November, and my undergraduates’ glazed expressions are as good as a calendar.  They’re limping through to Thanksgiving.  So am I, and perhaps my eyes, too, are glazed.  I find myself uneasy about teaching, for the first time in a while.  In my experience this is the way with teaching: a dozen good classes, one after the other—or, at any rate, classes that pass off without distress—and complacency sets in.  You decide you’re a jolly-good teacher and that teaching is a pleasant, relatively effortless game.  It only takes one disgruntled student to knock you off your perch, much as a single bad review might unsettle an actor.  But this isn’t what’s happened to me.  My students have continued to be kind.  My malaise is of a more general nature.  These students of mine, are they actually students?  And if so, in what sense?  This is what has come to haunt me.  And what am I, if their intrinsic studenthood is in doubt?

They are students, you will say.  Of course they are.  American students.  But in what sense are they actually students, other than in a technical sense?  In what way do they resemble the students I grew up with?  Come to that, in what sense are they actually Americans, other than in a technical sense, whereby they are inhabitants of a land called America?

This month I asked a class of 33 undergraduates, students (if that’s the right word) reared in America but of every provenance you could imagine, if they could put a date to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Thirty had no knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation at all, regardless of date.  Of the three who professed familiarity, only one got the date right.

My impression, gathered over the past dozen years, has been that, although young Americans appear to know little of history, even their own, the one aspect of it they know is the history of the civil-rights movement.  Not very far back, apparently.  They all know—and I’m impressed when there is anything at all that took place before their lifetime that they all know—what Rosa Parks accomplished.  But many of my undergraduates cannot tell you which century hosted the American Civil War.  So what does it mean, what might it mean, to be mindfully an American?  To belong, in your soul?  To know what on earth it is to which you belong?

Similarly with studenthood.  My perturbation began with Eliza, the undergraduate who suddenly took notes in my class.  Dear Eliza was doing the very thing a dutiful student might be expected to do, but seeing her do it reminded me forcibly that no one else in my classroom takes notes.  Nor have they ever done so.  For that matter, no students take notes in any of the classes taught by junior colleagues, which I am bound by law to observe (I believe this is mandated by the state, a faintly alarming thought) and report on.  (I mention this because it’s a signal relief to know that it’s not I alone who am somehow unworthy of note-taking.)

Inspired by Eliza, I began to wonder how I had been able, for so long, to be indifferent to the way my classes go.  This is how we proceed: For the most part, I speak to the class about what we have been reading—we were, for instance, discussing Sophocles yesterday evening, in a class devoted to the classics of the ancient world—and my students interrupt, fairly frequently, to pass comment.  For as long as I can now remember (not very far, probably not more than 20 years) I’ve been rather proud of the frequency of student interruptions.  Not only does it show they aren’t asleep (some of them) but the interruptions are often intelligent, and for a good while now I have fancied myself a master of rhetorical needlepoint—that is to say, proficient at threading these upsurges of student commentary into the weave of my argument, almost regardless of how farfetched they may be.  In fact, I have believed—as I now realize—that this was my singular art; and, more, that this justified my very existence as a teacher in ways that my understanding of Sophocles very possibly did not.  My students would remember, I fondly imagined, the generous creativity of my Socratic proceedings, even if they recalled not a single thing I ever said about the Greeks, or Shakespeare, or Faulkner, or Gertrude Stein, or any of the authors about whom I harbor proprietary feelings.

This fatuous crutch, keeping me upright all these years, snapped like a rotten branch as I began to reflect on what I felt about Eliza’s note-taking—and the absence of note-taking by everyone else.  I knew, of course, that my students were in class not to accumulate knowledge but to acquire three credits in the board game that is their progress to graduation; I had also prided myself on asking them to write assignments that expressed their own capacity for insight rather than ones that parroted my own.  But was this not precisely my mistake?  Why take notes if you never have to consult them again?  Since I’m not yet ready to fall back on the view that little of what I have to say about Sophocles is worth writing down anyway, I took stock and came up with some radical measures in last night’s class on his Antigone.

I asked the students to take out paper and write down whatever it was that I said about Sophoclean drama, in general, and the Antigone, in particular, that they felt might be useful—I did not say memorable—when it came to the assignment I intended to give, one that would require some general thought about Sophocles and his plays.  Out came the pieces of paper.  In I dove, reminding the class of the Sophoclean contribution to the evolution of drama, not only in ancient Athens, but in ways reflected in Hamlet and King Lear and in all subsequent dramatic literature.  Eloquently (I thought) I spoke of Sophocles and his understanding of how irony was the great underpinning, not only of a play like Oedipus Tyrannus, but of the unfolding of dramatic narrative itself; I spoke of how to think of theater as a genre was to think of Sophocles.  I also provided shortcuts to many of the references made by the chorus of elderly Thebans in the Antigone—matters, I felt, of useful fact that would save the students Google-time.  Gradually, I realized that almost no one was actually writing anything down or had written anything down.

