Good Writing, and Right


Can it be true that the best writer of an entire century wrote on education? If you have taken a graduate degree in education or received a teaching credential, you will have your doubts; but when asked who was the best writer of English prose in the 19th century, James Joyce said John Henry Newman, the author of The Idea of a University.

Part of the book is a discussion of whether a liberal education is useful[1], with Newman maintaining that it is. I find it worth reading for a number of reasons.

The first is the refreshing idea that education can reform itself while preserving the best of what it has already done well. Usually, when we read educationist reform literature we hear glib talk about revolutions, paradigm shifts, and ash heaps of history. The historical background of Newman’s book was the reform of Oxford from its time of decline, castigated by Gibbon, to its return to the forefront of teaching and learning. The decline was reversed, but no one threw out the baby with the bathwater, and, mirabile dictu, no one thought the reform needed to be based on research.

The second is that Newman thought his case worth making by using the very methods cultivated in a liberal education: critical intelligence, sharp reasoning, clear prose, the presentation of vivid particulars, and other solid but transparent means available to those given a solid general education. When the argument is so made, it stands before any generally educated person for approval or rejection. How different from the methods used by specialists in the “science” and “research” of education, conceived obscurely and written poorly.

The third is the writing itself. Newman, like many past masters of English, had an expansive view of what the sentence could do, and therefore let it expand, contract, or ramify depending on the job each one had to do. Readers of work by Sir Isaiah Berlin will recognize a kinship of Newman’s and Berlin’s prose styles. (Let me say here that I have assigned Berlin to 11th– and 12th-graders, who after an initial startlement at his style, find themselves slowly but increasingly able to work their way through sentences fitted precisely to the thoughts they convey.) The following is an extract of two sentences from Newman’s “discourse.” One, elaborately but soundly and correctly constructed, makes an argument by precise analogy. The other summarizes.

“Again, as health ought to precede labour of the body, and as a man in health can do what an unhealthy man cannot do, and as of this health the properties are strength, energy, agility, graceful carriage and action, manual dexterity, and endurance of fatigue, so in like manner general culture of mind is the best aid to professional and scientific study, and educated men can do what illiterate cannot; and the man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer, or a pleader, or an orator, or a statesman, or a physician, or a good landlord, or a man of business, or a soldier, or an engineer, or a chemist, or a geologist, or an antiquarian, but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings I have referred to, or any other for which he has a taste or special talent, with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger. In this sense then, …  mental culture is emphatically useful.”

The means of persuasion are entirely generalist and transparent. The reader of this sentence has nothing more special to do than get it: no protocol to evaluate, no proxy values to examine and vet, no imprecision of language to clarify. Instead, we are called on to use what William James calls our sagacity and what Blaise Pascal calls esprit de finesse to weigh and judge what Newman says.

They are the same faculties of mind that, having cultivated in a good education, a graduate student can then apply in turning to a specific calling such as the law, business, architecture, or education. They will increase and complement advanced special knowledge with skill and the potential for understanding that a trained and agile mind possesses.

They are the same faculties of mind that a good high school education will also start to develop.

[1] Discourse 7. Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill, from The Idea of the University by John Henry Newman.



Eternity AND the Franklin Stove

My high-school humanities class once had to read an essay by Joseph Wood Krutch called “Eternity or the Franklin Stove.”  We made some fun of Professor Krutch’s name and then got down to reading the essay. Though its subject matter can be guessed from the title, I don’t remember it nearly as well as I do the towering rage it provoked in a classmate of mine, who thought him a backward-looking technophobic bigoted old fart.

That same friend, Franklin stove enthusiast that he was, had been doing some garage work in the then infant study of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Another high school friend, also a computer buff, was one of the first people I knew or heard of to have his own personal computer, which he built himself soon after graduating from university in the early seventies. (Its “hard drive” was a tape!) The Eternity camp included two recent students of mine. One did his I. B. Extended Essay (EE) based on six months of planetary observations made from a friendly neighborhood university telescope. Astronomy is, of course, one of the Seven Liberal Arts, which seem to have had a tenure as close to eternal as anything in our civilization, telescopes having been a happy and useful innovation in its history. I did not supervise this essay, but I did supervise that of another student, who did a wonderful, and indeed original, contrast of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on will. (Both essays got a grade of A, which the IB does not often give to EEs.)

