Because I teach (among other things) early British literature, I find I have to spend more time on background than on the literature itself. It isn’t just the detail stuff you might expect either — there’s a profound deficit of Hirsch’s cultural literacy, coupled with a disinterest in remedying that deficit that extends to ignoring the glosses and footnotes. This means that much of the time, not only are the kids unexposed to the literature in question, but they literally can’t see its purpose. Not only do they not get the jokes, they don’t even recognize when a joke is taking place, because all they’re hearing are conjunctions connecting words without referents. The texts — poems, plays, ideas given shape and weight — become the worst possible Dennis Miller routines.
But because there’s no situation that academia can’t make even more absurd, we’ve seen a rise in calls for what have been dubbed “21st Century Skills“, in which content is essentially fungible and what is emphasized is a mishmash of alleged “critical thinking” and life skills. I see this as a weird bastardization of Newman’s ideas of the liberal arts, claiming their flexibility without really anchoring the work in anything. The theory seems to be that because technology offers fast retrieval of content, what we really need is some sort of meta-educational process and let the content take care of itself (or let wiki and Google do it for you.)
The good news is that over at Chicago Boyz, David Foster demonstrates that the application of this theory is bunk. He uses a pretty unremarkable couplet from Jakob Dylan and spells out the “content knowledge” that is required to understand even those two lines. Again, this isn’t Finnegan’s Wake we’re discussing here.
Critical thinking requires some foundation of information. Unfortunately, those who would claim to teach that critical thinking seem only too willing to abdicate the responsibility for making sure the foundation is in place. What remains is an edifice like Spenser’s House of Pride, which itself is described in literary and Biblical allusion. And like the House of Pride, a world filled with content-free “educated people” is not a place you’ll want to stay.