High School English Textbooks: A Critical Examination
In the Preface to their study of the textbooks currently in use in the teaching of English in the United States, James J. Lynch (now deceased) and Bertrand Evans are speaking, in their quiet way, for the importance of a proper literary training for American youth. They quote a statement of President Kennedy’s: “If, in the effective use of language, style is the man, style is the nation too; men, countries, and even entire civilizations have been tested and judged by their literary tone.” Since totalitarianism established for us the part played by ideas and even by modes of sensibility in the modern struggle for power, no gifted politician of democracy can again easily ignore the artist and intellectual in his public programs, or at least in his strategies. But what, for intellectuals, distinguished Kennedy as a President was his ability to make a pronouncement of this kind without its sounding like either a ploy or an embarrassment but like a genuine promise. Thus for the first time in memory one began to imagine for America a culture in which literary style might indeed be taken for what it is, a measure of the individual or national commitment to the civilizing forces in life.
This promise and this imagination have much bearing on Mr. Lynch’s and Mr. Evans’s study. It is a book which could only have been produced, one feels, in the Kennedy period. Certainly an educational investigation so simply civilized and free of cant could not have been possible in the period directly after the war when we were launching, not yet rockets, but the Century of the Common Man. Nor would it have been feasible in the decade preceding Kennedy’s administration, when it seemed that the dominant national tone might soon be expressed in a mathematical formula.
The cumulative effect of those years is, in fact, what Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans would now rid us of. Among the assumptions of their book none is more basic than that the teaching of literature and writing makes its contribution to culture in ways too subtly complex to be politically or socially specified. This is not an idea that has been readily accommodated by America in recent decades. Even before the era of education for citizenship or of education for achievement, when we were putting our pedagogic emphasis on the free flowering of the individual personality, our goal in the teaching of English was not (to use the words of the authors) the “humanizing” but the “socializing” of American youth.
Yet even those who perceived this tendency in American education could scarcely have been as aware as Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans are of the depths of vulgarity to which we were carried by our efforts of socialization—the low standards of taste in our choice of reading matter for our young students, the chauvinism, the leering stress on contemporaneity, the egregious flattery of the student’s self-importance, the use of what amounts to advertising manners and techniques to validate the educational process. No one with a child in the best of private schools, let alone a public school, can have failed to have his moment of queasiness as he confronted, say, the seventh grade reader prefaced with the assurance of Peter Pan, in the person of Mary Martin, that “reading is fun.” But it is the sheer mass of documentation in this soft-voiced, firm-principled study that makes for our disquiet.
Following Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans in their patient tour through the anthologies and grammar or composition books on which virtually all high school work in English is based, where is the reviewer to stop for the dramatic demonstration of our debasement? With the fact that the makers of our textbooks don’t seem to know the difference between an essay and any other form of non-fiction, so that of twenty-two purported essays in one of the anthologies under examination, ten are pieces reprinted from newspapers and magazines, six are excerpts from miscellaneous full-length books, one a poem and one a series of aphorisms? Or with the fact that 20 per cent of all the space in one of the compendiums is devoted to an abridgement of Kon-Tiki? Or with the information that the two chief sources of the short stories used by the anthologists are Saturday Evening Post and the late Colliers, with such supplementary sources as This Week, Woman’s Day, and Calling All Girls? Or with the news that in a volume which presumably includes David Copperfield, only the first twenty-two chapters of the novel are reprinted, altered at will and without notification, the whole being titled “One Boy’s Life”? Or that the large proportion of non-fiction material which appears in these anthologies is not even written by professional writers but by inventors, explores, and athletes? Or that where we look for a play of Shakespeare’s in, say, a ninth-grade reader, we find, instead, such representations of the drama as Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number, McCarty’s Three’s a Crowd, Mosel’s Jinxed, Niggli’s This Bull Ate Nutmeg, Vullmer’s It’s Your Business, or Wishengrad’s Juliet in Pigtails? Or that among the poets most frequently anthologized in ninth-grade anthologies, Ogden Nash makes twenty-two appearances against Walt Whitman’s ten; that in tenth-grade anthologies, Tennyson, Masefield, Kipling, and Housman are the only English poets who appear with enough frequency to be worth listing, and that Sara Teasdale appears thirteen times to Whitman’s twelve; that in eleventh-grade anthologies, which concentrate on. American authors, Sara Teasdale (again) appears thirty-seven times and Dorothy Parker twelve, but that Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, John Crowe Ransome appear, if at all, so infrequently that they find no place in the statistical tables; that in twelfth-grade readers De la Mare appears thirty times to T.S. Eliot’s thirteen, Rupert Brooke twenty-one times (just one under Pope) to Donne’s eleven? That the most frequently anthologized author of short stories is O. Henry, followed fairly closely by Stephen Vincent Benet and Jesse Stuart? That more than 20 per cent of all the material examined in all the anthologies is in some way altered, usually silently, as much as 507 lines being omitted from one reprinting of Julius Caesar?
