Chesterton and the Beanstalk

G. K. Chesterton, one of the writers recommended for study in the Grade 12 Common Core, was a very big man, and as genial about his weight as about everything else. He was giving a public lecture during the Great War, which began a hundred years ago this summer, and during question time he was asked by a gimlet-eyed member of the audience, “Why aren’t you at the front?” He replied, “If you go around to the other side, you will see that I am at the front,” which brought down the house. I am not going to have Chesterton take Jack’s place on the beanstalk, but will come back to him after we have examined Jack’s climbs.

For Jack & Chesterton both illustrate in their own ways the radical unsatisfactoriness of the plan by RAce to the Top (RAT) to support and require standardized multiple-choice tests of literary understanding in the Common Core. There are two versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk” frequently used, of which the commoner by far is the one by the folklorist Joseph Jacobs. The other is by the Victorian moralist Benjamin Talbart. The Jacobs version is also more satisfactory: It is closer to the story as it was known in the oral tradition, and it happens to have an ambiguity that can be wonderfully productive of good thinking by second-graders who read it. The Great Books Foundation has even produced sample lessons for second-graders on “Jack” using the Jacobs version. In it two issues come up for consideration that do not have a single “best” answer:

1. Why does Jack climb the beanstalk the third time?

2. Why is the ogre’s wife kinder to Jack than is his own mother?

It is possible, as Jacques Barzun says in another context, that “diversity will prevail, one or more groups and individuals being persuaded or confirmed in a different position. And that too is highly instructive.”   In a properly conducted discussion, even second-graders can be brought to justify their explanations, to ask questions of children who hold other views, and to accept that reasonable people can differ on the answer.

But multiple-choice tests are not equal to even this level of second-grade thinking because they always require “the” “best” answer, or a fixed combination of “best” answers. Another reason that a nationally standardized test might not work is that multiple versions of a story may exist but no single one is required. A third is that a teacher taking intellectual short cuts—say, for test preparation—can substitute items of declarative knowledge for the exploration and discussion that foster true understanding. (As has been shown[1], it is possible to answer correctly about items of “knowledge” on a multiple-choice test without having the slightest understanding of them.)

A Common Core reading for Grade 8 is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I still remember my 8th-grade classmate Eric giving an extraordinarily good recitation of the poem by heart, as do two friends of mine who were in that class too. Eric took the view that the speaker of that poem was an indomitable individualist, which I understand is the predominant reading. But it happens that the speaker can also be heard as an ambivalent ditherer, and Frost himself seems to support that view, having said that the speaker reminded him of a good friend who could not make up his mind. There is certainly room for discussion, which would be recognized in a good classroom or on a good essay but not on a multiple-choice test.

And so we come to Chesterton. What is going to happen when 12th-graders encounter the Prince of Paradox on their Common Core syllabus after spending eleven years “learning” canned “interpretations” and taking literary works as secret codes for declarative knowledge given to them by their teachers and asked of them by multiple-choice questions? Take for example “A Piece of Chalk,” justly regarded as one of his best essays. In addition to being an accomplished writer and controversialist, Chesterton was an accomplished amateur artist, as this whimsical self-portrait shows. In the essay he sets out for the country to draw, after having secured the needed materials, including brown paper and a piece of white chalk among other colors. Why brown paper? Because he “liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as [he likes] the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation”. I can imagine a discussion of why Chesterton likes brown paper, but I can’t imagine a multiple-choice question about it that would be sure to elicit genuine understanding.

And what does he end up drawing? “[T]he soul of a cow; which [he] saw there plainly walking before [him] in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all beasts.” I picture multiple-choice questions about its gait, its coloring, and the number of its horns; but what question will elicit genuine understanding while smoking out faked understanding? That is what Socratic discussion and essays are for.

In a discussion or an essay the student could link the drawing of a cow’s soul to the following statement that “though [he] could not with a crayon get the best out of the landscape, it does not follow that the landscape was not getting the best out of [him].” The student could discuss the transition it provides to a general discussion of the linkage of art, nature and spirituality in more than just Romantic ways. If the student had already read Moby-Dick, he might contrast Chesterton’s view of whiteness and Herman Melville’s in the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale.” After further thought the student might then be ready to try putting together an understanding of Chesterton’s closing sentences in the essay: And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realizing that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilization; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.

1.     Chesterton believes that

I.          Southern England is a piece of chalk.

II.        A piece of chalk is better than English civilization.

III.     White chalk symbolizes a religious response to Romantic naturalism.

A.     I and II  B. I and III  C. II and III  D. I, II and III  E. None of the above

2.     You believe that

A.    Chesterton is unsuitable for study because genuine understanding of his work cannot be captured in multiple-choice questions.

B.     Multiple-choice questions are unsuitable for examinations because they cannot capture genuine understanding of Chesterton.


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