Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ideas from Northrop Frye's "On Education"


We hear much about the increased numbers of students coming to universities.... Most of these students will, inevitably, be processed rather than educated, and for the really keen student in the future the great difficulty will be, not to get to university, but to get his proper education instead of processing. I say difficulty for the student, because the initiative will be up to him. [ed. note: see the post below, "A few of the things you can do in a great university," for more on this].
...
The university can best fulfill its revolutionary function by digging in its heels and doing its traditional job in its traditionally retrograde, obscurantist, and reactionary way. It must continue to confront society with the imaginations of great poets, the visions of great thinkers, the discipline of scientific method, and the wisdom of the ages, until enough people in the democracies realize that a way of life, like life itself, must be lost before it can be gained.
...
It is impossible to teach the humanities properly if we think of them as ornaments or graces of ordinary social life. They have their laws and disciplines like the sciences, and must be taught as impersonally as the sciences, despite their emotional and aesthetic connections.
...
(The high school student) is becoming aware of an underlying conflict in his situation. On one side of him is his ordinary social environment, the world of his television set, his movies, his family car, advertising, entertainment, news, and gossip. On the other side is the school, and perhaps the church, trying to dislodge him from this lotus land and prod him into further voyages of discovery. ...

The school has only five hours a day in which to fight the influences which keep soaking into the student from the rest of his experience, and which usually command an authority that the school cannot command. As a rule, therefore, the world of technology and rhetoric wins out, whether the student goes on to university or not. ...

The education theories generally called progressive tried to abolish this conflict my making the school the agent of society. Education thus became a matter of social adjustment to the world one must live in. But this world, in itself, provides no real standards or values. It stands for immaturity and a cult of youth, for social values rooted in entertainment and advertising, and for emotions rooted in the erotic. Besides, the world, unlike nature, always betrays the heart that loves her. It changes very rapidly, driven on by forces that the socially adjusted cannot comprehend, and can only cope with by the fixations of prejudice and stock response. Thus understanding the world, if made the goal of education, is forced to become an acceptance of the world, and that in turn becomes increasingly an acceptance of illusion. The forms of illusion are familiar: there are the illusions of slanted news, and the illusions of entertainment....

(The student) should understand what he must do to live in his society; but he must understand too that that society has no criteria for judging itself or one's actions within it. The criteria (or at least the secular criteria) can come only from the arts and sciences, the co-ordinated vision of the greatness and accuracy of human imagination and thought.

Northrop Frye
--"The Critical Discipline," in On Education

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