Gotham Diary:
An Education
12 September 2011

Reading Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen? is great fun, but it’s also doing a fine job of reminding that I am not cut out for teaching — teaching in an American classroom, that is, in which students are encouraged to air their personal opinions without having been given much guidance in the formation of useful ones. Brownstein’s summary of the “questions” that her broadly unread college students will “ask” about Pride and Prejudice includes, for example, this gem: “Doesn’t canonical English literature, don’t the novels of Jane Austen especially, coercively instill ruling-class attitudes in her readers — the — law, that the West is best?”

They have not read Edward Said [she notes wryly], but they do watch television, and ideology trickles down.

Brownstein has a wonderful time unpacking the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice: what does it really mean?

In the famous first paragraphs of Austen’s most-read and best-loved novel, which raise questions of truth and universality and what kind of truth gets acknowledged and what kind remains unsaid, her irony is palpable, thick. But it is not clear what it is directed at. Are we meant to read the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice as calling attention to the opposite of what it seems to be saying, that society is concerned about the fate of unmarried women, not men?

And so on. None of these thoughts would ever occur to me; general questions about abstract issues do not naturally rise in my mind, certainly not when reading agreeable novels; thinking about “truth” and “universality” wastes a lot of time and does more harm than good. (In that, I am as anti-intellectual as the most red-blooded American.) To me, the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice is nothing other than Mr Bennet’s way of putting the kind of nonsense that Mrs Bennet believes. Need one say more about it than that? Well, if you’re in “the academy,” it seems that you’re going to have to. Rachel Brownstein is nothing less than engaging about the business, and if I have to sit through discussions of truth and universality, I want her to conduct them. But I’m so relieved that I never pursued the academic life that it feels like having dodged a falling safe.

In the Spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly — one of those periodicals that I regularly consider canceling, until I finally get caught up with them and rediscover their indispensability — august emeritus professor Daniel Walker Howe mourns “Classical Education in America.” He quotes Garry Wills:

Learning classical Greek is the most economical intellectual investment one can make. On many things that might interest one — law  and politics, philosophy, oratory, history, lyric poetry, epic poetry, drama — there will be constant reference back to the founds of those forms in our civilization.

A bit starchy (especially for Garry Wills), but a home truth nonetheless. The problem with Classical education, it seems to me, is that it begins as a foreign language course, taught by grammarians who are sticklers for proper declension. This is not only beside the point but insulting. I would have benefited greatly from a course in readings from Loeb Classics, with English translations on facing pages. A good teacher would have been able to persuade, I’m sure, that it would be worth the trouble to learn Latin well enough to know, understand, and feel that

linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum, quas colis, arborum
 te praeter invisas cupressos
  ulla brevem dominum sequetur.

is inescapably better than

The earth, your house, the wife that you love so well,
Must be abandoned, and, of these trees you tend
 So fondly, none except the hated
  Cypress will follow its short-lived master.