Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Are We Learning in English Class?

I suspect the taste for self-consciously ironic cliché and the general paucity of intellectual and moral brilliance in the North American media these days has something to do with 20+ years of increasingly bad “language arts” and English classes, among other things. While English inevitably has to be taught as a basic communicative tool at the lower end of the student ability spectrum, the increasing focus at the higher end on “media literacy” and “cultural literacy," i.e. thematically organized “critical thinking” about commercial and political rhetoric, seems to have occurred mostly at the expense of actual literacy, i.e. learning to read and write well by studying the work of a variety of excellent and challenging writers while reading and writing as much as possible. Speaking from my own experience and biases, I'd like to suggest that the latter inculcates a healthy and respectful skepticism; the former, cynicism and paranoia. One helps create an individual who is judicious, imaginative and capable of appreciation as well as critique; the other implicitly associates sincerity with gullibility, and fosters a reflexive (defensive?) attitude of boredom and incredulousness--of having "seen it all" already. One teaches the value of informed opinion and reasoned argument, while the other is incapable of distinguishing between the two, and tends to breed adults who have no time for either insofar as these concern anyone unlike themselves.

Among participants in the North America Media Experience, the only phrase that could possibly be uttered more frequently than "That's offensive!" (which differs from "That hurts my feelings" in subtle but important ways) is "It's funny because it's stupid." Both are hostile to whatever it is that elevates human life above the naked horror of two-thirds of a fairy tale followed by a bloodbath, or, worse, a melodrama in which churlish and self-righteous crybabies live and die in banality, hounded by institutions they are powerless to influence or understand. Whatever the soul is or isn't, a human being isn't much without a brain, a heart and a backbone.

In any event, it's probably a good idea to encourage exceptional students to become exceptional readers and writers, rather than ostensibly average coasters who are exceptionally mad at Dead White Males, Coca Cola and the cosmetics industry. Some of them will probably figure this stuff out on their own, but many of them won't. And if English class must have a political agenda, maybe it ought to be dictated by great books and not the other way around. Shakespeare, Austen, Joyce and Tolkien will be here long after today's "constructivists" and tomorrow's "connectivists" have been buried and forgotten.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking to Texans: At the Shoe Store

ME: Well, if my new sneakers are a whole size too big, I'll be tripping over those big gaps in the Texan sidewalk.

IRATE WOMAN AT SHOE STORE: You're damn lucky we have sidewalks!

ME: ...

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Homesick on a Thursday Afternoon

I miss my home. The people there
Mix grudging hope with sweet despair.
They’ll have your company, not just your money.

They’re mongrel Scots, Acadians,
And other good Canadians
Who get when life is sad and when it’s funny.

I find it hard, try as I might,
To understand the Dallasite,
That prairie heat-bred strain of local fauna—

The way he always shouts his news,
The way he pushes through the queues,
His citizen’s contempt for marijuana.

The people never “hang out” here—
They make a date to have a beer!
The Dallasite means business—work or play.

I’m sure someday I’ll miss this place.
I’ll mourn all that I can’t replace
When time, that old, bald cheater, slips away.

(Image from