Here is a Machen rarity. Click on the link to the late Ned Brooks’s archived first issue of It Goes on the Shelf and scroll down.
I’ll return to Machen in a moment. But first, please consider today’s habits of thought and practice in pedagogy, even at the postsecondary level. I believe that the situation sketched below is widespread.
University teaching in the humanities, it seems, is to be training in “skills” plus training in the acquisition of progressive social attitudes. An emphasis on training suits the agendas of organizations, which want a skilled workforce trained at someone else’s expense, and of activists, who want college to be largely about inculcating their values of resentment, confrontation, etc. in young people.
My university emphasizes “assessment” of student “success.” Faculty members in the various disciplines develop and adopt several program objectives. Then, for the courses in the program, they agree on several learning outcomes derived from the program objectives. No one may opt out.
Assessment of learning outcomes means that when faculty consider results of a given “activity” (such as reading a poem and writing about it), they can figure out ways to make the activity more perfectly produce student success. Professors might decide that some material in their courses is evidently too hard for students, even with study notes and lectures, and substitute easier material that is supposedly “equivalent” (!) to it. (Indoctrinated to believe that “research” into “best practices” opposes lectures, many faculty decline to give them, using “group learning” instead. It is no wonder that some course material then seems “too hard” to students.)
My colleagues seem comfortable with the bureaucratic “assessment” of “student performance” according to measurable, articulable “learning outcomes.” Evidently they accept that that is what an English professor’s work is mostly about. This sort of thing is probably what the younger ones, at least, grew up on. It’s rational, or rationalistic anyway; it’s predictable, replicable, measurable.
When I’ve questioned our institution’s strong emphasis on this managerial idea of learning, I’ve been given a polite hearing, but nothing much has come of it -- not agreement, let alone resolution to challenge the cult of assessment.
“Assessment,” then, with what it implies about the blurring of the distinction between training and the learned life, is what meets my students again and again in all of their classes. I wanted them to realize that the emphasis on measurement is questionable, especially as regards the humanities.
So I took a statement that I’d originally written for colleagues, edited it, and asked students in a course dealing with the history and structure of the English language to read it. Perhaps they did. At least they had a chance to glimpse something other than the managerial approach to English. The statement begins with Machen’s quotation from Oswald Crullius.
Poetic Knowledge in an Age of Quantification
A character in one of Arthur Machen’s stories quotes a saying: “‘In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star.’”
The saying isn’t expounded and doesn’t contribute in an obvious way to the resolution of the story’s plot, but I think that it is worth considering in terms of possible reader responses.
It will immediately impress itself on some readers as a true statement, which is not to say it is “factual.” Something true is indicated by it. It suggests something, hints at something, points at something, that is true -- even though the “soul of a star” probably doesn’t lie hidden in “every grain of wheat”; and if it does, science will never observe it. Even so, it doesn’t strike this first group of readers as a day-dreamy, sentimental, unreal notion, but as something pointing to a genuine category of real knowledge that may be called poetic knowledge. Such readers desire to possess and to cultivate whatever human faculty it is that is able to apprehend such statements as meaningful.
For a second group of readers the saying will contribute, in context, to a quality of quaint but vague charm. The saying will have aesthetic significance, but many of these readers may adhere to the common view that aesthetics and ideas of the beautiful are matters of social construction, fashion, personal taste, and so on – pleasant, perhaps, but not a matter of authentic importance except when associated with more obvious public goods such as relaxation. We all need relaxation so that we can work efficiently. Studies have measured the different outcomes between groups that relax and those that don’t. They have shown that productivity increases when workers take time to relax. So something that helps people relax, such as stopping and smelling the roses, is justifiable.
For a third group of readers the saying is nonsensical, essentially no different from a statement such as “In every carburetor the wings of a moth are calculating taxation increments.”
Other responses to the statement may be possible, and the same reader might take the quoted statement differently at different times.
I have read the story in which the saying appears many times, and it is my favorite thing in the story. If I included the story in one of my classes, I would hope that at least some of my students would belong to the first group of readers. I would not feel that it was my business to try to find out who of them did belong to that group. I would not feel it was my business to try to coax people in the second and third groups into responding to the grain/soul/star statement as people in the first group do. And I would not feel it was appropriate for me to penalize students not belonging to the first group. Yet, if I assigned the story for a class session, I might, privately, feel that the best thing that might happen to students who read the story would be a “connection” to the sentence I quoted.
It must be acknowledged that this kind of situation is nothing unusual for the Humanities.
Some of the most valuable things about literature, music, and visual art relate to poetic knowledge.*
And pressure on students to articulate “what this passage means to me” – publicly, on the spot, no less! -- seems likely to kill a student’s ability to receive this knowledge.
I don’t think it is now widely recognized at [my small four-year state university] that a university, which supposedly is interested in the whole universe of human knowledge, should not impose on all disciplines in all circumstances the same devices and methodologies. How would one design a lesson with measurable, specified, articulated outcomes that would deal with the grain/soul/star sentence? But if an elusive quality with regard to the Machen sentence be granted, then it must be granted that much of Keats’s poetry, Botticelli’s art, and Bach’s music similarly eludes the type of quantified assessment that is perfectly appropriate when it comes to establishing whether and how well students have learned how to type blood, create a spreadsheet, or solve algebraic equations.
As a professor, I constantly assess student performance. Quizzes monitor whether students have done the reading. Perhaps this is not to my credit, but I would be quite capable of having a quiz item like this: Early in the story, Jones quotes a statement: and including the grain/soul/star sentence as one of four options, hoping the students will circle the right one. Brief open-book Focus Writes also assess student performance. In this case, I might ask the students: Throughout the story, Machen’s narrator and characters in the story make paradoxical statements. In the next thirty minutes, list as many of these as you can, with page references to our text, and feel free to conclude with a brief statement giving your view of how these statements contribute to the atmosphere of the story. Longer in-class essays provide additional opportunities for assessment of student learning. But in every case, I want to leave the student untroubled by obtrusive, busybody inquiries. If the sentence, poem, story, or novel does not (as we casually say) “do much” for a given student this time, perhaps it will mean more someday, if and when the student returns to it (as has been my own experience at times). As teacher, I cannot control this; and I certainly cannot measure it.
A Humanities teacher who is chronically insensitive to the dimension of the arts that I have tried to suggest, and to students’ right to privacy with regard to the reception of that dimension, may do much harm. From such teachers (however well-meaning) may our students be preserved, until these teachers learn better the art of teaching!
*Poetic knowledge is, from the point of view of Enlightenment-based educational theory, a fugitive and unreal thing. Perhaps adherents of the Enlightenment and people like me can agree to disagree about whether there is such a thing as poetic knowledge. They think there isn’t; I think there is. So be it. Perhaps we can furthermore agree this much: response to a statement like the grain/soul/star one doesn’t lend itself to measurement. If I am a teacher who believes there’s such a thing as poetic knowledge and that it is an essential element of real liberal arts education, I should be allowed to teach thus without having to figure out silly “learning outcomes” to measure it.
Dale Nelson 22 March 2011; 19 Jan. 2015
------So far, the statement to my students.
Christopher Palmer edited The Collected Arthur Machen for Duckworth. In his introduction, Palmer recommends the educator George Sampson’s Seven Essays. I bought a used copy of the book and found that Sampson insists that the English teacher must love literature before he or she teaches it. Yes. And the teacher should teach in such a way that the students, in their turn, have the chance to come to love some, at least, of the great works.
That would work in an opposite manner to the prosaic and agenda-driven way much English teaching now is done. Today English students are taught to read with “critical lenses” (such as feminist, queer, new historicist, deconstructive, postcolonial). Thus every time students read literary works, they are injecting themselves once again with one or more of those typical modern critical theories. This process will tend to make most great literary works continue to seem distant from readers. Rather than – possibly -- becoming things loved and known, those works will usually fail to pass the tests posed by teachers and pupils who are obsessed with race, class, and “gender.” This process of unrelenting vigilance regarding the approved modern categories inculcates bad reading.
What is good reading like? I refer the reader to C. S. Lewis’s pregnant essay “On Stories” and his short book An Experiment in Criticism. These are two things that deserve to be passed secretly from hand to hand, dangerous, unnoticed by jibber-jabbering teachers.
I said, to a student who cared about literature: “You love a good book? Welcome to the underground.”
PS: A few weeks after writing this piece, I read Zena Hitz’s “Freedom and Intellectual Life” as posted online by First Things. It’s worthy of multiple readings.
© 2016 Dale Nelson