Old Lit as a Transformational Experience

Rembrandt, "Scholar Seated at Table with Books"

Rembrandt, “Scholar Seated at Table with Books”

I’ve been heartened by a couple of New York Times columns that Frank Bruni wrote recently (here and here) about a college encounter with an inspirational English teacher. I have some quibbles with the teacher, however.

Bruni’s first column was written in response to the contempt Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has been expressing for the University of Wisconsin, by slashing the budget and by attempting to strike “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the University’s mission statement. Walker wants to replace these phrases with “the state’s work force needs.”

To which Bruni asks,

I’m not sure where Lear fits into work force needs.

Actually, I think that King Lear should be required reading for CEOs since it shows clearly how a leader living within his power bubble can run an organization off the rails. Bruni, however, is referring to a moment in a Shakespeare class at the University of North Carolina when Professor Anne Hall made the Bard’s language come alive. Bruni describes this as the most transformational educational experience of his life.

In his mind’s eye Bruni sees Professor Hall

swooning and swaying as she stood at the front of a classroom in Chapel Hill, N.C., and explained the rawness and majesty of emotion in King Lear.

I heard three words: “Stay a little.” They’re Lear’s plea to Cordelia, the truest of his three daughters, as she slips away. When Hall recited them aloud, it wasn’t just her voice that trembled. It was all of her.

Rediscovering love only to lose it again is about as tragic as life gets. Literary moments like this remind us what is truly important. No wonder Bruni was blown away.

Bruni believes that the country started taking a Gradgrindian approach to education when then Governor of California Ronald Reagan asserted that taxpayers shouldn’t be  “subsidizing intellectual curiosity” and that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” Since then too many public policy makers have insisted that college should be judged according to its financial payoff. Bruni argues otherwise:

But it’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.

And it’s dangerous to forget that in a democracy, college isn’t just about making better engineers but about making better citizens, ones whose eyes have been opened to the sweep of history and the spectrum of civilizations.

Bruni also describes how, because of Hall’s Shakespeare class, he learned about the power of language:

“Stay a little.” She showed how that simple request harbored such grand anguish, capturing a fallen king’s hunger for connection and his tenuous hold on sanity and contentment. And thus she taught us how much weight a few syllables can carry, how powerful the muscle of language can be.

She demonstrated the rewards of close attention. And the way she did this — her eyes wild with fervor, her body aquiver with delight — was an encouragement of passion and a validation of the pleasure to be wrung from art. It informed all my reading from then on. It colored the way I listened to people and even watched TV. 

So far I’m totally with Bruni. I have a couple of concerns about Professor Hall, however, who contacted Bruni after the column appeared and who was the subject of a follow-up column.

I am worried that a lifetime of teaching literature hasn’t kept her from becoming “cranky,” a word that she applies jokingly to herself but that may fit. Here she is sounding like the curmudgeonly William Bennett as she complains about the current state of the English curriculum:

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

I admit to feeling a bit defensive here, given that I teach a British Fantasy class that ranges from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to The Golden Compass, with works like The Tempest, Eve of St. Agnes, Goblin Market, and Fellowship of the Ring ranged in between. I also teach a course entitled “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th century” and have been known to show a current romantic comedy or two to demonstrate how Wilmot, Congreve, Behn, Poe, Fielding, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Burney, and Austen are negotiating relationship issues in ways that we can relate to. The class fills up and the students get excited about how, say, Rape of the Lock addresses current sexual assault concerns.

Hall, who like me is in her sixties, laments the passing of a time when students felt that they were not well-rounded if they hadn’t read all of the “dead white men” in the canon. This leads me to wonder how she responds to the fact that in literature, as in art, music, history, philosophy, and the other arts and humanities, coverage is no longer possible. We’ve discovered too much good stuff to ever return to 1950s curriculums. Even in our introductory surveys we have to assign representative works rather than everything.

Hall also doesn’t acknowledge that often students in her golden era would sometimes come to regard the subjects of required surveys, whether Chaucer or Milton, as dusty museum relics rather than as living, breathing human beings trying to make sense of the world. The key lies in the teachers, not the courses. Good teachers, including Professor Hall, do whatever is necessary to engage students in the material. If taking advantage of students’ love of animals helps to get them excited about “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” then I see no problem. And for those appalled by the inclusion of Quentin Tarantino in a course, have you taken a good look at 17th century revenge tragedies? John Webster is the Tarantino of Jacobean drama.

I notice, incidentally, that Hall herself teaches a course called “Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece” and raves about one of her students, an undergraduate business major. Would this student have taken the course without the “and Politics”?

Hall needn’t be worried about Shakespeare, who will always have his own surveys. So will Jane Austen, the Brontes, Mark Twain and various others. But as for special classes on Chaucer, John Dryden, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, there’s a reason that lamenting their demise (of the special classes, not the authors) feels like lamenting the end of compulsory Latin and Greek. And I speak as one who still teaches all these writers.

Better to be like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who bravely waves a fond goodbye to her youth and vigor:

Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!     
The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.

The bran we English teachers have to sell is still pretty good stuff—sometimes even better than the flour we grew up with—and we can be right merry as we peddle it.

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