Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reading is Fundamental

During the the course of the nineteenth century, an interesting transformation took place in higher education in both England and America. Universities, which for much of their history had primarily trained clergymen, were now training scientists. One of the results of this was the decline and, in many cases, abandonment of the classical curriculum based on the study of Latin and Greek. At Harvard, which dropped Greek as an entrance requirement in 1887, President Eliot wrote:
Universities are called on to train young men for public service in new democracies, for a new medical profession, and for finances, journalism, transportation, manufacturing, the new architecture, the building of vessels and railroads, and the direction of great public works which improve agriculture, conserve the national resources, provide pure water supplies, and distribute light, heat, and mechanical power. The practitioners of these new professions can profit in so many directions by other studies in their youth, that they ought not all indiscriminately to be obliged to study Latin.
Latin was, he believed, increasingly irrelevant to the pragmatic, industrial, professionalized culture of America as it headed into the twentieth century.

In Oxford, the tide began to turn in the 1850s, when the new Museum of Natural History was opened as a corrective to what scientist Sir Henry Acland called the “intellectual one-sideness” of the University, which emphasized the study of the classics at the expense of scientific research. In his Memoirs, Mark Pattison wrote that the influence of the museum challenged “our na├»ve assumption that classical learning was a complete equipment for a great university.”

Matthew Arnold

Science became the controlling discipline. Thrown down from its privileged place in the curriculum, even classics attempted to become more scientific, emulating the scientific philology of the Germans, for whom classics was Altertumswissenschaft, the "science of antiquity." And although, with the advent of Darwinism, science was increasingly at odds with theology, theology itself attempted to be scientific. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold saw science and theology, as it was widely practiced, as two systems of dogma. The scientist observed and read nature literally, and theologians applied the same method to the Bible. Science and religious fundamentalism were strangely alike in their rigid standards of proof. The Bible was the theologian's laboratory, where absolute truth was established.

To Arnold, this was fundamentally wrong-headed. In Literature and Dogma (1873), he wrote: "The idea of a triangle is a definite and ascertained thing, and to deduce the properties of a triangle from it is an affair of reasoning. There are heads unapt for this sort of work, and some of the blundering to be found in this world is from this cause. But how far more of the blundering to be found in the world comes from people fancying that some idea is a definite and ascertained thing, like the idea of a triangle, when it is not; and proceeding to deduce properties from it, and to do battle about them, when their first start was a mistake!" For Arnold, who was also one of the three great English Victorian poets, the problem is that people try to read the Bible "scientifically"—as a source of "definite and ascertained" truths—instead of metaphorically, as a literary text.

The root of the problem is that people don't read enough, and aren't accustomed, through extensive reading, to the ways in which literary texts work. They lack critical thinking skills. They lack culture. Arnold wrote: "To understand that the language of the Bible is fluid, passing, and literary, not rigid, fixed, and scientific, is the first step toward a right understanding of the Bible. But to take this very first step, some experience of how men have thought and expressed themselves, and some flexibility of spirit, are necessary; and this is culture." Later, he continues: "For true culture implies not only knowledge, but right tact and justness of judgment, forming themselves by and with knowledge; without this tact it is not true culture. Difficult, however, as culture is, it is necessary."

In 2007, an AP-Ipsos poll indicated that 1 in 4 respondents had not read a single book in the previous year. Liberals were more likely to be readers than conservatives. Conservatives who read tended to read the Bible. If there is a culture war in this country, it may come down to something as fundamental as reading.

I'm heading out now to teach my Latin class, then I'm coming home to read a novel.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .