We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Georgia born-and-raised, and CT resident Flannery O'Connor died of lupus at 39 in 1964.
A collection of her occasional pieces, Mystery and Manners, was assembled by her friend the translator and poet Robert Fitzgerald. In that collection is a gem of an essay, "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade."
In my teaching days, no single document shaped my thinking as much as Flannery O'Connor's 1963 essay called "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade." It concerned neither guns nor violence, neither cliques nor experimental approaches to the treatment of adolescent depression. It was about . . . books. In defending the teaching of the great works of the Western canon rather than those of the modern day (which kids far preferred), she said something wise, the sort of thing an adult might say. She said that the whims and preferences of children should always, always be sublimated to the sense and judgment of their elders. "And what if the student finds this is not to his taste?" O'Connor asked. "Well that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."
In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.
No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane [we can quibble with the names; I certainly quibble with Cooper’s inclusion], and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable.
The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.
And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.