Sunday, March 8, 1936

Book-Page Editorial

Hang The Teachers!

That Is, Those Who Teach Literature Without A Genuine
Love For The Thing; The Pedants Are Immunizing Students
Against The Glories of Writing.


Site ed. note: Just what prompted this tirade at high school and college English teachers is unknown save the notion of Cash's memory intersecting with thoughts of unkind method-teaching which he experienced at Boiling Springs High School, Wofford, Valparaiso, and/or Wake Forest. There is below, however, the valid observation with which anyone, especially today in 1998, who has any degree of objectivity and any rational degree of observation of the average product of our school systems--and any memory of their own of such method-teaching and its inevitably cruel turn-offs--must perforce agree. (And that is said not only by looking elsewhere but also smack in the mirror. Too, it is said with the notion fast in mind that, as Cash understood as a former college and high school English teacher, it is plainly not an easy task to teach much of anything to restless students full of hormones and other distractions; thus method-teaching, for all its faults, has its place perhaps, at least in principle, to instill mental discipline among widely varying minds. But...) Cash was trying to encourage the reawakening of appreciation of the richness of literature which he had re-experienced as a book reviewer. Perhaps, the answer to the criticism posed by Cash is to encourage the writing out of free-form interpretation of literature with an emphasis on observing the reflection of one's own experience in that interpretation. Thus for instance, in studying a play such as Macbeth, one might ask the student to write an essay on which role one would wish to play if one were asked by a director to be cast in the play; then the student is asked to explain in writing why the particular role is desirable. Such an approach, it seems, would enable the teacher to gauge the student's understanding of the play and also relates the play to life as it exists and to how others have perceived the play through history. For instance, a student might select to play a very small role, such as that of Banquo, but through the character explain virtually the entire vast complexity of the play and demonstrate thereby his or her understanding in a more penetrating and subjectively relevant way than being forced to parrot lines soon forgotten--the latter being better preparation for the stage than appreciation of the sage--or the Bard. Also, Cash suggests an experiment employed by a Marion, Va. newspaper which would be interesting to try today and could be easily performed from CD-roms having on them public domain literature. But sorry about the pedantry.

One looking for classics in the public domain on the internet can happily find them in an instant at many sites, including the Electronic Library of the University of Virginia, the Online Books Page, the Electronic Poetry Center, the University of Michigan Making of America series , Alex, an online search engine of texts , and the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina --each providing excellent, free resources.


If I had my way, I'd make it a hanging crime in this country for anybody to set up to teach English or American literature who wasn't full of a genuine love for the thing--and who didn't add to that love, if not discrimination, at least some common horse-sense about the make-up of the adolescent mind. And as for those people who employ teachers for these branches who lack such qualifications--well, I'm a humane man and naturally against the revival of stake and faggot, but there are times when I sympathize with the good old ways.

What moves me to this bloody pronouncement is the rising conviction that if the schools continue in their present way, another generation will see the complete and final extermination of all capacity in Americans for the enjoyment of these literatures. On the basis of my own observations and inquiries, I make bold to believe that not less than 90 per cent of our high school students emerge to graduation with a total and permanent immunity to William Shakespeare and John Milton, an intense persuasion that all poetry is a terrific pain in the neck, and, in brief, an aversion to everything so unfortunate as to be listed in the manuals of literary history, which often ascends to outright hatred. And of the ten per cent happy enough to escape such a fate in high school, fully half are finally caught when they pass on to college--fully half emerge from the portico so thoroughly vaccinated against anything bearing the brand of literature that they ask only that they may never hear of it again.

They Do Like Good Books

It might not be so--and it is not necessary, or even natural, that it should be so. It is true enough that the majority of these victims are only the average sort and not remarkable for any unusual intelligence, and that some of them are dullards. But the group also includes some of the very brightest and most eager--often the very brightest and most eager. But dull, average, or brilliant--none of this matters, for the evidence is overwhelming that the average and even the stupid invariably exhibit a liking for good books when they are gone at in the right way. Thus, to list a single item of this evidence, Sherwood Anderson some years ago launched the experiment of publishing, in the two weekly newspapers he owns at Marion, Va., novels from the hands of Fielding, Dickens, Thackeray, etc., without calling the attention of his readers to the fact that the stories were classics, and even in some cases, if my memory serves me, leaving the names of the authors off altogether--with the result that, when he tried abandoning the practice, the villagers and farmers promptly deluged him with demands for more.

No. The real cause of all the resistance to and dislike for literature which one increasingly encounters in these students is not that they are natural philistines or fools, but simply what I infer: that the teaching of the thing is commonly, though not universally, of course, in the hands of people who have no spontaneous liking for it, who look to the job simply because it was a nice way to make a living, of people, therefore, who have no sound understanding of its spirit--, and of people who quite usually do not understand the minds with which they have to deal.

For the lack of any other possible approach, they turn it into fusty pedantry. They make it a weary thing of statistics and pedestrian analysis. They force the poor student to memorize by rote vast segments of information anent historical sources, etc., which he obviously hasn't background enough to digest, and which none but the professional scholar could be expected to remember ten minutes after examination is over. They drive him to writing painful and entirely empty dissertations on idiotic subjects that nobody on earth--let alone himself--knows anything about. They belabor him to the brink of suicide with prosody, textual criticism, and philology--all useful enough in their place, but mere inventions of the devil so far as schoolboys are concerned. And they cap it all by handing him a lot of sententious and sentimental opinions at 50th hand.

The inevitable result, then, is precisely what I have described. The inevitable result is that with his normal dislike for a senseless grind, his nice eye for fraud, and his healthy contempt for platitude, he comes to hate and scorn it all--and with it, the literatures in whose name it is perpetrated.

I think these literatures had better not be taught at all than to be taught so.

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