The Curriculum of Forgetting

Peter Wood

We are always forgetting something. Presidential hopeful Rick Perry recently gave an outstanding example of forgetfulness when, in the midst of a televised debate, he couldn’t recall the name of a federal department he wanted to abolish. The wrecking ball he would aim at the Department of Energy apparently hit the wrong target.

When it comes to forgetting, I rank myself among the gifted. I forget names, faces, locations, appointments, days of the week, weeks of the year, and sometimes whole decades. Of course, there are things I’d like to forget that stubbornly refuse to melt away. I’d rather not remember falling asleep in 10th grade geometry class, but I can still feel my eyelids sinking as the teacher proses on and on…until suddenly he stops.

And then there are the many matters I would like to recall that have vanished into the ether. I’d like to remember the plots of Jane Austen’s novels but they have blurred together into a Regency compote. And all the German I once knew ist gegangen (verloren?)

What We Remember After We Forget

Fortunately Jane Austen’s novels and the German language don’t depend on me. They have robust lives of their own.  And they are part of a civilization that is more than the sum of its individual participants. That is something for which we should be grateful. Jane Austen’s novels, with their delicious wit and irony, are there at hand ready to be picked up (or Kindled) by anyone, and even the reader who begins simply waiting to see how Elizabeth and Darcy overcome their differences quietly slips into a community of millions of others whose sensibility has been subtly changed by Austen’s psychological finesse.

Long after we as individuals forget the details, we are still part of the community. Austen has left an important trace. Much the same is true of anything to which we devote serious attention.  Foreign languages we have studied and forgotten are no longer really foreign. If nothing else, we can hear them in a way that we can’t hear a language we never studied. I’ve had very little use in my adult life for calculus or chemistry and surely forgotten most of what I once knew of them, but they somehow seem pleasurably familiar. That sense isn’t entirely illusion; disciplined study leaves something behind, even if it’s just the aftertaste of knowing.

Beauty Bare

The Berlin publisher Taschen—“rich books for poor times”—is known for its lavish editions of fashion, design, and photography books—as well as editions of classics. Last year Taschen brought out a facsimile version of Oliver Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid. Byrne was a surveyor of the English settlements in the Falkland Islands who in 1847 published this famously eccentric and remarkably beautiful version of Euclid—eccentric and beautiful for the same reason, as indicated by its subtitle: “In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols Are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners.”

Byrne took his Euclid seriously:

This Work has a greater aim than mere illustration; we do not introduce colours for the purpose of entertainment, or to amuse by certain combinations of tint and form, but to assist the mind in its researches after truth, to increase the facilities of instruction, and to diffuse permanent knowledge.

The new Taschen edition is accompanied by a separately bound essay (in English, German, and French texts) by Swiss architectural scholar, Werner Oechslin, who explains how Byrne’s supremely confident account of Euclid arrived just at the point where mathematics was abandoning its reliance on “the old, outmoded view that holds geometry not only mediates, but fundamentally assists us in the quest for truth.” Byrne had thought Euclid “by common consent, the basis of mathematical science all over the civilized globe.” But non-Euclidian geometry as well as more abstract mathematical reasoning was undermining this proposition. Byrne’s book, intended as a contribution to mathematics, ended up as an aesthetic object, one of “the most beautiful books of the 19th century.” The resemblance to a gallery full of paintings by Piet Mondrian is unmistakable.

I feel a certain chord of sympathy with Byrne, the surveyor in love with Euclid; it is as if he fell asleep in geometry class just as the instructor was beginning to deconstruct the whole enterprise. But my sympathy is also for the cultural traditions and the scholarship that have kept Euclid alive for 23 centuries. The Elements (composed around 300 BC and thought to be a synthesis of works by several earlier mathematicians) was lost to the West for about five centuries, though it survived in Byzantium and in Arabic translation. Before the West re-discovered the Greek version, Adelard of Bath, around 1120, translated an Arabic copy into Latin.

Euclid’s Elements sits on the cusp of remembering and forgetting—between cultural continuity and potential loss, and between immortality and obsolescence. Its history is a story of repeated disappearance and rediscovery. From having been nearly blotted out in the West, it became, after the Bible, the West’s second most printed book.

Which doesn’t afford it any lasting protection. As far as I know, St. John’s Great Books program is the only college curriculum that today treats Euclid as indispensable. And surely it is not indispensable if our collegiate goal is to equip students with the mathematics they need to get on with advanced work in the STEM disciplines. How much Euclid do we need for the broader goal of general education? Maybe some. One of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s best-known poems, her 1922 “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare,” however, makes the case that we miss something rather important if we bypass the great geometer:

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.

