Betrayed by Higher Ed

David Clemens

My former student Joshua, now ambivalently quartered at UC Santa Cruz (home of the fightin’ Banana Slugs and currently under Federal investigation for systemic anti-Semitism), has an article in Literary Matters about cheating.  Not students cheating; students who feel cheated.  He's found a couple of excellent literature classes (Cervantes) but most just use books as a vector for stone-cold political ideology. When he was at Monterey Peninsula College, Josh was the midwife who helped deliver a great books program to a college that had been out to axe all its literature courses.  In my Intro. to Lit., class he heard me refer to Robert Hutchins’s metaphor for Western literature as a “Great Conversation,” and in Literary Matters he writes

“Within weeks other members of the class and I were meeting on our own time to discuss the Great Books. We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before [my emphasis].”

Josh devoured a copy of Hutchins’s The Great Conversation that he found (where else?) in the college library discard pile.  He says, ". . . the students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.” An Iraq War veteran, Josh notes that he was

inspired by The Iliad.  I read the Robert Fagles trans­lation and understood, finally, that this poem was not only about the Trojan War, but also about humanity and warfare. It might have been any war. It might be every war.”

In a similar vein, my current student Lisa says that "Before last semester I had never even read a book entirely. I realized how much I really enjoy it. Reading has opened up a whole new world for me. I am glad I finally got introduced into this world . . . .” That they both say “finally” speaks volumes about K-16 education today.  Thankfully, The Great Conversation lives on, and it's encouraging that more and more students, such as Josh and Lisa, are growing tired of being excluded from the dialogue.

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March 23, 2011

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