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.
Helen Vendler : The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Helen Vendler : Reading is elemental. Harvard Magazine, September-October 2011.