A friend of mine recently remarked that her 16-year old was frustrated by having to read The Scarlet Letter and other works of classic literature being pushed at him in his high school English class. She’s helping him stick to it, observing that since he wants to go to a good college, he’s just going to have to do it.
Many of you have seen the moment in Glenn Beck’s interview with Sarah Palin where she struggles to name any of the Founding Fathers. Like many other teachers (or former students) I recognize the initial bullshitting in that video clip (“I like all of them!”) for a stalling tactic and as a revelation of an underlying ignorance.
What more than a few commenters still don’t seem to understand about that moment, however, is why it endears Sarah Palin to many viewers, and maybe even rouses some sympathy in people who otherwise reject her.
There are a lot of Americans who themselves wonder why they need to know who the Founding Fathers were, or why The Scarlet Letter matters.
The ramrod forms of authority that simply replied “Because I said so” and had the power to enforce that authority have dissipated, stabbed to death by a thousand tiny cuts from Animal House to Paolo Friere. Good riddance. The problem is, however, that educators haven’t arrived at a substitute rationale that’s both persuasive and pervasive.
So the substance of older educational regimes still shambles its undead way through K-12 schooling across the country, sometimes joined by newer projects and content which is equally shorn of a persuasive justification. So maybe a kid has to learn the Founding Fathers and learn about Sacagawea, but it’s not as if the latter knowledge speaks for its own importance more than the former.
So later on a lot of Americans get along perfectly well in life having forgotten all of what they had droned at them until age 18, or if they went to college, probably most of what they had droned at them until age 21.
If they get reminded of what they’ve forgotten, it’s probably because some asshole who remembers it all chooses to rub their nose in what they don’t know. Or–and here’s where the really key issue comes in–because they come up against a chalkboard ceiling in their working lives, where a promotion or other advancement is tied first to some educational credential but more crucially to the possession of cultural capital. To take the next step, to aspire, they suddenly need to know all those things, to have that set of references, but not because that knowledge is immediately functional to the job or skill. Or so it might seem from the perspective of ressentiment precisely because of the lack of a persuasive logic for why any of that knowledge matters.
That’s a picture straight out of Bourdieu, I know, and I don’t mean to remain that reductive about this issue. But that’s where we have to start in untangling this whole repeated moment in American public life (and it’s stunning to me that so many thinkers on the left seem to need a reminder about this reference point).
So as it stands, the kids who read Hawthorne or study American history with something more than the attitude of a convict breaking rocks in the penal yard are kids who either embrace the need to preserve or acquire cultural capital or the even rarer kid who honestly develops a passion for the substance of literature or history or philosophy.
(I’m leaving out the sciences and mathematics here because I think they’re far more effective at making a socially persuasive case for their utility, if not for their higher philosophical value.)
If a family already has cultural capital and uses it, the only kids who really fight off jumping through the hoops are those determined to leave the social world of their upbringing. If a teenager has a fierce determination to be socially mobile, they’ll often see that acquiring cultural capital is part of that–and they may understand early on the kind of alienation that’s going to produce between themselves and their families. (For some, that might be the attraction).
For the kid who grudgingly accepts the need to maintain social standing by doing the required work, we typically do little to help that go beyond obligation. And so when someone says (even indirectly and dishonestly, as Palin does), “Why the hell should I have to know any of that shit?”, a small secret thrill of agreement springs to life. For the kid who accepts the need to do the same in order to climb the social ladder, much the same feeling may arise.
So what should we be saying to my friend’s son that helps him consent enthusiastically to reading Hawthorne, that brings him on board as a willing participant?
This is one place where conservative humanists simply fall flat on their faces, unable to tear themselves away from constant petty whining about the Multiculti. What’s their persuasive vision of why classic works of literature or the core historical narratives matter? The best you’ll get from most of those critics is that a tightly prescribed canon is necessary for building a unified national identity. Leaving aside the underlying creepiness of that proposition for the moment, there’s certainly nothing persuasive about it for a 16-year old. “Read The Scarlet Letter so you can be a REAL AMERICAN, kid!” Yeah, that’ll do it. The only way to make this hook persuasive is to reacquire the harsh and unquestioned authority of official institutions of some largely imaginary yesteryear, and that’s not going to happen, nor should it.
Now, this is the rhetoric that Glenn Beck and other pundit-populists sling about the Founding Fathers and so on, and it was amusing to see the slight incredulity on Beck’s face when confronted with Palin’s stalling. He shouldn’t be surprised, though, because even for him, the Founders are totemic figures. What they actually said, the actuality of their times, the complexity of their thinking and action, is pretty much unimportant to him and many like him. In this sense, some of “classic” canon functions as an alternative form of cultural capital: where I say Mandela, you say John Adams, and so on. That approach merely mirrors the defects of mainstream elite approaches to cultural knowledge. At the Long Island cocktail party for middle managers, maybe you need to name-drop The Scarlet Letter when someone mentions how the mob is hounding investment bankers. At the Tea Party protest, you name-drop it when someone complains that their kid had to read Invisible Man in high school. In either case, the content of the novel doesn’t matter, it’s just a sign that you know the secret handshakes and belong in the clubhouse.
