What, Me Read?

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series (to be published on Fridays). By analyzing the responses of his Survey of Literature students on their exams, Thomas F. Bertonneau, who teaches at SUNY-Oswego, offers insight into where education is failing today. The first essay sets the stage.

Since the mid-1980s, I have taught a standard survey of literature course to undergraduates in California, Michigan, and most recently upstate New York. This course introduces canonical texts, from Homer’s Odyssey to early medieval texts such as Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas, and sometimes later works. Over the years, my experience has chronicled what I believe to be a broad retreat from genuine literacy into a new, orally based “post-literacy” of emotion-drive mentality, egocentrism, “presentism,” and logical obtuseness. This retreat will have serious consequences for our society.

This three-part essay will describe my observations, based on the written responses of my students on exams. My course is a general education requirement that most students must take, usually in their freshman or sophomore year. Frequently, it serves as a prerequisite for other courses in English or the humanities, and where I currently teach, it is required for most education majors. In sum, this course offers a useful occasion for the general observation of undergraduates.

The Way They Used to Be

Even in the mid-1980s, student interest in literature was low. I was a teaching assistant and teaching fellow at U.C.L.A.—a first-tier branch of a world-class state university. Except for a few English majors, however, most students saw the course as an obstacle to be hurdled or, better yet, circumvented. Poetry-averse engineering majors and haughty pre-law types volubly asserted the unfairness and inconvenience of having to study Shakespeare or Cervantes. Many read the assigned books desultorily and quite a few disdained to read any of them at all. Obsessively clever, they figured out ways to cheat on the quizzes that I imposed to keep them to the reading schedule. When it came to writing a discursive examination, the consequences of “blowing off the course” tended to manifest themselves dramatically. Instead of specific allusions and meaningful argument, one collected blue book after blue book of vapid generality, half-remembered lecture phrases, and boilerplate rhetorical devices learned (or half-learned) in high school.

In the main, however, students used competent language. They completed their sentences in grammar not too defective, and they deployed vocabulary more or less at an adult level. And in those days one still saw students actually reading books, even if they were not the books assigned in their classes. I recall a moment when it seemed that every frat-boy on campus was lugging around the paperback of The World According to Garp. (I don’t know why.)

As inexplicable as the Garp enthusiasm was, it stands out in contrast with the situation today. Reading is no longer a casual activity for students, and there appears to be a correlation between the dominant student attitude to reading and the level of student competence in writing.

Adults know what propels the descent: proliferating electronic media, video games, an ideologically inspired de-emphasis of rigorous learning at all levels of education, and a pervasive attitude of entitlement that students now absorb into their deficient souls the way babies drink nourishment from a mother’s breast. Flashing lights and three-minute “rap” songs stultify cognitive development. MTV, that bastion of the youth audience, nowadays specializes less in the music video than in the “reality show,” with its endless, formless palaver among “twenty-somethings” confined in a house.

These models of comportment are definitely oral rather than literate. A number of publications over the last decade, such as Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, have remarked on the phenomenon of a noticeable restriction of cognitive range in college undergraduates. What Bauerlein sees, I see: young people cut off from any elevated sense of who they are, frozen in the “cool” indifference of pop-culture, largely confined to the restrictions of the present moment, and hostile to maturity.

Until about five years ago, in a sustained spasm of unjustifiable hope, I regularly asked students in all my classes to write down the titles of the last five or ten books that they had read voluntarily or, if not voluntarily, then under compulsion in high school or college. In the very first years of my career, in California, a few students wrote down half a dozen titles, often including Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye or maybe a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. The occasional ferocious Ayn Rand follower turned up who had memorized long passages from Atlas Shrugged.

For ten years, the list has been non-existent. The only books that most students have read are the politically correct parables that nowadays figure in the high school curriculum in place of what used quaintly to go by the name of the “classics.” If, at seventeen, I had taken Maya Angelou’s Why the Caged Bird Sings to represent “literature,” I might have developed no interest in books, either. Thus student reading ability remains extraordinarily low even when, in college, the instructor figures out, as I have, how to cajole them into doing it. Students typically cannot make reliable or secure statements about characters or describe events in the story or, much less, frame an interpretation of this or that legend or saga. (I say “typically” to allow for the exceptions.) But by and large, even when today’s representative undergraduate has painfully “read” Beowulf, he has less to say about it than his faking counterpart of 1987, and what he says he says in a version of written English that hardly ascends above a level of sub-literacy.

