[Milton-L] Great Adaptations

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Wed Jan 23 17:36:16 EST 2008

Well, God Bless Carol Barton!  Alas, though, the 'agents' of the dumbing down you describe is (Remember Pogo, a minor figure, hardly noticed by anyone in Comus' Rabble) US.  I mean the faculty.  I have only my own 35 years as 'the Miltonist' (among many other roles!) at a small college in the Mid-West to draw on, but let me just sum it up by pointing out that when I retired two years ago I was 'replaced' not by another Miltonist, not even by another specialist in XVII cent. P & P, but by a 'poet in residence.'  A perfectly fine fellow, with a lovely vitae and publication sheet.  No complaint about that.  But, the department (and the dean) were acting in response to the pressures that are always there: ie. the need to 'fill up the classes.'  Now, when I arrived, in 1971, those pressures certainly existed.  But they were counter-balanced by an agreement --in the department, in the college, and even in the university-- that a certain 'canon' existed.  A graduate needed not only to know who Darwin, Marx and Engels and Adam Smith were, she or he was expected to have first-hand experience of the General Prologue, eight or nine Shakespeare plays, Paradise Lost and Pilgrim's Progress (and Marvell's Coy M), Humphrey Clinker and some pages from Boswell (and his great subject) AND the Romantics (from Blake to Keats).  This was ANY student, even a major in Business or Pharmacy.  The specialists in literature might delve into the mysteries of Dickens and Hardy, Lawrence and Joyce, etc., but not the ordinary graduate.  And here's the funny part.  Why were they not reading about the adventures of Stephen and Leopold in Dublin or about Faulkner's Snopes's?  Because these things were too hard for the general student!

But that moldy fig idea (that a canon exists and that it is worth defending and extending) couldn't be more out of date.  You all know why.  Because of the squabble that erupted whenever 'the core curriculum' came up.  Finally, we all surrendered and so today's core is made up of efforts (well intended and passionately held to be sure) of items the faculty can agree on.

Whatever happened to the idea that the value of a faculty was its DISagreements?  Whoever was foolish enough to think that intelligent compromise eventuates in an end product more valuable than cardboard?

Yours in sweetness,

Jim Watt
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Carol Barton [cbartonphd1 at verizon.net]
Sent: Wednesday, January 23, 2008 3:27 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Great Adaptations

Amen, Boyd (and Beth).

About 15 years ago, I had a rather eccentric neighbor--retired military--who subscribed to all sorts of conspiracy theories, most of them outrageous. But one thing he said made a terrible kind of sense: our enemies weren't going to take us down by means of atomic bombs or germ warfare--they were infiltrating our schools with "educators" trained to dummy down the curriculum, and that would be enough to destroy us by itself.

Who ever said the acquisition of knowledge had to be an easy process? At the elementary and middle school level, maybe; but an individual worthy of the title "college student" ought to be willing to invest enough time and energy in his or her intellectual heritage to deal with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton (at minimum)--and Beowulf in translation if necessary--not some watered-down version of the real thing.

I will never forget the transfer student from Hofstra (a decent school) who had no idea that the _Canterbury Tales_ had been written in poetry . . . because the version they'd used was "translated" into prose!

All of us struggled with "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote . . ."--but I think most of us would agree that it was well worth wrestling with the angel.

Best to all,

Carol Barton

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