by John S. Reist
John S. Reist is Professor of Christianity and Literature at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Hillsdale, which is mentioned several times in the foregoing report, has distinguished itself by consistently refusing to yield to the postmodern wave. Professor Reist explains, in his essay, how the teaching of language and literature at Hillsdale College differs from the teaching of language and literature in the postmodern university.
A liberal arts education can be resolved, philosophically and pedagogically, into two fundamental elements, memory and expectation.
By memory, I mean the recall, address, presentation and appropriation of our Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian tradition which has properly endured as the continuing basis of higher education. It is Western Civilization’s tradition—in mathematics, art, music, natural sciences, language, religion, and philosophy—which we transmit in the present and so bequeath to the future, which characterizes liberal education.
By expectation, I mean the positive and productive attitude toward the future—a future which not only comes to us, but which we approach and create through the critical habit of mind, through the values that we inherit, and through the professional orientation, career guidance, and technological training which a modern college provides for students. As an example of the future that comes to us, I would mention the multicultural world which challenges us; as an example of the future that we create, I would mention those programs that we adopt to inform and enable students to learn of various ethnic groups—their values, history, productivity, needs, and potential.
It is our tradition that provides the energizing source and firm foundation which in turn produce a trajectory that impels and compels liberally educated men and women into the future—a future of material prosperity for all, ecological responsibility from all, moral accountability in all, and social compassion for all.
Memory and expectation—as Søren Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forward but is understood backward. A proper look backward to our cultural inheritance prevents it from becoming burdensome baggage; instead the tradition provides a trajectory that moves us and challenges us to “live forward” toward moral achievement, career attainment, religious wisdom, and social sensibility.
Such a tradition contains within itself the sensibility and tools of self analysis and critique; thus, the canon is not closed but is shaped by cultural understanding and awareness that makes possible the inclusion of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Herman Melville (who had been ignored until the 1920s) and the acceptance of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, new lights whose critique of the tradition is made possible by the tradition itself, while such momentary and lesser lights as Edward Young and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are eventually dropped.
At Hillsdale College we focus initially, but not only initially, on the text, for we believe that
Gender is no substitute for Genre;
Politicization is no substitute for plot;
Social engineering is no substitute for setting;
Diversity is no substitute for drama;
Rap is no substitute for rhetoric;
Awareness of self is no substitute for skill in aesthetics.
The categories on the left in the sentences immediately above are important, legitimate, and unavoidable; but they ought not to be taught instead of literature, nor should literature be used to teach them propagandistically, ideologically, or surreptitiously. We teach literature as a specific literary effort and achievement of the author; and then all the rest will come ‘round—either through the literature so taught or from other disciplines and institutions such as the family, the church, the YMCA, the YWCA, the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the counseling services, and other like organization which do what the study of literature should never be employed to do: build a global society, increase student self-esteem, boost a student’s social identity, or simply provide an occasion for friendly and casual mixing. Still less should literature be hijacked to promote relativism under the mask of tolerance or divert students’ attention from Western literature and culture by cluttering the curriculum with “other cultures” to such a degree that few students know when the Civil War was fought or why—let alone what an epic, a lyric, an anapest, or a novel is. A traditionalist in these matters necessarily believes that
Literature is not merely shared—it is taught and learned;
Journaling is not learning—it is merely untrammeled self-expression;
Politics is not poetry;
Theology is not theater;
Morality is not mimesis.
The traditionalist believes that the student, critic, or reader is the servant, not the creator of the text. The traditionalist understands (and reminds his or her students) that every one comes to the text with a pre-understanding, or self-understanding, or convictions, or whatever else is bound up in the reader’s personal history. Nonetheless, the traditionalist teaches that there is a text to be addressed and which addresses the student and it is this text that is accepted and taught and evaluated, not merely shaped or distorted or created and thus abused by the student. The traditionalist believes that deconstructionists are living on borrowed capital and we want to know what it is that they are referring to when they say there is no text there.
Therefore, we teach that literature should be understood in the following three ways:
A. Intrinsically—What is the object before me? Can I describe it? What are its parts and how are they arranged and toward what end? What, if anything, does such a composition of parts (the aesthetic whole) achieve?
B. Referentially—From what era of history does the text come? From what geographical context? From what social, economic, political, or religious background? Is this text only a mirror which reflects the culture uncritically, or is it also a lamp that enlightens the culture from which it comes, which uncritically reveals the dark as well as the bright places? Does it do the same for current culture? For me? Is this text mere imaginative fiction with no reference at all to its external world, or is it a tissue of intertextuality, or does it refer to the world of beef and ale that we all otherwise know?
C. Ultimate—Only after the student addresses A and B is he prepared to appropriate the work personally. What ultimately, or personally, do I do or how should I change in thinking or in action?
The latter “ultimate” category leads to the second part of our English program at Hillsdale—writing, since writing is the way by which the student develops his own understanding of the world.
Writing is required, at Hillsdale, in English 101-102, Freshman Rhetoric and The Great Books, which are mandatory for all students. These courses combine a study of the master works of Western civilization with a writing component of five essays equal in worth in grading; the essays address the Great Books. These essays make the student familiar with such rhetorical modes as comparison and contrast, induction and deduction, narrative, process analysis, and description. Students must master these techniques as well as acquire a conscious understanding of English grammar and syntax, for we believe that fundamental grammar and syntax are not merely relative to slang or dialect, but express and define the culture in which such discourse is required. Students must document and debate in these papers, so that their personal opinions might be elevated to the level of knowledge and conviction. Many of our professors permit students to revise papers. When students finish 101 and 102, we intend that they be able to state a thesis carefully, organize their argument in coherent paragraphs of progressing order, document accurately and completely, and begin to develop a personal style.
In the English major and the American Studies major, students write appropriate papers and examinations at higher levels of discourse, and the major is completed with a thesis of not less than twenty pages, written during the senior English seminar, that addresses an important theme or aspect of literature; for example, Literature and Theodicy, or Literature and Landscape. The student must demonstrate his mastery of grammar, his ability in rhetoric, his skill in research, and his capacity to argue deductively and inductively. Professors give significant amounts of time and personal attention to each student’s development—whether at the 100 course level or the 500 course level.
Our purpose is not to impose gender preference, or political orientation, or religious convictions, or atheism, or economic requirements; rather, we wish to develop students who personally understand human existence through a study of narrative, drama, epic, essay, lyric and other literary techniques employed by the great writers of our tradition who have shaped us. We also wish to graduate students who can spell, recite, read, write, and debate. Through such memory of the great tradition and by teaching students critical thinking and written discourse, we hope to provide society with students from whom we all can expect great things.