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Boastful dunces

Post-literate college students reveal a 'resentful incapacity'

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

Do you recall this story? "A large wooden horse is brought by Aeneas from Troy, which Queen Dido thinks is a sign of appreciation. When the wooden horse is opened up and a number of Greek soldiers jump out, Dido is in shock. Thankfully, Aeneas and his men show up and promise to restore her disorder."

If the details aren't like you remember, it's because the wooden horse came to Troy, leading to the city's downfall and the escape of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who became the mythical founder of Rome. As for "restoring her disorder"-good luck with that, whatever it means. The garbled summary is from a finals essay submitted by a student of Thomas Bertonneau, literature professor at SUNY-Oswego, after a semester of exposure to Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Augustine's Confessions. These and other works form the syllabus of a class called "Western Heritage," intended to introduce young Americans to the foundations of their civilization. It's a worthy goal but, as Professor Bertonneau documents in an online essay titled "What, Me Read?" his most diligent efforts are no longer enough to overcome the "resentful incapacity" of too many of his students.

Bertonneau has identified specific factors that indicate the rapid shift of our society to "post-literacy." His students' papers display some characteristics of oral cultures, such as a tendency to substitute literal meanings for metaphorical and a dependence on phonetic spelling to the extent that most don't even run their papers through spell check. But at the same time, they lack the mental disciplines of an oral culture. The original audiences of Homer and Virgil could at least keep characters and events straight, but Bertonneau's students are always confusing Aeneas with Odysseus, Aphrodite with Athena, Troy with Greece.

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In spite of his repeated lecture points and cheat sheets, they confuse historical events and can't remember that one must count back the dates before Christ, and count up after Christ. In exam essays they commonly make assertions like, "The Odessy [sic], written down around 800 BC, its events are said to actually take place around 500 BC." Their test-taking training in high school taught them to take note of dates but not to make sense of how they use them. Though saturated with movies and TV, they lack a basic notion of cause-and-effect and logical consequence basic to stories.

And they are impervious to correction, as if it never occurred to them that some of their ideas are wrong. "Self-Entitled College Students," a study conducted by researchers at UC-Irvine, reveals a growing conviction among young adults that simply showing up in class and reading the assigned texts should earn a B at least, no matter what they actually remembered and learned. Though this may seem like too much self-confidence, it's just the opposite: Their confidence is not in self but in outward criteria. A lower-than-expected grade is not a wake-up call for diligence but an alarm that their fragile self-esteem has been breached.

Another characteristic of oral cultures is an incomplete sense of self. At the dawn of the Middle Ages, Augustine of Hippo pioneered a new type of literature: the psychological memoir. His Confessions is the anatomy of a human soul that lost, then found, its way. Perhaps for that very reason it is incomprehensible to Professor Bertonneau's students. Subject to an educational system-and a parental style-that flatters their esteem but neglects their souls, they don't have the capacity for honest soul-searching. Encouraged to be self-absorbed, they are anything but self-aware.

The task of the intellect, according to William James, is to sharpen the "perceptual blur of reality." Blurry selves can only reflect a blurry world, and Professor Bertonneau fears that the future of most of his students will be driven by gimmicks, devices, and fads rather than enduring principles. The outlook may not be as bleak as he says, but we're getting too many of these reports from the educational front to ignore.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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