Monday, June 26, 2006

Great Books (II): Homer, Shakespeare

One of the themes of Great Books is pedagogy, which Denby struggles to describe, and – with Pride and Prejudiceto undertake. Thus, his chapter on the Odyssey begins with a teacher's rhetorical challenge:
You are all Telemachus, aren't you?
Teaching is a dirty business: how far can one wade into the swamp of compromise, before it is too late to get back? Denby's starting point reminds me of a talk by John Fleming, in which he described a student's excited reaction to Hamlet:
Oh, Hamlet is just like me – because, like, I can't decide what to major in, either.
Have you driven your girlfriend to suicide? Coldly arranged the execution of two childhood friends? Perhaps Hamlet is not quite so much like you – for which we give thanks. Ditto for Telemachus.

Denby is eloquent about the "unreachably alien" in Homer: the shock of Achilles' speech of refusal in the Iliad, and of Odysseus' bloody return. It would be perverse to confine these books to what is already in oneself – the opposite of reading well. But you can see the temptation. (Denby succumbs to it at length only once, when his mother turns out to be a synthesis of Lear and Oedipus; more briefly, Denby himself is Faust and Elizabeth Bennet.)

I assume that his professor was actually very good: successful teaching is hard to represent. Thus, the suggestion that Hamlet is "just like you" was offered as a moment of pedagogical brilliance in NBC's dismal new sit-com, Teachers. And I still cringe to recall the "philosophy class" that opens The Life of David Gale.

Has skilful pedagogy never reached the screen? It has, in documentaries. If you get a chance some time, watch a tape of C. Roland Christensen, his gestures drawing thoughts from mouths like exhaled mist, almost involuntary. (An old jedi mind trick.) Even then, I'm not sure how much one can imitate. Teachers are performers, with their distinctive masks and styles; not everything is adaptable. And teaching is specialized. Although it may seem otherwise, there is no irony in watching the best of teachers teaching badly how to teach.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My best teacher, the late Malcolm Rennie, was crippled with arthritis when I took his advanced logic course (although he was still only in his 30s). He shuffled slowly into the lecture room, sat very still at the front of the class, and was in great pain throughout. In the days before powerpoint, he wrote nothing on the blackboard, he used no overhead slides, and referred to no handouts. For an entire hour, three times a week, he moved only his mouth, his eyes and his eyebrows.

I was riveted! These were the most enthralling lectures I had ever had, and they remain so.

11:21 AM  

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