“Lists of Names Do Not Think”

Quite a week it has been: with the ninth graders, looking at the exchange between Teiresias and Creon in Antigone; with the tenth graders, concluding our discussion of Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals and starting to read Buber’s I and Thou; and with the eleventh graders, finishing up the unit on Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes and beginning a discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan or, rather, an excerpt from it. That, and the election, and the city’s slow recovery from the storm, with some heavy losses (I and those I know are fine)—all of this has made for a tumultuous week on the one hand and a contemplative one on the other.

It is a treat to return to David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means and put together some thoughts on the second chapter, in which he examines the incoherent conservatism of George F. Will and William Bennett (as examples of a larger tendency). As I discuss this chapter—perhaps the most difficult to discuss, and the one that has challenged me the most—I will keep this question in mind: If a primary purpose of education is to teach people to think critically, knowledgeably, and independently, to what extent does a core curriculum serve that end?

According to Bromwich, both Will and Bennett see education and religion as a way of rescuing a dying culture. (I am using the present tense for convenience; the book was published twenty years ago.) They believe in cultural transmission—that is, the “imitative (not inventive) continuity of a tradition,” which “involves the pouring of a contained substance into a new container.” Will considers himself an intellectual descendant of Burke—but, unlike Burke, champions both tradition and the free market. “Burke himself disdained any tactic that would have appeared at once to defend an existing order and to favor the instrumentalities of rapid change,” Bromwich observes. By contrast, Will and Bennett share an incoherent philosophy and “a shallow idea of tradition.”  In addition, Will and Bennett distrust some aspect of historical consciousness—in particular, the idea that we are to some degree formed by history and must study history in order to understand ourselves.

To a degree, Bromwich sympathizes with them. Like them, he worries that a sense of the past is vanishing from curricula and culture. Yet he favors the great old books (and great newer ones) not because they constitute “cultural capital” but rather because “their good derives from their peculiar power to make us think, and the right use of that power is to reform, and not to console, the culture and society in which we are at home.” By contrast, Bennett in particular seems distrustful of the whole enterprise of “critical thinking.” (I will return to that in a moment.)

This chapter gave me a good shaking. As one who has defended “classical” curriculum and has not overtly challenged the idea of cultural capital (though I have argued repeatedly that a good curriculum encourages critical and independent thought), I am incited to sort out my ideas in a way I haven’t before.  When I began writing about education, I received a warm welcome from curriculum advocates, both conservative and liberal. Like them, I saw a lot of fads interfering with good education: for instance, an insistence on group work at the expense of focused instruction and discussion; on student choice of books at the expense of a literature curriculum; and on so-called “21st century skills” at the expense of those skills that are not of the moment or tailored to the current market.

I continue to criticize these fads. But my rationale has been mixed and perhaps incoherent. On the one hand, I have argued (like Will and Bennett) for cultural preservation. On the other, I have recognized that there is no fixed culture to preserve. Any great work of literature or art takes on new life in the mind of the reader, viewer, or listener. I have taught Antigone for four years and read it many times since age thirteen; I am still surprised by the play and still consider myself an advanced beginner with it. In addition, just as a work of literature (or literary nonfiction) sharpens the reader’s thinking, so it becomes sharper in the reader’s understanding. Consider this happening over time, and you have not only a single reader, but many, each with thoughts and responses, which then start responding to each other and influencing the course of life around them. In no way can this be collected as a set and handed down.

Yet I think I understand Bennett when, in his 1986 speech “In Defense of the Common Culture” (quoted in this chapter), he complains that colleges are “listing their objectives as teaching such skills as reading, critical thinking, and awareness of other points of view.” Bromwich takes this to mean that Bennett actually opposes the teaching of critical thinking. I may be giving Bennett far too much credit, but I interpret his words otherwise.

Bennett may have meant (in which case I agree) that critical thinking minus the substance is bunk. For good critical thinking to occur in school, students must be reading and thinking about something worthy. (Or perhaps it’s the word “worthy” that should be emphasized.) Take out that crucial condition, and you may end up with a lot of “media literacy” courses where students comment on commercials and TV programs, courses that celebrate the students’ opinions, and courses that treat literature as a sociological enterprise, with representatives from every walk of life. These are real dangers—and often realities—in institutions that proclaim their main goals as “critical thinking, awareness of multiple perspectives,” and so on. You have to dare to name works of literature that deserve attentive study.

But is that a fixed, invariable canon? Of course not. Teachers and professors will base some selections on their own affinities. In a highly educated world, such selections could be based almost entirely on affinity. But when the pull is in the other direction—away from reading, away from sustained thought—a curriculum based on “affinity” could easily encourage such rationales as “I never got into Homer, so I am not going to impose the Iliad on the kids.” Or: “Sorry, my students just can’t relate to those British poets like Donne and Blake. I’m going to bring them something closer to their experience.” It takes a great deal of attention to relate to something that isn’t immediately about you; it also takes works that call you across, the works that teach your mind such crossing.

Still, as I read the chapter, I found myself increasingly averse to the pretentious tone of Will’s and Bennett’s pronouncements. Public-quasi-intellectuals can get away with an awful lot of hollowness; the mere hint of learnedness impresses people. Here I am especially self-critical, as I  I think back on some of my more grandiose writing. Bromwich’s book eschews such grandiosity by sticking to close analysis of a few situations and texts. He criticizes Will for “studding” his text with “the names of learned authorities, whom Will brings forward much as an arriviste displays silverware, to dazzle, stagger, oppress, and sicken the visitor to his study, his emporium.”

I would be indulging in false confession if I said that I did the very same thing as Will. But I have overdone my quoting at times; what’s more, I have sometimes quoted people in arrays, as though the assemblage itself could make a point. “Plainly Will does think in lists of names,” says Bromwich, “but lists of names do not think.” I will keep that in mind for my future writing; it has bearing on curriculum as well. Lists of books do not think, either, unless the person doing the listing has thought carefully about the selection and arrangement. At that point, it’s no longer a list. (I have thought carefully about the selection and arrangement of my philosophy curriculum—but to someone unfamiliar with the works, it’s just an impressive-looking list.)

A core curriculum (that is, one that provides a foundation for further study and thought) must be thought through and shaped by the people who teach it. It may indeed start as a list (as when the novice literature instructor receives a syllabus), but once the teacher has pondered it, arranged it, and fine-tuned it, it is already something else. From there, the teacher may alter it even more, but with a stronger sense of what it is in the first place.

Give me a list of skills and a list of books, and I will find much more life in the latter—but that’s because my mind starts playing with it (if I am familiar with the books). That’s what policymakers often forget about curriculum. It can’t just be implemented. The teacher must know it well enough to become its interpreter and creator. This requires study. Study of what? Of these and other works that another teacher, likewise, has studied closely and interpreted. This is tradition in the best sense of the word.

There’s the conundrum. When a school lacks such a tradition, and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it. With a great deal of caution and doubt, I’d say it can, if it is good.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting  it; on November 20, I made a few additional changes to the final paragraph.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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