What’s lost if an eighteen year old cannot read a sentence written in the eighteenth century? Anything? Nothing? I think much is lost. As I would imagine you would, too. So I’ve made it a small tertiary mission to try and promote Moby-Dick back into Indiana high school syllabi.
I’ve already emailed maybe five or six English teachers to even see if they teach it now. One emailed back. It was a private school.
Yes, I do teach Moby-Dick in my AP Literature and Composition course. It is the first work of literature we read together as a class. I do this for several reasons. First, it is a challenging work that sets the tone for the entire course. Students are required to be patient, persistent, and perceptive readers if they ever hope to survive the journey. Second, Melville’s classic may be the best introduction to the theory of the novel in English. The various forms of discourse in the novel provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the theories of
Bakhtin and Lukacs (polyphony, parodying forms of discourse,
transcendental homelessness, et al.). […]
So first off, you’ve got the AP students reading not just Melville, but Bakhtin and Lukacs. Heavy shit. How envious I am of them at that age! Though, these aren’t “regular students.” These are “special” students. Exactly this kind of disparity already bothers me because certain kinds of kids are getting exposure to writing that all kids should be exposed to at least once. In a public school, this argument may have more weight, but I digress.
Also: transcendental homelessness? Hmm.
Later the teacher said:
How do our words relate to the world in which we
live—a world inscrutable, unfathomable, one which tasks and heaps us till we are bundled into eternity? [my emphasis]
This more than anything else should probably stand out. And this reason, more than anything else, is why I so love Melville’s novel. The work is effervescent with wordage and associations about love, life, death, fear, faith. All the largest, most unwieldy topics you could imagine.
Why aren’t more eighteen year olds reading this story about a dejected, transcendental homeless fella who decides to make friends with a tattooed weirdo, who’s actually gentle and sweet, and go for a balls-out adventure?
My point is that if those kids can’t read anything before 1900, or 1800!, because of moving pictures, texting, WoW, or whatever else chimes and dings in their pockets, we’ll all be worse off, especially them. The inability to access prior knowledge is criminal. I’m going to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a pre-elementary college English class this Fall, ie folks who need lots of help. I don’t think it’ll be too hard for them, because I bet they can read just fine if given the chance. What was the hardest syntax they’ve been offered or shown or lead through? Watered-down Shakespeare? The Cliff Notes to Timon of Athens?
A friend of mine in Spokane, who’s an education major, soon to be an English teacher, said that Melville probably isn’t taught in schools, NOT because students find it difficult, but because TEACHERS do. Interesting thought.
I don’t blame any student I have for not having the capacity to understand a sentence until I know where they’re from, what they’re education has been, etc. etc. I have no idea what their educational journey has been as college freshmen.
That said…one of my (more perspicacious) students was trying to convince me that in her high school copy of Hamlet, the contemporary English on the right was the same as the Elizabethan on the left. Hardly, I said.
It took a while to cool down.