Newspaper article International New York Times

College, Poetry and Purpose

Newspaper article International New York Times

College, Poetry and Purpose

Article excerpt

What, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What's the highest calling of higher education?

Over four decades at two universities, Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like A's. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place.

But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What's the highest calling of higher education?

When I asked her this on Monday night, she shot me a look of exasperation, though it gave way quickly to a smile. And I remembered that smile from 30 years earlier, when she would expound on Othello's corrosive jealousy, present Lady Macbeth as the dark ambassador of guilt's insidious stamina, and show those of us in her class that with careful examination and unhurried reflection, we could find in Shakespeare just about all of human life and human wisdom: every warning we needed to hear, every joy we needed to cultivate.

She answered my question about college's purpose, but not right away and not glibly, because rushed thinking and glibness are precisely what she believes education should be a bulwark against. She's right.

I introduced her in a column last week, writing that when I was recently pressed to describe a transformative educational experience, what came to mind were her voice and her animation as she read aloud the wondrous words of "King Lear."

Her field is Renaissance poetry. I studied that and Shakespeare's plays with her when I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. I never got to know her well, though. I didn't keep in touch.

But after my column appeared, she sent me an email. It included a lament about changes in the humanities that made me want to hear more. I was curious to know what the professor who was the highlight of my time in college thought of college today.

So I visited her in Philadelphia, where she has been a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. She's 69.

She expressed regret about how little an English department's offerings today resemble those from the past. "There's a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable," she said. …

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