The Course I Teach

I have tried to put a personal stamp on the Survey of Literature, which, at my college, bears the title Western Heritage. The course itself is a fortunate vestige from an earlier age when higher education entailed for the young a real coming-to-terms with the historical achievements of European civilization that have made their own lives of freedom and abundance possible. Insofar as educated people are what they know, then Western Heritage potentially gives students an opportunity to become the knowledgeable people that they ought to be. I have figured out how to structure the curriculum around the primary texts that shaped my own thinking and my own sense of who I am and what the world is decisively, much as they must have shaped the teachers with whom I studied them.

Yet a broad middle range of student responses to the final examination in Western Heritage shows an unsurprising but still disturbing imperviousness to traditional literate learning. The inability of many students to cognize even such basic elements as story—first “A” happens, then “B” happens, and so forth—is alarming. Once again, it has powerful implications for the future.

Let me briefly outline the course. The syllabus consistently includes Homer’s Odyssey (complete), Sophocles’ Oedipus in a filmed version, excerpts from Plato’s dialogues, Virgil’s Aeneid (Books I – VI), Lucius Apuleius’ Golden Ass (complete), Books I – VI of Augustine’s Confessions, Beowulf (complete), and the two brief but complete Vinland Sagas. I required as a supplementary text Colin McEvedy’s and magnificently reader-friendly New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History. The Atlas covers a chronology from the earliest signs of civilization in the ancient Near East across the BC/AD transition all the way up the end of the Fourth Century. The Atlas has maps and explanatory text on facing pages. It is one of the best tools I know for giving students a sense of historical sequence, if they pay attention to it. Students also get the chance to see a 2003 Paris production of Les Troyens, an opera by Hector Berlioz based on the first four books of The Aeneid.

I have framed the course under three or four basic theses. One is that human beings have an innate and absolute need for order. Another is that the touchstones of literature address not only this absolute need but also the perverse allure of destruction that seems always to undermine order. Yet another is that a sequence of poems and stories extending over a period of almost two thousand years (from Homer to the Icelandic saga-writers) is bound to reveal large patterns to keen readers. And yet another is that the present nourishes itself on the past, finding the models of its own orderliness in the recollection of ancestral experience as vetted by the great keen minds of the previous ages.

I like to argue, finally, that we the living owe a debt to the dead, on whose hard-won achievements our endowment of comfort finds its basis. I rehearse these arguments daily (the class meets three times a week for fifteen weeks) and make constant reference to McEvedy’s Atlas because I know how foreign the BC/AD notion of chronology is to the average eighteen- or nineteen-year-old.

At the end of the most recent semester, I showed two films. The first was the opening chapter of Sir Kenneth Clark’s late-1960s BBC documentary series Civilization. In this chapter, Clark puts forward the combined thesis that civilized order—permanence and predictability in the arrangements of law and order, and a steady progress in knowledge and freedom—is a fragile thing, easily undone, and that the idea of civilized order only barely survived the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the Fifth Century AD. Fugitive Irish priests escaping the Viking raids on remote, inaccessible islands and a few tenacious monastics in England, France, and Italy held onto it. I then showed students the epic 1936 movie Things to Come, with a screenplay by H. G. Wells. The film consciously subsumes themes from Homeric, Virgilian, and Gothic saga, and it illustrates Clark’s thesis about the fragility of the civilized order.

My final examination set for students the question of precisely how the Wells film illustrates the Clark thesis and how it reflects the books we had been studying. Students were to use the film as an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of the semester’s readings. To the examination instructions I added a list of about two hundred and fifty proper nouns (of persons, places, things, ideas) to serve as a guide—a generous one—to memory. The list, in effect, is a cheat-sheet. The theory behind it is that learning means remembering and that, as long as this or that name triggers the appropriate, detailed memory in its context, the student must have learned the course material.

Merely proctoring the examination held some psychological interest. In my judgment, an adequate essay ought to have required at least ninety minutes of the 120 minutes allotted for the occasion. But some students—there were 117 remaining in the course at the end of the semester—began bringing me their blue books within a half an hour after start-time. Although I said nothing, I thought to myself that these early finishers were likely those who had disdained to do any of the reading, had skipped most of the semester, and now found themselves with nothing to write. Indeed, faces appeared at the final examination that I failed to recognize, all glowering and embittered. I assume that they represented those mysterious names on the roster whose owners had never shown themselves in class.

Reading the essays once I had collected them confirmed my guess. The ones at the top of the pile, the last to be turned in, were as a rule much more convincing than those at the bottom of the pile, the first to be turned in. Many in the latter category contained only two or three wishy-washy paragraphs that said nothing. It is, however, from the large middle group of essays that I wish to quote in the next two installments. They demonstrate vividly (also in a bleakly funny way) the fog through which the typical undergraduate makes sense (or not) of written narrative and, as I would argue, of moral life and the world. By examining these responses, we can gain insight into the coming “post-literate” age.