On Aptitudes

I’ve got one more quiet day of reflection and the Internet. We are getting up pretty early tomorrow — cow-milking early — to catch the flight to Fort Lauderdale. All my Old Navy jeans are being spun dry. The guts of my electronics are laid out on the sofa, waiting to be packed, together with Dennett on consciousness and Marcus on Dada and Klosterman on Motley Crue. After I finish this, I’m going to put on one of those still-warm pairs of jeans and I’m going to get a summer’s worth of hair cut off.

(Reader’s note: This post is about to get fairly technical, in part because I want to separate these updates into a couple of parts. If you want to skip the technical stuff, you can just go directly to the last paragraphs, which contain the larger point. But that’s no fun.)

Genius watches the monad through all his masks as he performs the metempsychosis of nature. -Emerson

Andover just finished, and looking back, it’s exciting to think about where the two curricula I teach there are heading. In my ESL class, I taught a series of simply written texts: Hemingway’s short stories, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which just won the Pulitzer. My theory, according to which the course is designed, is that all people who speak English are engaged in a continual process of language acquisition that follows a series of rules: contextual and subtextual meanings, etymology, patterns of saliency, logical reasoning, and choices based on ideology.

This is why Hemingway is so great for ESL students, even though few people find him initially enjoyable. I can teach the context of World War I (aka Introduction to Trench Warfare) and Hemingway’s “iceberg theory,” which is a wonderful metaphor for subtext. I can teach students to distinguish what is salient (a phrase like “letting the air in” from “Hills Like White Elephants,” which refers to abortion) from what is not (everything technical, like the types of equipment Nick Adams uses to fish). I can teach Hemingway’s ideology — trauma, machismo, and clarity — and relate them to the style of his prose.

You have to teach ideology because English is pre-wired with a strong preference for action, energy, and power, as opposed to experience, rest, and reflection. I teach Strunk and White in part because no text is more open about this subjectivist bias; anyone familiar with that text will remember Strunk’s love of phrases like “vigorous prose.” Other ESL teachers teach much longer, more memorization-based grammar texts. This is a waste of time: specific grammatical rules are based on general principles. It is better to teach these principles, so that students are prepared to learn something specific from every unfamiliar usage they encounter, including slang.

I use a couple other texts to complement Hemingway: Carroll’s Alice books, and something Latinate (“high prose” by Woolf, or Dickens, or whomever). The Alice books are obsessed with presenting and parodying the logical structures of English, such as its continual parallelisms; Latinate prose creates an opportunity to teach etymology. In five weeks, students can improve from broken English to near-fluency.

The other class which I teach at Andover is SAT Prep, and like ESL, it’s a class that deals with the functional possibilities of language. I’ve been teaching the Writing section of the exam for two years, and have enough material on writing the timed essay that in the Spring I’m going to look into drafting a publishable book. The basic approach is the same as coaching someone for a political interview: effective SAT essays take a random question and make it into something for which one has already prepared a series of memorable anecdotes. On average, after ten hours of instruction, you can raise a student’s Writing scores by 100 points. If they do the work (not everyone does the homework), the average is more like 200 points. This also includes improvements on the grammar sections of the test, which is taught the same as in ESL: active subjects, logical structures.

In addition to beginning to outline a book, I’m going to spend time in the Spring cracking the SAT Critical Reading section. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that it reduces down to a code, as the Writing section does, and as ESL does to a large extent. (I say this in part because I’ve already designed our unit on sentence completions, using a system based on things like identifying whether a part of a sentence describes its subject positively or negatively.) This is equally why I’m excited to lead a handful of cluster courses in Composition this fall — the functional use of language is extremely teachable.

The problem with treating these instructional challenges as codes is that it encourages teachers and students to emphasize particular problems solved. For example, the SAT course promises to teach students how to “beat” the SAT test, when in fact the real blurb should go something like this: “This course teaches students to develop areas of cultural literacy with broad relevance to their lives as American citizens, and to form arguments about the interrelated nature of these various segments of knowledge.” In other words, my work teaching the SAT has taught me that the real value of critical thinking lies less in the ability to preserve one’s skepticism, than in the ability to create broad arguments by identifying underlying phenomena.

A) If low-scoring students at Andover can raise their scores by 200 points after 10 hours of instruction and about that much homework, then probably the majority of American students could do the same, if they were given equal access to instruction. Part of the idea behind the SAT Prep book is to start thinking about how one would train public school teachers etc. to teach their students to beat the test — because if the test can be beaten by anyone, even the most privileged, than it is something the nation has to outgrow.

B) However, outgrowing the test does not mean simply giving in to the people who have always complained about the SAT. The Writing test is proof that students need a certain amount of cultural literacy in a range of disciplines in order to write intelligent responses to broad ethical and sociological questions. That suggests that some of the traditional divisions between disciplines should be discarded. Obviously, “interdisciplinary” work is not new, but cultural analysis is still mainly reserved for college, despite the irony of graduate students writing papers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nirvana, and other pieces of culture enjoyed by teens and even pre-teens. We need actual classes, for actual high school students, on matters that Foucault, Baudrillard, Chomsky, and Adorno struggle with in their texts. Furthermore, a lot of interdisciplinary work at the high school level and below is based on experimentation, an outdated Rousseauean method that prevents students from becoming informed consumers of the huge amount of information freely available to them.

* * * and now for ESL * * *

Rhetorical analysis of linguistic structures, which focuses on learning how to recognize and assimilate unfamiliar words and patterns of usage, and then on the rhetorically justified application of learned material, should completely replace the present division between native-language and foreign-language instruction, as well as the divisions between creative writing classes, composition courses, and critical/analytical courses.

In other words, students should take holistic courses on language. In these courses, they will, of course, study passive and active voice. This discussion needs to consider the use of both voices in expository essays and creative pieces, and students should be interpreting and writing texts, at the same time, in a variety of genres. The moments where, for example, Hemingway switches out of his beloved active voice should be put in relation to his symbolic and thematic material — in other words, formal generalizations will be based on much more specific analyses, without any separation between ideological investigation and the exposition of grammar.

Then, students should be immediately introduced to differences in the presentation of subject and object in Romance languages, as compared to English. That means the teacher has to have a sense of the differences in subject-position between the languages he or she teaches — you can’t teach voice thematically in English classes, then turn around and teach it as a series of inexplicable rules in a foreign language class.

* * *

I am convinced that most of the questions which obsess me and my friends are being asked at the wrong level, because our life is represented to us as a series of problems that must be solved, such that it is difficult to see the alienating superstructure through which these problems arise. In other words, instead of asking “How should we teach composition?” we should be asking “What is wrong with our normal discourses that composition has to be taught at all? How could that be fixed, to some degree, by a successful composition course?” And the same question has to be asked of love, of my “profession,” of art, of pleasure, and of the multiplying communities in which I live.

The world seems to me to be a fractured and frightening place, beset by problems which are almost unbearable to think about. I am worried, at the moment, by Israel/Lebanon and by the heatwaves which covered the country this summer. My hope is that by decoding the specific problems that cut us off from that reality — problems like the SAT test, or social structures based on the media phenomenon of celebrity — I can not only put certain anxieties to rest in myself and others, but I can sketch out for myself some vision of the whole through which I can conceive of living as finding a place in the world as it really is, rather than thinking of life as a personal journey.

In other words, the alternative to The Alchemist and US Weekly involves seeing them as the same thing — as a deceptively partial decoding of modern life.

In the subject to subject recourse we preserve, psychoanalysis can accompany the patient to the ecstatic limit of “Thou art that,” where the cipher of his mortal destiny is revealed to him, but it is not in our sole power as practitioners to bring him to the point where the true journey begins. -Jacques Lacan

I have come to believe that even the Educational Testing Service and the party with Solo cups have a seam along which this limit might be visible.