YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Knowledge of the Classics

September 24, 1993

* Like Jenijoy La Belle ("Measure for Measure, a Loss," Commentary, Sept. 8), I recall a time when students were well-grounded in the classics in high school. But my recollection is of a time I heard about, a time I apparently just missed. And I graduated from high school in 1959. My New England prep school education required me to read, but not necessarily to learn anything about, a few of these classics (but not "The Canterbury Tales"). College added a couple of titles to the list and provided some inspired teaching to bring out their true substance. I was no model student, but the fact is in that era through high school and college I can recall no exposure to Chaucer, Donne or Milton and only a passing glimpse at the Bible in a college philosophy course.

Occasionally dedicated teaching and intellectual curiosity wind up in the same classroom. Those are wonderful times. I prefer to remember such instances than to dwell on the wasted hours when I was merely fulfilling a requirement. Perhaps this is true of others and is why we hear of a golden age when students really learned what is important. Things aren't like they used to be, but then I'm not sure they ever were.



* As a teacher of English at a community college, I was moved deeply and inspired anew by the emphasis on English communication in La Belle's column.

Any lover of literature shares La Belle's disappointment to find that Caltech students, some of the brightest in the world, lack a familiarity with Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton. Yet my value as a teacher was more evident in two other articles of the same day.

Your editorial on the excellent "Sweat and Blood" series noted that the majority of workers who suffer in unsafe jobs are Latinos "whose knowledge of English is limited." How much pain could be avoided if the workers could read instructions, understand their legal rights and ask hard questions of employers?

And who can believe that knowledge of English would not have saved the life of Thi Dui, the Vietnamese grandmother who was killed when a train struck her stalled car, because then she could have understood that Bernardo Vasquez, a modern-day Shakespearean hero, was trying to help her, not attack her?

I am not an English chauvinist, nor do I advocate "English-only" legislation. However, common sense tells me that a dedicated effort by schools and workplaces to improve English skills would help all of our immigrants, the new ones and the older ones, to be safer and more assertive workers and citizens, as well as people who can, on occasion, enjoy the eloquent cadences of Shakespeare or Milton.



Los Angeles Times Articles