The point of these examples is that the opposition of Old Farts and Futurists or Machinists and Metaphysicists is at best not very helpful and at worst artificial and invidious. We would do especially well not to cultivate it in education. There should be a place in schools for students who build their own hardware, who stargaze, and who explore the writing of great thinkers of the past. Some educators, like the late Theodore Sizer, thought that culminating assessments could embrace all sorts of study in many different subjects. Indeed, it should do so, for most high-school students are not yet, and should not yet be, specialists. That truth is one thing that a liberal arts education has always recognized, which is why Ivy League and other good undergraduate liberal arts programs generally put off specialism and vocations or professional education till grad school.

All of this is not to say that a student should be discouraged from investigating a topic in comparative depth within the matrix of a recognized discipline. That is what the EE does, but with some freedom given to the student, who chooses the subject and topic of the essay, presumably on something he or she wants to study, and is given light supervision in its production. Under these conditions—breadth of choice, lightness of supervision, and flexibility of apparatus—a try at detailed study is undoubtedly a very good thing for a high-school student. Good or bad, the assignment of a big paper carries a great danger with it: that the student will write a shoddy piece of junk.

A writer for The New York Times thinks that one reason why research papers are often so awful is that the form itself may discourage the enthusiasm of its practitioners. While I think she may have something there, I would hedge her thoughts very carefully. Research must be done and reported, but the problem of lousy writing probably goes deeper than format.

A friend of mine in university, taking an introductory literature course, was required by his professor to write a 35-page paper on Yeats’s “Circus Animals’ Desertion.” There is simply no way that a change of medium to blog or the introduction of a wiki audience would alter the fundamental looniness of such an assignment given to a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. Roy Foster, Richard Ellmann, and Michael Rosenthal didn’t write about this poem for 35 pages. What was the professor thinking? It is a wonderful poem, and I have had classes burst into applause after hearing it read aloud, but this kind of assignment is sure to undermine fascination or excitement and replace it with loathing in all but the most dedicated specialists, and maybe even in them. That most undergraduates, let alone high-school students, are not and cannot be such dedicated scholars suggests that the problem of research papers will not be solved by using modern media and forms of discourse if the professors’ demands are greater than what the students can reasonably produce–or, let it be said, if the subject is appallingly dull.

The Times writer also notes that the students of a professor she knows write well for their blogs and social networking but badly for her. She then naïvely proposes that this is because teachers demand work in antiquated media. I think that, as he so often does, William James has an explanation of this phenomenon, and it has nothing to do with modern vs. ancient media. He says that an individual “has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups.” How each social self acts depends on how he cares for the opinion of the group that sees it.

I have written elsewhere about the need of affective ties between teacher and student to promote understanding, and I would add that if a teacher wants good writing from a student, he or she will have to be in one of the “groups about whose opinion [the student] cares.” It has little to do with the medium in which the teacher insists that the student work. One important reason why students write well for their classmates but badly for their teachers is that they care for their classmates but don’t care for their teachers.

We might say that a student would surely be ashamed to write badly if he could write well, but shame depends on a sense of honor, and, as James says, honor “is his image in the eyes of his own ‘set,’ which exalts or condemns him as he conforms or not to certain requirements that may not be made of one in another walk of life.” Here James is not talking just about one’s friends, but about any group with whom one makes a significant identification.

I would say that the reporter’s friend has a problem not with wrong media but with students who have not taken on their teachers as a group about whose opinion they care. I mean care, not “have a certain minimal prudential regard.” The “Franklin stove” problem of how to mediate one’s ideas and imagination must be solved in tandem with the “eternity” problem of understanding human nature and how our feelings drive our learning.