There are humanists who you might broadly call “conservative” who do a compelling job being persuasive about the generalized value of the real content of literature and history. Harold Bloom on Shakespeare, for example. And there are humanists who do the same in arguing for the generalized social value of multicultural or anti-canonical works and knowledge. I have some very strong criticisms of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, but it’s a good example of a work which takes seriously the need to persuade general readers of the importance of the knowledge it contains, rather than just resting on a sense of cultural obligation to know it.
So this would be the first way to undertake persuading a 16-year old to read The Scarlet Letter: to make a case for why it’s brilliant and important and exciting. There are those teachers in K-12 and higher education who succeed year after year after year in doing just that. But I think most of us would concede that they’re a very small minority and that most of what makes them persuasive is unique to them as individuals.
Could we generalize passion for literature or history in a way that would persuade more Americans to more consistently value their content? Train teachers to be passionate? I think so, but that has to start by picking the right foundation to stand upon. One of the reasons it’s hard to find a high school teacher who really catalyzes students to love The Scarlet Letter is that The Scarlet Letter is mostly unloveable to contemporary teenagers. Or maybe anybody. I re-read it a while back and while I totally concede its importance to American literary history, I would never read it again unless forced to. The language is remote and icy by contemporary standards, and most of the underlying situation of the characters equally so.
We throw a lot of classic works at kids that require a forty-year old’s emotional and intellectual experience to really click. Or we throw works and knowledge at them whose potency is only clearly visible in contextual relation to many other works. In a lot of cases, we do this because of the structural weight of past curricula, as a kind of cross-generational hazing. You’ll have to read Heart of Darkness, kid, because I had to.
The alternative is not work or material solely picked for its relevance and contemporaneity. We don’t have to throw Catcher in the Rye overboard so that we can teach Twilight. (Though to be honest, I actually think those two examples are a lot closer in character than some might think.) It does take asking with an open mind and few prior assumptions why a particular work or historical era might be powerful or important or resonant to a broad range of people.
Distributing a passion for the content of literary and historical knowledge will take a much smarter selection of material than present convention allows. Getting there would require both left and right to disarm in the culture wars to a very significant extent, because neither of their vested projects tends to invest a lot of effort in closely reading texts for how compelling, exciting, or engaging they are, for teachability in this sense.
This is also a commitment that requires standing down from mandatory examinations to a very significant extent. “Teaching to the test” is the antithesis of persuading students right here and right now that a work of literature matters or that a particular historical era matters. There are people who can overcome that circuit break, but not many.
The other approach we could take to convincing my friend’s 16-year old is practicality, about arguing that cultural and social literacy is a tool that has genuine value in many kinds of work, that we don’t look for it just to keep the clubhouse door closed to the unwashed, but because it matters.
Contra The History Boys, I don’t think this approach is antagonistic to arguing for the human and personal value of humanistic knowledge, but neither is it the same as that argument. I tell students that I think studying African history can help anyone grapple with important and difficult questions about human experience, that there is a passionate encounter with meaning at the heart of that knowledge. But I’d also argue that you can learn about phenomena and systems that will give you a comparative insight, that you can generalize, and that this knowledge will have practical payoffs that I can’t anticipate or foresee but that I’m confident will exist.
I think many people, even Sarah Palin’s devotees, might concede under pressure that having a President who has a strong baseline knowledge about the world, about American history, about economics, and so on, is a good thing. Not because we necessarily want an executive who is himself or herself a policy wonk, but because it lets that executive make more judicious choices about what policies to approve or reject. Many of the worst policy disasters under Bush the Lesser can demonstrably be traced back to the bedrock fact that he was easy for his courtiers to manipulate because he didn’t have an independent knowledge of his own on many issues, just a kind of personal appraisal of his staff that appeared to mostly revolve around obsequious loyalty.
Making the case that humanistic knowledge pays off in a more generalized way is a bit harder. One way to begin to make that argument is not to upbraid publics for their ignorance but to appreciate what people already know and why they know it. That’s one of the underlying propositions in my Production of History course, which comes from insights I learned from my graduate advisor. There’s a lot of embedded knowledge already out there about history and culture. Much of it retreats when people feel they’re being interrogated or judged for what they don’t know.
There are some professions where the practical value of humanistic knowledge is obvious. You don’t have to convince an advertiser or a scriptwriter or a social worker that knowing something about culture, history and society has a payoff. (Though knowing too much is equally clearly a problem: that’s a subject for a separate column.)
The harder job is explaining to sales representative or fast food manager or civil engineer why humanistic knowledge is useful. Mostly that’s harder because of existing pedagogy, not because it’s an intrinsically difficult argument. Many of us (K-12 and higher education) don’t teach to utility either because we philosophically reject the appeal to utility as vulgar and reductive or because we’re struggling to work from a dog’s breakfast of administrative mandates and ed-school jargon about the usefulness of humanistic knowledge.
Cultural and historical literacy enriches your rhetorical and interpersonal skills. It helps you imagine other people, which is the key to so very much in life: to love well, to raise children well, to live in community well, to self-develop, to choose when and how to fight for yourself and your beliefs.
I’ve been in a lot of houses where Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” is kept around somewhere. The knowledge at the core of that prayer is fundamentally a knowledge of history, social structure and cultural contingency. What cannot be changed, what can be, and the difference. It’s not hard to convince people that the terms of the prayer are at the heart of being a successful person in work and in private life. It shouldn’t be that hard to convince them that knowing more about history and culture and philosophy help. But we can’t convince others unless we consciously teach to those terms, without trying to control or dictate the end results of how our students will work out that equation in life and work.