Tuesday, November 04, 2014

`The Good Intentions Paving Company'

When I encounter a word previously unknown to me or a familiar word used unfamiliarly, I make a note and look it up. My motives are mixed.  There’s the strictly utilitarian: I want to understand what I’m reading, assuming the work in question is worth the effort. But there’s also hedonism. Words -- their music and meaning, sound and sense – give enormous pleasure. A new word is like a new instrument in the orchestra, another volume in the encyclopedia. Consider this phrase, which until Monday was new to me: “beach books.” My first reaction was horror: What about the water, sand and sunlight? A book on the beach is like a microscope on the basketball court. I’d be too nervous to bring The Spoils of Poynton to the shore. I’d worry about the binding and the pages turning brown. In September 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary inserted a “draft addition” to its entry for beach: “beach book n. colloq. an undemanding novel suitable for holiday reading.” Yet another revelation. Never before had I thought of “undemanding” as a desirable literary quality, any more than I would “demanding.” Rather, I weigh “well-written” against “crap.” The latter is always demanding, sometimes painfully so. 

It turns out the National Association of Scholars has conducted a survey of “beach books” since 2010.  They mean the summer reading assigned to incoming freshmen by American colleges and universities. The NAS has posted its list for the 2013-2014 academic year, covering 341 schools and the 231 books assigned. Among the NAS findings: “The list of readings continues to be dominated by recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books [read: crap].” And this: “The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes, and the top subject category is multiculturalism [read: fashionable social engineering. And crap.]” Such reading makes for discouraging reading. Here’s more: 

“Only four colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. Those were Melville’s short story `Bartleby, the Scrivener’ (LeMoyne College), a compilation of Shakespeare’s works (Indiana University, South Bend), the book of Job from the Bible (St. Michael’s College), and Edgar Allen [sic] Poe’s Great Tales and Poems (University of Wisconsin, Parkside). Other than these exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hemingway were not to be found. There was no trace of Twain, Tolstoy, Brontë, Wilde, Hawthorne, Douglass, or Steinbeck. No To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Count of Monte Cristo, or even Catcher in the Rye.” 

With the arguable exception of Poe, the four “classics” still hanging on form part of the minimal definition of a person who might reasonably be judged civilized. Not to have read Melville, Shakespeare and the Bible is to be incompletely educated, to be in some essential way cut off from what trendy educators like to call the “conversation” (of Western Civilization, of humanity, or what's left of it). Don’t talk to me about power, family, madness or what it means to be human (among other things) if you don't know King Lear. You can quibble with the NAS’s definition of a “classic” (To Kill a Mockingbird?) but the unhappy trend is inarguable. Let’s be grateful to the NAS for asking Joseph Epstein to inject a little sanity: 

“Reading NAS’s excellent report on common reading programs now instituted for incoming freshmen by so many colleges and universities, I was brought up by an administrator of one such a program remarking that it `is meant to show students that reading is not drudgery and can even be fun.’ She was referring here, please note, not to primary or high-school students with serious mental disabilities, but to college students, young men and women beginning a course in what is known as – though nowadays one cannot always say it with a straight face - higher education. Other motives behind Common Reading programs are helping the students to bond with one another, to cohere as a community, and to lead them to consider community activism as an outlet for their idealism. Over a long life I have read more than a few books, and none has ever, I’m pleased to say, accomplished any of these things for me. But, then, most of the books I’ve read have not had to pass the low bar of the diversity deans in contemporary colleges and universities. Most of these books have not been, as the great majority of books chosen for Common Reading programs turn out to be, works of ephemeral interest notable for their political correctness. The gravamen of the NAS’s report discloses the Common Reading program to be another of those sad frauds put upon the young by the educational division of that humorless yet fundamentally unserious firm known as the Good Intentions Paving Company.”


Cashew said...

Thank you for writing about our report, Mr. Kurp! The conversation of Western civilization is too important to be neglected by this generation. But colleges are ignoring it in favor of what's "relevant" and "accessible." We need more people like you in higher ed.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

I second Cashew's "thank you," not only for this particular post but for Anecdotal Evidence, which I read daily.

With few exceptions, the purveyors of so-called "higher education" are criminals, guilty of mass child abuse and fraud that borders on the traitorous. If Western civilization (I prefer to call if Western culture) passes this generation by, and that certainly appears to be what is happening, that will be the end of it (until some new Renaissance rediscovers it a century or more from now).

Two remarks: There are some oases of real learning. Bard College, nearby to me, requires all Freshman to take courses in what it calls its "Language and Thinking Program." I see that last summer's required reading for the Freshman entering this year was Kafka and "The Origin of the Species."

I hate to carp, but it's in my nature. "Moby Dick" is, surely, one of the great novels of all time. However, I think that it's a bit parochial to include Melville in your remark, "Not to have read Melville, Shakespeare and the Bible is to be incompletely educated." An extremely cultured and civilized friend of mine, educated at Oxford, is reading Melville now for just the first time. I won't suggest what other writers or works belong in your Pantheon, but a familiarity with Melville, great as he is, still is a necessity only for American readers.

George said...

The expression "beach reading" has been around for some time, hasn't it? "Beach book" is new to me. A young man I know well went off to a school where the Common Reading was Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, a book I've never bothered to read. However, the books still here from his high school classes include works by Aristotle, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Joyce and various others. I'm inclined to think that he was not much harmed by having Pollan assigned for a bit of extra reading.

I suspect, but don't know, that most of his classmates were in a similar position, that is to say that the Common Reading assignment was a small fraction of what they had read in the year ending with the beginning of classes.

Dave Lull said...

'Jacques Barzun's "House Of Intellect" In 1959':