what to know and who decides

Here’s an email sent by N.D., a student in BL. I asked her if I could share it here because I think she brings up some valuable points given our last discussion on April 1st and the issues we’re covering in the Victorian section. She agreed to this so here’s the email, with comments following:

This is a message sent out into cyber-space to throw my ideas out into some universe so they are part of the mix. This message doesn’t necessarily need to be answered; that take takes up more of your valuable time. This is a message in a bottle, written for the sake of writing & collecting my thoughts concretely in definite words in the hope that maybe once this is done that phrases of ideas will stop bouncing, swirling inside my head.

I have become possessed by this British Literature class. I do not say this to “suck up” to the teacher because I do find that to be a most despicable quality is a person. I do state this because I find myself physically affect by the class discussion, internally conflicted and shaking with adrenalin. I beat up on my brain trying to figure it all out, angry with myself as I struggle with ideas that challenge my values, my focus and my self-worth. You say I have a modern outlook. Of course I do; my parents, my surroundings, my whole life is modern. I value the individual because individuals make up the rabble. It is the individual’s choice to follow the rabble or to strike out on their own and risk being perceived as crazy. Lack of action is also a choice and having a choice is acting as an individual.

I have really battled with the question of who is the best we can study. My first instinct was to say the maters of technology & science. What is the use of studying a slew of self-indulgent white men, how could that possibly help me? What about Bill Gates, who dropped out of college to start Microsoft & influence how most people work day to day. What about the scientists who created the ability to grow food in the most desolate & unfertile of areas? Even Oprah, the one named wonder, has become a multimedia powerhouse even though she was an overweight, not conventionally attractive black woman. Are these people the best of the best, the ideals of modern society?

But science and popular culture always changes and one notion keeps nagging me: There is nothing new to say. I have seen it time & time again in this class. I am certainly not going to believe what you tell me is the best, that is your opinion. Why else is there so many religions, so many schools of thought and so may types of government. I can study all philosophy and decide who fits in with my ideals, but my ideals are certainly not yours. Also, I can think of no other way to strengthen your own argument that what you believe is the best that to study everything you can to challenge yourself with as many ideals as possible.

So I have no answer, and I am back where I started but at least I have but it down on paper and thrown it in the mix; my message in a bottle.

N. D.
A struggling British Literature student

Thus far, the dominant texts that we’ve discussed in BL are Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Mill’s On Liberty. The other surrounding texts keep coming back as well. The issues: creativity and form, the idea of authority in decision-making, the individual and society, the human conception of order, widespread technological and cultural and industrial revolution, and the democratization (the rise of the demos) of society. The approach: how do the texts “reveal” contemporary culture, make us more aware of what’s going on “now.”

But what’s sparking N.D’s question above? In a beginning discussion of Matthew Arnold I introduced his idea, drawn from The Function of Criticism in the Present Time, concerning the aims and ends of human conduct focused on education. In Literature and Science he brings up the issue this way:

Some of you may possibly remember a phrase of mine which has been the object of a good deal of comment, an observation to the effect that in our culture, the aim being to know ourselves and the world, we have, as the means to this end, to know the best which has been thought and said in the world. A man of science, who is also an excellent writer and the very prince of debaters, Professor Huxley, in a discourse at the opening of Sir Josiah Mason’s college at Birmingham laying hold of this phrase, expanded it by quoting some more words of mine, which are these: “The civilised world is to be regarded as now being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result, and whose members have for their proper outfit a knowledge of Greek, Roman and Eastern antiquity, and of one another. Special local and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this programme.”

Now on my phrase, thus enlarged, Professor Huxley remarks that when I speak of the above-mentioned knowledge as enabling us to know ourselves and the world, I assert literature to contain the materials which suffice for thus making us know ourselves and the world. But it is not by any means clear, says he, that after having learnt all which ancient and modern literatures have to tell us, we have laid a sufficiently broad and deep foundation for that criticism of life, that knowledge of ourselves and the world, which constitutes culture. On the contrary, Professor Huxley declares that he finds himself “wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. An army without weapons of precision, and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.”

The italicized parts are what are generating the controvercy. Taken at face value what is “the best that has been thought and said in the world” and why is the end of education knowledge of ourselves and the world. In Arnold, the question isn’t whether he disagrees with Huxley about “what” should be learned in school, but to what degree the liberal arts should incorporate the sciences of the day. Here’s how Arnold characterizes the overall question:

More than this, however, is demanded by the reformers. It is proposed to make the training in natural science the main part of education, for the great majority of mankind at any rate. And here, I confess, I part company with the friends of physical science, with whom up to this point I have been agreeing.

