18 Sep 2010
As a former foreign language teacher, I can attest to the weaknesses that Signorelli points out. And I was teaching about 30 years ago. No doubt things have gotten worse. One of the problems was that it becomes very difficult to teach grammar in a foreign language, when the students know little if any English grammar. How do you tell the kids that a Spanish AR verb is conjugated in such and such a way, when they don't know what a verb is?? I found myself teaching basic English grammar as a prelude and contrast to its Spanish counterpart. I think that many kids appreciated that information and paid attention. Since I was a teacher, things have gotten a lot worse over the last 27 years when I left teaching in Philadelphia.
I believe that understanding grammar is part of logical thinking. And grammar has been a target of the education wreckers for many years. I agree that
A person without a sufficient level of literacy is a person without substantial access to the accumulated wisdom of mankind
And analyzing texts --in the manner of the French explication de texte-- might be helpful to forming an intelligent body of citizens who need to be able to analyze the usual BS of politicians. So literacy and historical knowledge are of prime importance in a civilized society. But why exclude math and science?? After all, as you know, Pythagoras one of the earliest "Greek" philosophers, believed that Number was the basic principle of the universe. Apparently Pythagoras and his company of disciples used to hang out and talk about math, inter alia, working out the Pythagorean theorem among other achievments. So ancient Greeks and other Eastern Mediterranean peoples [Pythagoras was a Phoenician] were quite interested in math. Why not advocate a well rounded education including history, grammar, lit, rhetoric and its analysis, and math & science??
18 Sep 2010
Terence, I don't read the NYT anymore for various reasons, although I was once read it every day. As I recall from the last time that I saw the Arts Section, rock and hard rock and other kind of ugly sounds were welcomed as Arts. If I am wrong about the NYT's "arts" section, please let me know.
Now I would citicize Mark Signorelli for not mentioning music in his excellent essay. After all, Plato wrote that music was an essential part of education and training the mind for his philosopher kings.
I would like to see a study of how much rock and its ugly derivatives have not only debased popular taste but have coarsened thought and feeling. For two or three generations now.
21 Sep 2010
"For going on many years now, our schools have cast forth into our society whole generations of incurious, self-satisfied, intellectually stunted, and substantially illiterate persons, to comprise the whole of our body politic; to believe that such a citizenry is capable of maintaining a free or civil society is as perfect a delusion as has ever taken hold of a people."
The success of a democracy depends on an educated and involved public. Unfortunately, most of our citizens are involved only with themselves.
This sad state is hardly new. C. S. Lewis wrote of it in "The Abolition of Man" .
As long as the teachers' unions hold sway over our schools, things are unlikely to change. One might even think that this is - and has been - the desired outcome. An ignorant public is easier to control than an educated one.
Eliot Green makes a good point: the absence of music in education has been a sad loss. It's led to non-music - music stripped of everything that makes real music: melody, harmony, counterpoint. All they are left with is loud brutish music curling out of rolled-down car windows.
But while Plato was keen on music, he thought poetry was too subversive to be taught to youth. (Which proves the old adage that nobody bats 1000.)
22 Sep 2010
This is a great and thought provoking article. In addition to the fact that language is weak, science itself is not properly taught. I have never seen a course at school or at University, for example. that teaches the philosophy or the history of the scientific method, despite the fact that all science learned has a history of both events and changes in thought.
Students are taught that science is about "facts" but are not taught about the process of deciding why a fact is considered a fact, or how, historically, the obvious "facts" of one generation are obvious "untuths" of another.
Science today is taught as if it were a religious truth, without any emphasis on the quality of thought that makes such ideas "scientific". It does not bode well for where we are going as a civilisation.
26 Sep 2010
A couple of points, from a significantly younger perspective than everyone else here:
I've been a fan of Mr. Signorelli's particular brand of overwrought and pretentious essaywriting for quite some time, in an ironic sort of way. I often enjoyed how his essays would wander tortuously through various clusters of unnecessary jargon words, violating every possible rule in Orwell's book (not that this matters, as Mr. Signorelli would no doubt posit that Orwell was a hack and a fraud, having dared to publish works written after the 1890s). And, to be perfectly honest, I was at first expecting this essay to veer into similar obscurantist territory.
I say all this as a disclaimer, and to highlight my surprise at finding in this particular piece what seemed (at first) to be a significant improvement. Mr. Signorelli's prose, while still a bit silly and florid in places, has improved significantly -- and, more to the point, his thesis struck me as being closer to the mark than past adventures. There is no doubt that our culture has lost its vital emotional connection to the humanities and liberal arts, and that investments in a scientific education are being made at their expense. Unfortunately, however, rather than write an essay that attempts to heal the divide between the sciences and the humanities, Signorelli has chosen instead to write an angry polemic against the scientism of our time that drives yet another wedge between two intellectual traditions and, ultimately, does no one any good.
Not that this should be surprising. In previous essays ("Taking Memes Seriously" comes to mind), Signorelli has shown an utter disdain for science at large, perhaps because attempts to explain the universe rationally infringe upon the territory of his religious beliefs. I, in any case, am not one to begrudge him his right to think in such a manner. Nonetheless, in reading him, I have always wondered at the wisdom of commenting so forcefully upon a topic about which he very clearly knows little about.
Here, however, Signorelli is in familiar territory. He can ramble for ages, clearly, on the merits of a literary education -- by which he mostly means an education in the classics as he sees them. He does this mostly by mining quotes from various historical experts in the humanities and pointing out, with no small amount of gusto, how big and important they were in their respective time periods. In particular, he makes a point about how
"[T]he generally accepted purpose of schooling [throughout past eras] was, to use the jargon of our own times, the formation of character, and the generally adopted means of achieving that formation was a thoroughly literary education."
