Friday, March 5, 2010

Dear Flavia:

During the video in the previous post the speaker mentions how he recently taught a course on Paradise Lost and argued that the book is about Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. Half the class had no idea what he was talking about. (You can jump to minute 42 or so in the video to see it for yourself.)

My question for you is two-fold. First, do you see this level of astonishing ignorance of basic biblical stories? Second, if you do see it, then how do you go about teaching Milton? Or Shakespeare? Or anything from the Renaissance for that matter?


PS. Everybody else should feel free to weigh in as well.


Withywindle said...

No one knows the Bible at all, save for (to some extent) the handful of evangelical Protestants. It's one reason why I say the survival of Western Civilization depends upon the evangelicals.

Flavia said...

I suspect part of the problem is the term "fall of man." Most people have still heard of Adam and Eve and the tree and all that, but that doesn't mean they understand the larger philosophical/theological implications of the story.

But yes: I'm often surprised by the degree of biblical ignorance of my students--and that includes, sadly, quite a lot of self-identified Christians. At my current institution I'm lucky in having a colleague who has dual degrees in biblical and Classical studies (and who, in addition to being one of my hands-down smartest colleagues, is also a challenging and very popular teacher). This means I'm often pleasantly surprised to find that 20% of a given class already knows, say, the story of Procne and Philomela, or has an opinion about the morality of Samson's actions.

But there are a couple of ways of looking at popular ignorance of the Bible and the classics. The first and most obvious response is to wring one's hands and despair. The second is to see it as an opportunity. I'm still shocked by the number of students who tell me that one thing they really like about Paradise Lost is that they now "know more about Christianity"--and this is always after I've gone over all the ways in which Milton is a tremendously idiosyncratic, not to say heretical Christian. But students really do love Paradise Lost, and its narrative and poetic delights can make some of them much more interested in learning about the texts that it depends upon.

And the thing is, if you teach an early- or pre-modern period, you have to assume that students simply don't have much background in the material, no matter what cultural capital they come into the classroom with. My Anglo-Saxonist colleague? NEVER has students who know anything about the period or its language(s), and the case would be much the same if he taught at Princeton. And knowing the Bible really well doesn't mean you're adequately prepared for Milton, or even a Bible-as-lit class (knowing the stories helps, sure, but plenty of students who know their Bibles inside out take a long while to accept and adapt to the norms of textual, historical, and archeological scholarship, even if they're not actively challenging those standards).

So, hand-wringing may sometimes be called for, but I prefer to focus on the fact that so many of my students are excited to study things they haven't yet encountered.

Withywindle said...

"Despair" does seem to me the proper reaction. But then, my students were never particularly giddy when I assigned them Luke and Acts in Western Civ. And even if they had been--I should be happy because I've introduced a basic knowledge of the Bible to college students? Every little bit helps, I suppose, but one must weep. The relevant epic is not Milton's:

See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

(I can be more cheerful about all this; just not this morning.)

FLG said...


Points taken. However, I question this:
"And knowing the Bible really well doesn't mean you're adequately prepared for Milton, or even a Bible-as-lit class (knowing the stories helps, sure, but plenty of students who know their Bibles inside out take a long while to accept and adapt to the norms of textual, historical, and archeological scholarship, even if they're not actively challenging those standards)."

If an author refers to Romulus and Remus or, your example, Procne and Philomela, I might not understand every nuance imparted to the story within their milieu, but I'm in the same ballpark.

Now, I'd argue that the Fall of Man is so fundamental to the Judeo-Christian tradition that it's several orders of magnitude more important than almost every other biblical story.

Not knowing the story of Job is deeply unfortunate, but not tragic. On the other hand, not knowing at least a part of the philosophical/theological implications of the Fall is tragic.

Flavia said...

Well, okay, it's tragic: but what's your proposed remedy?

That's my problem with hand-wringing, and as a teacher I do think it's more productive to think about what I can do (and I can't do anything about what students learn or don't learn in high school or at home). I'm also not convinced that what an 18-year-old doesn't know is tragic, though what a 30-year-old doesn't surely is.

My greater concern--and it's a real concern--is with a lack of intellectual curiosity. If you're intellectually curious, you'll pick up on what you need to pick up, and you'll have the tools to ask for guidance. I actually do have students saying, after they've encountered a work enough times in the footnotes, "So hey: The Metamorphoses. Is that something I'd be able to read on my own?"

So, intellectual curiosity is key, but the other part of the equation, which I alluded to in my first response, is that college humanities departments ABSOLUTELY NEED to have specialists from a range of fields, and to have distribution requirements that force students to encounter the periods they might not otherwise study. My department of 19 or 20 has four pre- or early modernists (and we're all young). We have well-articulated period distribution requirements that mean all our majors have to engage with earlier English literature in a serious way, and at least half study biblical and/or classical literature directly.

My previous institution, by contrast, was much, much bigger, but they had exactly 2 early modernists, both Renaissance specialists (one of them quite aged). They hadn't had a medievalist for years, and to my knowledge still don't have one. Students who arrive there not knowing the classics are much less likely to leave knowing them, or having the tools or inclination to seek them out on their own.

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