Too Many Words versus Too Few

This is a response to – not a critique or attempted repudiation of – J. M. Smith’s two most recent postings.

One of my courses in the current semester is a course with the catalogue-name “Writing about Literature.”  Like many college-level courses nowadays, “Writing about Literature” is an exercise in absurdity.  Only those who have literature, and who have it massively, are ready to write about literature.  My students have almost no literature.  The men especially have never been readers.  The women have read recent consumer-fictions in which young female protagonists singlehandedly overthrow murderous “patriarchal” dystopias with the same police-state resources at their disposal as the modern Federal Government of the USA, but they cannot name the authors of these fictions.

I agree with Smith that ninety-nine per cent of public words nowadays are otiose and fugacious when they are not cases of downright mendacity and meretriciousness.  On the other hand, it is possible that in some venues there might be an unhealthy dearth of words.  I cite my “Writing about Literature” class as an example.

We are five weeks into a fifteen-week semester.  As my students have no literature, I have not worried about the writing element in the course-title; I have simply been giving them an essential minimum of literature – specifically the quaternity of English Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.  I have been encouraging the students to speak coherently and systematically about the poems of these poets, beginning with the paraphrase, and proceeding to the interpretation that takes into account the web of connotations woven in the syntactic warp and dictional weft of the rhapsody.

If anyone ever designed to utter a single phrase – in a discursive context of other phrases – that might “work a miracle” in a responsive audience, let us say, of one, so that the singular utterance would elicit a correspondent testimony of many words, then any member of the aforementioned poetic quaternity would qualify.  Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper” should provoke conversation, at least.

Alas!  My students – whether out of timidity, alienation, vocabulary deficiency, or total inexperience with the connotative aspect of language, all of which are probable – have tended to respond to promptitude almost solely in the medium of monosyllabic utterances.  If the question, intended to elicit the beginnings of a paraphrase, were: “Who is the ‘solitary reaper’ in the poem?” – the answer would be, with the lilting diffident uplift in tone that denotes questioning uncertainty, something like, a girl? – or nature? – or a peasant?  There is never a sentence.  And there is never much possibility of a discussion, which can only be conducted in sentences.

I had to say to my students last Friday, in a delicately worded appeal, that I wished them henceforth to speak to me as I speak to them – in sentences.  Whether they will respond, I have no way of predicting although I am not sanguine about the likelihood.

My point is simply this: That while there can be too many words, useless words, meaningless words, there might also be too few, hence only a sub-minimum of meaning, and no possibility of a meaningful parliament.  I daresay that we are afflicted, at this stage of American modernity, with both maladies: A surfeit of words and a poverty of them.  I daresay that one way to die is to give up on language, to revert to speechlessness, so that, at first, one can only say yes or no, and finally only yes.

34 thoughts on “Too Many Words versus Too Few

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  3. I once received a student essay that began with the sentence, “I am a man of few words.” The essay’s veracity and grammar fell off steeply after this prefatory remark, but this remark, at least, was perspicuous and true. I’m always open to student questions and comments, but I don’t try to “facilitate” classroom discussion. This is partly owing to the size of my classes, and partly owing to my subject, which doesn’t, generally, “work a miracle” in the minds of students. It is also partly owing to dismal experience. One winds up either “pulling teeth,” as you report, or listening in despair as some chatty Cathy runs down the clock while the other students smirk with the knowledge that nothing she says can appear on the test. I have colleagues who sagely inform me that they employ the Socratic method, from which I know they never read Plato and have no idea what the Socratic method is. One cannot use the Socratic method on students who know nothing other than that they know nothing, and are happy in that condition, provided it doesn’t damage their GPA.

    I wonder if the taciturnity of students is partly due to the general decline in the art of what my grandparents called “visiting” and “conversation.” The soul of that art is doing one’s part to “keep the ball rolling” without dominating the conversation and making one’s self the center of attention. Maybe this has something to do with the decline of group dancing, since conversation properly conducted resembles a dance. At least it resembles the dances of yore. Which makes me think that modern “conversation” resembles modern dance (of the mosh pit variety) in its essential solipsism.

