Lecture criticizes American education

Heather L. Mueller

A lecturer who encourages students to stop thinking critically and instead be awed by literature and art will speak tonight on campus.

Anthony Esolen, literature professor at Providence College in Providence, R.I., will present “Shakespeare’s Tempest and the Miseducation of American Youth” at 7 p.m. in Nolte Hall. Esolen’s lecture is sponsored by the Christian-based MacLaurin Institute and is hosted by the Mars Hill student organization and the Tocqueville Center.

Esolen said his main debate is that the structure of American education is eliminating what Aristotle called “wonder” in students from grade school through college.

“The idea springs from Aristotle’s famous saying that the beginning of the love of wisdom, or the beginning of philosophy, is wonder,” he said.

Esolen compares wonder to awe, and said it is a rationally based emotion.

“It’s an emotion that is spurred by the sudden, often unexpected, experience of something transcendently good or holy or beautiful, something grand,” he said.

Esolen said the sense of discovery that comes from wonder is being ignored by the current educational system that teaches only the context of art and doesn’t appreciate art for its “magnificence.”

James Countryman, a University English professor, said context needs to be taught in conjunction with reverence for wonder.

“In the 21st century, we have a lot of science that will predict results. Consequently, we should make use of this contextuality,” he said.

Countryman said context should act as a framework, but imagination still needs to be applied.

Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is one example of the way in which wonder is being debunked, Esolen said.

For teachers to instruct children to analyze “what kind of culture produced (Tom Sawyer) and what can we say about slavery in the Midwest in this work” is dismissing what makes the book grand, he said.

“You reduce the experience of reading this novel to either drudgery or narcissism,” he said. “You miss the heroic entirely. The easiest way to destroy a work of literature is to reduce it to political concerns.”

Esolen said the wonder of art also is being suppressed. For example, he said taking a group of students to the Sistine Chapel and asking them about Michelangelo’s treatment of women would be “entirely irrelevant to the transcendent experience of seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time.”

Art history professor Frank Asher said teaching art requires getting students to think critically about the work’s context.

“What do we do then, let’s say, when we’re dealing with a distant culture such as the art of India?” he said. “How in the hell is an American undergraduate supposed to have the foggiest idea of what she’s reading or what it’s about without the context? That assumes there is a universal response to beauty.”

Asher said a liberal arts education is all about being critical and teaching students to be informed art critics.

“I don’t think it’s conceivable to think about works without understanding something about their context,” he said.

There is no need to demystify and trivialize art or literature through context, Esolen said.

“Unless you have a capacity for wonder, for honoring what is truly beyond us Ö then you have no business reading that work and it would be better – infinitely better – if you didn’t have your students read it,” he said, because they wouldn’t have “any of the scorching habits of smirking and debunking that they pick up in school.”

Esolen said research is not involved in his theory. “This is just years of personal experience,” he said.

Esolen said he thinks there is no way to stop debunking wonder.

“It’s too engrained,” he said. “It basically determines the whole experience of the student. More often than not it’s not done with any political aim; it’s simply done because of inertia, habit – it’s easier.

“I don’t even know that the people involved quite know the damage they’re doing. I don’t see any way out of it.”