Opinion
Education Commentary

In Praise Of Tangents

By Edmund Janko — July 27, 2016 5 min read

At one point in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield describes what went on in his prep-school speech class. The teacher warned the kids that whenever they gave a talk, they had to stick to their main idea. If anyone got off the track, the class was encouraged to pounce on the miscreant by shouting, “Digression, digression!” Most students loved it. It had some of the spirit of the hunt; lots of fun if you were the hound and not the fox.

Sometimes Holden thought it was a pity to interrupt the speaker, because the tangents were often more interesting than the main idea-like the time one of the students got off his topic and onto the misadventures of his eccentric uncle.

The speech teacher’s pandering to adolescent sadism is a questionable gimmick, but his main idea is sound. I’m certainly not going to knock the virtue of sticking to your thesis, but, still, there’s something to be said in favor of the much-abused tangent. After all, Tristram Shandy, one of the great novels in the English language, is one extended digression. Poor Tristram never did get to his point, thank goodness.

Too many people think of education solely in terms of clearly defined curricula, neatly circumscribed and predictable chunks of knowledge, of material to be “covered.” If it’s Thursday, this must be the French Revolution.

This sort of narrow thinking is reflected in a recent New York City Board of Education high-school memorandum based on the state commissioner’s policy regarding the relation between student attendance and grades. The text reads more like a civil-rights brief than an education document, and the board seems to be in a sweat that the Constitution will be trampled if there’s an inordinate demand that students attend classes. In magisterial cadences, the memorandum decrees that “no student is to be graded solely on the basis of attendance or absence regardless of the cause.”

One of the other strictures laid down is that students “are to be given reasonable opportunity to make up the work missed, including examinations.” The word “reasonable,” of course, loads the dice, suggesting that it would be irrational for a teacher to say that there was some work that simply couldn’t be made up--though that is often the case. The truth is that the give-and-take of a well-conducted class is far too rich and varied to be pinned down to a make-up assignment.

True, a test can be given at a later date to a child who has been absent, and a teacher can take the time to grade a book report days or weeks after it was due. But what about the tangents? How does a student go about making up tangents?

For example, like many other high-school English teachers, Ben Yosuf reads and discusses George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion with his senior classes. But the fact is that a lot of halfway intelligent students who read the play could, with the help of some “guides” from the local library, write a passable paper without sitting in on the class. In other words, according to some people’s definition, they could probably “make up the work” on their own.

But what a student can’t afford to miss are Mr. Yosuf’s tangents. One day he jumped from the discussion at hand and started to talk about the three giant egos that collided during the first production of the play. Shaw simply couldn’t get along with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the original Professor Higgins, and with Stella Patrick Campbell, who created the role of Eliza. During a particularly stormy rehearsal, the author walked out, vowing never to set foot in the theater again.

Later, Tree managed to soothe the playwright and got his grudging consent to attend the play’s 100th performance. Shaw thought he had put one over on the actor, because no play had ever had that long a run. But Pygmalion was so popular, partly because of its shocking language--the use of “bloody” in the third act--that the author had to make good on his promise.

The play’s financial success in no way reconciled the main parties. What Shaw saw on his visit made him furious. Tree had “modified” the ending, giving it a romantic twist. Letters passed between the actor and the playwright.

“My ending makes money,” wrote Tree. “You ought to be grateful.”

“Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot,” Shaw thundered in reply.

None of this was in the curriculum, and the final exam stuck to the play. But Mr. Yosuf’s tangential slice of post-Edwardian backstage melodrama gave a valuable extra dimension to the class assignments. It was also not something that an absent student could easily make up, nor would the authorities who compose memorandums expect him to.

Education not only goes well beyond the curriculum, it also takes place outside classroom walls. Teachers encounter students in many other situations during a school day--in the halls, in departmental or administrative offices, or in the cafeteria. And every encounter presents an opportunity for teaching and learning, all of it tangential to the standard curriculum.

Several years ago, two rowdy boys were chucked out of their Italian class and hauled down to the deans’ office. When the dean on duty heard the details of their multitudinous offenses, he put on his best “this is the most shocking case I’ve ever heard of’ face. “If you don’t behave in Italian, you may never learn enough to read Cavalcanti’s poems in the original,” he said portentously.

The boys looked at each other. Caval--what? They shrugged, confused.

“You mean you’re taking Italian and have never heard of Cavalcanti?” A note of urgency entered the dean’s voice. “Quick,” he said, scribbling the name on a slip of paper, “go to the library and find out who he was. I’ll expect you back in 20 minutes.”

One of those boys is now the manager of a local supermarket, and whenever he sees his ex-dean come in to shop he calls out, “Cavalcanti, Cav-al-can-ti,” his voice savoring the fond memory of the mischievous boy who still wants to please his teacher with the right answer, with evidence of the library assignment well done.

“Cavalcanti!” It was just a tangent unplanned, not on the curriculum. It was also a precious moment that an absent student can never make up, no matter what memorandums from on high dictate. Kids shouldn’t be told that they can stay out of school and somehow “make up” an education. The right equation for a full education is the curriculum plus the tangents.

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as In Praise Of Tangents

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