His agreement comes in the form of defining literature as all-inclusive of traditional Roman and Greek “letters” and the writings of scientists, such as Newton. It would be somewhat presumptive, without having read both Huxley and Arnold on the issue, to agree or disagree with Arnold’s characterization, but suffice it to say at this point that similar discussions go on today pertaining to the question what should be taught in school, what should people know, and what forces play a roll in determining answers and strategies. As Arnold writes earlier in C&S,

The question is raised whether, to meet the needs of our modern life, the predominance ought not now to pass from letters to science; and naturally the question is nowhere raised with more energy than here in the United States. The design of abasing what is called “mere literary instruction and education,” and of exalting what is called “sound, extensive, and practical scientific knowledge,” is in this intensely modern world of the United States, even more perhaps than in Europe, a very popular design, and makes great and rapid progress.

Here Arnold touches on the question of “modernity,” a question that will come up in the next century, when “modernism,” “modernity,” and other related issues will surface in other ways, especially in Kafka. What should modern people be doing with their brains–the lit or the science? Of course, the more moderate of us will claim that we should fall somewhere in the middle, but both Huxley and Arnold would consider such a position naive. Nevertheless, I made the question personal in class, asking people for pointed examples of what is “best.” Milton, calculas, engineering, or “Survivor”? The answer came back to personal choice (a modern view of human nature, as it has come to us), and this is where N.D.s question comes to the fore. But the problem is the extent to which an “individual” can choose. What are our options: and is individual choice an illusion? Many students in BL aren’t in the course because they wanted to study Mill. Someone else determined that their degree plan should involve some literature. It wasn’t I who decided that criteria. It was someone else, but who was it? We know an answer: someone with presumptive “authority,” or some body of experts who decide for others what they “will” do to make an accomplishment. Should the focus be lit, science, social science, business (which some see as the thrust of globilization)?

Choices. They are problematic. Currently, it’s Kerry vs. Bush. Two choices with immediate consequences.

Choices. Science or lit? In class we will work through the consequences of Arnold and Huxley. We will ask the question: we have facts assuredly, but who teaches us what to do with them?

Choices. We can split the atom. We can slice and segment the gene. But what do we do with this power? Again, Shelley resurfaces. And there’s Blake (and thus Milton) always peering from behind the wall of the past to judge or laugh at us.

5 thoughts on “what to know and who decides

  1. Rina

    I have no answers. My personal (see: individual) solution to this educational dilemma comes down to a series of choices. Unfortunately, choices, outside of the free market, are scarce. Alas, penance is inescapable. But dead white men are my friends.As an aside, a friend of a friend, just recently graduated from law school (Uconn) and passed the bar. How funny was it to find out that at the very top of her wish list, for her future, this particular young lady said that she wanted to be a wife and mother! I think it’s great, but I find this so ironic…and not a little hilarious!But all that crazy talk aside…I must say, N.D., that was a great email! You should come to our next Narratives meeting on April 21st at 6:30pm.

  2. Neha

    Choices? Do we really have any? In some shape or form, what we retain will be what is presented to us. Sometimes that defeats the purpose of a “choice”.

    To N.D. all I can say is: get out there and read the world. That’s the only way you’ll ever be able understand where you stand. It’s the only way you’ll be able to decide what the “best” in the world is. Maybe someday you’ll be able to tell everyone else what you think the “best” is or should be. The world needs more and more people who are torn with internal conflict that has more to deal with the larger questions of life. Be warned though, that you just might not be able to find any answers at all.

    Now whether you choose to accept what you read here or you don’t is a decision you’ll have to make on your own.

  3. gibb

    I have to laugh. All these deep arguments about who to believe, what to teach, blah, blah, blah, when in an institution of higher learning a tray left filled with cookies for others to enjoy, and a block of cheese meant for a meeting of a group interested in literature and writing, both go missing from the premises. Somehow, I think college education might do well to consider reinforcing some of the more simple of human needs and natures.

  4. ersinghaus

    I’d claim it’s not a question of choice but of perception and experience. It comes back to the god of triangles issue: the god of triangles has how many sides?

    The “best” imples “power over” a subject, whether that subject is string theory or other people. When people hear “this is a ‘great’ game” they rise toward it until proven otherwise.

    If UCONN triumphs over Duke they are the best, the victors. Hence we can deterime “what is best” as Arnold claims.

    Right? Or should I duck?

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