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Creative Writing Comes of Age at Harvard

Problems of Interest in Expression Affect Both Teacher and Student

By Christopher Jencks

The commercial center that is Harvard Square today includes three European coffee houses. There are also 6,000,000 books in its libraries, ten bookstores, a print sale at the Co-op, and two pianos in Sever 11. An artistic revival is apparently in progress. While the left banks of the Charles and the Seine are not yet synonymous, the nucleus for the new aestheticism is here, and a creative revival is said to be well on its way.

The manifestations of the revival are all about. The CRIMSON gives a typical sample by insisting that we need creative artists in Cambridge if the academic community is to remain healthy. A resident artist asserts that summa cum laude in Fine Arts should mean more than telling Monet from Manet. An English professor says that the study of English letters requires participation as well as observation.

Could it be that we no longer believe quite so definitely in scholarship? Perhaps we are coming to realize that confrontation with genius is not necessarily the road to insight. We have always known that knowledge and wisdom were quite different. But perhaps we now suspect that knowledge may not even be the best road to wisdom.

Certainly it is not a new idea. John Dewey began the same revolution in our schools a half century ago, only to see the mediocre turn his revolution into a regression to the cult of ignorance. The whole attitude is apparently related to the philosophic emphasis on process rather than product. We are coming to believe that it is more important to understand creativity than creations, artists rather than art.

Certainly something is happening to our idea of the University and its relationship to both society and the arts. But to define this change is to define the University, and that is more or less impossible. There are, however, a few salient facts about the creative arts and Harvard which seem particularly significant.

In the first place, the University is beginning to feel responsible for the wellbeing of the nation. It no longer believes that a University is exclusively a center of higher learning. It sees itself as an educational institution, and recognizes that the country is more and more dependent on the university to protect it from cultural oblivion. The growth of technocracy has thrown an evergrowing proportion of the populace into the arms of the university, and given it the chance to leave a permanent mark.

But making this requires more than the constructnon of libraries and the endowment of chairs in which scholars can sit. These things may promote scholarship, but scholarship filters into culture far too slowly to counteract the TV and the comic strip. More direct influence is needed. This influence is now called a liberal education.

The Active University

This phrase once meant a passing acquaintance with genius and knowledge. A man who had read Homer was well on his way to being educated. But at that time the people who read Homer were more likely to be looking for education, which they found in Homer. Now they read Homer because it is required, and expect education to take care of itself. Unfortunately, education never takes care of itself. And so the University is beginning to believe that they must take care of it for the students. While this is by definition impossible, it is also necessary if Harvard is going to bring culture to the masses.

And so we have come to believe that a liberal education does not mean the acquisition of information, but the molding of attitudes. And where we used to depend upon exposure to mold these attitudes, we are coming to realize that participation is a more effective way of inducing them.

Gerald Johnson once wrote that "a man who has tried to play Mozart and failed, through that vain effort comes into a better position to understand the man who tried to paint the Sistine Madonna, and did." This is obviously an article of faith. You can never prove that it is true, because you can never measure such understanding. The Fine Arts Department does not hold to this faith; the Music department does not hold to this faith; the language departments are beginning to suspect that there just might be something in it, and believing this, they are beginning to experiment with the teaching of composition.

Harvard Pioneers

These experiments are still young: the first attempt to teach composition has begun in the last tenth of local history, and Harvard was a pioneer among universities in this field. (Ofcourse English A and Rhetoric go back a long way, but these courses were aimed more at "sound and orderly expression," than at the ephemeral web we call art.

Archibald MacLeish is the Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric. He is the master of both and teacher of neither. Rather, he is the most famous of Harvard's writing teachers.

The teaching of imaginative writing seems at first glance to be a logical extension of the old course in rhetoric. But this is a rather superficial resemblance. It is true that both are concerned with the use of words to effectively communicate some insight or attitude. But in the case of rhetoric the stress falls on the rules of effectiveness, not on the relationship between intuition and verbalization. It is the difference between Gen Ed. A and English C: one has to do with general education, the other has to do with a specialized psychological skill.

The Professionals

But the teaching of writing courses cannot be justified by the production of successful writers. A writing course will on occasion produce good writing. In recent years MacLeish's English S has turned out C. B. Flood's Love is a Bridge (a bestseller), Ilona Carmel's Stephannia, Edward Hoagland's Cat Man, and William Alfred's Agamemnon. Professors Morrison and Guerard have also had considerable success in eliciting work which meets professional standards.

Over the years Harvard has turned out far more than its share of a nation's major literary figures, in both critical and imaginative writing. In this century the University has left its mark on Conrad Aiken, Robert Benchley, e.e.cummings, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Marquand, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Arlington Robinson, Robert Sherwood, Wallace Stevens, and Thomas Wolfe, to name an even dozen. While this may be due to the undeniable attraction of a Harvard diploma for the talented, an examination of specific cases indicates that the University did not pass these men by.

Frost and Robinson never took degrees, Dos Passos admits that he learned about transitions from Copeland's writing course (one might question the value of the course if this is an illustration of its effect), but says his most valuable course was in the Hisory of Science. Some, like O'Neill, were here only to study writing with George Pierce Baker. Others, like Wolfe, rebelled against the academics. Some, like T. S. Eliot, (perhaps unwilling) became spokesmen for both Harvard education and Harvard outlook.

The Non-Professional Emphasis

But despite all of these men and all of their influence on American letters, despite the fact that Harvard continues to educate more and better writers than any other institution in the country, the major justification for all our writing courses cannot be the training of professional authors. The University employs people to spend all their time teaching undergraduates about writing, and several others spend at least part of their day this way.

On the contrary, the major purpose of these courses must be, as John Hawkes put it, to help the student to "find a voice." Most of the words written by erstwhile authors are words in search of a vision, a kind of therapy for students trying to resolve themselves onto a page.

But this puts the effort to teach writing on a very shaky basis indeed, for the student who has taken a writing course has very little to show for his trouble. There is absolutely nothing quite so bad objectively as bad imaginative writing. The problem is that a large group of people feel that writing badly may be good for the student.5ALBERT J. GUERARD

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