By Evan Mantyk

Last year, the College Board released a significantly redesigned Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The SAT is used by millions of student applicants each year to gain admission to U.S. colleges and universities. The redesign brought the SAT closer to its counterpart, the other major U.S. college-admissions test, the ACT. As an 11th and 12th grade teacher, I had the chance to get up close and personal with the new SAT.

While the dropping of obscure grammar seemed a plus, I was appalled at the state to which modern education has sunk. For example, one passage in an officially released SAT practice test defends food containing genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs,” ignoring the fact that there is a dearth of long-term research that can adequately assess the effects of GMOs (which in fact are relatively new in the scope of history, having been introduced only in the mid-1990s). Do we want to promote genetically modified foods, despite scientific ignorance and when the majority of Americans believe them to be unsafe and dozens of countries ban them? Whatever your position on GMOs, it seems the SAT is more interested in advancing a political agenda than teaching students how to see the different dimensions of a controversial issue. This is a departure from the more even-keeled passages of the old SAT.

Other SAT passages seem to show the Educational Testing Service, which produces the test for the College Board, straining to appear relevant or even cool. They allude to the benefits of internet use and video game playing among children—a completely unnecessary and reckless way of contributing to the worrisome drain on the next generation’s bodies, ambitions, and attention spans. If we strain to do anything, it should be to keep these inputs away from children and encourage healthy inputs that are neglected like reading classic books, reading and playing music, and cultivating perennial skills like those of carpentry, cooking, gardening, wilderness survival, and so forth.

Chinese civilization, arguably the longest continuous civilization existing today, is instructive. For over 5,000 years, it was able to sustain itself and thrive through great educational traditions, which included the Six Disciplines: moral philosophy, music, archery, equestrianism, calligraphy, and mathematics. Today, kids spend about nine hours a day in front of a screen. This is a huge problem—by huge I mean fat. The result is that one in three kids is overweight and one in five kids is obese, a portion that has tripled since the 1970s. If this is what cool looks like then it is time to be uncool.

Another whole class of passages on the new SAT glorifies modern painters like David Alfaro Siqueiros and Dong Kingman, whose artistic works are essentially doodles with bad proportion, bad perspective, and bad use of color. This type of bad art promotes the individual’s self expression, no matter how sloppy and bizarre it may be. Don’t we want to promote appreciation of a sense of beauty and goodness that is broadly appealing, standards of readily perceivable excellence such as those found in the art of Leonardo da Vinci or even Norman Rockwell, and discipline in fundamental techniques?

The new SAT represents the last step in the dissolution of modern education. But where do we go from here? I believe that classical poetry offers the answer. On the most basic level, classical poetry offers a universally appealing sense of beauty and goodness, cultivated discipline, and adherence to fundamental techniques and standards.

It should be noted here that what I am referring to is classical poetry, not formalist poetry. As the Society of Classical Poets gains more and more national and international attention—due to the years of efforts of Society poets and staff, and notably the recent poetry of poet Joseph Charles MacKenzie—it is important to make this distinction. Formalist poetry has the form of the poem as its defining characteristic, hence the name. It values those great traditions like meter and rhyme left to us by millennia of pre-modern poets. The classical poetry of the Society values these great traditions too, but it goes one step further and looks to renew those good moral values and the inner beauty found in the poetry that was written before the twin corrupting force of communism and modernism took center stage in history: specifically, the belief in good and evil and that good is rewarded and evil is punished (“what goes around comes around” or “you reap what you sow”); a sense of propriety and integrity toward your fellow man despite any disagreements; a sense of reverence toward the divine; and a respect for gender boundaries and modesty between men and women. Out of these basic morals arises the Society’s simplistic seeming themes, such as beauty, great culture, humor, and the tackling of overarching crises that the world faces. To the common man and non-poet, these themes are inspiring, appealing, and have real practical benefit.

Returning to education, classical poetry’s good moral values and inner beauty are precisely what school children need in an age of easily accessible pornography, drugs, and violent video games. With inner beauty and the discipline of outer beauty in mind, the foundations of education then become clear. Understanding, appreciating, and writing classical poetry are perennial skills worth aiming for (even if the writing part is never achieved, as James Sale points out in his “Can the Writing of Poetry Be Taught?”). And from classical poetry arises great literature (as explored in my list of ten great books that every student should read), which forms the basis of written communication, verbal entertainment, and law.

Therefore, what we do now at the Society of Classical Poets—reading, writing, commenting, posting, and in any way breathing life into classical poetry, written by the dead poets of the past as well as that which is newly written—is providing the fertile soil from which a new era of education and literature is emerging. I exhort you to keep up the good work, but know this: We are only just beginning!

