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Those Radical English Teachers

Sorry Jonathan, although I taught thirty years in a high school, earned a masters degree and ended up with over seven years of college, I really don’t have much insight into college faculties. I was far too self-absorbed in finding my own truth to be particularly worried about my professors’ school politics. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find Mark Krupnick’s article, “Why Are English Departments Still Fighting the Culture Wars?,” fascinating.

In truth, there was little in academia that attracted me to that life. After looking at the theses written by those seeking doctorates, I knew that I would never be willing to write the kind of paper that they were demanding when I was in college. I detest “trivia,” or anything else I don’t find relevant to my life, and was unwilling to devote two years of my life to studying something that I couldn’t see helping me lead a fuller life, and not even Yeats demanded that kind of devotion.

The part of Krupnick’s article that rings truest for the high school English departments I served with was that the

archetypal English-department academic, in contrast to academics in other fields, is involved in a quest to know himself or herself and arrive at a more intimate relationship with the good, the true, and the real.

Certainly this was true for myself. It’s the reason I switched from physics to English literature, and, later, the reason I quit my job as a caseworker to become an English teacher. It’s even the reason I continue to focus on this web page while most of my friends turn to other endeavors. And though I wouldn’t attest to it, it strikes me as true for most of the English teachers I have known.

It has often crossed my mind that if I could have actually believed in something that I would have become a minister or a monk. However, having been unable to find any religious organization I could really subscribe to, I have ended up believing that the method and means of seeking truth is ultimately what is most sacred. In that sense, I would also agree with Krupnick that

the role of moral tutor in the United States has fallen to professors of English nearly as much as to the clergy. For the first 60 years or so of the last century, college English teachers were in a better position than pastors and priests — in our mass democracy of recent immigrants — to refine the manners and morals of the immigrants’ progeny. Far from reinforcing old values, professors helped their students to separate from their parents and transcend the past. Professors of English began to derive a sense of their specialness by enabling students to rise above the materialistic values of their uneducated parents, who were striving to establish themselves in the New World.

Judging from some recent articles I’ve read, the Pacific Northwest appears to be less “religious” than most of the nation, but I think fully half of my students got very little “moral education” other than that they got in their English classes. I used to laugh at patrons who argued that schools should just teach “reading, writing and arithmetic” and leave moral education to the home.

What did they want us to have students read, manuals on installing computer programs? It’s impossible to teach American Literature, or contemporary literature, or British literature without teaching “values.” It might not be the values those patrons wanted us to teach, but it was the values that had come to dominate modern literary thought.

Personally, I never felt it was my job to push any one value over the others. Rather, it was my job to teach students how to use their minds to evaluate other’s ideas, to seek their own truth. I tried hard not to indoctrinate my students with my own beliefs. I would even avoid letting students know whether I personally liked an author or not. I always wrote essay questions that could be answered “correctly” in two totally different ways and gave an “A” to the best answer on both sides of the issue.

I suspect that’s there’s more than a little truth in Krupnick’s assertion that

But it’s more illuminating to see Professor X’s attitude in terms of a shared disposition among literary academics, who tend to stake their professional and personal identities on their readings — their evaluations and interpretations — of texts.

Interpretation of the text is, after all, the ultimate Rosetta Stone of all literary interpretation and literary theories. Luckily, most of the authors are dead so they can’t contradict our interpretations 😉 And if they are alive, we can argue, as it has been many times, that once the works are out that they stand on their own and the author may subconsciously include ideas that even he isn’t aware of.

I can speak for no one but myself in relationship to Krupnick’s argument that English teachers are offended more than most professors by opposing theories:

But do English professors identify themselves with their theories and methods more than do their colleagues in, say, history or economics? I think so. Professor X detested the department’s "radicals" because Professor X regarded literature and a proper approach to it as the key to truth and reality.

So English professors tend to experience alternative approaches to the truth as they see it as a personal affront, and cause for counterattack. The personal truly is political.

One of the particularly bright teachers, or one who at least saw himself as particularly bright, and who just happened to be a fellow INTP, argued that style was the most important aspect of writing, much more important than content. After once admitting that I liked Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” he used that admission to argue that Durrell was a much greater writer than Thomas Hardy because his style was so vastly superior. Although I was the first to admit that Hardy’s style is a bit plodding and dated, needless to say, I was having nothing of this argument. For me, the insights into human nature and into the human condition are far more important than the writing style. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the best style is translucent, that the “story,” which, of course, is not the same as the plot, is all the reader should see.

Unfortunately, our relationship was never the same after this confrontation. I had a difficult time seeing this teacher in the same light that I’d seen him before our argument. Of course, I’ve also read that this is one of the dangers of being an INTP, so perhaps my reaction has more to do with that than with being an English teacher.

Considering that every teacher in my English teacher who took the Meyers-Briggs test was an “I” and that three out of the four INTP’s on campus were in the English Department, Krupnick might want to explore that relationship rather than the fact that they just share a common interest in literature.