Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”
Reading the above, the first thing that struck me was that a university dean, especially one who is an English professor, should not view the 19th century as ‘a very long time ago’…most likely, though, she herself probably does not have such a foreshortened view of time, rather, she’s probably describing what she observes as the perspective of her students (though it’s hard to tell from the quote). It does seem very likely that the K-12 experiences of the students have been high on presentism, resulting in students arriving at college “with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach,” as a junior professor who joined the faulty in 2021 put it. One would hope, though, that to the extent Harvard admits a large number of such students, it would focus very seriously on challenging that worldview. I do not get the impression that it actually does so.
In a discussion of the above passage at Twitter, Paul Graham @PaulG said:
One of the reasons they have such a strong “orientation toward the present” is that the past has been rewritten for a lot of them.
to which someone responded:
that’s always been true! it’s not like the us didn’t rewrite the history of the civil war to preserve southern feelings for 100 years. what’s different is that high schools are no longer providing the technical skills necessary for students to read literature!
…a fair point that there’s always been some rewriting of history going on, or at least adjusting the emphasis & deemphasis of certain points, but seems to me that what is going on today is a lot more systematic and pervasive than what’s happened in the past, at least in the US. Changing the narratives on heroes and villains, selecting particular facts to emphasize (or even to make up out of whole cloth) is not the same thing as inculcating a belief that “the unenlightened past has nothing left to teach.”
I get the impression that a lot of ‘educators’, at all levels, have not much interest in knowledge, but are rather driven by some mix of (a) careerism, and (b) ideology. For more on this, see my post Classics and the Public Sphere.
And it’s also true that many schools are not providing students with the skills necessary to read literature–although there are certainly some schools that are much better than others in this area, and one would have hoped that graduates of such schools would be highly represented among those selected to become Harvard students. Maybe not. And technologies that encourage a short attention span–social media, in particular–surely also play a part in the decline of interest and ability to read and understand even somewhat-complex literature.