“DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?”: TEACHING THE HUMANITIES

BY JAMES F O’NEIL

“To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know and to have the courage not to be tempted beyond that limit.  [ . . . culture] teaches that there is much one does not want to know.”  –Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) in The Ideal of Culture by Joseph Epstein (Axios 2018)

English philosopher and political theorist, Michael Oakeshott wrote about philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, and aesthetics; philosophy of education and philosophy of law.  He was Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, and was a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.  He was the author of many works, including Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, On History and Other Essays, and The Voice of Liberal Learning.

Some of my high school classmates and I in the past year had an opportunity to comment upon what we thought of our education, curriculum, and teachers.  The results were overwhelmingly positive towards our liberal arts education and the courses we were enrolled in.  My transcript reads like a medieval or Renaissance Trivium or Quadrivium Liberal Arts Program: grammar, logic, rhetoric; and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (well, not much astronomy).

Now when I look back, our Liberal Arts curriculum was, to some extent, “lofty,” compared with that of students in other schools (like Lane Tech in Chicago)–those studying “practical arts”–or studying architecture.  (Some might have been attending private schools for pre-med, heavy on science and medicine.)

After four years, then, I graduated with a transcript heavily loaded with Latin, Greek, writing, reading, some science, history, music.  Some faculty believed that our course of study would have as an end purpose to “create” “cultured gentlemen.”  Some of my classmates, remembering these days and years, 1955-1959, more than fifty years ago, agree with their feeling of being “cultured.”

“To be cultured ideal of cultureimplies a certain roundedness of knowledge and interests . . . [yet] no one is fully rounded . . . fully cultured . . . and . . . culture, itself, remains an ideal . . . still worth pursuing. A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy . . . of greatness.  The cultured . . . insofar as possible, restrict themselves to knowing what is genuinely worth knowing.”  — Joseph Epstein, The Ideal of Culture

 

 

And what, at the end of four years of high school, did I have?  What did I receive, what could I do?  For one, I was self-taught in many areas: I did not know how to type (I still have not yet mastered a keyboard!), and had to teach myself.  I never learned in a classroom how to fix my lawnmower, but did install a carburetor on my ’54 Ford, and a water pump and generator on my ’57 Olds “Love Buggy.”  I had Chilton’s to help me there; reading was essential, and following directions required.

chilton's 1954-1963

CHILTON’S AUTO REPAIR MANUAL

I never played football (no football team), was a horrible basketball player (I did dribble and drool, however, from time to time); a little swimming, running, and gymnastics from gym class.  Some wrestling (heavyweight).

Nevertheless, I was able to read and speak some German; translate Cicero and Horace and some other Latin literature; and read Plato, Homer, St. Paul, and other Christian writers in Greek.  (So much of that now is “Lost in translation”: I cannot do it.)  I belonged to a Book Club, and read from a list of Summer Reading each year (complete with Book Reports submitted).  (Is there a magic list of books out there that guarantees “cultural literacy”?)  And read [“red”] and read [“red”] and wrote.

I remember so admiring some of my teachers, my favorites, as “cultured gentlemen.”  How did they know so much?  Be so smart?  Teach music, then Greek?  Play the piano, and read and teach and speak Latin?  Such talents.  Teach us writing skills in one class, German conversation in another.  Religion and Spirituality (Catholic school) in one class, then English composition in another.  Some were my models, my heroes, and one or two my “saints” who let goodness and worth and value shine through.  And then it was over. Graduation.

“Off we go!”  No military service.  Into college I went: liberal arts: English major, philosophy and education minors: 143 credit hours.  More “liberal education” (I’m known in the Alumni Directory as “James F. O’Neil BA, LAS ’64”: Liberal Arts and Sciences.)  Then after a few part-time jobs while I was “finding myself,” a full-time teaching job in a boys’ high school, English, of course.  Then a few years later (after my MA ’66), teaching English as a career in college settings: Am Lit I, Comp 101 (never the Romantics; no one wanted Milton and the Eighteenth Century: “I’ll do it.”). Maybe after a few years, nearing tenure, a course in Contemporary Novel.  After a while, I moved on . . .

After years in a community college position, getting quite adept at teaching technical writing to nursing students, police officers, business majors, and others in Associate in Science programs, I got a call to “come up to the majors.”

“Do you have what it takes?” asked one.  “It will require much preparation,” another cautioned.  “You seem to be qualified from your credentials and your experience,” the Dean remarked.  “We could use you this next term while Professor XYZ takes a leave.  Are you interested?”  “I say ‘Yes.’  I’m in.”  Thus began my new life as a teacher of humanities, for some years, for a while at least–until I retired.

* * *

Our textbook, for years: CULTURE AND VALUES: A SURVEY OF THE HUMANITIES, Ninth Edition: This text takes you on a tour of some of the world’s most interesting and significant examples of art, music, philosophy, and literature, from the beginnings of civilization to today.  Chapter previews, timelines, glossaries of key terms, Compare + Contrast, new Connections and Culture & Society features, and “Big Picture” reviews all help make it easy for you to learn the material and study more effectively.  Links to full readings and playlists of the music selections discussed in your text are available online in MindTap, where you will also find study resources and such tools as image flashcards, guides to research and writing, practice quizzes and exercises, and more.