 

(Excerpted from the introduction of the forthcoming 2017 Society of Classical Poets’ Journal Introduction)

Evan Mantyk teaches history and literature in the Hudson Valley Region of New York.

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7 Responses

  1. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you, Evan, for your observations. Some of my colleagues subscribing also to your posts, sent me positive reactions to it also and as a former teacher and grandmother of the age group you mention, my interest is also high. My thanks for making the Society of Classical Poets available and it has been good to see the increasing interest in it from a wide group of readers just in the time I became a part of it; it can’t help but be a positive influence.

    Reply
  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! Evan Mantyk’s article contains within its marble edifice of truth the golden manifesto of an Ars Poetica Nova. Every member, ever follower of the proud Society he has founded, should consider with great excitement the historical significance of those immortal principles of human arts and letters the young master has placed before the world with so very deft and delicate a hand. Principles of moral goodness—the fruit of the will when guided by reason, and of reason when illuminated by faith—the radiance of the soul’s interior life that is never more resplendent than in the smallest acts of kindness directed commonly toward all without distinction of ignorance or learning; the restoration of that most Franciscan of innovations, to speak of the immortal “gentilezza” which had once infused the Troubadour poetry of Provence and which the Tuscans had imported into the octaves and sestets of their early sonnets—the first great expression of that Angevin “courtoisie,” that Florentine “cortesia,” regulating the boundaries of modesty between knight and lady; and, finally, as if to crown his gilded inventory of beauteous truths, the élan of the human spirit toward its God whose only begotten Son remains forever the incarnate ideal of all art, all letters, all poetry.

    “To the common man and non-poet, these themes are inspiring, appealing, and have real practical benefit,” declares our young genius. And he is most assuredly correct in estimating so perfectly and so naturally those aspirations which have always been the air beneath the wings of poesie.

    More than producing an agreeable article, Mantyk has etched anew, upon the ancient tablets of literary tradition, the underlying creed of all that is finest, all that is noblest, in our exalted craft, and in such a way that I can add without hesitation, that we who consider his manifesto with the seriousness, respect, and honor it clearly deserves, shall not fail to deliver unto the hands of our fellow men, the keys to the kingdom of truth and right which is nothing less than their inheritance. All this through our commitment to beautiful art, Ars Pulchra; for, by this declaration and the convictions that gave it birth, we are, from this day forward and boldly before all the world, the “Arspulchristi”! The advance has just been sounded. Who does not hear it? Onward, poets, to glory!

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    Yes, Evan Mantyk must be congratulated for his vision and pioneering spirit; there is in all his sayings a sense of mission and purpose which for all who care about poetry – true poetry – must be a matter of vital concern. I totally agree with his account of the watering down of education; this is happening in the UK too, and I certainly may in future add to the critique of what and how this is happening. But for now let me just say underpinning the specifics that Evan identifies there is one particular and insidious belief of Modernism/post-Modernism that needs nailing: the fatuous belief in ‘progress’, as if somehow the new SATS or GM foods and everything else is an improvement on what has gone before. The Ancients would have found the idea risible: for in the beginning was the Golden age – in Greek and Hindu thinking, to name but two, or the prelapsarian state in Christian thinking. But the Golden became the Silver and so on down to the ultimate barbarism of the Iron age, where we are now. The real tragedy is not just the sloppy thinking revealed in the SATS, in the Media, and in culture generally, it is the inability to think itself, because the key tool of thought – language – has been so debased. The huge, powerful two-edged sword that language is, that can sever soul from the spirit, has become a little pestle to bludgeon anyone not consistent with the inane mores of contemporary society. So, we need to join Evan on his mystical quest, and not doubt, because as we know – from Lord of the Rings – it’s the small people, not the kings and wizards, who ultimately save the world.

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  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    The desperate need to be trendy and au courant is the curse of modern society. Did this need plague us in the past? Of course. But back then it was always seen for what it is — a silliness and an immature phase of youthful enthusiasm. Today it has become a dominant ideology and a way of life.

    The Educational Testing Service (the organization that produces and manages the SATs) isn’t immune from kneejerk trendiness. You can expect the test to be degraded even further in the next few years. Don’t be surprised if future SATs make reference to garbage art by Haring and Basquiat. And in the light of the continuing disregard and deterioration of English prose in our lower-grades curriculum, expect a gradual de-emphasis of the written essay section of the test.

