One of the critics I most admire, Helen Vendler, has issued a cogent, convincing, and (alas) Quixotic call for American schools to ensure that their students encounter their artistic and musical heritage.

“I want to see students coming into college already proud of Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt, loving the repertoire of spirituals and of musical comedy, interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and David Smith, longing for more Willa Cather and more Edith Wharton.”

I do, too! But that won’t happen.

Helen Vendler is no stranger to irony, but I think in this case she might miss the fact that today’s students are in fact hyper aware of their heritage . . . so long as we define heritage as what a culture is aware of in its past, not what we educated old folks admire most.

Because of the inattentiveness to the arts that Helen Vendler sees in our schools (and because of advertisements, mass media, political rhetoric and other factors), it seems to me that a fundamental problem is that “our national heritage” is now understood by most Americans to be either positive political influence abroad, or successful Products and Brands.

Political: we say that we spread democracy and freedom (e.g. in Iraq and Afghanistan), teach the benefits of the free market (e.g. to Pakistan’s garment workers), and give generously in foreign aid (try hard to visualize bags of flour, not military gear and police truncheons).

What once was our art heritage has been replaced by commercially successful “cultural products” like Disney, advertising jingles, Coke, rock music, McDonalds, and Facebook.

To whatever extent this dismal observation is true, our students are already awash in their national heritage, fully aware and damned proud of it. In Helen Vendler’s utopian school, students might see a Winslow Homer print when on the third floor, but they will see the Batman logo and Dumb and Dumber 4 movie poster way more often.

At every moment, a culture is on a border, able to look back to their received heritage, and maybe forward to guess what they will pass along to be a later generation’s notion of our heritage. This week, while reading online what used to be serious newspapers, I have already seen America’s humanities heritage (as Helen Vendler and I imagine it) far less than I have seen Kim Kardashian’s artistically-rendered ass.

1 thought on “Helen Vendler on Humanities in our schools”

  1. I like Helen Vendler….Sometimes. The review of her comments about American education seem, as the reviewer noted, hopelessly out of touch with most of what is going on in education and our current “culture.”

    This is reflected in her books. Her book on Emily Dickinson is quite good. She doesn’t stray too far away from the poems, except to bring us up to date using the latest scholarship about the poems as originally written and new correspondence.

    However, her book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets is so idiosyncratic as to be unbelievable. She invents this elaborate system of correspondences, keywords and so forth, and she never deals with how truly bizarre the sonnets are when compared to the sonnet tradition. Shakespeare’s sonnets have a personal obsession about them that Vendler totally misses and this obsession is at the heart of the sonnets, and must be dealt with.

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