What, Me Read? Part II

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “What, Me Read?” a series of three essays by a literature professor who analyzes his students’ exam responses to learn how students think in a post-literate age. Here is Professor Bertonneau’s first article.

I am aware of the numerous statistical reports that tell of a decline of literacy at all levels of our society. My interest lies not so much in the fact of this condition than in the physiognomy of the low level of lettered achievement–how the inner life manifests itself in bad writing.

That physiognomy indicates that a mostly oral mentality is confronting the demands of a predominantly literate world (hence the many “oral constructions” in student writing). But the same physiognomy also suggests that even the oral character of student cognition is defective. Perhaps the abilities of newer generations to speak and listen are stunted because of all the flashing lights and rude sound effects they are subjected to from an early age. Such students may be not only sub-literate but also sub-oral, stultified in any kind of thinking by the torrent of electronic stimulation.

Since one is stuck with what one has, I am not against having a laugh at student expense, and in this essay and the next I will share a few written responses from the final exam for my Western Heritage class that will likely provoke a chuckle from readers. We should not forget, however, that the tortured prose corresponds to dim and cloudy thinking and that this same dim and cloudy thinking will one day define the prevailing mental climate of our society. Many students seem content to be what their counterfeit educational experience and a spiritually toxic popular culture have made them. They remain sullen but resolute in their vapidity and self-absorption.

Some students, however, seem secretly and inarticulately pained by what they are—and by what they glean that they could do if their actual paltry preparation did not disable them from doing it. Those would be such things as reading books and understanding them or cultivating an appreciation for beautiful imagery or dramatic action, or simply having an extended conversation on a significant topic. Whether it concerns sullenness or inarticulate yearning, one ought to understand the mentality, if only because the mentality is the key to the coming age.

Consider first how students respond to general instructions. From the first day of class I made clear my worry, based on experience, that students would have difficulty with the chronology of dates before and after Christ. I strongly suggested that because they would find that chronology difficult, they should take care to study Colin McEvedy’s New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. This would help them familiarize themselves with the custom of dates that count down before they begin to count up. Despite all of this, many students seem not to have bothered even to try to understand the calendar protocol. Most were content, not so much to flounder in a nebulous impression as blithely to assert complete implicit confidence in their uninvestigated lack of knowledge and clarity. Most harbored no suspicion that they might know falsely or know wrongly, that is, that they might be in error. Most never took the basic steps that would have led to getting things straight.

Here are three specimen examples of student confusion about dates, all involving reference to Homer’s Odyssey:

“Athene helps Telemachus and Odysseus to be reunited and restore order to Troy. This all took place around 450 BC but it was not written down until 800 BC.”

“Beginning with Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ written down around 800 BC, when infact the events took place in the 4th century. There are many examples of order, tragedy, and some triumph.”

“The Odessy, written down around 800 BC, its events are said to actually take place around 500 BC.”

The three writers acquit themselves well enough to remember that scholarly consensus puts the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey around 800 BC. The students ought to have remembered this because I said it dozens of times and included the date in two or three handouts designed to help them understand Homer’s story. All three students get the date of composition of The Odyssey, right, but after that their sense of historical succession breaks down.

Part of my presentation, and one of the strands charted by McEvedy’s Atlas, is the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the century or so after the Trojan War. The last twenty-five years of archeology have affirmed that this traditional date of around 1200 BC indeed properly locates the famous ten-year siege. The “events” of The Odyssey occur in the aftermath of the Trojan War, four hundred years or so before the lifetime of Homer. That date, 1200 BC, has gone missing from all three quotations. Only a handful of the more than one hundred examination-writers managed to remember it. Then, of course, all three writers also locate the adventures of Odysseus in the fifth or fourth century BC, which they believe to have come along before the ninth or eighth century BC.

Students have possibly mixed up the Trojan War with the Peloponnesian Wars, about which I lectured in connection with the political meaning in Plato’s dialogues, but again they had at hand their Atlases, where the sequence of centuries, no matter whether one is counting down to Christ or counting up indefinitely after Him, remains clear and linear. McEvedy devotes considerable discussion to the Trojan War and the Peloponnesian Wars in the texts facing the relevant maps. I had called attention to those discussions and to those maps. As my Manhattan pal Steve Kogan says, “BC” obviously means “Before Comprehension.” Steve also points out that chronology is as fundamental to a sense of history as addition and subtraction are to mathematics (think of coordinate geometry) and that this student deficiency argues for a remarkable failure in many compartments of the K-12 curriculum.

There are other peculiarities. The first writer thinks that Odysseus travels from Troy back to Troy—in a great loop, it would have to be—rather than from Troy, now sacked and burned, back home to Ithaca, whence he originally and reluctantly went forth. The third writer insists that despite the Homeric composition-date of 800 BC for what he calls “The Odessy,” Odysseus’ adventures “are said to actually take place around 500 BC.” The sad misspelling and the split infinitive typify undergraduate prose. It is the phrase, “[the] events are said,” that sticks out, but only because of its oddity, not because of its rarity. This type of passive ascription occurs all the time in student writing, where it seems to serve the purpose of making an attribution without either committing oneself to it or divulging a source that someone might check or criticize. I have argued elsewhere that such constructions are a type of oral generality whose appearance in student prose signifies that they are closer in their mental habits to historically pre-literate and other non-literate peoples than to literates like our grandparents.