    Reply
  5. Lorna Davis

    This was a very thought-provoking essay, Evan. I’m afraid some of the lapses in our culture are due very simply to the insidious presence of marketing in every aspect of our civilization. The topic of GMOs seems entirely out of place in an SAT, but companies like Monsanto spend quite a bit of money making sure they will still have a good market tomorrow. Just last year, a House bill for FDA and Agriculture included $3 million to go toward consumer education and outreach to “promote understanding and acceptance of agricultural biotechnology”. It seems likely that a non-profit like ETS, especially considering the power it has to shape the values taught in our education system, has some large corporate sponsors with agendas of their own. Our schools used to be geared toward producing good workers; now we want our citizens to be good consumers. Catering to market forces has driven culture downward as much as any other influence. And the only moral or legal obligation of corporate heads is the maximization of profit. If that means promoting violent lyrics or sexual exploitation in movies, so be it. I worry about getting more privatization in education, but our government seems to have been for sale for a long time anyway. It may not actually make much difference.

    My daughter and I were just talking about the subject of schools and what seems to be missing a few days ago. I remember the films we used to see when I was in grade school, and I believe they were government-issued back then, that taught the simple basics of civil behavior. One film in particular that I remember (isn’t it odd what we should happen to remember all these years later?) was about “not being a pig on the playground”. It was just a cartoon, with a little pig that wouldn’t wait in line, and pushed the other kids, and yelled at people, and took what wasn’t theirs. It seems trite, perhaps, but I think we have lost a lot just from abandoning simple manners as a primary subject of education. Acceptable social behavior is the foundation of a civilization. In dealing with bullying in school, we focus on the identity of the victim, and why someone is being bullied. But frankly kids who want to behave badly will find a reason. How simple would it be if we just focused on the behavior of the bully as boorish and intolerable for any reason at all? Having raised both kids and dogs, I have found that none of us are born domesticated. We have to be civilized one pup at a time, and it’s really a process of learning to practice self-restraint. Once that foundation is in place, the embellishments of art and music, architecture, athletics, science, and so on can create a wonderful civilization.

    Reply
  6. Bruce Dale Wise

    I am pleased that Evan Mantyk’s hard work in keeping the Society of Classical Poets going is paying off. I remember difficulties in the earlier months after launching his site. I remember a poem I sent him back in April of 2013, in which he removed the epigraph, partly because of modesty.

    A Herder Near the Sea
    by Uwe Carl Diebes
    “Against the stream, row, Mantyk, row!”
    —Brice U. Lawseed

    A dream, a dream, is our life on the Earth here.
    Like whitecaps in the surf, we lift our eyes and peer.
    Like shadows on the waves, we drift and disappear.

    We measure out our dragging steps by space and time,
    and are (although we know it not) in the sublime,
    as round us rolls eternity’s amazing mime.

    But it is not easy to go against the “inane mores of contemporary society,” as Mr. Sale has accurately called them. In addition, an editor’s job is rarely appreciated as thoroughly as it deserves to be; so I am happy to see Ms. Smallwood, Mr. Sale, and Ms. Davis supporting him whole-heartedly, and Mr. Salemi lending his learned thoughts to Mr. Mantyk’s site. I also very much appreciate the enthusiasm of Mr. MacKenzie, whose fantastic prose is everywhere lit by his belief in an Arspulchristi. Let me at this time, though in my own way, also add my voice to what Mr. Sale calls a “mystical quest” and what Mr. MacKenzie calls a “golden manifesto” in a “marble edifice of truth.” Perhaps in “our exalted craft” we too may etch “anew upon the ancient tablets of literary tradition.”

    To an Etruscan Lord
    for Evan Mantyk
    by Aedile Cwerbus
    “He probably did more than anyone in history
    to raise the level, at his time, of fickled poetry.”
    —Wir Sebeca Lude

    Maecenas, ancient royalty, descendant of the gods,
    protector of Italian glory and Rome’s sweetest sod,
    some are delighted by the shower of Olympic dust
    upon their chariots, post passing red-hot wheeled lust,
    raised up Earth’s masters, swelling busts, and granted noble palms,
    if fickled mobs compete to give out triple-honoured alms.

    But you, Maecenas, tactful, arduous, far-seeing, wise,
    assisted dread Octavian throughout his early rise,
    and aided Rome’s poetic talent, like Propertius,
    as well as Horace, Vergil, and the varied Rufuses.
    Although luxurious, inspiring mastery of Earth,
    o, noble one, you laboured hard t’ improve the heights of verse.

    Reply

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