    • Related to their extreme reluctance to utter anything beyond a timid monosyllable, is the wont of my students almost never to ask questions. Of course, to formulate a question, one must formulate a sentence. Beyond that, however, beyond the dearth of words, there is a dearth of curiosity – or, to invoke an entirely appropriate Platonic term, Eros.

      I believe that the disappearance of the institutions called “visiting” and “dancing” that you remark is very likely connected to the decline in sententiality that I have remarked.

      Liberalism calls on people to have “conversations,” but the call is phony. Real conversation is threatening to liberalism because it can produce flashes of critical insight inimical to the forms of correctness. I would bet that the taciturnity of the freshmen is exactly what the education establishments wants to achieve.

      • I tell my students that there is a thing called geographical eros, much as there is a philosophic eros. It’s a form of what C. S. Lewis called sehnsucht, or “longing.” This feeling of longing, or eros, should arise naturally in a finite creature, since it is ultimately a desire for completion, or perfection. Sexual desire is simply its most obvious and urgent form. Its telos is, of course, union with God. One feels what I call geographical eros when one is rapt by the “aching beauty” of some spot of the earth, or by the atavistic desire to explore, or by the evanescent sense that there is, behind all appearances, a mystical earth.

    • Maybe this has something to do with with the decline of group dancing, since conversation properly conducted resembles a dance. At least it resembles the dances of yore. Which makes me think that modern “conversation” resembles modern dance (of the mosh pit variety) in its essential solipsism.

      To misuse the language of ballet, I must say that your observation is quite en pointe.

      Like the Greeks of old, we must remain attuned to the importance of the arts — including and especially music and dance. Whenever I witness traditional group dancing — of Jews, Greeks, Slavs, Celts, and such, I think of how such developed when those peoples had extensive and robust (clannish) social arrangements. The increasing social isolation of modernity led first to a focus on couple dancing, and now that has even deteriorated to what Dr. Smith has noted. The atomization of humanity — in body and soul.

  4. During the Soviet era, the oppressed Russian people did, I think, have this going for them, that many of them were experienced in conversation. They had to be vigilant against informants; but, I suppose, were able to converse well when with people they could trust. It seems we will not have that ability going for us as we head into our own oppressed times.

    • There is a small community of Russian expatriates living in Oswego, whom I am privileged to know. Having attended their social occasions and having reciprocated by hosting them in my house, I can testify to their magnificent capacity for extended coherent conversation. The soirees in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are somewhat idealized – but not that much.

  5. For J. M. Smith:

    “Sehnsucht” by Joseph von Eichendorff

    Es schienen so golden die Sterne,
    Am Fenster ich einsam stand
    Und hörte aus weiter Ferne
    Ein Posthorn im stillen Land.
    Das Herz mir im Leib entbrennte,
    Da hab’ ich mir heimlich gedacht:
    Ach wer da mitreisen könnte
    In der prächtigen Sommernacht!

    Zwei junge Gesellen gingen
    Vorüber am Bergeshang,
    Ich hörte im Wandern sie singen
    Die stille Gegend entlang:
    Von schwindelnden Felsenschlüften,
    Wo die Wälder rauschen so sacht,
    Von Quellen, die von den Klüften
    Sich stürzen in die Waldesnacht.

    Sie sangen von Marmorbildern,
    Von Gärten, die über’m Gestein
    In dämmernden Lauben verwildern,
    Palästen im Mondenschein,
    Wo die Mädchen am Fenster lauschen,
    Wann der Lauten Klang erwacht,
    Und die Brunnen verschlafen rauschen
    In der prächtigen Sommernacht. –

  6. These collegiate scenes of yours, Dr. Bertonneau, fill me with a sort of pleasurable excitement I should blush to call ‘voyeuristic’, but that’s about the sum of it. Perhaps it stems from too many adolescent hours spent reading Allan Bloom (an at least mildly equivocal habit, as it would appear in the rearview mirror– to say nothing of my Camille Paglia tomes), along with the thwarted hope someday of successfully digging out from the teenybopper dross that rare (i.e. nonexistent– a celebrated Chateau Heartiste commenter has confirmed this one for me) Bruckner fan from the ranks of the cheerleading squad– but all this talk of serving up Shelley and Wagner to the muffled minds and ears of the young fills me with some inchoate passion that makes me long to ask you just what WOULD be next on your fantasy syllabus, should your young charges ever muster the requisite enthusiasm for the pages of their Dover Thrift Romantic Poets (I believe you wrote about using this anthology before, and I have in fact a copy at my side just now– though some Shelley and Byron Norton tomes are supposed to be around here someplace) and come to your office hours to ask (have we landed at last on some Perelandra of pure academic fantasy?) what you would have them read next?

    • Dear Lucius: Thank you for your comment. I have organized the course so that, in the first half, the concentration is on poetry, specifically that of my “quaternity”; and in the second half, the concentration is on narrative, in the form of selections from another Dover anthology, Great American Short Stories. I have also supplied students with excerpts from a few literary critics of the old school whose work strikes me as non-technical and reader-friendly. There is Virginia Woolf’s essay “Hours in a Library,” T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” two chapters from Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction, M. H. Abrams’ classic study of “The Correspondent Breeze,” “The “Autobiographical Introduction” from Colin Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel, and the chapter on “Religion and Art” from Stuart Holroyd’s Emergence from Chaos. I read Wilson’s Outsider when I was in high school and devoured everything else by him that I could get my hands on when I went to college. Wilson’s books led me to Holroyd’s. Both Wilson and Holroyd led me to Eliot – and Eliot led me to the Romantics despite his low opinion of their work.

      Going from one book to another by association is how literacy works, as this reference or that allusion points a fellow in a new direction. It was Emerson, I believe, who referred to the Angel of the Library, who providentially leads one to the book one needs in the moment when he needs it. Curiosity must be present however; or Eros must have been awakened.

      The modern, gadget-filled, art-averse, goodness-averse, politically saturated culture has, over the decades, destroyed literacy in the cohorts of the young – perhaps because it has destroyed Eros. In a literate society, identity is informed and sharpened by reading (that’s what Wilson, Woolf, and the others report so powerfully in their essays). Once upon a time, a liberal education conduced to the fostering of genuinely literate people, in a curriculum that began in the lower phases of schooling before the cream of the crop graduated to the college level. The professoriate still invokes the term liberal education, but without having a sense in what it consists. It has become a sales-pitch. I fight a desperate and likely futile rearguard action against this extirpation of Eros in the forlorn hope that I might fan a flame from at least one sleeping ember. So do a few of my colleagues, but we are many times outnumbered.

      Gadgets, especially the toy-like hand-held devices, are inimical to education, but some technological intrusions into the classroom can be turned to good use. Since all classrooms at my institution are now “smart classrooms,” equipped with theater-quality sound and projection systems, I take advantage to let students sample art and music. In connection with the poetry of my four poets, I have also projected on the screen images by Turner, Constable, Cole, Church, and Moran. I try (oh how I try) to get the students to talk by asking them to consider what the canvasses (or the images of them) have in common with the poems. The other day, I said to them that in addition to Romantic poetry and painting there is Romantic music, and I let play a YouTube video of Robert Schumann’s Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra.

      I do it on faith. I nevertheless have the hollow feeling that it effectuates to little good. There is no longer any cultural back-up for these pedagogical efforts.

      • Students sometimes ask me to suggest books they ought to read. I am not at all good at answering their question. The books they ought to read are almost certainly unique to them, and their selection is probably best left to Emerson’s “angels of the library.” (In my case there were also angels of the used book stores.) I’ll admit that I’ve reached an age where I mostly tell the angels to buzz off, since I know what I’m looking for, but a anyone under forty should allow serendipity to play a role in stocking their shelves. And because reading rubbish is part of the education of taste, young readers shouldn’t be too particular about what they read.

        But the point of reading rubbish is to learn what rubbish is, and thereby to avoid reading rubbish in the future. This is why the angels of the library become less important as one grows older, and why full grown men who claim to “read anything” are either liars or fools. As with so many aspects of life, we advance in reading from a phase when we want experience to a phase when we have experience. An experienced reader always judges a book by its cover because experience has taught him how to read book covers.

        I’ve reached the stage where about half of my reading is re-reading. Maybe this is simply a sign that I’m loosing the battle against memory loss, but I like to think it is because I have at last found the books I was looking for when I first began to hunt through the stacks and used book stores, listening for the whispers of angels.

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  8. Every good book asks to be reread, just as every good poem, or symphony, or oil-on-canvas solicits revisitation. Or more than “asks” or “solicits” – compels!

  9. Kristor wrote,

    “JM, speaking of the mystical earth, I would be fascinated to hear someday your take on sacred geography.”

    Indeed yes.

    Dale Nelson

  10. A Follow-Up: Earlier this week, I asked Richard Cocks, who is well-known here at The Orthosphere, and a colleague of ours, Jesus Freire, whether they would attend my “Writing about Literature” class and join me in a conversation about our relation (as it were) to books and literature. My idea was that the students should see and hear three educated, adult people talk about what books and letters had meant to their intellectual and spiritual development. I said that I would act as an interviewer-moderator and mostly keep myself out of the mix (which I mostly did). We engaged in what I thought was coherent and biographically rich causerie for about thirty-five minutes, at which time I asked the students whether they had any questions to pose. There was one question – for Professor Cocks – wanting to know whether he was a writer as well as a reader. It was a yes-or-no question, not one designed to elicit a discursive reply although of course the witness responded in full. The rest was silence, betokening a passivity that glowers more terribly every time that I see it. Maybe Richard will weigh in. And I too would like to know more about sacred geography.

    With Reference to Kristor’s Latest Post: All three of us, using slightly different language, described reading as a conversion experience. When I suggested that at some point in every reader’s life, there comes a moment when the subject is no longer reading the book, but the book is reading the subject, and altering the subject, my two friends agreed.

    • I’ve been composing what I refer to as autobiographical data dumps, the past few years, from time to time. One reason is that I want to have sources to turn to if and when my memory deteriorates. Many of these are related to books: libraries I’ve known and loved, bookstores, and chronicles of my reading. Comments that have been made in connection with the present Orthosphere entry have been borne out by my observations, e.g. about collateral reading in a liberal education. I’m thankful for so much helpful reading at the right time.

      • Every literate person should try to write – or at least to sketch – a candid autobiography. To do so is a spiritual exercise. Letter-writing used to be a way in which people gave account of themselves, to their correspondents. I have in my cellar, in damp-proof boxes, some forty replies to letters that I sent to him by the late Reinhold Kieslich, a mentor of mine in the 1970s when I was a twenty-something and he was closing in on eighty. I have some two hundred replies to letters that I sent him by my late friend Steve Kogan, who, as shocked by the degeneration of the humanities as I was in the early 1990s, was nevertheless older and in possession of philosophical view of the calamity that proved helpful to me. We can archive our email exchanges, but anything digital is vulnerable to catastrophic disappearance. The physical papers stand a better chance of enduring.

      • About “autobiographical data dumps”–

        Perhaps some people who would feel attracted to the idea of autobiography also feel reluctant to undertake a formal “summing up.” They may feel too young, or too busy, or otherwise not ready or interested. They may feel that they aren’t important enough to merit the exertion involved. I myself don’t wish to undertake the writing of a formal autobiography now, and might never do so.

        The “data dumps” idea gets around this. The idea is that one prepares documents in which one compiles memories and, if one has it, written information, in one place, with plenty of specifics to help counteract one’s laziness and one’s inappropriate invention. The journalistic abracadabra of who, what, where, when, why, and how can help one to get the facts into writing. One doesn’t worry about polishing the compilation. It is more like raw material for a possible future autobiography than a formal and intimidating literary project.

        It might be a good idea to write descriptions of places one remembers while one can recall the details. For example, I’ve written about the way the old Bartlett Street Bookstore in Medford, Oregon, used to look. It is gone now, as, with the passage of time, some of my memories of it will be unless I wrote while I can remember things.

        Perhaps I’m writing a sort of _oblique_ autobiography or memoir. The focus of the document I’m working on at the moment isn’t so much on what I think now or what I thought then about my reading as on just identifying what I was reading, who I was talking with about that reading, and so on.

        The data dumps are on computer, but I keep a printed copy of the current version in a file folder that may also include some odds and ends (realia) relating to the topic. Once a document is established, I can add details or make corrections as they come to my attention.

        Some of the folders are on persons, some on topics such as Libraries I Have Known and Loved, and so on.

        For anyone who’s interested in such writing, let me recommend the consultation of city directories. I suppose such things are mostly not manufactured any more. The kind of book I refer to would identify street addresses and then who lived at each address–even, in some older directories, what the breadwinner’s occupation was, who the children were and their ages, etc.

        I had some wonderful conversation with my mother, now in her nineties, when I got hold of a 1936 directory from her city, and as it were walked her along the street where she lived as a girl. She could remember things about one neighbor after another that were quite entertaining and vivid.

        Libraries these days are much given to discarding things. “It’s all online.” “We don’t have space.” If your library still has city directories from years gone by, it might be a good idea to get down there and make copies of pages you would be sorry to have missed if those books eventually are thrown away…..


      • What you describe would qualify as a sketch of or notes for an autobiography – and that is enough.

  11. TFB wrote, “We can archive our email exchanges, but anything digital is vulnerable to catastrophic disappearance. The physical papers stand a better chance of enduring.”

    I wonder about the situation of the present younger generation when they reach late middle age and eld. It seems they will not have years of practice of unhurried fireside talk such as the unlettered once had; and they will not have saved letters from family members and dear friends. Nor will they have kept much-read and -annotated books that they’ve held on to throughout the years. Surely this lack will evoke in some of them a sense of a regret for which they might not be able to account.


    • The causes that you name will have the effect of a gnawing, haunting, but unspecifiable lack. The grown-up youngsters of today will, in some sense, regret their omissions, but their notion of those omissions will be nebulous in the extreme. Literacy needs to be cultivated between the period when the child first learns his alphabet and about age fourteen or fifteen. Beyond that, literacy will never take hold. This is why the devices, which distract from everything serious, intellectual, sensible, and adult, are so Satanic.

      The Web is too much with us; late and soon,
      Tweeting and texting, we lay waste our powers;
      Little we see beyond the Internet that’s ours –
      We have given our passwords away, a sordid boon…

      • Just as a comment on the side – for some, literacy used to be promoted in that period you mention (and beyond), by fandom, by fannish activity. Kids wrote and illustrated their own stories and printed them on ditto, mimeo, or, if wealthy, photocopy, and distributed them to other youngsters. Many wanted to publish fanzines that included work by others as well as the one person responsible for printing the magazine, and that could entail letter writing with contributors. My hunch is that this kind of creative activity has diminished among the young. It’s easy to grin condescendingly at the often juvenile humor and opinions that appeared in these ‘zines, the ungainly artwork, the derivative stories and poems; but they were elements of literate activity that enhanced the youngsters’ pleasure in the written word. And–be it noted–they were typically done without adult sponsorship, without adult supervision. Thus writing, drawing, and liberty were subliminally associated.


  12. I got about halfway through your post when Orwell’s 1984 came to mind. The professor speaks to his students in Oldspeak, but the problem is that they only understand Newspeak.

    From 1984:
    “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?…
    Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”

    Sad, very sad.

    • Orwell’s inspiration for Newspeak was very probably Owen Barfield’s History in English Words (1926), the last three chapters of which argue the thesis that Modern English is a meaning-deprived language despite the addition to it in the previous 150 years of half a million technical words. There is a novel, Kallocain (1940), also like 1984 a dystopia, by the Swedish writer Karin Boye, which precedes 1984 in introducing the idea of a deliberately restricted language that prevents people from thinking dissentient thoughts. Barfield himself wrote a dystopia, Night Operation (1975), in which, again, a deliberately impoverished tongue, inculcated through compulsory schooling, or un-schooling, serves the needs of a totalitarian state.

  13. I’m late to the conversation, so I’m not sure you’ll see this. I have a question: do you think there is a decline in classroom discussion over the years, or have the youngsters always been like this?

    Second, I’d like to say I think you’re expecting the impossible. I’m afraid I would have disappointed you in my reticence and inability to form intelligent sentences in your classroom, had I been there at age 18. I took a few literature courses as a freshman. I had nothing intelligent to say whatesoever. No insights. No questions. Not even a complete sentence! There are several reasons for this, and they may be true for your current students.

    1. I had no life experience to place any of the literature in the context of my own life, or of the culture or of history. I read the stories and poems and got a hazy understanding of the plot. But no subtext, no deep understanding of character, no hint of deeper meaning. This was largely due to inexperience.

    2. I had nothing to say because I didn’t fully understand the text, but also because I was afraid of saying something stupid. Just the thought of trying to make myself understood about some deep point only to have classmates snort and roll their eyes was enough to shut me up.

    3. I was used to never being allowed to complete a thought in conversation. People interrupt if you can’t say anything in less than a sound bite. That was true 30 years ago, as well as today. This is what you term the lack of conversational ability. It is brought on in part by mass media, first TV and now social media.

    But I think it goes beyond that, though those things certainly make things worse. To have an intelligent conversation you must first find another intelligent person, who is also interested in the same thing you are. That’s never easy to do. It also requires a certain amount of trust and reciprocation. Imagine saying something meaningful and hearfelt about a poem and getting a blank stare. End of conversation.

    I don’t think a classroom full of strangers is going to be the place where the trust and understanding exists for there to be serious conversation or discussion.

    4. Of course in these days people find more and more that they must restrict what they say, because of political correctness and microaggressions, and so forth. So that plays a large role. But that wasn’t the case when I was young. I had nothing to say because I didn’t really understand what I read. This was because I was a naive, muddleheaded 18 year old. Like your students.

    • Dear Augustina: There has been a noticeable, steady decline in the preparedness of high-school graduates at the top of their class to do work at the actual college level, which is now decades old (Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind came out in 1987), and which is attested in what is called the dumbing-down of higher education. However, not all students are as blank-faced and silent as the ones to whom I refer in my account even though I take the blank-faced and silent ones as harbingers of things to come. At some point in the not so far-off future to expect what I expect will indeed be to expect the impossible and (here is the real point) that will be what the education establishment and the greater political and administrative apparatus of the hyper-politicized and totally administered society will have wanted.

      Another fact about the course in question is that it is one specifically designed for students who want to be English majors and who are by implication interested in literature. At any rate, one would suppose that in declaring their desire to be English majors, they would be implying such an interest, but who knows?

      Perhaps later in the day (it’s five o’clock in the morning where I am) I will add further comments.

      A bit later: Every reading assignment, even when it’s only the fourteen lines of a sonnet, is accompanied by a series of questions concocted by me to draw naive attention to the salient features of the poem and to help the first-time readers in grasping it, as well as they can. The standing instruction, spelled out in the syllabus, is to read the poem once, then read it again in light of the questions, and to answer each question briefly; and then to read it again at least once. When we turn to narrative (short stories) in the second half of the semester, we will follow the same procedure.

      A bit later: What are the ends of humane education? One of its ends is intellectual maturation, the millennial discipline of which is to read, face questions about what one has read, and to discuss. Of course freshmen and to some extent sophomores are shy of life-experience, and nowadays shy of real learning because of the impoverishment of K-12, and just plain shy. Another of humane education’s ends is to prepare young people to participate in public discourse. Here again the discipline that I just now described is pretty much the only method. In simple, humane education should fit its beneficiaries to participate competently in one of the most important of social institutions: Informed conversation. Would the instructor who coddled his students, who relented to their silence, or to their claim “not to understand anything,” which is but the false justification of their silence — would that instructor be serving his students or more importantly would he be serving his society, which is the real customer of of his labor? No. He would not. Moreover, inveterately or petulantly silent students would be flouting and contradicting their status as beneficiaries of higher education and humane learning.

      Students, being egocentric and used to coddling, see themselves as entitled to their silence, but this is ethically erroneous. Learning is necessarily a cooperative enterprise in which students have responsibilities, one of which is to contribute to the discussion. This obligation will follow them out of the classroom into their lives as participants in a community, a society, and a polity.

      Once again — intimidated silence is what contemporary education wants. It wants it because speechlessness forecloses debate and makes totalitarian schemes easier. I refuse to collaborate in that wicked scheme.

    • It is necessary to “break the ice” in a classroom, just as at a party, but I don’t think most professors are especially good at doing this. I know that I am not. And this can lead to a sort of conversational paralysis, in which students are terrified by the thought that they ought to say something deep, and the professor is angry because they are saying nothing at all. To the students, I would say this: I have been talking to twenty-year-olds longer than you have been alive, so I have some idea of what can be reasonably expected of them. I know their experiences are limited, that they haven’t read very much, and that most of their thoughts have been vain and superficial. I would like them to read assigned material, and to attend and pay attention in class, but do not hope for mastery of material beyond that. What I hope for is simple curiosity, part of which is to be bubbling over “dumb questions.”

      Typing that makes me think that there are two sorts of “dumb question.” There are really dumb questions that betray what the Catholic Church calls “culpable ignorance.” These are questions that no one would ask if they had done the reading, listened to the last lecture, or consulted the syllabus. Then there are the questions of what I will call “ebullient ignorance,” the questions (some rather dumb) that naturally bubble up in the mind of a young man or woman whose curiosity is excited.

      • “To the students, I would say this: I have been talking to twenty-year-olds longer than you have been alive, so I have some idea of what can be reasonably expected of them. I know their experiences are limited, that they haven’t read very much, and that most of their thoughts have been vain and superficial. I would like them to read assigned material, and to attend and pay attention in class, but do not hope for mastery of material beyond that. What I hope for is simple curiosity,”

        These are very nearly, word-for-word, the words I spoke to my students.

        A bit later: If I came across a physically collapsed person, not wanting him to perish, I would administer resuscitation. If I came across a spiritually collapsed person, not wanting him to perish, would I not do the same? I would do the same. That is what I am doing in my classroom.

  14. Mr. Bertonneau, thank you for your reply. I am glad that you take the time to make the material understandable for naive muddleheads. I don’t think many teachers do that. You are to be commended. I started school intending to major in English. The last gasp was some story in which the male protagonist regrets marrying his decent good girl wife and wants to relive some fling with an exotic hottie. Even at the age of eighteen such stuff offended me. I was already weary of the glorification of the novel, of sin, of feelings driven life choices, that I thought the story stupid. We took some quiz and I did poorly on it, because I probably didn’t understand something about it. I did not find it worth my time to figure it out. I dropped the class and immediately went over to physics department where I spent the next four years joyfully studying Newton’s laws, electrodynamics, eigenvectors, the Schrodinger equation, and over in the math department, rings, groups, fields and the other beauties of algebra.

    Perhaps what I wanted was clarity, and not muddle. I applaud you for trying to bring some clarity to the subject of literature.

    • Augustina, believe Dr. Bertonneau and (for what it’s worth) me, unresponsive students are not the main problem in English studies. The student who is reasonably well-disposed and intellectually capable can be reached by a competent instructor who is not unduly hampered by administrative oppression and who is allowed to choose appropriate readings. But if you had persisted in English you would probably have encountered professors who seem to have lost their first love (if they ever had it to begin with) of the works of the literary imagination and the wisdom underlying the finer literary works; these professors have political and personal agendas to advance that may prompt them to encourage students to be bad readers, readers who never become receptive to works that embody ideas different from those of the typical academic humanist of our time. You probably would have been expected to use “critical lenses” so that you read literary works always on the lookout for sexism, raceism, classism, heterosexism, and so on–modern figments, modern manacles. In this kind of atmosphere, every time students read a “text” (we used to say poem, play, novel, etc. but now we are supposed to say “text”), they are injecting themselves again with their teachers’ politics.

      I have been a professor of English since 1989. All of my children are grown, and I am very glad that none of them elected to try to become English professors. The field is much corrupted.

  15. With reference to Dr. Bertonneau’s remarks above about writing an autobiography —

    “In some occasional states of the mind, we can look back much more clearly, and much further, than at other times. I would advise to seize those short intervals of illumination which sometimes occur without our knowing the cause, and in which the genuine aspect of some remote event, or long-forgotten image is recovered with extreme distinctness in spontaneous glimpses of thought, such as no efforts could have commanded.”

    –John Foster, Baptist minister, in an essay “On a Man’s Writing Memoirs of Himself” as quoted by Grevel Lindop in The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey, p. 251. Lindop cites Foster’s Essays in a Series of Letters to a Friend, 13th ed., London, 1838, page 8.


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