Monday, August 24, 2009

A Meditation on Joseph Epstein's "A Literary Education"

One of the prouder moments of my brief and ignominious teaching career was a lecture I gave on Penelope: it was given entirely ex tempore and was inspired by the insipid whining of a student. Accustomed as I was to the lack of curiosity shown by even my most gifted students, I was undone by a malevolent remark about the irrelevancy of Homer by a less than gifted student. What started as a tirade ended as what the students called the best class of the year. (Lest anyone condemn me for snobbery, imagine the ludicrous situation in which a mediocre student condescends to dismiss Homer.)

What made the lecture stimulating to the students was not substantially anything I had to say about Homer or in this particular case, Penelope. I claim no especial knowledge of the Odyssey other than as an interested reader, but in this case, I presented the Odyssey, uniquely (to my students, at least), as a source of human wisdom. I used the example of Penelope because my class, an Honors class, was overwhelmingly female but also because she served as an excellent example of the kind of moral and philosophical wisdom that most students learn from revelation: I wanted to demonstrate to my students that Homer, like St. Paul or Socrates, could teach them something about what it means to live a life of meaning. That the virtues of the Odyssey are counter to the gravity of our own society made the task more difficult but not impossible: the virtues of loyalty, of honor, of familial attachment, of patriotism are not entirely extinguished. I too labored under a providential dispensation: my students were generally catechized Christians and their religious upbringing and education had accustomed them, if only subliminally, to the philosophical ideal of truth-seeking and right-living.
As I said, Penelope offered me a useful and in this instance successful example of literature's utility (which in no way do I interpret as profitability). Literature, like philosophy, is a source, a far more universal source, of human wisdom: its purpose is surely to delight (and that is no mean end) but as a confirmed believer in reason and tradition, the best literature serves equally to adumbrate the wisdom and folly of human endeavor: human creativity, the best that it is thought and said, painted and composed, offers a vision of the good life that is the counterpoint of modernity's fixation on the ugly, the unreasoned, the bureaucratic. The determinism of the pedagogical elites, whether scientific or economic, leaves no room for the redemptive role of education: literacy or numeracy are ends to be pursued either for their own sake or in service to abstractions, such as "democracy" or "equality." For the educational determinist, Penelope is not the portrait of feminine virtue; neither is she a heroine to be emulated. Her story, in a generous reading (the reading likely to be found at the secondary level), is a collection of terms and facts to be memorized and regurgitated, or in a less generous reading (more common to the university), a misleading caricature sketched by the first chauvinist (or any other maledictory misnomer common in contemporary academic "discourse.") Neither reading offers the student an opportunity to experience the text as a living experience: the first is the product of a narrow preoccupation with facts and statistics, the second with ideology. Both deny, in unequal measure (I find the second far more noxious), the transcendence of human creativity and its questing after an ideal type of man. Penelope's loom might be the preoccupation in the first reading (as a symbol, say), and Penelope's "household status" in the second.

By argument and demonstration, I was able to show to my students both the wisdom and justice of Homer's depiction of Penelope: not unnaturally, the students responded enthusiastically to Homer's endorsement of fidelity. In their own lives, the students could contrast the relative merits and depredations of fidelity and its opposite. Unfortunately, this lecture came near the conclusion of the year, and unafraid as I was to challenge the boundaries and limits of the curriculum, it was the only lecture of its kind.
It was my brief foray into the realm of "literary education," the subject of Joseph Epstein's fine essay in the New Criterion. Epstein's "education" is equally one of the mind and soul: it is not religious or dependent on revelation, though it does appeal to the higher spiritual faculties. However, it is not narrow moral didacticism, nor is it shallow aestheticism. It is an education both in truth, goodness, and beauty but also an education in delight. Too much modern literature is neither delightful nor true, either to higher ideals or to life. By teaching the best literature to young minds, it is possible to simultaneously teach them the highest things and to impart to them an incipient capacity to be intrigued, deeply moved, delighted by a work of art. I end with a quote from Epstein's essay:

"For the thirty years that I taught literature courses at Northwestern University, I preferred to think that I was a better teacher than I was a student. (I also came to believe that a better education is to be had through teaching than through listening to teachers—and if that ain’t the sound of one hand clapping, then I don’t know what is.) In this teaching, I made no attempt to turn my undergraduate students into imitation or apprentice scholars, but instead I wanted them to acquire, as best they were able, what a small number of great writers thought was useful knowledge in this mystery-laden life."

"I wanted my students to come away from their reading learning, for example, from Charles Dickens the importance of friendship, loyalty, and kindness in a hard world; from Joseph Conrad the central place of fulfilling one’s duty in a life dominated by spiritual solitude; from Willa Cather, the dignity that patient suffering and resignation can bring; from Tolstoy, the divinity that the most ordinary moments can provide—kissing a child in her bed goodnight, working in a field, greeting a son returned home from war; and from Henry James, I wanted them to learn that it is the obligation of every sentient human being to stay perpetually on the qui vive and become a man or woman on whom nothing is lost, and never to forget, as James puts in his novel The Princess Casamassima, that 'the figures on the chessboard [are] still the passions and the jealousies and superstitions of man.' ”

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