Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Canon Ball

Final exams begin next week.  The bad news is I'll be grading, but the good news is I will no longer be prepping for classes.  More time to write and to pack my bags for the annual trip to Oregon. Tick, tick, tick....

I've been frustrated this spring by my students' lack of a common knowledge base.  I could blabber on for days with hypotheses as to this sad state of affairs (blahblahblah BushNCLB blahblahblah Creationism blahblahblah AbstinenceOnly). I noticed some erosion when I returned to the classroom in 2003.  But this year, after 18 months away, I faced a mudslide.

I risk sounding like some kind of Bill Bennett conservative (those of you who know me will have to assure those of you who don't that nothing - nothing - could be less true), but can I please whine about the good old days when I could stand in front of a college classroom and expect my students - regardless of their majors - to have at least a "cocktail party" understanding of Darwin, Marx, and Freud?

In our liberal arts environment, I teach freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the same class. Some will go on as English majors, while others are fulfilling a breadth requirement. I select damn hard but devilishly interesting novels and season them with a variety of critical perspectives.  I know it's an introductory level class, but why should the big kids be the only ones who have any fun? Usually, most students - even the first years - rise admirably to the challenges. This year I removed important supplemental readings from my course (Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Malraux) because my students were having enough trouble with the literature - never mind the theory.   I doled the good stuff out as treats ("Would you like some theory, little boy?") on the sly to the ones who were ready.* Kind of broke my heart.

Sorry to beat the tired old drum of the canon. But I'd be interested in your thoughts.  Our institution recently did away with a decades-old series that began as a course in the foundations of Western thought but then morphed to include history of science (real science, lest you worry) as well as exposure to other, non-dominant cultures.  During my undergraduate years it was known, unfortunately, as "Heritage of Western Man."  Yes, we all grumbled as we took our unsupported ( but then-perky) breasts and bounced off in a feminist huff, but I can tell you that I thanked the curriculum gods during my first graduate seminar and every one thereafter.

Please comment, really.  What should we do about this?  I'm struggling both as an educator and as a parent. I want Small Child to be versed in Post-Colonial literature and history, but doesn't she also need to know why it's Post-Colonial?


* Here's a special thank you to some students who made it worth my time: the one who decided to audit the course early on then rarely missed another class, the one who asked for Marx's and Freud's writings on fetishism, the one who explained Hegelian dialectic so I wouldn't have to, the one who wrote the best essay on Faulkner when she thought it stank, the one who is facing the real world in ways the others can't fathom, and the one who throws so much heart into every single page.  If you ever find this blog, you know who you are. 


Anonymous said...

I'm another bleeding-heart liberal who thinks everyone should have at least a nodding acquaintance with The Canon. You don't necessarily have to slog your way through Das Kapital, but you should at least know who Marx was and be able to discuss his ideas for three or four minutes at least... yeah, cocktail-party conversation.

Does thinking a shared cultural heritage strengthens our society mean I'm a crypto-paleo-conservative in training? Damn...

bluelikethesky said...

"Shared cultural heritage" is where it all goes to hell in a handbasket, isn't it? Check tonight's post for a brief thought.

abhaille said...

Am I having a brain fart, or are you an alumna of the school where you teach?