Western Culture By Bits And Pieces

Glenn Ricketts

Troy Camplin has an interesting piece at the Pope Center’s web page, describing his novel use of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his freshman composition courses. That’s news in itself: for once, here’s an undergraduate writing seminar that’s not loaded with ideology or contemporary politics.But here’s the truly novel part: students must actually write sonnets, not simply write about them, in imitation of an author who certainly knew something about wordcraft. It’s fascinating to read, as Camplin describes the process of familiarizing students with formal poetry, governed by fixed rules of meter, rhyme and a set number of lines, not exactly free form or stream-of-consciousness. All of this means that they’ve got to select words very carefully, and actually think about what they’re writing. Sounds like a great exercise, and it’s also keenly refreshing to know that at least one freshman composition course somewhere gets its thematic material from something besides global warming, the war in Afghanistan, or the national obesity epidemic.

I’m a political scientist, not a composition teacher but, mutatis mutandis, I‘ve incorporated a somewhat similar component in my introductory course. For some years now, I’ve been requiring the students in that class to read an 800-page abridgement of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.   So how does a prose work about ancient Rome fit into a political science course? Well, as I tell students, Decline and Fall features lots of power struggles, intrigues, ambition and folly, and illustrates the timelessness of politics and human circumstances across the centuries. It also refers frequently to the Roman Republic, certainly germane to the history of constitutional development. The real point of the exercise, though, is to expose my students to Gibbon’s lapidary prose which, I believe, ought to be part of a college education and nowadays usually isn’t. 

The idea for this curricular venture came to me when I happened to read an interview some years ago with retired Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn.  His Ph.D. graduate students, he declared, were required to read all of Decline and Fall because,even if the work had been largely superseded by subsequent research, it was unsurpassed as art, a masterpiece of history as literature. His students, he emphasized, needed to absorb the craft of historical writing, by apprenticing themselves to writers such as Gibbon, Macaulay and Churchill. Such authors – none of whom, take note, was an academic – had written well and at length, the pillars of a tradition that blended style, narrative flow and literary balance in the writing of history.  I can’t recall if Bailyn offered thoughts on the current state of much academic writing.  But given these sentiments, I think that I can guess how he’d rate the turgid, jargonate, post-modern-laden stuff that gets regularly cranked out by the historical guild. It doesn’t much resemble Gibbon. 

Anyway, the inspiration suddenly hit me: if Harvard doctoral candidates in history are being required to read Gibbon, then why not community college freshmen as well?  First, of course, was the need to find a suitable abridgement of the Great Work: not too long or too short, preferably one with maps and a few illustrations. It took a while, but I finally found what I was looking for, a paperback edition priced much, much lower than any of the textbooks I used in my courses.  I wasn’t aglow with expectation though, since the hardest part still had to be worked out. How would students be induced to actually read an 800-page book, whose style was going to strike many of them as a foreign language? As collateral or supplementary reading? Ha! I’m an-ex-student myself, so enough said there. Should they be graded for it somehow? I couldn’t find anything tangible enough to grade. So I decided to parcel the book into six segments of varying length which would be spread over the course of the semester. For each assignment, I required students to submit a written summary simply recounting the narrative and describing the events or people central to the reading. No grade would be involved, although failure to complete the assignments would be penalized. I would, however correct each summary for spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, etc. Lots and lots and lots of work to do there, by no means limited to our own students.  I see equally poor writing and intellectual incoherence in visiting students from four-year schools who want to cover their liberal arts courses while they’re home on summer break or taking a gap semester. Really scary, though is the fact that the students who often struggle most with this assignment are education majors, training to be K-12 teachers.  What, you have to wonder, are they going to impart to their own students?

This exercise, needless to say, hasn’t elevated me to stardom at Ratemyprofessors. But among the various gripes I’ve heard from students directly, the most astounding has been to hear that “this kind of stuff” never mattered in English comp where, of course, they received As and Bs. I’ll bet they did. I don’t know where the weakest link in the chain is, or if that’s even the appropriate analogy. According to my daughter – herself a high school English teacher– the bad habits and effects of inattentive, spotty pedagogy have put down deep roots long before students arrive in my classroom   Now, I know you could say that many of them simply aren’t prepared for college, and I’d agree with you. But since they’ve already arrived, I intend to give them a college education, like it or not. And sometimes, I modestly succeed.

I recall especially fondly a student who anxiously approached me after class several years ago, eager to tell me how glad he was to be reading Gibbon. He’d just seen the movie Gladiator,  and it “wasn’t like what we read in the book at all.” I’ve also received occasional positive feedback from a few students who take the trouble to thank an instructor for teaching them things that they didn’t know, for doing something that made a difference, or which benefitted them in ways that they couldn’t immediately appreciate. “I can’t believe,” one of them wrote back to me after transferring to a four-year state university, “how amazed some of my professors here are when I tell them I’ve actually read Gibbon.” I was very glad to hear that, of course, but I also wish the profs at State U weren’t quite so amazed: after all, isn’t that what they should expect?   The best news so far, though, came at the conclusion of last semester, when four – count ‘em, four – students informed me individually that they had purchased the complete edition of Decline and Fall, having resolved to read it. I always exhort my classes to do just that, of course, but never with such bountiful results. Not a whole lot, I know, but just enough to make me feel that it’s been worth the effort. 

I’ve also used the Gibbon assignment as a springboard for introducing several other little cultural tidbits with which students aren’t likely to be familiar. What kind of literature, for example, might Gibbon have expected to read as a matter of course? Just for fun, we read Pope’s 1711 Essay on Criticism. Beyond their undoubted first encounter with the Augustan Age, it also fascinates many students to learn that the author was a mere 23 when the poem was published, and an autodidact who suffered from severe physical disabilities. Or how about some of the music that would have been current and popular in Gibbon’s lifetime? Great opportunity to play about five minutes worth of my favorite Concerto Grosso from G.F. Handel’s Op.11, (wasn’t he the guy who wrote that Hallelujah thing?) bringing some very new, exotic, and surprisingly pleasing tones to most students’ ears. Here again, the idea is to expose them to things they haven’t encountered previously, and probably won’t if I don’t take just a little time to work them into my course.  Preserving Western culture by random bits and pieces, I guess, but it’s still better than nothing.

So consider this: if the freshman comp program at your school seems thematically locked on American Idol or the crusade for transgendered restrooms, if the undergraduate distribution requirements give equal weight to acid rock and Beethoven, why not take a shot at the side-door approach described here?   How about livening up Sociology with Mozart, Psychology with John Donne and The Well-Tempered Clavier or just about any other course with a Shakespearean sonnet?  The results might be surprising.  

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