Refusing to be educated

Tuesday, 8 February 2005 — 11:44am | Literature

I quote Adam Ferland’s letter in today’s issue of The Gateway in response to Gaumont’s channeling of Mark Twain last Tuesday:

When, exactly, is being able to articulate how an author suggests the motivation for a character through symbolism and irony going to help me in whatever my area of interest is, be it agriculture, chemistry, or economics? Add to this the fact that an abysmal performance in English 101, due not to horrific spelling and grammar, but to a lack of literary analysis and a lack of artistic ability as a writer – because, yes, literature is art – could keep me from gaining entrance to a program of interest. Is failing to realize the irony of Kafka really a grave enough shortcoming that I shouldn’t be allowed to study what I want?

The answer, as it happens, is yes.

This is no more than the old “But critical reading skills aren’t useful!” canard. Now, as someone who bypassed the entirety of 100-level English, I can’t speak firsthand as to the quality of the curriculum. I’ve heard it said even amongst English professors that quite frankly, it is deficient, especially in repairing the existing writing deficiencies in what qualifies for a high school diploma. It is no fallacy and no joke to say that the value of a post-secondary education has become tremendously inflated, and a lot of it has to do with English, which is put in the unenviable position of trying to justify its own existence with technical writing skills whilst not actually teaching them in first-year courses.

An English programme that fails to reinforce the rudiments of grammar – or worse, does it and does it wrong – may be deficient. But that does not render it inconsequential. The ability to read analytically is fundamental to all disciplines, even if it is not “productive” in keeping with today’s utilitarian prejudices.

In mathematics, this is the equivalent of demanding a formula sheet and scoffing at the gall of the suggestion that an undergraduate student should have to derive anything on the page. What influence we provide the sinister anti-learning cabals that seek to reduce our universities to vocational schools.


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