Jeremiah Wright was back in the pulpit Sunday, pontificating on the tragic December anniversary of the 1941 bombing of Hiroshima; this was shortly followed, he told his congregation, by the bombing of Nagasaki. Wright himself was born in 1941. Of course, as Leno’s untutored-man-in-the-street questions indicate, we are losing our understanding of events within our own lifetimes.
Losing dates, we lose our understanding of history for we are less likely to see that ideas have consequences and effects follow causes. We also lose gratitude for those that went before – whether for Shakespeare’s words or the bravery of Washington’s troops or the beauty of ideas that impelled the Puritans or gave the founders their wisdom. We don’t understand real courage nor how tolerance comes to us. Most of all, we lose the sense we only reach the heights we can because we stand on other’s shoulders. Such ignorance gives us a false pride.
Not irrelevantly, Instapundit links to “English, Redefined, at Harvard,” at Inside Higher Ed. Harvard is “diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organizing rubric … to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature,” according to Daniel Donoghue, director of undergraduate studies in Harvard University’s English department. Given modern approaches, I was surprised Harvard retained chronological courses. Gerald Graff, current MLA president (from the University of Illinois at Chicago), describes “a movement away from the historical survey course, stemming from the 1960s.”
“I know that’s been greatly lamented by some traditionalists. What those who lament the demise of the survey never confront, I don’t think, is that the traditional survey was often very unsuccessful — students didn’t come away from the survey course often with a very sharp sense of history,” said Graff. “In principle, I agree with the people who say that a thematic focus actually gives you some advantages in teaching historical perspective because you can contrast, or compare and contrast, the way medieval writers versus modern writers teach the same theme. And you often lose that sense of comparison and contrast in a historical survey.”
Well, perhaps there was no “sharp sense” of history – but chronology is necessary for context; it also makes comparing and contrasting more intelligible. Specialization works a great deal better if it derives organically from generalized knowledge. “Studies” areas – women’s studies, American studies, etc. – can be fruitful if basic history and literature courses have provided a rich soil. Aphra Behn may be interesting as an early woman writer, but to appreciate her as an artist and not an oddity, we need the context of Restoration Drama rather than Sylvia Plath and Mary Wollstonecraft. Elizabeth Bishop refused inclusion in women’s poetry anthologies because, I suspect, she wanted to be seen as a poet and in terms of her craft, not her sex. Paradoxically, that refusal came from a more inclusive vision of her work and poetry in general – a proportionality resting on a longer tradition than that of gender driven approaches.
There is talk of getting rid of our state’s requirements for two American history courses as well as one in federal and another in state government. I have sympathy for my colleagues; such courses seem basic to our responsibilities as citizens. Of course, they want job security. But English requirements were gutted years ago. The implicit argument seems to be that students are so overprepared for their high school classes, college ones need to be substituted. Then, they arrive in college so overprepared in lit and history that they need take no college course in either, ever. If they want to, of course, they can take courses in the Jacksonian period or African-American women writers of the 1960’s.
As an undergraduate, I only took a couple of survey courses. But, now, teaching at a junior college, I teach basic lit courses, structured chronologically. Teaching them has taught me – given me a stronger sense of how each period builds on ones before. This approach prevents us from such foolishness as Wright’s. It reinforces our understanding that effects are derived from causes. History and lit demonstrate that acts have consequences. Ideas do, too. Tracing movements and counter movements, each generation argues with the one before it, but also accepts its truths – overlapping patterns. Over thousands of years, we connect with people who sighed at beauty and laughed at folly as we do now. It teaches us humility, respect.
I assume ignorance is not the purpose but an accidental by-product of ahistorical thinking. I’ve commented before on my irritation with Europeans who see our revolution as imitating the French; that idiocy, however, pales beside Wright’s – if for no other reason than neither France nor America are the countries of our visitors; theoretically America is Wright’s native land. Ayers talks to educators in Venezuela; I try not to suspect his motives. I am sure, however, that modern theories which ignore the consequences of certain ideas leave us more comfortable with them than we should be. Believing in patterns, we were likely to see Chavez repeating one we’ve seen before. But if our understanding of history is derived from a course in Utopian projects in the mid nineteenth century and another in, say, women’s “wrongs” in the early twentieth, we don’t have the context that helps us interpret Chavez and see him as, well, a predictable demagogue following a plot we’ve seen before – writ large and writ small.
Without an historical sense, we don’t understand how remarkable the anti-slavery movements in England and America were, how difficult moving from tribal allegiances to national ones can be, how much we owe to people who tried to establish flexible institutions that ordered our civil life. These courses give proportion, teach us humility before the broad sweep of time and pride in our species. These courses, like the philosophy of self-reliance, bring us happiness – in the knowledge itself, in how history works. Most of all, though, comes gratitude. At its simplest, this gratitude comes from realizing we can learn from the past, that we don’t have to keep rediscovering the wheel.