The Naive and Hopeful Me

Yesterday, I shared with a class the Charles Simic article from The New York Review of Books that set me off so a few days ago. These particular students are enrolled in an early-college high school program that will lead them (if everything works out) to an Associates degree within five or six years of entering 9th grade. As juniors, they are also taking their first college classes, including my First Year Composition course. We are concentrating on research skills as well as writing, using 19th-century New York as our focus. The students have just completed extensive revisions on their proposals for pieces to be included in an anthology we are creating composed of class work and writings from a century ago (and more) that are in the public domain. The revisions come atop a “meta-proposal,” a paper about their thought processes during the initial research and writing for the proposals.

Much of our class time, recently, has been spent on meaning and methodology of research in a digital age, the students coming to understand decisions they must make on such things as when and where to stop their library research: At what point do you decide to trust the authorities you have found–and why? They are also learning about Intellectual Property, the commons, and conventions of citation (including ‘fair use’). I wanted them to understand just why I am pushing all of this on them, to understand (among other things) the importance of an educated populace in a democracy. The Simic piece seemed like an appropriate means for furthering this.

And it was.

I told the students that I have reservations about the article, but did not tell them what, and did not mention my own blog post. As I was reading it to them, I stopped at various points to explain a little about the relevance of their program to some of the things Simic complains about. That, and their discussion (we also stopped frequently to talk as a group), was eye-opening even for me, who was already familiar with the piece.

One of the places I stopped so I could talk about their class was after this passage:

At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

I told the students that, yes, it is shocking, but that some of us are trying to do something rather than simply react in shock–and that something includes programs like the one they are in. Why do you think, I asked them, that I use 19th-century urban American literature in their writing class?

They got the point.

Simic goes on to complain that students don’t even know the histories of their own homes–and so we talked about why New York City (and Brooklyn, in particular) is the focus of their research and writing. The people who created their program, I told the students, don’t gripe but try to change things.

And, we discussed, it may be true that high-school curricula have been dumbed down, as Simic claims. Don’t like that? Do something about it. “You,” I said, addressing the class, “are already better writers and even thinkers than most of my entering students–and that’s because of the intense program you’ve been subject to over the past two-and-a-half years.” And that’s true.

Discussion was lively and on target, even when not directed by me. Early on, one student complained that Simic is arrogant and is making his own rather uninformed assumptions–and he did so without prompting from me (though that may be hard to believe–you had to be there; I expect the expression on my face as he talked was one rather much of shock or surprise). Though most of them agreed with some of Simic’s points, they all also saw his weaknesses–and were able to discuss the article without falling into simplistic patterns of one-or-the-other.

Toward the end of this article, Simic lists a number of things many Americans believe without any attempt at verification. As we went through the list, I could see that the students were beginning to understand the importance of what we are doing in class. We’ve already talked about the importance of being able to research and write about it competently as a part of almost any career path today, but we really had not focused so much on the role of the citizen in a democracy. Probably, I did not want to seem naive and idealistic even to my students, most of whom already have a rather jaded view of the world.

But I am an idealist. And an optimist.

And, very likely, I am naive. But I was pleased yesterday.

Unlike Simic, I don’t believe people today are more ignorant than they’ve ever been in America. At worst, they are simply just as ignorant as they were a century ago (we went through an educational boom after World War II–but that does not mean people were educated before that). At best? Well, that has to be up to us, each of us individually. We can’t simply complain about the world going to hell in a hand-basket but have to find even a little way of helping reverse the trend.

I must admit, though, that even ranting in The New York Review of Books may help. After all, it proved useful to my students. Thanks, at least, for that, Professor Simic.