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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.

But when I briefly tried to introduce my students to a portion of the paronomastic, multi-lingual Wake for the sheer fun of language at its most exuberant, I was rewarded with blank incomprehension. It is, admittedly, a formidable text, but I felt that with some tutorial guidance students might be intrigued by the multiplex resources of the language, its potential to “maximize modularity,” to use an aeronautical phrase. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I did appreciate the following cartoon from a graphically talented student for its cheeky insouciance. Still, it was a sign that students are far more comfortable performing in a visual milieu than in a textual environment, as this student, like the majority of his congeners, experienced significant hardship organizing his thoughts and perceptions both in his verbal presentations and written projects.

The comic strip response to a class exercise was good fun, but rather beside the point. What concerned me most was precisely, in George Grant’s phrase, the “intimations of deprival” so unabashedly displayed by the majority of my students. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, estimates that only 5% of the population is fit for attending college; the rest would be better off attending vocational schools. Whatever the percentage of the academically uneducable might be, Caplan was definitely on to something.

Where was one to start trying to educate an adult student who thought the Great Depression began in the 1960s; who was unable to distinguish between the First and Second World Wars; who thought that Moscow was the capital of Missouri; who was convinced the native peoples crossed the Bering Strait in the 1940s (no less amazing, she believed the Bering Strait was the Panama Canal); who claimed that Christ’s parables were about “betting and gamibeling and explaining differently in alot of discussion”; who asserted that “analising a book one must lick your way to the center of the Tootsie Roll-Pop”; who reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose declared “This book is all about mid-evil times and the monk-persons in ministories”; who thought that Canada separated from the United States during the Civil War; who discovered that “the main characters in the story are talking among themselves by using language”; who called John Dryden, who became England’s first Poet Laureate in 1688, “a great poet and a great goaltender,” confusing him with Ken Dryden of the Montreal Canadiens; who thought Lawrence of Arabia was a Renaissance painter; who wrote that “Christ was at the stake and had nails in certain places”; who claimed that Alexander Pope “is the head honcho of the catholic church”; or who averred, in a paper on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that “George Orwin, arthur of The Animal Firm, was heavily into natur.” You can’t make this stuff up. Responding to a brilliant reading and lecture by Doug Jones, a celebrated Canadian poet and critic I had invited to my class, many students fell asleep. Another said: “It was a crucification.” My files contain innumerable such solecisms -- booklets crammed full of them.

My conclusion is disheartening but I think justified. How to succeed in evoking in our students what Thoreau in his last essay Walking described as “Sympathy with Intelligence,” the historically resonant form of “sauntering” through fields of knowledge, which is the ancestral aim and ideal of genuine education? The remedial work that needs to be done to reverse the declension is too limitlessly vast to be achievable. To put it succinctly, the problem may be formulated as: where is the substance to remediate? how does one work on emptiness?

Today’s students for the most part resemble the young man named Eutychus in Acts 20:9 who, listening to Paul preach in the synagogue, “sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft,” being quite literally bored to death. Regrettably, we cannot, like Paul, bring Eutychus back from the dead. Nor can the usquebaugh (Gaelic: “water of life”) of knowledge and dedication revive the catatonic, as it did the body lying in state of Joyce’s protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker in Finnegans Wake. Such events happen only in miracle or fiction. Modern education is neither. It is a dead letter. It cannot be rehabilitated. It can only be demolished and replaced in the wake of a long overdue, if improbable, powerful conservative upsurge in a morbidly decadent left-liberal culture.