Another way of describing the characteristic is to call it pure insouciant laziness. We can, however, push the analysis of this laziness a bit farther.

Let’s suppose that the phrase, “[the] events are said,” implies that Homer, in his role as narrator, gives out such a date in order to locate his hero’s adventures along an agreed-on timeline. Homer, writing at the end of the ninth century BC naturally could make no reference to dates Before Christ, as only a little thought might have indicated. But students are notoriously not prone to thoughtfulness. “You didn’t tell us we had to think,” an irate student once said to me after receiving a low grade on an essay.

A fourth reference, below, to the Man from Ithaca and his adventures shows the writer actually to have gleaned something about that text, which he has, unfortunately, confused with Apuleius’ second century AD novel The Golden Ass. Apuleius’ protagonist does often liken himself to Odysseus, and is saved, after asinine tribulations, by the syncretic goddess known as Venus-Isis, but otherwise the two works are quite distinct.

“Odysseus, the main character, though having the hand of Venus (Venus-Isis) right on his side, is faced with much despair when he has to leave his wife and sons behind before he goes on many ‘adventures’ and encounters things. He defeats the Cycalopse after barely being eaten and meets Nausicaa while naked then stumbling over Calypso who holds him prisoner and gives him all of the winds.”

In Odyssey, Odysseus enjoys the favor and the frequent help of the goddess Athene. Athene is, as I said once in lecture, “at hand for Odysseus.” In the student’s prose, along with the confusion about goddesses, this phrase has become a case of Odysseus’ “having the hand of Venus (Venus-Isis) right on his side.” The deformation is also a descent from metaphor into literalism, another characteristic feature of contemporary undergraduate writing. The comedy picks up when Odysseus, encountering the “Cycalopse,” finds himself “barely… eaten.” As an Oregonian friend wrote, “Perhaps this implies that Polyphemus only bit off a hand or a foot.”

I note that Homer’s Cyclops has become a Cycalopse, which sounds like some kind of animal. What to say about this? First, the word Cyclops appears in Homer’s text, where the student presumably saw it. The same word occurs again among the many proper nouns on the memory-sheet that I handed out to students along with the instructions for writing their final examination. So how is it that the student misspells the name?

The answer is that written language, including orthography, makes little or no impression on a large percentage of students because these students are, in fact, operating with oral mental habits rather than literate ones. Many students no longer bother even so much as to press the Spell-check button before printing off a paper. This points, once again, to a failure of the K-12 phase of education to inculcate basic intellectual habits or even basic bourgeois attentiveness in these students. Many a critic has complained that the supervisors of K-12 nationwide have long since deemphasized rigorous literacy training in favor of unstructured oral “expression” and mediated visual demonstration. Not spelling a word correctly when the word is before one’s very eyes is, I would argue, a non-trivial error suggestive of a profound alteration of the mental state away from literacy.

A related example is the phrase “the Labronze age,” which one student repeatedly substituted for the actual phrase, “the Bronze Age,” in an essay. This at first baffled me. Then my wife suggested that it referred to a currently famous basketball player, the currency of whose name overwhelmed the student’s visual impression of the historical term in its correct form.

Now in Homer’s story, Odysseus really is naked when he finally washes ashore on the island of Scheria and he must indeed supplicate himself before Nausicaä, a princess of the local kingdom. But Odysseus does not subsequently encounter Calypso, as the student’s “then” implies. He has just come from his involuntary four-year stay with Calypso. Nor does Calypso give him the famous “Bag of Winds.” That gift comes from the hand of Aeolus, whom Odysseus has met near the inception of his post-Trojan viaticum. The student is entirely unaware of the old medical meaning of the term “winds.” Because of this he misses out on the gaseous joke that he has inadvertently expressed through the awkwardness of his language.

As his professor, I notice the joke and enjoy a chuckle, but I feel at the same time an overwhelming dejection at the ignorance that makes it possible. Then again, ignorance, while involved in the deficiency, might not be precisely the word for naming the condition. The purpose of education is to prompt the student to make the movement from ignorance to knowledge. The professor is, in part, a source of knowledge, as are the books. Perhaps the accurate description is that students show imperviousness to knowledge that stems from their inability to remember in some orderly way what they have read. I mentioned earlier the inability to reproduce the simple elements of a story in their proper order. Purely oral people can do this. Homer’s poems were based on an oral tradition that bridged a gap of four centuries during which there was no literacy of any kind in the Greek world. The fact that so many contemporary college students cannot do this suggests that our situation is an unprecedented one. Everyone should be concerned about it.

In the final installment of this series, I will share some more student gaffes, with the goal of clarifying the confused mental state of so many students, both as they read and as they try to sort what they’ve read into some kind of sense.