July 03, 2007

Plus Ça Râle...

Arnold's reminder of the long history of complaints about the educational neglect of grammar put me in mind of the parallel history of indignation over the replacement of canonical texts with fashionable fluff, as witness this passage from the 1915 Essentials of English Speech, by the lexicographer and critic Frank Vizetelly:

As these pages are passing through the press, the subject of the school course in English is again receiving the attention of educators. There is a tendency, in certain parts of the country, to modernize the curriculum, and in one of our central States some of the changes proposed include such a radical substitution as the study of "Cabbages and Kings" for that of "Paradise Lost"; that is to say, the writings of the late Sydney Porter, better known by the pseudonym "O. Henry," are to take the place of those of Milton.

The President's addresses to Congress are to be studied in preference to the works of Shakespeare, but while Shakespeare's writings will still be used sparingly (for which one may be excused for offering a prayer of thanks), the monotony of applying the mind to the Bard of Avon's exquisite work is to be relieved by studying the writings of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde! In fine, it is declared that the worth of the English classics is a negligible quantity--teachers, we are told, are "killing the love of literature by forcing on pupils too much Carlyle, Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens." As a further excuse for the substitutions suggested, it is pointed out that the great English poets and masters of literature did not write or speak in the vernacular of the present day....

These proposals imply a morbid abhorrence for the study of the accepted standards of beauty and expression and of form so trying to the patience that one is driven to ask whether it is not the teachers of English rather than the well of good English that has run dry. As the editor of an evening paper recently remarked, "To insist on diluting Shakespeare with Bernard Shaw does, indeed, indicate a certain futility of mental process which does not command respect." It may be pointed out that in regard to forms of speech the present usage of society as a whole--with its jargon and its conventionally imposed bad grammar and vicious syntax--is not more authoritative than the illiterate or obsolescent phrases of past generations.

Since then, of course, the "modernization" that critics deplore has acquired a new prefix post-, but otherwise the timbre of the keening hasn't much changed. Then as now, the well of English is perceived to have run dry (that is, if a well can be said to "run dry" in the first place) a generation earlier -- a constant since the age of Pope. Yet over the long run, it all sorts itself out, doesn't it? Shaw is comfortably canonical now, while O. Henry is a quaint curiosity (destined to be the respective fates, you have the feeling, of Toni Morrison and Rita Dove). Shakespeare and Dickens are still holding their ground, and Jane Austen is an industry. And if some people may feel a bit wistful about Scott, does anybody really miss Carlyle?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at July 3, 2007 03:54 PM