One could continue indefinitely citing the dismaying evidence Mr. Lynch and Mr Evans compile from just the anthologies alone; and then there are the grammar and composition books which, apart from their dreary repetitiousness, necessarily reflect the poor estimate of intellect and imagination in the anthologies. Can we be surprised that, in the teaching of composition, there is no reference to ideas as the cargo which rhetoric is designed to carry, and that the devices of effective expression—figures of speech, balanced sentences, vivid vocabulary etc.—are taught without the student being given any knowledge of what is worth expressing? Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans make the point that, in the assignment of topics for composition, the literary materials students are reading in their classes, and, for that matter, all serious subjects, are consistently avoided in favor of topics which are an invitation to the invasion, or extrusion, of privacy, to ruthless exploitation of their own lives and those of their families and friends. How can this not be so in a situation where the work of the literary imagination is apparently thought to be unreal, and where the first criterion of literary virtue is that a work should as nearly as possible approximate the student’s own small experience of the world?
But perhaps the place in Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans’s investigation where the critic of culture finds the most cogent corroboration of his charge that ours is a society not only disfigured by anti-intellectualism, but given over to a programmatic infantilism, is in its examples of how literary texts are abbreviated and altered for the easy comprehension of students. The authors give us two striking illustrations from Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” First:
In glancing over my notes of the seventy-odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace. For working as he did, rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend toward the unusual and even the fantastic. Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Royletts of Stoke Moran.
Here all the italicized words have been deleted and substituted for with the single word “none.” Second:
At dusk we saw Dr. Grimesby Roylett drive past, his huge form looming up beside the little figure of the lad who drove him. The boy had some slight difficulty in undoing the heavy iron gates, and we heard the hoarse roar of the doctor’s voice and saw the fury with which he shook his clenched fists at him. The trap drove on, and a few minutes later we saw a sudden light spring up among the trees as the lamp was lit in one of the sitting rooms.
Here for the italicized lines omitted from the text, there are inserted the words “at the manor house” after “spring up.” Surely what the student is being spared by such excisions is activity, mystery, the happy abundance of observation, and all sense of deference to a mind more complete than his own.
Despite their gentle manners, the authors of High School English Textbooks do not hide their aversion to the representation of American life implicit in the books they explore. “The ‘image’ of the American Boy,” they tell us “that emerges is of a clean cut, socially poised extrovert, an incurious observer of life rather than a participant, a willing conformer, more eager to get than to give, a bit of a hypocrite but a rather dull companion—a well-adjusted youth not much above a moron. And the ‘image’ of the American girl? She is one who likes the American Boy.” But their stance is that of practical men with a particular job to do, and not that of social critics. “What is wrong? What should be done?”—the slogan on the dustjacket precisely describes the area of objective analysis and proposed reform within which they operate. If they do not fail to name the fault, neither do they omit to specify the simple, sensible, civilized remedy: and this is the full extent of their undertaking. Do our textbooks choose their materials for easy readability and to confirm the student in a comfortable mediocrity rather than for literary merit? They must reverse themselves. Are our students being robbed of a sense of connection with literary tradition and the past? This must be restored to them. Their working method, in other words, is to assume that in dealing with teachers and teaching, they deal with a profession which can and does properly respect itself, and that in dealing with education in the United States, they deal with a culture which needs only be told which are the sweetest fruits of enlightenment in order to seize them.
It is a method which, for those who are accustomed to the close inspection of social causality, is clearly deficient. For instance, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Evans tell us nothing of how textbooks are selected, nothing of the officialdom—state, city, county, or whatever it may be—which has the job (and what a job!) of choosing among the wares offered them by the publishers and among the pedagogic principles these represent. They make no mention of the role of the teachers’ colleges in the promulgation of nonsensical and destructive pedagogic theory. They do not discuss the low status of teachers in this country—which so largely accounts for the scarcity of teachers who know the difference between a good and a bad piece of writing. One doubts, indeed, that they have allowed themselves to think how far-reaching would the necessary social and cultural renovation have to be, to permit the changes they prescribe for our text-books.
And yet, paradoxically, it is perhaps from this very obliviousness to faults in the social structure itself that Mr. Lynch’s and Mr. Evans’s study derives its most immediate usefulness—and also its mark as a product of the Kennedy years. It was Kennedy’s achievement, much purer than Roosevelt’s, to be able to subsume intellect in practicality, and to gather into the onward movement of his reformism even those of our social critics who had been used to seeing no way to deal with the problems of culture except by social revision of a radical kind. Was he really an intellectual? was the question one repeatedly asked of this man who could face down the Soviet Union on Cuba or make such substantial progress in racial equity without pausing to examine first principles. To which the answer is, finally, that the intellectual life is not the property solely of that small class of persons committed to deep social analysis and high cultural speculation. The radical impulse, the impulse to address unpleasing phenomena in our society as manifestations of deep-seated sickness, is not the only honorable form in which intellectual energy asserts itself. As much as we have need of the critic to do the job of insight and imagination, with its often ugly probing at the source and its pessimism, we also need intelligent practical men with programs of immediate, decent action.
Just as, on the top level of government, President Kennedy, by celebrating intellect at work in practical affairs, gave a most valuable support to the imaginative intellect, just so, on a modest level, Mr. Lynch’s and Mr. Evans’s investigations and recommendations in one small, significant area of the practical life of our society advance the larger enterprises of social speculation. High School English Textbooks is a notable book not only for what it tells us about present-day methods of English teaching and how they can be improved, but also for what it suggests about the directions of contemporary American culture, and especially about the low regard in which mind is now held in it.