He goes on to mention, at length, how such education was not "vocational," but rather to prepare young men for "participation in a civil society." Which is all well and good, I suppose, except for the fact that (with the possible exception of Greece, for a few decades in the fourth century BC), the only people with access to such an education were the born aristocracy. Everyone else, no matter what their supposed merits or talents, were left to be peasants or, in more gracious eras, the crude and unseemly merchants and (sometimes) scientists that Signorelli hates with such vitriol. Say what you will about the nouveau riche: they were the beginnings of a society free from the constraints of birth. Hell, I say that as a democratic socialist, and I'm supposed to be inclined to hate them.
But at any rate, even that is a nitpick. Regardless of how crudely he expresses it, Signorelli's main point about modern education lacking a liberal arts component is valid. His point about such an education being uprooted in favor of a science-oriented one is also correct. What he lacks is an adequate explanation for why.
As is, Signorelli's essay seems to posit that the takeover is some intentional attempt -- I hesitate to call it a conspiracy, though at points that seems to be what is implied -- by the scientists to eradicate the humanities in favor of pure rationalism. He justifies this with a quote from Francis Bacon on the limitations of language and the perfections of mathematics; he neglects, of course, to mention that Bacon was instrumental in inventing the essay as we know it, and his "new science" laid the foundations for the Royal Society, who tried to introduce regularity and stability to an English language then in flux. Such efforts were undertaken precisely for the protection of the nation's literature -- but naturally, for Signorelli, the appeal of a strawman of evil scientists plotting to take away our literature was too good to pass up. He then goes on to make sensationalistic, hyperbolic claims about how students are illiterate, do nothing but play video games (noting that tests showing they improve motor skills only make gamers "nearer to Cro-Magnon", by some absurd logic), and are ultimately unthinking slaves to a dumbed-down media and political environment. By lowering the debate to such a level himself, Signorelli only demonstrates that he is very much a part of that glib, pseudo-intellectual culture he claims to despise so much.
And here's the kicker: for all his idiocy in approaching the topic, Mr. Signorelli isn't strictly wrong.
For there is a streak of scientism in our society that places mathematics and the hard sciences on a pedestal, with humanities as a needless distraction or luxury that we have evolved. And there is a contempt in scientific intellectual circles for the liberal arts -- I know because I have felt it, from friends, family, and peers, when I express my desire to be a writer for a living. Tucked between the silly arguments I mentioned two paragraphs ago, there is a single, horrifyingly true statistic: less than fifty percent of Americans actually do read literature, and youth read even less. My generation is out of touch with the arts, and time and again Signorelli fails to explain, to any meaningful capacity, why.
To be honest, I can't tell you either, at least with any certainty (that, I suspect, is the difference between myself and Signorelli -- I don't claim to be an authority in matters where I am not). Nonetheless, I have a hunch: it probably stems from an inability by people like Signorelli, or even his much-vaunted enemies in the "liberal" academia, to establish why the liberal arts are useful. For we Americans are a society obsessed with utility; Richard Hofstadter once wrote that it is the great source of our anti-intellectualism. My generation looks to various strands of contemporary art -- Abstract Expressionist paintings, for instance, or free-verse poetry -- and feels no connection to them, no sense that the works speak for them. This is neither a comment on the quality of the works or the taste of the students: it is merely a statement of fact that such a disconnect exists. As a result, in my generation the loving of art has been relegated to a small class of pseudo-intellectuals bent on obscurantism and superficial complexity -- we call them hipsters, Signorelli calls them some odd combination of jargon words, but the point is that they are a scholastic niche.
I think there is hope, though. For one thing (and I say this at the risk of sounding as egocentric as Mark for a second), there are people like me, who for various different reasons feel a connection to different types of art and thus try to examine works on their own merits. As a result, I can listen to Dvorak, Philip Glass, Beethoven, the Ramones, and Joanna Newsom in one sitting with my iPod -- a combination that would drive Mr. Signorelli mad, but which I nonetheless enjoy. Yes, I read and love John Keats and Alexander Pope, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room in my heart for Whitman and Ginsberg, too. Heresy, heresy, I know! How dare I dabble in modernity, with its atheism and its fragmentation and its uncertainty! But alas, I do, and I enjoy it.
The second hope is that, now more than ever, people actually want to be interdisciplinary. Scientists, too, have undergone a period of alienation -- it was not that long ago that interest in the sciences was relegated to a small class of "geeks," as well. But now that we live in an age where everyone uses computers (even Signorelli, no doubt much to his consternation), science is "mainstream," and we live in an "age of science." Well, the same thing can happen with the liberal arts too, I suspect, if they can do the simple job of justifying their own existence to the public at large. How they do that is pretty much up to the particular artists, professors, and essayists who attempt to do so; in any case, however, I suspect that it will not be in the way that Signorelli has proposed. Rather than drive a further wedge between a literary elite and the illiterate masses, between the scientists and the poets, people in the humanities should try to demonstrate that science and literature are in fact inseperable parts of the same thing. They would strive to prove that all art, and all science, is under the purview of that most perfect of human endeavors, philosophy -- and that we live in a literary as well as scientific world.
I'll conclude with a side-note: I am one of the many illiterate high school students that Mr. Signorelli cites, and I am also a product of our apparently nonfunctioning public school system. There, I was taught to diagram my sentences, write clearly, and think with conviction. I'll be the first to tell you that our public education system suffers from many problems -- but in the suburbs, that bastion of the American upper-middle class, I can tell you with confidence that illiteracy isn't one of them.
Perhaps, in whatever academy Signorelli went to and apparently thought so highly of, they could have done a better job of teaching him how to remove his head from his own ass.