The Kindergarchy

As long as those pesky neighborhood kids stay off of Joseph Epstein’s lawn, the rest of us can read his Weekly Standard essay about the generation gap in education. I went to a Catholic high school, where I figured out that the whole point of requiring uniforms and “Yes, Sister… No, Sister” was to give the kids something concrete but harmless on which to focus their rebellious energy.  I could come to school in mismatched socks and a garish tie, and nowhere in the student manual did it say I was doing anything illegal.

I always pictured the sisters snickering behind their office doors. “Young Jerz thinks he’s hot stuff because he managed to get ahold of a stack of signed hall passes.” (I used them to get out of class so that I could work on the sets for the theater productions, but of course the teachers wouldn’t have let me out of class if they thought I would cause trouble or fall behind.)

Epstein makes a good point about the role of feelings in literary analysis. I always cringe when a student dismisses a text because “It didn’t hold my interest.”  (Bad book! How dare you challenge my world view or create an occasion to reflect on something outside my personal interests?)  Since Seton Hill University markets itself as a caring place, and I chose to work at an institution that would reward me for expressing a personal interest in my students, Epstein would probably see me as part of the problem that he’s identifying here.

What do you think… does he go too far? Am I defending the coddled millennials because I identify more with them than I do with Epstein’s generation?

The most impressive students I had over my 30 years of university teaching were those I encountered when I first began, in the early 1970s, who almost all turned out to have been put through Catholic schools, during a time when priests and nuns still taught and Catholic education hadn’t become indistinguishable from secular education. Many of these kids resented what they felt was the excessive constraint, with an element of fear added, of their education. Most failed to realize that it was this very constraint–and maybe a touch of the fear, too–that forced them to learn Latin, to acquire and understand grammar, to pick up the rudiments of arguing well, that had made them as smart as they were.

So often in my literature classes students told me what they “felt” about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to–but did not–write: “D-, Too much love in the home.” I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement.