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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Reading Thomas Bertonneau's Reflections on Teaching Western Civ
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By Anonymous, July 2, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching

I have several responses to this. First of all, there are two sides to every story. One wonders how good a teacher Bertonneau is. This is a fair question to pose to anyone who complains about the consistent problems with his students.

But beyond that and more generally, I am sympathetic with Bertonneau's complaints. I have myself taught in a variety of school settings—middle school, high school and college, in rich areas and poor. I have had some opportunity to observe the same problems as Bertonneau. Some of them I find shocking in their world-poverty, as Heidegger would put it. That is, with students who seem to miss basic points, and have trouble reading ordinary prose, or cannot muster the effort to work through even basic assignments, I have found myself wondering, saddened and fretful, what it must be like to live in a world of such foreshortened ability to grasp or sympathetically understand other minds around them. And this isn't just in confronting a more difficult, distant writer such as Cicero or Chaucer, but even in reading modern novels or journalism. (Without a common, concrete example in front of us however, it is hard to say much about this subject beyond making generalities.) In many cases, I just become inured to such students with time—a little saddened, you learn that there are a lot of stunted individuals in the world, and you teach some of them. (My problem students were, in fact, some of my math students in high school, not mostly those in other settings. But I have taught writing at several levels, and the following reflections are a synthesis.)

In truth, I have not seen many students whose level was so low as described by Bertonneau. I don't really doubt his account, my initial comment notwithstanding. What I would like to focus on are a few examples and points that supplement his account though.

One problem I have found with some students' prose writing and class discussions is in making the distinction between picking out the topics of a piece of writing as such and discerning what if anything is the argument or thesis (or simply point of view) of the author. In the present blog entry, the list of topics are (e.g.) writing, students, arguments, the classroom, and teachers. If I ask you what this writing says or is about, and you say that it is about writing, students, arguments, the classroom, and teachers, then that is only a first-order take. An inquiring mind has to be able to distinguish between being able to collect things (topics) in a piece of writing, and listening to the author make assertions and claims, expressing a view, which has a sense and can be paraphrased, a sense which occupies a logical position. There is a difference between saying that the present blog post argues that contemporary students have a lot of problems with writing and saying that they do not have a lot of problems with writing. But both assertions are about the same topics.

This is about how to read a text: Learning to read and think is about paying attention to the author. The author is talking TO YOU. Just so we are clear what I mean here: I am talking to you the reader in a first-person declarative/indicative sentence like this one. But a sentence like this one which speaks quasi-impersonally is also addressed to the reader. Wittgenstein once wrote that reading is like the experience of being led. You follow the sense of the author's words, and in a way those words fill up your being while you are reading. I think that this makes sense. So what is it like to get lost and realize after a few minutes that your eyes have been wandering down the page and that you cannot remember getting there? —You realize that you were thinking of something else.

Another, more general level, is that to a certain extent, poor grammatical construction in writing reflects limited actual thinking about the topic written about. That is, to an extent bad grammar reflects sloppy thinking. To be sure, it is easy to push this claim too far. After all, rules of grammar are conventional, being of fairly recent vintage in the history of this (the English) language. Attic Greek sentence structure was quite different from that of modern English, and yet we think we can translate Greek prose in to modern English. Nevertheless, if you (or a student on a paper assignment) write a dependent clause, capitalizing the first word and concluding it with a period, and it is not obviously a part of an adjacent clause. Such a sentence does not really have sense —it says nothing. This is perhaps a more extreme, logical example, but the point stands: Often, poor grammar reflects or shows off the limitations in the thinking of the writer. It is not as though writing or speaking are just imperfect media of transmission of the soul's thoughts; to a very great extent, expression is thought itself.

But beyond these symptoms we see in the classroom, Bertonneau's article also provides good occasion to think about what is wrong or troubled with American higher education, something that I am sure is a concern for many people reading this. I submit that the problem is in THE CULTURE, as they say these days. And the only real solution has to happen at the sub-college level. I don't know anything about Bertonneau besides his rather stodgy but apparently fair responses to the young barbaroi who populate his class. But it seems to me that he should quit teaching college and should open up a private grammar school and/or high school, a modern little red schoolhouse. Ceteris paribus, one should go to the root of the problem.

I will end by being provocative: Conservative intellectuals like Bertonneau who want to make more of a difference should tune in, turn on, and drop out: Open up a charter school or a non-profit small private sub-college academy based on charity with low tuition rates, and train good souls and minds from adolescence up, rather than getting them in college, when bad habits have already been learned and good habits have maybe not been inculcated during the formative years.

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Jul 11, 2009 at 7:32 am

I agree with you entirely, only to add that one needs to find a donor to support such a project (although the home school movement seems to be doing fine without one).