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Silver Threads: Humanities today

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

At so near the age of 80 that I’m already pondering which grand New Orleans restaurant I’ll be dining at on my birthday next month, I have a few problems remembering some things. Not the usual “what did I go into my closet or the kitchen or onto the back porch to get?” — but important stuff like “what was happening on the last page I read of this novel?” Especially if I’ve left it overnight.

I thumb back — and “oh, yes, Madelaine has just stabbed Horace, and the police are driving up outside!”

(If you want to make me feel better, you’ll tell me that you’re 70 or 60 or even 55 and you sometimes do the same thing.)

The funny part is that I could pick up a copy of Jane Eyre, open it to any page and tell you what happened in the previous chapter. But then I first read it at the age of 12, probably four more times over the years and saw every movie or TV show made of the novel.

Other things I can never forget include the identity of Cabeza de Vaca and the meaning of his ridiculous name, from third-grade history; the description of Plato’s cave, from a college philosophy course; the wonderful opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice, just from reading; and the strange name, Goneril, which I first heard years ago and was reminded of just last week. It’s odd, don’t you think, that I’ve forgotten every bit of algebra I ever encountered and can’t give you the formula for finding the circumference of a circle. The math teacher said it was something we’d use all our lives, but I must not have.

I got to thinking about this the other day when I read two newspaper articles — one from Kathryn Lynch, a dean and English teacher at Wellesley who worries that colleges will increasingly cut back on offerings of classes in liberal arts or the “humanities,” academic disciplines that study human culture, and another quoting British playwright Tom Stoppard, who thinks today’s audiences are getting too dumb to understand his works.

Stoppard’s complaint, filed in London this year by a Telegraph reporter, included his observation that at a 1974 performance of one of his plays everybody in the audience seemed to get a joke that hinged on knowing the name Goneril; in 1990, when the drama was revived, maybe half recognized it, he said.

Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones) called Stoppard “snobbish,” but in a Saturday article Wall Street Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout agreed with him. Teachout and Lynch should meet for lunch; their fears for the tattering of our cultural heritage make them a good couple.

Me, I worry about what I can influence, which isn’t a lot. Meanwhile, I see in our two grandsons examples of the kinds of students of today. The older one can tell me why memory fails, talk about neurons and pathways to the brain. The younger recently went to New York to pick up a silver medal for poetry at the Scholastic Corporation’s awards ceremony honoring high school writers. It will be folks like him who keep folks like “Goneril” alive.

Don’t remember her? Well, she’s the oldest daughter in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Just saved some of you from having to Google her.


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