Lying about the Wolf:
Essays in Culture & Education

327 pages,
ISBN: 0773515356

Post Your Opinion
by William Mathie

I read David Solway's book of essays and addresses, and pondered this review, as I began to grade the year's first essay assignments in my second-year university course. I had asked my students to outline and assess the argument contained in a few pages of a Platonic dialogue. Could I doubt that what I saw in some of those papers-not all, or most, but a significant minority of them-was just what Solway described so well? What was remarkable in those essays was not that their writers had often chosen the wrong word for what they meant. Or written "their" for "there". Or abandoned the apostrophe altogether. Or failed to secure agreement between subject and predicate. Or allowed their sentences to "run on" and on. Or dropped one construction for another in mid-sentence. To be sure these and similar mistakes abounded. What was more alarming was my students' failure to make any sense at all of the text before them, or to reproduce the argument in it. I found in these papers "heaps of words" loosely derived from the text but standing in no coherent relation to the other "heaps of words" on the same page or even in the same sentence.
I remember once trying to explain to a student why what she had written was incomprehensible to me and would be the same for any other reader I could imagine. "Yes, yes," my student replied impatiently, "I know the essay is not well written but what about my ideas? What did you think about my ideas?" My student imagined that she could form ideas and think about the issues posed by a text, in some way that could be detached from her ability to state what she was thinking. If I were smart enough, she implied, or could free myself from my professorial prejudices, I would be able to appreciate what she had thought or felt and reply to it. She was ready to admit that if she were a little more energetic she could take an essay writing course or a remedial grammar course and overcome the obstacles put in her path by pedants like me, but in the meantime she thought that I might at least try to see what lay beyond the grammatical failings that seemed to preoccupy me. Though most of us know that my student's view is nonsense, most of the time we proceed-individually and institutionally-as if we thought it true. For good and bad reasons, we (in Solway's phrase) "lie about the wolf".
But should we thank Solway for helping us see what is wrong with much of the writing we must assess, at the cost of showing that what is wrong with it is beyond any repair we can provide? Should we thank him for demonstrating the futility of the remedies proposed by those few who acknowledge the existence of the problem we confront? Can we tolerate, much less praise, a book that seems to suggest that the best thing we can do for the minority of students in our classes who are educable is to keep out the many more who are not? Can a book that argues this be tolerated by a democratic society, much less by a professoriat whose commitment to equality-or self-interest-leads it to demand ever wider accessibility to the university? Knowing that the scant attention given to teaching in contrast to research productivity by university committees on tenure and promotion rarely goes any further than a glance at the quantified measures of student approval provided by course evaluations, who dares even consider Solway's observation that real learning must always be painful? Who dares assess student performance as it ought to be assessed if Solway is right? ("They're going to hate you, Dad, if you tell them that," said my sixteen-year-old son as I described to him some of the terrible reading and writing problems in a recent batch of essays.) Nor-if charm is that quality in a writer that leads us to accept his conclusions before we have listened to his argument-can we even call Solway charming. Whether because he is an incorrigible punster and wordsmith or because he means as a writer to practise the painful pedagogy he preaches, Solway seems to have irritated even his friendliest reviewers. Why then commend his book?
The film critic Pauline Kael once argued the impossibility of substituting cinematic theory for the task she and other critics performed in the exercise of judgement carried out in the analysis of specific films-there was, she argued, no "cure for film criticism". One could attribute a similar position to Solway and those writers about teaching and learning with whom he associates himself. Those writers agree that no account of pedagogical methodology can contribute much if anything to the work of learning and teaching. The good teacher does not need it. And the bad teacher will not be helped by it.
Nor will students who cannot write essays become able to do so by taking remedial courses that claim to furnish them with the grammatical skills they lack or make them capable essay writers by teaching them the mechanics of essay writing. Students will not become successful essay writers by being told that their first paragraph should begin with a thesis statement and end with a "funnel sentence", that each subsequent paragraph should develop their theme, that their penultimate paragraph should assemble their major points and "shoehorn" them into a concluding paragraph that restates the thesis now confirmed. There is no one form to which all effective essay writing conforms, and no way in which any prescribed form can substitute for substantial content or for that "implicit sense gained over time of the logical relations that obtain between ideas.which grammar and syntax materially reflect."
