Saturday, March 24, 2012

Then and Now

I've lost count of how many times students have asked, "Can we just watch the movie?" I knew times had really changed when I was about to show a video of King Lear, and a student asked, "Do we have to watch the whole movie?"

Dwight MacDonald's essay "Updating the Bible," in Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain reminds me yet again of just how much the study of literature has changed in the last twenty years.

No one reads; no one has time; no one has patience for anything complex. Which is exactly one of MacDonald's complaints about the felt need to revise the King James Version (KJV - 1611) of the Bible and replace it with the Revised Standard Version (RSV - 1952).

The words, phrasing, imagery that had been etched into the minds of most English speakers for nearly 350 years needed updating to better reflect the culture, character, and education of mid-century Americans. According to MacDonald, the whole enterprise was pretty much a dismal failure, replacing the reverberating "Thou Shalt Nots" with the more modern, but mundane, "You Shall Nots"  (by far not the worst of many sins).

MacDonald wrote about the failure to appreciate the KJV in 1959. What he said then applies to the study of literature now.

Speaking of what he claims is the exaggerated difficulty of the KJV:
Almost all of it is perfectly understandable to anyone who will give a little thought and effort to it, plus some of that overvalued modern commodity: time. Those who don't can hardly claim a serious interest in the Bible either as literature or religion. (172)
Which is exactly the criticism I have of contemporary students ( and just as often, their professors).

We err by making the "study" of literature today a study only of theory, of graphic novels, television, and tattoos. In doing so, "what is now simply a blunder...will become a catastrophe. Bland, flavourless mediocrity will have replaced the pungency of genius" (172).

But genius itself is suspect; canonical literature is a pale copy of theory, and the whole of the academy  is bent on catering only to what is relevant to and fun for eighteen-year-olds.

When "lol" and "bff" are one's linguistic currency, how fun can the "strange, wild, romantic, complex turns of style"(170) of Elizabethan English be?  - whether in the KJV or Shakespeare?

We will have lost something of great value when all we have is a cartoon version of the synopsis of King Lear with characters "txting."

And still someone will ask, "Do we have to watch the whole movie?"


Hels said...

I thought the big debate was reading novels and texts on line, instead of actually holding a book in the hand.

While that debate still bothers me, it pales into comparison with the not _reading_ in any medium, but seeing it in film form instead. What next - animated cartoon form?

You summed it up tragically, but accurately: Genius itself is suspect; canonical literature is a pale copy of theory, and the whole of the academy is bent on catering only to what is fun for eighteen-year-olds. I chose to omit the words "relevant to" 18 year olds, because they might find next saturday night's party the only relevant thing in their lives. Others think differently.

ChrisJ said...

Even sadder are those educators who believe that if Saturday's party is relevant, then that should be the subject of study!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Chris:
We are absolutely at one with you here. For many years we taught English Literature and one did feel so often like King Canute holding back the tide of mediocrity as it continued to threaten the 'classics' of our times.

It is not true that contemporary students are incapable of prolonged concentration or debate but they do have to be trained to cope since their lives are constantly being divided into 'manageable' chunks. What will become of it all, we ask so often, as Google seems to the source of all knowledge but not, we would uphold, the source of education.

P. M. Doolan said...

I think if kids were actually reading the entire novel online that would be fine. But swapping Shakepeare for graphic novels - that is a worry. The barbarians are in the garden I'm afraid.

Ciss B said...

I am one of the few in my group of friends who loves to read and that scares me. But like you and so many others I am concerned about the large group of young people out there who don't (nor do they have the attention span too stick with much of anything.).

That is frightening, but what is almost more to me is that we will lose those personal histories that have in the past been written in letters or diaries/journals, etc. I'm afraid history then will totally be written by those in control and there will be only one story....not many.

ChrisJ said...

Jane and Lance,

Exactly right about Google. All the information is there, but who has the education to connect things together by asking the right questions?

ChrisJ said...


It's shocking, but ignorance is now considered cool by many younger people.

ChrisJ said...


Agreed. It has always been harder to keep those personal stories alive; now it will be worse.

Owen Gray said...

When I taught high school, we used to teach Macbeth to "general level" students. We discovered that if -- when we reviewed the text -- we translated certain passages into modern English, the story took over.

Those witches, ghosts and gore carried the story -- and they loved the story.

ChrisJ said...


I used to find it true, also, that the story would often grab the students' attention, but something has changed in the last 5 years or so. Reading itself has become an issue.