Who Will Be America’s Teachers?

The essential quality of a teacher, I have long believed, is the desire to share what he has found of the true or good or beautiful, or at least useful—which means that it will be good in an immediate instrumental way, serving some obvious human need or wholesome desire. The teacher says, “Come, look at this!” And he shows you the great painting of the Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna (d. 1506), and the dramatic moment, set into the background of the work, not in the center but all the more arresting for its being understated, when the centurion looks upon Christ and says, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” He shows you not just what there is to see in the painting, but how to see. He gives you eyes.

The first time I listened to the polyphonic music of the Renaissance, I did not know what I had come upon. It was Thomas Tallis’ 40-voice motet, Spem in alium. I had expected a stanzaic hymn. This was just a verse or two from Scripture, set to music. I had expected a clear and single melodic line. This was a tissue of 40 melodic lines woven together simultaneously. I might as well have been a native of the jungles of Borneo, gaping at the turbine of a hydroelectric dam. I didn’t have a teacher to help me, at least not one I could speak to; it was instead Palestrina who “taught” me, by means of fewer and more immediately discernible polyphonic lines, what I was hearing, or what I could learn to hear, when I listened to Spem in alium. It happened while I was listening to the Creed in Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, and I heard three separate voices, each following right upon the other, singing the word simul simultaneously and not simultaneously, expressing musically the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It flashed upon me that this was profoundly intellectual music, like the façade of a medieval cathedral. Palestrina gave me ears.

We need teachers with eyes and ears. We will not get them. To show why not, let me quote from an article written by a teacher who did have eyes and ears. The author is W. B. Shubrick Clymer (1855-1903), in “A Note on Jane Austen,” in the March 1891 issue of Scribner’s—one of the popular magazines of the time. Why should we not only read Austen’s novels, but prize them? She does not write about great world issues. She does not pretend to. She does not write about political movements. She does not pretend to. She does not write cheap emotional or sexual thrillers for an otherwise dull and bored audience. She would not stoop so low—nor would she find the task enjoyable. Here is how Clymer begins to describe Austen’s most obvious merits:

Concentration of interest in one place and within a narrow range, steadiness of observation, sureness of touch, firmness of handling, accurate adjustment of parts always with a view to total effect, nice discrimination of individual members of the same class, exquisite precision and high finish, permeating humor—these are among the obvious characteristics which, combining with an essentially feminine treatment—shown by her noticing, from the woman’s point of view, things no man would ever think of noticing, by her women being better than her men, and by the absence of scenes between men—identify her among novelists many of whom share with her some, though perhaps none all, of these means to an artistic end.

There is not one college professor in a hundred, in our time, who could write that sentence, with its searching and sensitive thought and its tact. We have been trained away from it. Political and ideological shouting are in vogue instead. They do more than drown out beautiful sounds. They make people deaf, both those who shout and those who are shouted at.

But Clymer was just getting started. He compares Austen with at least a dozen English and French novelists, to show her place in the history of the art: Richardson, Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, Sterne, Goldsmith. He assumes that we know about their works and that we care about them. Reading his article whets my appetite; I want to read Maupassant to see whether and how his work really does bear some resemblance to that of Jane Austen. But that requires a willingness to read for the sake of the sheer beauty and wisdom of it. You catch the fire of love from someone else on fire. So do you also catch smallpox—the smallpox of reducing everything to a political aim.

I am not just complaining about the loss of the Great Books. If only we could amend matters by having students read a great book here and a great book there! The disease is far more acute. Students are taught, as C. S. Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, that judgments about beauty are meaningless. As a librarian told me the other day, quite unaware of her foolishness, students simply won’t find the authors I have mentioned “relevant” to them, and, after all, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” If we have raised young people who cannot be moved by the hero’s moral quandaries and errors in Tom Jones, or by the self-deceptions that darken the lives of otherwise decent people in Middlemarch, then we may as well have raised young people who glance up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, gawk at it for the required minute, register a lot of naked bodies, and then walk away, perhaps ginning up some sensation of being impressed, when, to tell the truth, they are ignorant and bored and somewhat irritated—because it is never an unmixed pleasure to be shown how inept you are.

When we say that truth, goodness, and beauty are residues of the cultural diktats of your place and time, or when we imply that long-held, and to a great degree universally held, ideas about them are to be scorned, we cut the hearts of our students right out. What good is it to read Emma when you do not believe in anything that animates the people in its world, not because you are above moral philosophy, but because you have been taught to lie beneath it, or to treat it with contempt? You are too sophomoric, too worldly-wise, to be educable. You are the know-it-all who knows there is nothing to know, beyond what can be measured or shown by empirical experiment. And since most people are not fit for real scientific work or real technological invention, you stand a good chance of being an un-teacher, spreading your unbelief and incorrigibility to others. You teach young people how to gouge their eyes out and stop up their ears.

Too harsh a diagnosis? Let me quote Clymer quoting George Eliot in her novel Daniel Deronda:

Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Eliot is referring to America and the Civil War. American men were dying in battle by the hundreds of thousands, and yet the good they fought for, she says, was borne from one generation to the next, in “the treasure of human affections,” by such young women as the one she is describing.

Those sentences are incomprehensible now. Had a man written them, he would be condemned as a sexist. The first question we ask is not whether the sentences tell the truth, or whether the role of women is as the preservers of the affections is a good and beautiful one, but whether the sentences advance a political cause. We are what a schoolyard thug is to a quiet kid who wants to read a good book because it stirs his wonder. We bully him out of such reading.

And then we justify our bad behavior by his failure. A librarian gets rid of a good book from long ago, because it hasn’t been checked out in many years. She is not curious about it. Its destination is a sale or a dumpster. Where do you think my copies of Scribner’s have come from?

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

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