Saturday, April 27, 2024

Bemoan, bemoan, bemoan

My Facebook feed has been cluttered this week with people posting this remark attributed to the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high schools to teaching Remedial English in college."

Let's unpack some of what is in this. 

First, a century ago, many fewer young people went to college at all, and they usually came from schools with curriculum designed to prepare for a college education.  And, mind you, even then, scholarship was not necessarily pronounced. In the Ivy League colleges, the "gentleman's C" was entirely satisfactory, because valuable connections and networking easily compensated for a mediocre education.  

It is a mistake to equate the students of that era with the great surge after the Second World War of students seeking college educations for the first time in their families, a much wider range of students coming from public schools generally rather than selective academies. So this "gone from teaching" oversimplification ignores complex social and educational developments of the past seventy years. It is less an analysis than a slogan, a sneer at current students that overlooks the possibility that they might be at school to learn something.*

But at bottom the Sobran complaint is the tired conservative trope, repeated generation from generation, that there was a time in the past when people were smarter and more capable, compared to the degenerate present. Cicero complained that people were no longer speaking good Latin. Egbert of Liege bemoaned that "scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before" in the eleventh century. Jonathan Swift wrote in 1712 that people had so corrupted the English language that the Crown should establish an academy to regulate it. It was always better in the past, for those of us who recall it. 

Posting the Sobran sneer does not make one a brave voice crying in the wilderness. It is rather, and merely, a badge of smugness. 

*Perhaps it is worth saying that when I graduated from a public high school in Appalachia in 1969 (having in fact have taken two years of Latin), I was competent to write at the high school level. I had to learn, at college, how to write at the college level. I assumed that that was what it was for.