changes nothing and merely strokes our already swollen sense of pride. Instead, let’s share our pleasure in bookish things, in Dante and Virgil, even in translation, even without terza rima and hexameters.


Subbuteo said...

It used to be that civilisation rested on the pen (written and spoken words) being mightier than the sword - Gladstone's orations in Pariliament were the fulcrum that made things happen in the world. With the erosion of the power of the pen will the sword begin to displace it? Not wishing to be apocalyptic or anything of course! If the precise transmission of meaning becomes irrelevant what prevails?

R.T. said...

You say: "What’s different today is that many teachers can’t identify Pilate or, for that matter, Andrew, Simon and the others."

I say: Amen!

As a college English composition and literature teacher, I am guilty myself -- and I work constantly to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge -- but we need to look also at K-12 teacher education programs; the curricula and faculty in those programs are culpable, but society at large is more culpable because we have been willing accomplices in the dumbing-down of America.

Now that we have pointed out a problem, please tell me the solutions. I hope you will elaborate.

BTW, as someone who has long respected your blog, I would be very interested in your input to my most recent blog posting: requesting advice about a specialized reading list.