O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

But I am not really making a pitch for Euclid studies, or for the wisdom of trying to furnish your mind by reading widely and remembering what you can.

Cultural Memory

Rather, I worry about the future of the institution that is charged with the largest share of sustaining the complex memories of our civilization: the university. Higher education, of course, has much to do besides remembering. It also seeks new knowledge; it credentials for the workplace; it shapes the character of students—for better or worse. All these things are, in principle, anchored to the two questions of what we ought to sustain among the vast treasures of our civilizational inheritance, and what we should count as real sustainability.

We have set pretty low standards for this in contemporary higher education. The idea that all educated people should know at least a few things in common has a tenuous existence. There is an Association for Core Texts and Courses, which holds an annual conference, but colleges that actually require students to study a core are scarce. We can content ourselves that important knowledge survives so long as academic specialists study it, and surely this is true up to a point. But knowledge that resides only in unpublished Ph.D. dissertations, in long out-of-print books, or among a handful of scholars is probably better classed as culturally dormant. Better that than lost, but the existence of vast amounts of such dormant knowledge isn’t a very satisfying answer to the question, “How should the university sustain important knowledge handed down from the past?”

Of course, we don’t forget everything. We have selective recall. It isn’t that hard to find undergraduate college courses on Shakespeare. Milton?  A good bit harder.  Dryden?  Good luck.  It is not that everything is thrown overboard, but so much has been jettisoned that the ship now floats very lightly.

My answers, I know, are an exercise in sailing against the winds. We need to focus more of our instruction on reading important books. The flimsiness of contemporary college reading lists is evident in lots of ways. To mention but one, the National Association of Scholars for the last two years has compiled lists of the books college assign to admitted freshmen (and sometimes upper classmen too). This year we found that among the 245 colleges with such programs, almost 90 percent chose books published since January 2000, and all but two selected books published since January 1972. Our report, Beach Books, 2011-2012, shows that the books assigned, mostly memoirs and excursuses on trendy political issues, are overwhelmingly books that could hardly be called college-level reading. Was anything of general interest and lasting significance written before 1972? Judging by this sample, apparently not.

If we need more and better reading, we also need courses that provide a context for such reading and that, along the way, require faculty members to engage in some historical synthesis of their own. Broadly speaking, this means the restoration of survey courses. Another one of the NAS’s recent studies traced the disappearance of Western Civilization survey courses from 1964 to 2010. The Vanishing West showed the attenuation of what was once a widely upheld general-education requirement. It hasn’t been replaced with anything else, despite occasional pitches for “world civilization.”

I have written about this before on Innovations and registered the general reaction from history professors, which lies somewhere in the unmarked territory between Ennui and Irritation. I have also had occasion to talk about it with some prominent historians and have yet to find any who see the vanishment as a matter of concern. A typical reaction is, “Why privilege the West?  The East is just as important.” Indeed it is, but this is the West and it behooves those who live in the West to have some framework to understand the civilization that, like it or not, they are part of.

Powerful Mellow

I don’t imagine that improved reading lists and a restoration of survey courses in various fields would be sufficient to undo the presentism of contemporary American higher education. That presentism has historical roots of its own, going back at least as far as Henry Ford’s 1916 declaration in the Chicago Tribune, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.” Today’s Occupy Wall Streeters, for all their disdain of corporate America, pretty much exemplify Ford’s attitude. They faithfully represent what a college education looks like when it is no longer grounded in the “tradition” of a historically coherent curriculum.

What we need is a reversal of cultural tides, a restoration of the basic principle that the university is responsible for keeping the past imaginatively alive and available for the present.  The stance of generalized antagonism to the whole of Western civilization and the elevation of “critical thinking” in the sense of facile reductionism (everything at bottom is about race-gender-class hierarchy) makes the university function more and more as our society’ chief source of anti-intellectualism.

The worst kind of forgetting isn’t the loss of particular knowledge. We could lose the novels of Jane Austen as living literature, or misplace our last copy of Euclid’sElements, and get on with things, though we would be poorer than before. The greater loss is losing the sense that anything important has gone missing. And, unfortunately, that’s where we are: wandering out into the desert, oblivious to having misplaced our map, our compass, and our canteen. The university, relaxing into its new ideals of changing America for the better, has less and less sense of what it has abandoned.

Forgetting, of course, has some virtues, but to forget and to remember wisely requires exquisite balance. In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain describes the aftermath of a terrific fight between the con men, the Duke and the King, about their misplaced loot. After they settle down, and with the help of some whiskey:

They both got powerful mellow, but I noticed the king didn’t get mellow enough to forget to remember to not deny about hiding the money-bag again. 

I forget a lot of things, but I remembered that. 

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on November 21, 2011.

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