The current issue of Harvard Magazine contains the following quotations:
“In any battle between the literati and the philistines,
the philistines invariably win.” –- Harry T. Levin, professor
of comparative literature, following the 1961 court
ruling adverse to Grove Press, in the Boston censorship
trial having published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
“I am a professor of comparative literature, not of com-
parative lust.”— Harry T. Levin, testifying in the same
trial, responding to the prosecutor’s question: “Profes-
sor Levin, which do you think would more excite lewd
and libidinous desires in the mind of a young girl—
Shakespeare’s ‘Rape of Lucrece’ or Henry Miller’s
Tropic of Cancer?’”
This perfectly illustrates the wit and wisdom of Harry Levin, chairman of Harvard’s Comp. Lit. department, in which I was a student and, later, assistant in his course “Proust, Mann and Joyce.” Harry Levin, author of several important books, was also a great scholar and teacher without ever acquiring an advanced degree. He had, however, been one of Harvard’s prestigious Junior Fellows.
Levin was a subtle ironist, a consummate stylist and lecturer, a strict grader, and somebody with whose approval it was unsafe to gamble. I say this as one who had both enjoyed his favor and, on one occasion, incurred his hostility. He and Renato Poggioli were two of my Ph.D. thesis directors, and though alike in brilliance, they couldn’t have been more unlike in temperament. On Levin’s precision and sharpness you could cut yourself; Poggioli was a practitioner of laissez-faire toward both his students and himself. Harry never made the slightest factual error; Renato cheerfully admitted to vagueness concerning such things as exact dates.
About Levin, a famous colleague said, “A dangerous man—you cannot even count on his enmity.” So I experienced in the Lillian Hellman affair, as I dubbed it, in which I incurred his wrath. A fellow graduate student, Richard Defendini, had contracted to supply Hellman with ample specimen passages from Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, which she was adapting for Broadway. The task was to submit translations of chunks of each major character’s speech, so that Hellman (who claimed to know French!) would get a feel for each individual’s language. For a mere hundred dollars, Defendini agreed to a good many pages, but then enlisted my collaboration. We did it, clearly, not for profit, but for prestige.
When Hellman would pay only $50, because the typing was, as she put it, double-spaced, Dick was so disgusted that he left demurring to me. On the phone, I facetiously referred to Hellman’s Calvinism, to which she earnestly replied that she was Jewish. And she remained adamant. Harry summoned me to his office and reduced me to tears, demanding, on the threat of expulsion, a letter of apology to be overseen by him. He let the letter pass, however, despite a certain irony in its tone.
I go into this to show that nobody is perfect; in this case Levin’s excessive awe as a mere academic vis-a-vis an artist. Still, Levin was a great teacher, though that was in a very different time and, I suspect, at a very different Harvard. I do firmly believe that beyond thorough knowledge of his field and a good deal of general culture, a teacher should be simultaneously instructive and entertaining. Students tend to be an unruly audience, and a bit of humor is an invaluable teaching tool. But there should be no jokes about the grading.
Today, things have come to a pretty pass. Students arrive in college equipped with a well-nourished ignorance, and propose to graduate without any serious tampering with it. I have heard a graduate of an Ivy League institution boast of earning his degree without cracking a single piece of assigned reading. This can be partly the fault of teachers, but as often of administrations, expecting for financial reasons the smallest number of flunkings. Which is where I feel defeated, having my employment at more than one institution of higher learning dropped , stated or unstated, for grading too stiffly.
Even more dispiriting is something else. I was reprimanded by a female department co-chairman for making too many corrections in student papers. I had spent roughly an hour-and-a-half on each, only to be told I should have corrected the major mistakes (whatever those might be), leaving the others alone. Too many corrections were depressing and counterproductive.
So it would seem that our teachers need as much educating as our students. A daunting situation, as is the passing of the buck from grade school to high school to college for such basic skills as grammar and spelling. And that does not even account for dealing with copying from Wikipedia or other, subtler forms of plagiarism.
Can there be a solution for all this? I am sorry to say I don’t know.