Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Nation of Dolts

It’s not just the universities any more. Elite prep schools like Phillips Andover Academy have begun to dumb down their curricula.

In further slavish imitation of the college identity racket, Andover dismantled its core curriculum in English this year.  No longer would instructors be required to teach a group of foundational texts that included the "The Odyssey," "Oedipus Rex," "The Canterbury Tales," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Hamlet."  The English department chairman explained the change to the student newspaper: "The goal in removing the required core texts is, first, we don't want the Course of Study or any formal institutional document to communicate to our students that we think only Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer and Chaucer are the most valuable or the most worthwhile. But if I make the decision to teach it in the context of all the other things I'm teaching, then it is less likely to communicate to the students that it's all about dead white guys."

It’s a question of value. Are the canonic texts intrinsically better or were they exalted because they were produced by white males?

If the literary marketplace was not rigged by white males, then Andover, following the lead of many universities, is depriving students of the most challenging thought and expression. By replacing excellence with mediocrity it is enfeebling student minds. 

MacDonald suggests that one part of the problem is that many members of English Departments and Humanities faculties might not be competent to teach the great writers. How many of them would really be able to teach Homer or Sophocles?

How many of them, in other words, got their degrees in Grievance Studies? Expecting them to teach Chaucer would distract them from more important issues: like the plight of sex workers in Central America.

Schools have redesigned their curricula to allow teachers to teach what they know best, comic books and pulp fiction. If all writings are of equal value then there is no great loss, don’t you think?

One might believe that, since they don’t know what they are doing, the Lord will forgive them, but one wonders why Andover parents are still footing the bill for what is fast becoming a third-rate education.

For a nation that regularly obsesses about the quality of the stuff we put in our collective mouths we do not seem to care about the quality of the stuff we put in our minds.

We are down on junk food but perfectly comfortable with junk writing and junk thought.

Apparently, England has not yet caught this particular mental virus, so people over there still believe that Shakespeare is more valuable than, say, self-help books.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have discovered that reading Shakespeare does more to stimulate your brain than does, say, self-help books.

Reading the Bard will do more for your brain than will the latest offering by Tony Robbins.

For the record, I am not opposed to self-help books per se. Most of them are not very well written, but many people have learned good lessons from them.

Besides, no one spends all his time reading Wordsworth and Dickens.

The British study used brain imaging to see what happens when the human brain is exposed to great literature and what happens when it is exposed to vastly inferior writing.

The London Daily Mail reports:

[Wordsworth] wrote that the ‘human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants’.

And it appears that simply reading those words by William Wordsworth prove his point.

Reading challenging works by the greatest writers in the English language such as Shakespeare's King Lear and Philip Larkin's poetry provides a ‘rocket-boost’ to the brain that cannot be matched by more simplistic modern books, research suggests.

It goes on to explain how the experiment was conducted:

Volunteers' brains were scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: "She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me."

Four 'translated' lines were also provided, including, 'She lived a lonely life in the country, and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss'.

The first version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.

Activity is this area of the brain suggest the poetry triggers 'reappraisal mechanisms', causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences.

Great literature and great philosophy challenge and grow your mind in ways that junk fiction and junk thought do not.

Whatever the reason, and whatever their intention, American academics are dumbing down education. They will eventually produce a nation of dolts.


Ari said...

For a comprehensive and data-based demolition of this point of view, see Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray. The bad news for multi-cultists? Yes. It's all about the accomplishments of dead white men. At least since 1400 C.E. it is.

Why the hell would anybody send their kid to a non-religious private school?

At this point, Khan Academy, a stack of well-chosen books and a pile of DVDs from The Great Courses will confer a far superior education. Heck, Khan Academy just began putting Chemistry onto their practice exercise schedule in addition to their math.

In a few years' time, the resources I just mentioned will have improved still more.

JP said...

"The goal in removing the required core texts is, first, we don't want the Course of Study or any formal institutional document to communicate to our students that we think only Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer and Chaucer are the most valuable or the most worthwhile."

I was never really interested in any of them when I was in school.

Granted, I would be even *less* interested in culturally diverse offerings because they would be even *less* interesting.

Lastango said...

I wonder if Phillips Andover is angling for government funding. They have a voracious appetite for cash.

DeNihilist said...

Congruent to this (you probably already know this site)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I hadn't known about this. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

DeNihilist said...

Jeez Stuart, I just seem to be on a roll today!

About female college students getting sugar daddies.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

More details on the topic: