In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following. The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults. In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.
In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program. I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students. In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu. This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932. As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis. I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading. (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)