29 August 2005


In last Tuesday's "Reality Check" column at Inside Higher Ed, John V. Lombardi discussed the infamous NEA report with regard to undergrads. Despite students' "informational sophistication,"
Are they naïve about authority, methodology, logic and accuracy in these endless streams of information? Sure, they are. Who should teach them how to sort this stuff? We academics, sophisticated readers ourselves who all too frequently escape into trendy obscurantism rather than engage the real world information flow that constitutes the actual cultural context of our time. [...]

The decline in reading may well reflect the decline in formal study of the humanities in American universities. However, the problem is not the students but the material we teach, the sectarian nature of our controversies, and our general reluctance to put the humanities in the center of our culture rather than relegating them to fragmented enclaves along the partisan byways of academic enthusiasms.
Call me crazy, but I have the suspicion that a "decline in reading" in English departments is directly related to the predominant reliance on secondary over primary sources (i.e., don't read Dante, read a critical analysis about Dante).

As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to study abroad for a term at a university in England where I experienced the rigorous tutorial system. What a concept: read a book, write a 10-page paper, then come back and discuss it with the tutor--every week. The assumption that I could read a Great Work of Literature and have worthwhile ideas about it on my own upended my little American brain. I kept trying to bolster my thoughts with the critical writings of others until one of my tutors asked that I stop using secondary sources altogether. She wanted to see what would happen if I was left alone with a text and my own thoughts.

What happened? My marks improved. With no other choice but close reading, I began to discover more about the work from the work itself. It was a revelatory experience.

According to the "law of primacy" in education, a skill has to be learned correctly at the beginning because having to unlearn bad habits is tougher than learning to do it right the first time. So why can't we just be allowed to read from the very start?

I can't help but believe that U.S. English departments must shift focus if there is to be much hope in an upswing of genuine literacy among undergrads. I took it for granted that reading Boethius or Dante or Petrarch or Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace or Chrétien de Troyes or Aneirin or even Dickens (!) was too difficult and I needed critics to interpret what they said for me. But low and behold, I was interacting with centuries-old texts on my own and enjoying it!

What if there are other humanities undergrads in the U.S. who don't realize that this is possible?

I'm not against literary or textual criticism. But for it to replace reliance on primary texts as the be-all, end-all of study is to rob countless students of the joy of reading in the first place.


Chelsey said...

I couldn't agree more. In my college honors programme, we actually did read primary sources--and were better able to understand what the writer was saying. The tutors and teachers were there to put it in a historical context, but the work spoke for itself.

If I ever make it to grad school, I'd love to get an MA or MFA in England and bring it back to the States and say, "Look what we can do. Look what we SHOULD do."

Good blog.

amcorrea said...

Thanks! Yes, Laura and I discussed this at length when I visited her in Iowa in July. I agree about doing grad school in the UK. The only trouble is it's much more difficult for internationals to get funding for Ph.D.s--and I know having to go back to the States after only an M.A. would just about kill me. (I would probably just settle for the M.A. and try and find something else to do. It was hard enough to finish my last year of undergrad after only 4 months of UK study!)

Until then, we'll bide our time in our far-flung corners of the world...

Bud Parr said...

I have to say that I'm envious of your experience in England. That is a great way to learn and wouldn't we all be better off here if our system was like that...