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April 18, 2009

'Total Effect and the Eighth Grade' — 'No single document shaped my thinking as much'


Flannery O'Connor's 1963 essay is the document Caitlin Flanagan was referring to in her piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Above, O'Connor as a child.

From O'Connor's essay:


In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.

No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane [we can quibble with the names; I certainly quibble with Cooper’s inclusion], and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable.

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.


The essay appears in O'Connor's 1969 collection entitled "Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose."

April 18, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I am not certain, but I suspect the 'Cooper' referred to is James Fenimore Cooper, author of _The Last of the Mohicans_ and the Deerslayer series.

James Fenimore Cooper was not a great writer. His prose is overwritten and tedious to read. Mark Twain lambasted Cooper in "James Fenimore Cooper's Prose Style."

I question the integrity and intelligence of anyone who suggests students read Cooper. (Translation for the tactfully impaired: This guy is and idiot. Pay him no mind.)

Posted by: antares | Apr 19, 2009 6:07:16 PM

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