Saturday, August 25, 2012


A Systematic Misleading

Carlyle said the best university is a collection of books, and I was reminded of this dictum when I read Guy Davenport's essay "On Reading" in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), pp. 19-31.

Davenport makes the valid point that much of classroom education is actually an impediment to learning. He writes (p. 24):
I think I learned quite early that the judgments of my teachers were probably a report of their ignorance. In truth, my education was a systematic misleading. Ruskin was dismissed as a dull, preacherly old fart who wrote purple prose. In a decent society the teacher who led me to believe this would be tried, found guilty, and hanged by the thumbs while being pelted with old eggs and cabbage stalks.
In the same vein (p. 27):
I can therefore report that the nine years of elementary schooling, four of undergraduate, and eight of graduate study were technically games of futility. If, now, I had at my disposal as a teacher only what I learned from the formalities of education, I could not possibly be a university professor. I wouldn't know anything.
I remember the exact moment, almost fifty years ago, when my faith in teachers and grownups as repositories of knowledge and wisdom began to fade. It was in seventh grade, when my English teacher informed us that the dia in dialogue meant "two". Even then I knew this was a mistake, and I told her so. She gave me the standard "Matilda" response: "I'm smart, you're dumb; I'm big, you're little; I'm right, you're wrong." Eppur si muove, Miss Fickett.

Hat tip: My son, who gave me Davenport's book as a gift.

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