Endangered Studies

Spring 2014

By Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge

As the rise of highly specialized, issue-focused courses trickles down from graduate school into undergraduate programs across the nation, secondary school educators need not look too far upstream to see what is coming. Alongside undergraduate departments that are forced to explain to business-saturated boards of trustees why their programs should not be replaced by cost-cutting MOOCs, our secondary schools are already feeling the pressure to rethink the traditional, broad-based curricula they have offered since 1893 in favor of tightly focused, topics-based courses that grab students’ attention and show those holding the purse strings just how hip and relevant the humanities really are. 

Among this year’s English course offerings of NAIS member schools, you will find blockbusters such as Lockdown: A Look at the Growing Industry of Prisons in America; This Is America: The Wire; In Good Taste: The Literature of Food; What Makes Woody [Allen] and Steve [Martin] Funny?; and The Literature of California. (This last item appeared at several schools, presumably because nothing says hip like Hollywood.) I have no doubt that all of these are engaging courses on worthwhile topics, taught by excellent faculty at rigorous institutions. But I question whether their placement at the secondary level is appropriate. As Ashley Thorne recently noted, last year 309 colleges and universities assigned their undergraduates a “common text” summer reading, of which only eight chose books published prior to 1990, and only four of those selected “classics.” The assumption, I suspect, is that students are tired of the mainstays, having been forced to read them throughout high school. But if high schools are shifting from survey courses to topical offerings, and colleges are specializing in ways that graduate schools always have done, when and where are our students getting the exposure to the foundational texts and ideas that have given birth to our modern world? 

Several reasons explain why humanities departments at all levels are outfitting and accessorizing like teenagers at the mall to make themselves look with-it: at the postsecondary level, the flexibility of degree requirements allows students to isolate classes that have immediate utility and avoid ones where the payoff seems less defined or uncertain. At the high school level (which still maintains compulsory credits across the liberal arts), money is pouring in, from state budgets or from private donors, to build new science buildings and hire vibrant mathematics faculty. Meanwhile, budgets for the humanities remain flat or get squeezed. Students may still be required to take sophomore English to graduate, but they are not blind to the declaration of priorities as determined by the allocation of funds. In their efforts to survive, these departments exchange foundational texts for à la mode trends.

At the same time, traditional survey courses have come under fire for being bastions of western prejudice and male hegemony. Admittedly, the dominant voices of western history are not as diversified as we would like, and there is a reason that the western canon writers are stereotyped as “the dead white men.” But as with all stereotypes, there are exceptions. As teachers, our job is to challenge the stereotype and open our students’ eyes to the diversity that exists naturally in the world and, yes, in the classics, too. We must get better at articulating, both in our classrooms and outside them, the ways that the canon urges us to confront our own prejudiced and narrow-minded ways of thinking; even if the classical writers had different targets, the aim of education remains the same. To write off the lot of foundational western texts as racist, misogynistic, pass√©, and xenophobic is to dismiss the writers from the past who challenged the illiberality of their day and pushed their contemporaries toward a more progressive worldview. Excluding the classics because they do not conform to our 21st century standards of open-mindedness not only misses the ways in which their writers helped move human history forward, but it also arrogantly supposes that we post-moderns have already arrived at the summit of enlightenment and have nothing to learn from the pioneers who pushed us beyond base camp. 

Highly specialized, ultra-contemporary courses have been traditionally offered at the graduate education level because they presuppose a familiarity with the historical, cultural, and literary influences that have gone before them. We simply cannot exchange the roots of the tree of knowledge for its flowers and fruit. Those roots must be planted firmly in the ground before the others can grow to their full potential. Our students and our standards committees may complain that the classics fail to engage and fascinate the way the fresh, new blossoms of pop literature do. But if the roots are not planted at a young age, there will be no tree to bear fruit in later years. Upon graduation, our students will be left, to quote Stanley Fish, with a smattering of “the merely fashionable, the narrowly political, the superficial, the blindly interested, the inessential, the merely historical, the rhetorical, [and] everything that seems to so many to be the content of professionalism.” They will lack a coherent narrative of cultural development and thought that gave birth to the very works they are so eager to engage. 

Though marketing consultants may say differently, we educators are not primarily peddling products. Our students are not customers who are always right, and we are not paid to give them what they want (at least not in the immediate sense). We are hired to plant, grow, and cultivate learners, and it must be understood that just as an expert horticulturalist knows more about caring for plants than the average Joe, we teachers know a thing or two about how to nurture a mind from the ground up. The fact that education is an opportunity open to all does not mean that all are equally skilled in practicing the art of education. It is time for our profession to prove its mettle, take stock of what is at stake, and respond to the overzealous theorists who would have us forsake the time-tested educational philosophies that nurtured us in favor of shortcuts that threaten to undermine the process entirely.

References

Ashley Thorne, “Why are American universities shying away from the classics?”, The Guardian, August 25, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/25/american-universities-not-reading-classics.

Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), http://books.google.com/books?isbn=0822309955

Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge

Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge is a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Bread Loaf School of English. He teaches English at Groton School (Massachusetts).