Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Nothing Worth Knowing

When you’ve been in school for as long as I have, you reach a certain point—especially after a few years of teaching—when you realize that the majority of your own teachers were pure shit and should never have been allowed in a classroom.

Such is the case with Überpedant Professor J. Perl. I studied twentieth-century literary theory under him at that “experimental interdisciplinary campus” all those years ago and learned nothing about twentieth-century literary theory except how pretentiously flawed high modernism can be. We didn’t read Derrida; we didn’t read Blanchot. Instead, he read Mallarmé’s poetry to us in French and talked about attending the opening of Cats with Valerie Eliot (T.S.’s widow), dismissing it as “people wearing pajamas jumping up and down, yelling, ‘Cats, cats, cats!’”

The only authentic moment that semester was when he brought Fielding, his sick English setter, to class. I sketched a picture of the dog beneath his desk instead of taking notes that evening. I think that sketch is all I still have from that course. That and an abiding distaste for Eliot’s criticism as well as his poetry.

But Perl is not the only one to completely turn me off to reading poetry for the subsequent decade. We can always place an equal measure of blame on yet another lackluster professor: P. Cohen.

I studied twentieth-century poetry with Cohen during a short summer semester as an undergraduate. I passed all his reading quizzes and his comments on my term paper included, “One of the best researched and most interesting papers on Eliot I’ve read.” But I was forced to take an incomplete and eventually accept a B for the course because I did not have the minimum number of required sources for my essay.

My rewrite consisted of randomly adding one phrase from a completely arbitrary source to meet the requisite number. Such sophistry and lack of imagination are virtues in the sciences, but in the humanities, they are simply the death knell for intelligent students pursuing their interests.

Yet these professors continue teaching and being awarded accolades as teachers. What they need to have on their precious CVs, however, is the statement, “Responsible for a student not reading poetry for ten years.” That’s one educational legacy that should be publicly declared.

Submitting my grades yesterday was a good time to remember what Oscar Wilde said regarding education: “Nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

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