Monday, February 03, 2014

`The Slave of a Timorous Delusion'

Michael Dirda introduces us, belatedly in my case, to Lane Cooper (1875-1959), a longtime professor of English at Cornell University: 

“In those days it still seemed obvious that the Homeric poems, the tragedies of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, and the Old and New Testament should stand at the center of an educated person’s interior life. Cooper blamed their neglect on the elective system, the notion that `one subject is just about as good as another.’ As he complained, `the main principle in a general education no longer is ‘Let a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily,’ but ‘let every man follow his bent.’” 

Clearly a reactionary as justifiably extinct as the diplodocus. My university library has twenty of Cooper’s titles in its collection, including concordances to the works of Horace, Milton and Wordsworth, three titles devoted to Aristotle, The Power of the Eye in Coleridge (1910) and Experiments in Education (1943). What pleases me most is Dirda’s mention of Cooper’s 1909 pamphlet “Literature for Engineers,” subtitled “An address delivered before the college of civil and mechanical engineering.” Some years ago I worked as a writer for an engineering school in upstate New York. While interviewing a professor of electrical engineering, I mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s great story, “Wireless,” from 1902 (Guy Davenport: “Trust Kipling to have seen in wireless telegraphy the art of Keats.” – Objects on a Table, 1998). The professor’s face remained blank. He didn’t know the story, which is hardly surprising, but also had never heard of Kipling. That was my introduction to the great divide in learning even among the well-educated. 

At the engineering school where I now work as a science writer, I usually keep literature under wraps. I know one Russian-born professor who swears allegiance to Chekhov, and a computational mathematician with whom I’ve talked about Browning. Otherwise, I keep my bookish tastes to myself.  To quote a passage by Cooper like the following to engineering students or faculty would amount to a self-indulgent posturing. It would accomplish nothing except to inflate my sense of self-importance: 

“The best literature, and by that is meant the best poetry, generates in us a power or pleasure that is not servile, a pleasure that only a free man can fully enjoy. The man that does not enjoy good poetry is not free; and the man that is afraid of it is the slave of a timorous delusion, afraid of  power that he affects to despise.”

Dirda judges Cooper’s “most charming” book to be Louis Agassiz as a Teacher (1917), a collection of memoirs by the great Swiss-born professor’s former students at Harvard. Naturally, I thought of Guy Davenport’s first book, The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz (1963), a selection from the naturalist’s voluminous writings. In his introduction, later collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), Davenport expresses thoughts Cooper might sadly have acceded to:  

 “Louis Agassiz assumed that the structure of the natural world was everyone’s interest, that every community as a matter of course would collect and classify its zoology and botany. College students can now scarcely make their way through a poem organized around natural facts. Ignorance of natural history has become an aesthetic problem in reading the arts.”

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