As for remedial grammar, its advocates rightly insist that a student cannot tackle Shakespeare until he can parse and construct a coherent sentence but they wrongly suppose he will want, and be able, to do so once we have repaired his syntactical equipment. Such courses try to teach a radically condensed version of what ought to have been learned and can only be learned in the course of a lengthy intellectual development that begins in early childhood for those whose homes favour serious reading and the sort of conversation that is associated with reading. What makes this quick fix seem possible is, once more, the illusion that grammar is separable from understanding, and writing from reading. Its futility arises out of its failure to recognize that it is only in and through language that we articulate the world and our selves. We are led to grasp at this false hope by the bleakness of the alternative. (One of Solway's most persistent critics has been a prominent faculty unionist.)
Solway's argument conforms more or less to the traditional understanding of university teachers, be they historians, or biologists, or philosophers. It was history or biology or philosophy that most of us studied as undergraduates and again at graduate school. We did not devote much explicit or implicit effort to our preparation as teachers. If we served as teaching assistants, this experience was hardly an apprenticeship designed to develop our skills as teachers of history or biology or philosophy under the tutelage of an experienced teacher. If our universities now devote a tiny share of their resources to an office of "instructional development", few of us have found, or expect to find, any very important help from this office. Similarly, we generally agree that writing skills should be developed across the curriculum. Only when confronted with the most severe writing failures do we send students to get help from the essay writing clinic and even then not so much to solve the problem as to remove it from our desk. Solway supplies new reasons for some of our old prejudices: there is no simple or mechanical solution for our problems in either clinic. But he does much more than show us this. The problems we face as teachers (constituted in large part by the problems our students face as learners) are hard, so hard in fact that they are likely to tempt us to adopt false solutions-if not the snake oil of a false mechanical remedy, then one or another form of what Solway calls "teaching down". We "teach down" when we concern ourselves with the "retention rate" and mean by this not the extent to which students retain the skills and contents they have learned in our classes, but our success in retaining them in our classrooms. We "teach down" when we heed advice such as this warning of a colleague of mine: that we cannot hope to teach many of our students to read and write, but can only teach them how to select classes where their inability will not hinder their success.
Solway is at his best when he diagnoses or unveils the several ways in which we are likely to "teach down", and when he sets out a model of "learning-centred" teaching. The good teacher is one whose classroom is made up of teacher as addressor, student as addressee, and some text or author or disciplinary tradition as what Solway calls a "superaddressee". Learning becomes a collaborative activity through which students both learn the explicit subject-matter and learn how to learn only when they are induced to sense or imagine and thus respect this "invisible third". Good teaching does not occur when we presuppose that perfect equality of teacher and learner exemplified by Mortimer Adler's model of paideia but when we aim, rather, for a friendship of unequals between learner and teacher, within which the teacher embodies "respect for as well as the presence of the cultural authority without which the learner cannot experience that combination of delight and deference on which all genuine learning depends." The good teacher is a "role model" not because he resembles the students in his classroom but because he "reproduces his own appropriation of the ideas on which he is lecturing, their integration into his own outlook." The good teacher draws his students from the peak of their present level of skill and understanding to ever higher levels of learning. Finally, what identifies good teaching is the lesson of common sense: "Good learning is founded on the education of desire to a far greater extent than it is on the refinement or manipulation of `thinking strategies'."
Solway has reflected long and hard about his experience as a teacher of English literature at John Abbott College in Montreal. He has attended closely to what his students say and write and he has drawn upon a large and varied literature-the writings of educators and educational reformers, students of linguistics, and postmodern philosophers-in order to understand and assess what he has heard and read. He has tested his own experience in the classroom and that scholarship against his own considerable if uncommon good sense. Above all, when the self-interest of teachers and students have conspired to invent a conventional wisdom that hides unhappy truths, he has been ready to question that wisdom. For this, we ought to be grateful.
But Solway's reflections are not solely intended to admonish teachers. As his subtitle tells us, his subject is "culture and education" and one could go as far as to say that the problem we confront in the classroom is not so much the consequence of incompetent or misguided teaching as of homes and families that do not promote reading, writing, serious conversation, and a love for the things of the mind. Given this failure to promote the love and capacity for learning in its early stages, "teaching down" becomes the likely if not quite inevitable consequence of the democratic commitment to accessibility, aggravated by government policies on the right and left that share that commitment. As citizens of a democracy we may be led by Solway to ask ourselves whether and how our love of equality can be reconciled with the preservation of institutions of anything we can plausibly call "higher learning". As teachers in a democratic society we must see-with Solway's help-that "learning up" is the only way we can remain true to our calling and serve the real interests of the best and worst students in our classes.

 William Mathie is an associate professor of politics, and the director of the Great Books/Liberal Studies Program, at Brock University.


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