If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What Do You Know About English?

Can you identify the authors and works for the following quotes?

THERE lived not long since, in a certain village of the Mancha, the name whereof I purposely omit, a gentleman of their calling that use to pile up in their halls old lances, halberds, morions, and such other armours and weapons.

ON an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.
He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house, and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady, who provided him with garret, dinners, and attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

I AM a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep.

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own;
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

How did you do? (Answers below.) The real question is, is this what we want from our high school graduates, that they be able to identify famous passages from famous works of poetry, prose and drama? It's certainly kind of fun to get them right, and the 40+ year run of Jeopardy indicates an American fascination with trivia. But is this our great aspiration for our students?

The answer ultimately depends on the very basic question: what is school supposed to do for us? It's a question that my whole approach to this blog mostly tiptoes around, hoping that in the process of writing I can form a coherent answer. As I mentioned in my first post on knowledge, though, I do believe that one of the things we should get from school is a shared cultural vocabulary. Included in that vocabulary should be a basic knowledge of major literary figures and works. When a high schooler goes to the movies and sees She's the Man , her teacher should point out that, while soccer wasn't around yet in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare wrote about the whole dressing up as your brother thing first, and even he probably got the idea from someone else.

The stories we tell help us understand who we are. Students will find the modern stories that register with them on their own, whether they are in books, on TV, in movies, or on the Internet. As a teacher, I feel it is my job to help them see where their stories come from; and doing that involves providing them with a background knowledge in the stories that have been important in the world in the past.

So, my answer is yes, students should complete their high school education with some books and authors that they know something about. The next question, then, is what books and authors should they be.

Coming soon: Five Books Every Student Should Read Before Finishing High School

Answers for the quotes:

  1. Cervantes, Don Quixote
  2. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
  3. Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
  4. T.S. Elliot, The Wasteland
  5. Shakespeare, The Tempest

A couple comments on the choices:

As a Spanish teacher, I had to put Cervantes in, and I've already established that the knight errant and his squire are the heroic guides for this blog.

I didn't read Crime and Punishment until I was in my thirties, but was amazed when I finally did how modern the novel felt to me. As I often do when I'm reading a great book, I wished I was an English teacher and could sit down with a group of students to work through the novel.

I included Bartleby as a tribute to the great website where I got all the quotes. www.bartleby.com has dozens, if not hundreds, of complete works online. It's a fantastic resource.

Just past a mostly pleasant April here in DC, Elliot's masterpiece was mostly a free association based on the the calendar.

In the summer of 2006, my wife, my sister and I had the opportunity to see Patrick Stewart play Prospero in Stratford upon Avon as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Celebration. His delivery of the epilogue is the single most powerful theater experience I have ever had in my life. Just reading the text still gives me chills, so I had to include it.

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