Commentary

Hopeless Frivolity On the Edge of the Abyss

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I guess I'm just a hopelessly frivolous person. Here I sit puffing on my hookah while the media bleat about the plague of a teacher shortage that's about to smite our public schools, and all I can think about is Edward Young.

If for some incomprehensible reason you never took a course in 18th-century English poetry, you might not know that the Reverend Young was hot stuff back in the 1740's. His Night Thoughts on Death and Immortality went through edition after edition, cheering the hearts of legions of thanatopsians.

It may seem strange now, even to me, but when I left the Army and landed in graduate school, I knew an awful lot of people who went in for such esoterica. Someone I knew was hip-deep in the minor poems of Edmund Waller. Another equally hapless youth plumbed the shallows of Abraham Cowley, while I, God help me, panned the iambs of William Mickle and James Beattie for nuggets of misplaced pre-Romantic lore.

What I was really doing, of course, or so I thought, was preparing myself for the Struggle of Life. In other words I was serving my pedant's apprenticeship so the Commonwealth would anoint me as a schoolmaster capable of slingin' book larnin' at adolescents.

But it didn't take too many days in front of a high-school classroom to convince me that when it came to English Literature, I was hopelessly overqualified. My students were strangely indifferent to all I had to say about cross symbolism in Piers Plowman or to what Arthur Hugh Clough said to Matthew Arnold--or was it to Cardinal Manning?

But those were the halcyon days of 1957; girls wore skirts and a few boys addressed me as "sir," and a little learning wasn't entirely a dangerous thing. I had my moments. Back then, when my classes got to the end of A Tale of Two Cities, my baleful intoning of Sidney Carton's last words always wrung a few tears from some overly susceptible teeny boppers. And, though I wasn't exactly Frankie Avalon, my Richard the Third became legendary, though I shamelessly stole it all from Laurence Olivier. But it worked wonderfully for the groundlings of English Honors 4. A few years later, an ex-student sent me a newspaper clipping commemorating the Battle of Bosworth Field. Just about then, I think, he joined the White Boar Society and misspent his youth trying to convince the world that the Bard had laid a bum rap on Richard Crookback. The poor kid had become a Plantagenet junkie.

Sometimes my impact on students was even worse. A mother complained that I had given her daughter a bad case of galloping Weltschmerz by assigning a brace of Thomas Hardy's poems. The poor creature was floored by "Hap" and trampled into the dust by "The Darkling Thrush." She was so far gone that I was barely able to revive her flagging spirits with a straight dose of Hopkins' "God's Grandeur." It was a close call.

At any rate, back then, my modest erudition was at least marginally relevant. There was even a real danger that a student might occasionally ask a pertinent question in class. For example, once a year on cue, one kid was bound to say that he or she heard that Shakespeare really didn't write all those plays, which was my cue to level all Baconians and Marlovians in sight. I did mighty slaughter among the heathen.

But nowadays the only hands wig-wagging at me are those of kids who say they want to go to the bathroom, and half of those intend to sneak down to the pretzel stand for a quick fix of sodium chloride.

Over the years, as I was getting better, I was also getting less relevant. The real reading ability of students so declined that anyone capable of understanding a New York Times editorial is more than qualified to teach high-school English. Recently, a 14-year-old wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper commenting on one of my articles. His clarity and correctness of expression place him infinitely above any of my sophomores and far beyond most of my seniors. In other words, at this moment he has the intellectual ability and knowledge to teach my classes. If he'd put on 50 pounds and develop a five o'clock shadow, the job could be his.

A quick glance at some of my students' sentences from a recent vocabulary test will dispel any doubt of this. Originality didn't count:

Our farms are adversity.

Our farms are incoherent.

And this comment on the President's agricultural policy:

Our farms are abyss.

Then there was this tantalizing Kafkaimage:

She crawled to the edge and stared into the carpetbagger.

The point is that most of our lamentations about the coming teacher shortage are based on the fallacious assumption that you need people with masters' degrees or at least undergraduate degrees to work in schools. But the curriculum pursued by most elementary and high-school students is generally so debased that most classes could be taught by moderately intelligent and informed laymen.

In fact, a strong case might be made that it would be a shameful waste of learning and brainpower to continue to have over-qualified people in our classrooms. I know mathematics teachers whose heads are stuffed with integral calculus, computerese, and what-not. But they're spending most of their "professional" lives trying to teach what amount to Sub-Remedial-Basic Math classes. An experienced bookie could do as well, if he or she could be persuaded to take a substantial cut in income.

Another colleague, a qualified accountant, fought a losing battle with one of his classes when he tried to teach the difference between a debit and a credit. I think it was his whole year's curriculum. The kids thought he was making a theological point, and they remained as skeptical as a gaggle of Druids listening to an Anabaptist who had mistakenly wandered onto their heath. No heterodoxy for them!

It's just a question of time until some deficit-plagued politician sees that we don't really need all that many hot-shot college grads to fill our classrooms. Despite a lot of brave talk, our students are not going to get any better--at least not until a padlock is put on the front door of every TV and FM station and every rock group is tossed into the Chateau D'If or sent to Fort Zinderneuf.

My vision is that the classes of the future will mostly be run by paraprofessionals with stacks of workbooks with fill-in assignments. And there'll be a "master" teacher hanging around on every floor just in case someone wants to know how to spell "anti-disestablishmentarianism" or what a right angle is as distinguished from a wrong angle or how many terms Dewey served as president. The master teacher at least will have been to college so he or she is bound to know all the answers.

Vol. 02, Issue 37, Page 18

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