Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Post-literate Post-moderns

I enjoyed this delightful bit of a rant against our increasingly illiterate and tawdry age from John Mark Reynolds at Patheos:
We love Jane Austen, but if Jane Austen were to see us she might think modernity and post-modernity were just another name for the justification of filth. Doyle’s Sherlock [Holmes] has been wrenched from Victorian morality and turned into a psychopath, and students increasingly lack the reading vocabulary to appreciate the original.

The great escape into literature, such as [afforded by] Charles Dickens, that saved many a soul in ugly places, is cut off from students who are trained to be post-literate with working vocabularies too small for novels from other times. Meanwhile, an educational elite consumes huge numbers of books, but ignores the moral lessons they teach. Instead, too often those of us who read take easy shots at ideas that are obviously wrong in the books.

A textbook about Aristotle introduces the great man by listing his errors before a student even knows to appreciate him. Aristotle makes great mistakes, but we don’t even rise to the intellectual level of understanding the mistakes — we just learn that they were mistakes.

It is the golden age for the educated to play at being a Bronte while flouting their view of reality . . . served by a working class unable to enjoy the texts or the morals that might bring their escape from drudgery. Instead, the working class are given lotteries and the Super Bowl and urged to buy their way to happiness. We form no Sam Weller or Sam Gamgee, because his soul disappears into a Honey Boo Boo bliss as Wesleyan morality is mocked, even by Wesleyans . . . the very thing that might have saved him.
As I say, it was sufficiently curmudgeonly to make it a fun read, but I really don't know how fair Reynolds' criticisms are. Nevertheless, students do seem to be arriving at college today with less basic background knowledge in literature and history than did earlier generations. In a class of thirty I often find that only two or three can remember reading Tale of Two Cities in high school and it's rare to find a student who has even heard of Dostoyevsky or Homer. This is especially true of students who are products of our public schools but less so of those who attended private schools or were home-schooled. I'm told that in at least some of our public schools students are no longer required to read the traditional literary classics and, to the extent that's true, those schools are cheating our kids out of a crucial aspect of a good education.