I guess I assume my students know more than they do when I use words or allusions that don’t register with them. Recently I used the word “decorum” to help students understand that their language usage as well as their behavior should change in some circumstances. After the blank looks I started explaining the word “venue,” but they were equally lost on “decorum.” So, very decorously, I chose another venue to explain my statement. By the time I got through with the word-study, my point had been lost, so I started over by saying, “You don’t act and talk in church the way you do at a ball game.” Even then, some of my more charismatic students lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
As to allusions, I have to be careful in assuming that everyone knows certain stories, such as the Joseph saga or the Cyclops story. It feels odd to recount Biblical and classical narratives I have known all my life to a group of adults who listen raptly with a sense of first-time discovery. And I certainly can’t refer to current events and expect everyone in my classes to follow me. I hope that is because they are so busy studying that they don’t have time to read the paper, magazines or watch television news. I hope that’s the case, but I doubt it. I suspect the problem for many is apathy.
A high school teacher was not getting much scholarly activity from her students. In frustration, she wrote in big letters across the board, “A-P-A-T-H-Y,” and then left the room. One young man tried to pronounce the unfamiliar word, calling it ay-path-ee. “I wonder what that means,” he queried and another student replied, “Who cares?”
In my opinion, apathy comes either from self-centeredness or boredom or both. Most self-centered people I have known are bored because of their inability to expand their horizons by becoming interested in other human beings. If you don’t care about anyone but yourself, before long you don’t even care about yourself; thus, apathy sets in. The best remedy for any sense of alienation is becoming interested in someone other than yourself.
But, back to my original point: good teaching requires the teacher to carefully analyze classes and define terms and allusions that may be unfamiliar to the group. Otherwise, those we seek to teach have little or no comprehension of the lesson presented. English can be like a foreign language these days and our deeply valued Western literary tradition may seem to some as cryptic as it is alien to their sensibilities.
Students can build their vocabularies systematically by looking up all unusual words whenever and wherever they occur. That is easy these days with dictionary look-up as an editing feature on the computer. But how can we get rid of apathy when it comes to reading the great masterpieces? Some of us truly care.