Was I ready?  Could I do it?  I could not read music.  I was in the high school choir, in the church choir; but I always memorized the notes.  (I could sing, though–a lovely 1st tenor.)  I loved music and song!  I knew my composers, and classical pieces.  I learned rhythm, melody, and harmony.  What else?

I knew the difference between LISTEN to this and HEAR this!  I had had a record player from once-upon-a-time, had the first CD player in town (Yamaha $539), always had FM music playing.  I wrote a paper about West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet!  In high school I attended operas, and concerts, and had begun a record collection.  I really am/was a movie lover.  A reel lover!  And I had a few subscriptions to movie magazines at one time.  (My favorite actress?  Kim Novak, of course, when I was VERY young.  And, yes, Casablanca is a favorite–as is The Hours.  Did I fail to mention Meryl Streep?)

How much more did I have to know to be able to lead a class of students through a college semester, HUM 2230 17th Century to the Present?  I would have to do much reading; but the syllabus was already prepared, the textbooks were chosen,  I would simply have to gather up my wits about me (years of standing before classrooms of students and writing lesson plans), and prepare my Pearls of Wisdom.

Using the text, with my “culture” and “learning,” I created a course that would follow major themes of architecture, art, music, film, literature, philosophy, history, and religion‑‑primarily those from Western traditions.  I was even able to end the course with James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  The course was supposed to enhance a student’s interest in examining some of the most compelling questions (and facts) about living the life of culture–physically, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally–by reading, viewing, listening, and–most importantly–by thinking.

And so it went, one semester, then another.  I got better and better at it.  More confident, that is, in my qualifications to teach humanities.

This Backward Glance over it all, My Memoriesofatime as a Humanities Teacher, was occasioned by that recent high school survey, causing me to bring it bring it all together here: All those courses enumerated on my transcript.  The college teaching listed on my résumé.  (A major bonus occurred in 2000, when the president of the college asked me to begin an honors program that would incorporate classes at Cambridge University.  While there in England during summers, tutoring students, I was able to attend seminars in music, art, literature, and history.  I was overwhelmed and honored.)

My first thought was to title this story “The Pitfalls and Dangers of a Classical Education.”  My story would have begun about the little boy from the South Side of Chicago, growing into a student of Latin, Greek, and German, and the classics.  The young reader of How to Read a Book would become a lover of literature, even an attendee at the Chicago Opera House.  Then he would evolve into a classroom teacher, with Palmer-Method penmanship, and SQ3R study skills.  Perhaps a too ho-hum story, about a little learning being a dangerous thing?

Then I thought, maybe my story would be “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.”  This story would be told, not by an idiot, but by a seventy-eight-year-old man, no tale of sound and fury, but the story of a great-grandson of one of the Chicago Haymarket Rioters, a Bohemian kid from Chicago, a hard-working paperboy, Boy Scout, Baltimore-catechist, literature-lover, grammarian, teacher-husband-father, graduate student.  This story includes anecdotes about hospital orderly work and, yet, at the same time, his reading Chardin, Joyce, and Milton.  In this story, he formulates “My Three Favorites of All”: Othello, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Power and the Glory.  Then age sets in.

No, age has not set in.  Not in this story, for I do not yet “wear my trousers rolled.”  (I do wear shorts a lot.)  In fact, I consider myself a rather distinguished fellow: still concerned about teaching the classics in the classroom; still reading history essays and studying film; writing book reviews–and my own bloggy-“memoirs.”  (At the same time, the technology of media and YouTube have helped me and my hands install faucets and a garbage disposal.)youtube image

THE FAMILIAR “GO!” OF YOUTUBE

I dabble a bit, yet, in philosophy, less in theology. Even less in modern contemporary novelists (whose books might be purchased but sit on a shelf unopened, or are archived in my Kindle.)  I am, perhaps, even a bit “still crazy after all these years.”

“All these years” is my strength, the 45-plus years in education with my Renaissance-type education and training, my skills and techniques as classroom teacher, seminar instructor, and my being an educated man.  This story is mine.

At the end of the film Saving Private Ryan, one of my all-time “favorite” war films, the veteran of D-Day walks among the crosses and graves at Normandy. saving private ryan poster

He, Private Ryan, comes to that white cross of his squad leader Cpt. John Miller, killed many, many years before, June 13, 1944.  Private Ryan, in emotion, says, “I hope . . . I earned what all of you have done for me.”  Ryan has led a good life; he is told he is a good man.

 

What more could I ask for?  My life experience is nothing at all comparable to what those soldiers endured.  Yet I can be empathic during these last moments of the film.  I can say of my teachers, with honesty, that I hope I’ve earned what they have done for me.  I, too, hope I have instilled “culture” into others as it was instilled, I believe, into me.  And that likewise, I do hope my many students can . . . well, . . . you know . . .

©  James F. O’Neil 2019

 

 

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3 comments
  1. James, thank you for sharing these highlights from your journey of becoming a “cultured gentleman.” I am certain that your students learned and developed well as a result of your efforts. Many times I have heard educators refer to our classrooms as battlegrounds so I wouldn’t put too much stock in not having actual military battle experience. You have clearly earned your “cultured” stripes. 🙂 Best wishes and Happy New Year!
    – Melanie A. Peters

      • You are wonderful! Thank you! I am on Day 3 of a new semester with my dual credit Composition and Public Speaking students. I hope I have some of your culture to share with them. 😉

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