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The Dead Letter of Modern Education

“Once,” said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, “I was a real Turtle.”  -- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In a recent article for American Thinker, “Why I Quit Teaching,” I listed three reasons that prompted me to abandon the teaching profession: unscrupulous administrators, degenerate teachers, and incompetent students. Of these, the latter was the most determinant. Annually grading some 2000 term papers, which chiefly consisted of the most arrant drivel imaginable -- unintelligible grammar, stunted vocabularies, bovine inattentiveness, mental stupefaction, and monumental ignorance -- I had come to fear, if not for my sanity, for my continued intellectual viability. How many years could I go on without cerebral rot setting in? I knew the time had come to flee the cortical gulag of modern education.

Some of my readers may accuse me of selfishness or cowardice, but I challenge these detractors to spend 30 years teaching the unteachable and emerge reasonably compos. I don’t place the blame for intellectual dereliction squarely on the students. Far too many are genuine, not imaginary, victims of lax and defective home environments, substandard public school education, cultural permissiveness, and political indoctrination. But the facts remain that they are old enough to vote, to go to war, and presumably to introspect; and that a teacher long exposed to such pervasive mental blackout must also consider his or her own survival.

For myself, I could not play the entertainment game -- lots of movies instead of books, comic book novels, kidlit, power point presentations, kibbitzing about current affairs and trading jokes -- and was no longer willing to ruin my eyesight writing detailed comments in the margins of incomprehensible essays -- comments most would not bother to read anyway -- and trying to figure out, let alone correct, syntactical atrocities that seemed to render every second or third sentence like a transcript from a foreign language or, as James Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake, as a species of “jinglish janglage.”

Speaking of whom, in my aforementioned article I had mentioned that I’d been cautioned not to attempt to teach the works of Joyce to my classes. Such material was deemed much too difficult for the contemporary undergraduate. Nonetheless, I made the attempt. I began by assigning Joyce’s Dubliners, a collection of early short stories relatively thin on plot but concluding with the technique of an end-stopped “epiphany,” a sudden revelation. The effort was perhaps partially effective in that some students were inclined to treat it like a kind of parlor quiz -- what’s the epiphany? -- somewhat like trying to spot Waldo among a blizzard of detail. I also indicated that Joyce, who kept Walter Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary under his pillow, liked to create a philological sub-plot, so that a word like “disappointed” also meant “appointed by the devil” (Latin: Dis), or a reference to “distilled spirits” suggested evil spirits dropping down on his characters (Dis; Latin “de” = down; Latin “stilla” = drop). Joyce made consistent use of this quasi-narrative device, based on Latin and Sanskrit roots, which proliferated throughout the stories. The general impression among my students was that we were dealing with a pretty weird guy, and weirdness at least was marginally interesting.