The Cardinal Newman Society has officially launched an ambitious, multi-faceted new "legacy" project to help preserve more than 10,000 manuscripts handwritten by the 19th-century theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman and to promote Newman’s views on Catholic education and doctrine. Making his writings, including The Idea of a University, more accessible to scholars and the public is the goal of the Newman Legacy Project. “Newman has much to offer the Catholic Church in America: a strong dose of courageous faith, a commitment to reason and a thorough critique of secularism,” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of the society.
The Chronicle of Higher Education jobs list includes this gem: “The Department of English at UCLA invites applications for the position of Assistant Professor in Residence, in the area of 19th-century American literature . . . .” “Candidates should demonstrate engagement with the changing dynamics of the field, which is now characterized by disparate approaches and new configurations of interests, including (but not limited to) transatlantic studies, hemispheric studies, print culture and material textuality studies, gender and sexuality studies, visual culture studies, comparative race and ethnicity studies, geographical studies, disability studies, and other innovative frameworks.” Literature? The mind boggles. Disability studies should have a field day with Captain Ahab.
Teaching Introduction to Literature, I see a curious new phenomenon: more and more students complain, bitterly, about how dark the readings are. I’m not sure what this new critical term means; I employ a canonical set of works including Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Sophocles, and newer works by Phillip Larkin, Tobias Wolff, and J.G. Ballard. If such authors do anything, they force us to face existential questions. Once, students went to college to experience just this sort of perennial questioning. Today, questioning is a nonstarter having been replaced by what Phillip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic” and, as he predicted, by students preoccupied only with themselves and with attaining a “durable sense of well-being.” This ends any interest in reading about what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic limitations of human existence and how to meet them and endure them with dignity.” When Larkin observes that
At death you break up: the bits that were you Start speeding away from each other for ever With no one to see
it does not sit well with the Facebook and Twitter crowd, many of whom are now convinced that advancements in regenerative medicine will indefinitely postpone their senescence. With death no longer inevitable, they find that a literature based on the tragedy of mortality is both archaic and irrelevant. In insulated, technological isolation, with electronic “friends” and avatars, Comedy Central and Family Guy, they are more concerned with distraction and are irritated that plot and character create inevitabilities and moral consequences. That’s just so...dark.
Anu Garg, founder of Wordsmith.org and the beloved A.Word.A.Day, graciously agreed to an interview with us for NAS.org. His passion for good words is infectious, and his creativity delightful. Enjoy! "Words are like air—they are all around us even though we can't see them, and they are just as essential." - Anu Garg
Around 10 B.C.E., the Roman poet Horace asserted that poetry’s purpose is “to delight and instruct.” More recently, in the Wall Street Journal, James Collins declared that in her novels, Jane Austen delights and instructs in how to live a moral life. He asks, "What, then, are the values that Austen would teach us? Value-laden words and phrases appear again and again in her work, often in clusters: self- knowledge, generosity, humility; elegance, propriety, cheerful orderliness; good understanding, correct opinion, knowledge of the world, a warm heart, steady, observant, moderate, candid, sensibility to what is amiable and lovely." Austen’s words boggle the modern mind as quaintly alien and vaguely religious. They are signifiers of archaic virtues foreign to our national conversation. Today, there is only one master virtue that trumps all others: tolerance. However, real moral instruction is predicated on narrative, the arrangement of events in Time such that choices and actions have perceptible consequences. Unfortunately, our wired and wireless world tirelessly militates against narrative. On electronic networks, as Sven Birkerts put it, everything is “laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative” and what comes before is unrelated to what comes after. The hyperlink replaces the transition word (linking may be a major factor in the decline of student ability in logic, grammar, and narrative understanding). Students don’t even perceive cause and effect relationships because they have returned to an Eden-of-the-screens, outside of Time, dwelling in what Lewis Lapham called “the enchanted garden of the eternal now.”
Last April I sat in Automatic Slim’s Restaurant and Tonga Club in Memphis reading Lord Jim on my iPhone. The text scrolled faster or slower depending on how far I tilted the screen. Last week, rummaging through my basement, I found my Signet Classic paperback of Lord Jim, a textbook for a 1970 grad school course in Conrad, filled with yellowed pages, spidery underlines, and cryptic notes. Seeing the cover, holding the book, and turning the pages brought a flood of memories—the classroom, Dr. Singh Dhesi, frequent teacups of Earl Grey tea, long afternoons with a book in my hands. Suddenly, my college cats, Tabby and Mopsy, were alive again, and I was still driving my 1955 Buick . . . Curiously, a few weeks ago, the poet Rosanna Warren told me she had read The Hand wherein neurologist Frank Wilson argues that the evolution of the human hand parallels the evolution of the human brain. Wilson thinks that the complex capabilities of the evolving hand may have necessitated corollary brain development and even language itself. If he is right, I wonder if today’s thumb-typing, scrolling, and swiping fingers might produce an atrophy of the hand-brain connection and contribute to students’ steadily declining language facility. Rosanna thinks so because she has her poetry students do manual manipulative tasks lest they become dis-embodied, as we all are when online. Should I have students embroider? Screw birdhouses together? I don’t know. What I can say, with certainty, is that my iPhone dutifully reproduced Lord Jim electronically and backlighted, but with no evocation, no reverie, and no memories at all.
A charming blog on our blogroll, Quiddity - created by the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education (CiRCE) - has an excellent post on the beauty of formally-taught grammar. Author Andrew Kern, CiRCE president and developer of a classical composition program called The Lost Tools of Writing, reasons:
When you teach grammar for her own sake, you keep the benefits and also gain her blessings, many of which are simply unpredictable. When a child learns formal grammar, he becomes her intimate acquaintance and they flourish in a symbiotic relationship like a cherished governess or mother. She forms his mind to its own nature. She empowers the child to think. Form itself becomes a mental habit – if the soil is ready. You come to realize that things have structures. You start looking for the structures of things like language, poetry, literature, natural objects (e.g. trees, bodies, the cosmos), and knowledge itself. By recognizing structure and order you come to perceive the relationships between things and you realize that the life of the thing is embodied in its structure. You come to love order. But you don’t make it the end of your observations. It is always a foundation, a skeleton, and never the spirit. [...] And when a young child learns the form of grammar, he develops two habits of mind that are essential to self-governance and freedom:
- He learns to limit what he is saying to what he is trying to say – he learns to think with limits and therefore to think about something
- And he learns to insist that others mean something when they speak and limit themselves when they rule
Kern's article is worth reading in its entirety.