Helen Vendler wrote a superb and indispensible commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, deconstructing the poems’ complex and subtle verbal gymnastics and providing a guide to the unmatched mental ingenuity Shakespeare manifests. As her exegesis clearly shows, Vendler, as well as Shakespeare, is a master of verbal intelligence. However, she seems to believe that the only intelligence that is, is linguistic.
In a recent article in Harvard Magazine, Vendler presents a case for primary school education to centre around reading and words, with just a nod to mathematics. It is good that she included mathematics there somewhere, since I presume she would like her electricity network to keep humming with power, her sewers flushed, her phones connected, her air-travel crash-free, her food and drink and flowers freshly delivered, her weather forecasted, her borders defended, and her online transactions safely encrypted. None of these, in our modern, technologically-centred world, would be sure to happen if our schools produced only literati.
But 15 periods per day – 1 of mathematics and 14 for reading – and yet no time for children to draw or paint? They can look at art and discuss it (periods #7 and #10) but not do it! How revealing is THAT about Ms Vendler’s opinions of the relative importance of words and images! And no time in those 15 periods for learning or playing music, apart from group singing? The only singing allowed in her day is the “choral singing of traditional melodic song (folk songs, country songs, rounds)” ? Why should traditional melodies be so privileged? That is like saying that children should only read books written before 1900. Surely, a person so concerned with words and reading would be delighted if children engaged in rap, that most verbal and linguistically-intellectually-challenging of musics? This list of activities begins to look merely like an anti-contemporary-world tirade of the sort we have seen before.
Not only does her syllabus have an anti-modern bias, but there is also a bias against other forms of human thinking, such as drawing-as-thought, and music-as-thought. The philosopher Stephen Toulmin noted the pro-text tendency our culture has evidenced these last four centuries. While this tendency still dominates us all, we are at last seeing the rise of minority tendencies: an increasing role for film and video and image in our culture generally; the use of GUIs in devices which interact with humans; the use of graphically-oriented software development tools (so that no longer do all programmers have to be left-brained text manipulators); an attention to design in product development; and the rise – for the first time since Euclid’s geometry – of a western mathematical discipline where reasoning occurs over diagrams.
We are just at the beginning at understanding, modeling, systematizing, and using visual thinking and reasoning over diagrams, or musical and sonic reasoning. We’ve hardly started this effort for the other types of human intelligence we know about: spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. And all the non-human forms of intelligence await even recognition and discovery. What a great shame if all this rich diversity of intelligent modes of thought were to be squeezed out by a narrow school syllabus favouring just one-and-a-bit types of thinking.
Rebecca Donner : All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. Canongate Books.
Helen Vendler : The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Helen Vendler : Reading is elemental. Harvard Magazine, September-October 2011.
Postscript 1 (Added 2021-08-09):
In case of linkrot, here is an excerpt from the Harvard Magazine article by Vendler:
“In a utopian world, I would propose, for the ultimate maintenance of the humanities and all other higher learning, an elementary-school curriculum that would make every ordinary child a proficient reader by the end of the fourth grade—not to pass a test, but rather to ensure progressive expansion of awareness. Other than mathematics, the curriculum of my ideal elementary school would be wholly occupied, all day, every day, with “reading” in its very fullest sense. Let us imagine the day divided into short 20-minute “periods.” Here are 14 daily such periods of “reading,” each divisible into two 10-minute periods, or extended to a half-hour, as seems most practical to teachers in different grades. Many such periods can be spent outside, to break up the tedium of long sitting for young children. The pupils would:
1. engage in choral singing of traditional melodic song (folk songs, country songs, rounds);
2. be read to from poems and stories beyond their own current ability to read;
3. mount short plays—learning roles, rehearsing, and eventually performing;
4. march or dance to counting rhymes, poems, or music, “reading” rhythms and sentences with their bodies;
5. read aloud, chorally, to the teacher;
6. read aloud singly to the teacher, and recite memorized poems either chorally or singly;
7. notice, and describe aloud, the reproduced images of powerful works of art, with the accompanying story told by the teacher (Orpheus, the three kings at Bethlehem, etc.);
8. read silently, and retell in their own words, for discussion, the story they have read;
9. expand their vocabulary to specialized registers through walks where they would learn the names of trees, plants, flowers, and fruits;
10. visit museums of art and natural history to learn to name exotic or extinct things, or visit an orchestra to discover the names and sounds of orchestral instruments;
11. learn conjoined prefixes, suffixes, and roots as they learn new words;
12. tell stories of their own devising;
13. compose words to be sung to tunes they already know; and
14. if they are studying a foreign language, carry out these practices for it as well.
The only homework, in addition to mathematics, would be additional reading practices over the weekends (to be checked by a brief Monday discussion by students). If such a curriculum were carried out—with additional classroom support and needed modification for English-language learners or pupils in special education—I believe that by the end of the fourth grade, the majority of the class would enjoy, and do well in, reading. Then, in middle school and high school, armed with the power of easy and pleasurable reading, students could be launched not only into appropriate world literature, but also into reading age-appropriate books of history or geography or civics or science—with much better results than at present. If reading—by extensive exposure and intensive interaction—cannot be made enjoyable and easy, there is no hope for students in their later education.”
Postscript 2 (Added 2021-08-09):
Items #1 and #4 in Vendler’s list reminded me of the German Nazi Ministry of Education’s school manual, Erziehung und Unterricht in der Höheren Schule: Amtliche Ausgabe des Reichs und Preuszischen Ministeriums für Wissenschaft, Erziehung, und Volksbildung (Education and Instruction in the Higher Schools: Official Publication of the Reich and Prussian Ministry of Knowledge, Education, and National Culture) that included requirements that:
Boys of fourteen should study songs of medieval foot soldiers, modern soldier songs, marching songs. . . . Boys of sixteen are to learn military folk songs and an opera by Wagner.
Source: Donner (2021).
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