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When the English Department sets out to revise its requirements next fall, it will probably be aiming at two targets: English 10 and the Tutorial Bibliography.
English 10 has two problems. The first is that, as in most group tutorials, nobody does the work before the meetings, which means that the tutors must become lecturers--an expensive luxury. The most obvious remedy is to convert group tutorial into a seminar, in which students are expected to write weekly papers to serve as a basis of discussion. This not only ensures that they come to class with something to say, but forces them to think far more carefully about their reading and their responses than is now the case.
The second problem in English 10 is that lecturers are dull. The problem is not the lecturers' fault. The problem is rather that very little can be done in fifty minutes of capsule generalization to enrich a "Major British Writer." Few canned opinions about books have much more appeal to the literary novice. Admittedly the abolition of lecturers would leave the course entirely in the hands of possibly inept tutors, but this is in fact already the case.
The Tutorial Bibliography is a more complicated problem. It has made tutorial into a kind of fifth course in which students prepare for Generals by reading a section from the bibliography not covered in a catalogue course. Moreover, the student soon learns that all his extracurricular reading should come from the departmental list, and that if it does not he will suffer on General Examinations.
General Exams are primarily a club with which the department makes sure that students have read a lot of books in the previous four years. They also test the capacity to talk about these books with sophisticated glibness.
Now the capacity to make general statements and see things in perspective could be measured with a much shorter bibliography including a few major works of every genre and period. This would eliminate the student who appears to be a chronological master of English Literature but knows only the drama, or poetry, and at the same time reduce the pressure to read only from the approved lists.
If, on the other hand, the purpose of Generals is to make sure the student reads many books, the questions should be more specific and picayune. It is currently possible to enter General Examinations with Hymarx knowledge and a high IQ, and exit with honors.
But the real question is how educational it is to read a book solely to pass an exam. Certainly it can on occasion be a good thing since there is the possibility of becoming engrossed in the book. But preparation for Generals more often consists of a hectic race through a vast mass of material, the only result of which is a permanent prejudice against certain English authors.
When the English Department considers reform next fall, it should remember that reading is not, in itself, either educational or virtuous. Reading contributes to a liberal education only when it engages the reader's attention and intelligence. Thus in educational terms, one book is better than another only because it earns a more complete scrutiny from more diverse points of view. When the student stops paying attention, education also stops. While Departmental reading lists may "deserve" attention, they are not nearly so likely to get it as the book which the student chooses spontaneously.
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