Friday, April 07, 2006

The Four R's

From "What's Supposed to be Going on Here?," a speech by Wayne C. Booth to about 600 freshmen in Orientation Week. Published in The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967 - 1988

"There are many ways of talking about the arts of liberal education, the arts that genuinely liberate. At the risk of being gimmicky, I'd like to suggest a way of reviving that tired old list, the 'three R's.' Reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic made up a highly simplified, minimal list of the arts of liberation: to be able to read is to be free to learn what other men know; to be able to write is to be free to teach ot move or change other men with your words; and to be able to calculate is to be freed from enslavement to other men's calculations. Without scrapping arithmetic...I'd like to expand the first two of these into four. The new list would have reading and writing mixed up in every one of the four, and it would run like this: first, the art of Recovery of meanings, the seemingly simple but never finally mastered ability to learn what other men have known or believed; second, the art of Rejection of whatever is false or enslaving in other men's meanings -- what is often called critical thinking; third, the art of Renewing or (the thesaurus yields lots of 'R's' here) Renovating or Recognizing or Re-presenting what is valid or worthwhile in other men's meanings; and finally the art of Revising or Revolutionizing thought by discovering genuinely new truth. Both critics and defenders of current education seem these days to be far more interested in the last of these four, revolutionary novelty, than any of the others. Under the names of 'creativity,' 'originality,' or novelty, educationists often talk as if a little institutional doctoring would make it possible for everyone to become intellectually revolutionary, thinking bold new thoughts that nobody else has ever dared to think. Well, maybe. Nobody knows precisely the limits of our creativity. All I can say is that genuinely new ideas seem to me terribly rare, and if it is the goal of education to produce them most of us seem to be doomed to perpetual second-class citizenship."

I would venture that this might apply to the theatre as well...

3 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

I am not at all sure how a pedogogical speech (pleasingly humble though it might be) can really apply to theatre, which is not a pedagogical tool. In any case, it obviously only applies to men, so I expect Dorothy and I will feel free to go and think whatever we like. That's always the advantage of being grammatically invisible...

It is right in this way, I think: that originality, such as it is, only comes from an understanding and directed critique of tradition(s). This is of course very Eliotic of me, but I do think it is true, and that does require the four r's as Booth outlines them here. On the other hand, as Borges said (speaking again of men, bless him): "every writer creates his own genealogy". Originality in art, new ideas in art, are quite different too from new ideas in philosophy and science: there is a way in which every achieved work is a new idea. Certainly, if the artist doesn't want to "make it new", in that Poundian sense ("poetry is news that stays news") I wonder what they think they are doing. I suppose the alternative just being industry fodder, which I guess is fine in its own way, but on the other hand, you might as well do something else that pays better.

George Hunka said...

Without knowing the date of Booth's speech I can't say whether or not his sentiments reflect a reaction to the more radical sentiments of the 1960s or the rather less radical sentiments of the early 1980s when I went to college (and Bard was considered quite radical, up there with Hampshire). But I can say that, at least in the years 1979-1983, this wasn't really true at all. Even in this rather rarified atmosphere (and remember, these were the years of the first Reagan administration, so there was plenty of anger and heat to go around in such a place), the students at Bard received a mandatory, thorough grounding in the classics, and not from a deconstructionist viewpoint, either, but with an eye to that Recovery, Rejection and Recognition that Booth mentions.

Booth however does not mention the names of those "critics and defenders of current education" who claim to be so hell-bent on originality at the expense of ... well, whatever it is he seems to want to defend here.

So far as this applies to the theater, I can't think of one single radical innovator who was not fully apprised and appreciative of the history of the form. Of course most attempts at novelty are doomed to failure, but to characterize them as "second-class" seems somewhat condescending.

Scott Walters said...

I don't have the book home with me tonight, but I believe the speech was in the late 60s. I suspect, George, that he was referring to the insistence of "relevance" in the curriculum that was current at that time. Alison, in a footnote, he says something to the effect of "Yes, I DID say all those 'he's' to an audience comprised of more than half women," and he expressed embarrassment, so he's aware of the change in common usage. (Now we get the rhythmic horrors of "he or she" -- I wish there was a better alternative.)

I think what I meant when I wrote about its application to theatre was actually to theatre education, and the reasons we might still read (and produce) the classics, read the theories, and examine the ideas and techniques. As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I waffle on this issue -- sometimes I get all Artaud-No-More-Masterpieces on myself, and other times I put on my Theatre Historian Undies and say there is a lot of value in the past. But I liked the idea that artists-in-training would learn the "four R's" as part of their education.