Reader, it may seem impenetrably foolish to you, but I am still too abashed to ask my classes why they don’t take notes even when asked to.  In part this is simply cowardice—I shrink from bullying them into doing something that to them clearly seems as absurd as if I’d asked them to untie and retie their shoelaces, continuously, during the class; but I also hesitate because I believe I know why they don’t take notes.  They don’t understand their assignments as having to do with the arguments (much less with the wisdom, if there be such) dispensed by a professor.  Material for their assignments is garnered online, not from notes taken in class; and were a professor to complain that an argument made by a student failed to square with the professor’s own views, this would inspire only mockery.  Aren’t students in college to think for themselves? we would be asked.

The fact that I have myself written more plays than Sophocles, whose 123 tragedies identify him as the most prolific of the great masters of the genre, is of little or no interest to my students.  (If reminded of this, they would correctly point out that my plays do not compare in quality with the seven surviving works of Sophocles, and will almost certainly not compare in longevity.)  The fact that I have directed a great many plays and thought long and hard, as a practitioner as well as a teacher for the past 40 years, about what it is that grounds dramatic art—this is of just as little interest.  If I am a friendly, reasonably well-informed old buffer, I imagine I perform to the maximum of their perceived needs.  I am, in other words, a species of babysitter who, from time to time, burbles on benignly about Sophocles (or somebody).

Today, as I write this in the wake of my failed experiment in inciting note-taking, I feel bereft.  I shall recover.  But I’m also suddenly aware, as I wasn’t before (how on earth not?) that my student interpolations in class are always comments, never questions.  That is to say, my long experience in the particular field we are (notionally) studying does not seem to them to be a resource.  They might as well be in a classroom led—as is frequently the case, I must admit, in classrooms all around me—by teachers who have only the sketchiest knowledge of the subject at hand.  They do not ask—indeed, they would not dream of asking—what I think is the solution to the notorious “double burial” problem in the Antigone, whereby the heroine’s brother is reported to have been buried partially, against the Theban leader’s edict, and, subsequent to this report, is yet again reported to have been subject to a further partial burial, with Antigone herself as the criminal.  Who did the first burial?  Many are the scholarly views on the matter.  But my students, if they are concerned about it at all, will raise a hand to utter their firm and unchallengeable opinion.  To their credit—or thanks to my determinedly foolish desire forever to interweave their arguments into the fabric of what I have been pleased to call a class—their opinions usually seem interesting and intelligent to me.  They are not especially well informed, and if I take occasion to upgrade their information bank, they take my suggestions in good part; I think it reassures them that their teacher is a person who has put in the requisite time to become worthy of being their teacher.  But their idea of a good class—much as in America’s high schools, to judge from what my wife tells me—is one in which they get to speak, rather than one in which they are instructed.

Is this as bizarre as it seems to me, in my newly awakened, or perhaps reawakened, state?

Just as they never ask questions, my students do not ever look up words they don’t understand, in texts set for them to read as homework, or investigate propositions that seem obscure to them.  They simply balk at this and move on.  Never have we lived in a world in which information is so readily to hand; indeed the difference between the readiness-to-hand of Google or would leave earlier generations speechless, mindful of their own (my own, indeed) toiling journeys to libraries where the book they needed might be missing or already borrowed or simply not owned by the library in question.  And what is the upshot of this miraculous availability of answers to so many vexing questions?  The upshot is that students don’t inquire.  They don’t inquire within, or without.  The facts, ma’am, are in lock-up, they are safely stored online, so why rush to ascertain them?

Of course, my students are compendiously knowledgeable, encyclopedic even, about popular culture: sports; music; TV and film; celebrity.  This they do not leave to the internet.  They carry the knowledge around with them, in their heads.  But interest in exotic facts seems to have withered on the vine.  Bored as I was by the classes I took during my education, I was fascinated, as I’ve imagined young people always will be, by secret knowledge.  During French and German boarding-school classes, I studied, under the desk, a primer on Egyptian hieroglyphics I had come across.  I loved hieroglyphics because they were mine—mine in a way that neither German nor French nor knowledge of the music Hit Parade would ever be.  Do my students have their own world of hieroglyphics?  I’m not convinced.  At the age of 14, my son was more expert in the history and individual specifications of World War II warplanes than the military correspondents of the major English newspapers, whose errors he would upbraid in short, pungent letters to the editor.  It isn’t that he was a child genius; he was simply a kid besotted with a private world to be hunted down—it would have been no fun if the facts had been available, in his day, on some equivalent of the world-wide web—and free enough with time and a burgeoning brain to exceed what many professionals had more laboriously acquired.  For my part, armed with hieroglyphics, I wound up wanting to be an Egyptologist; but the dreadful, dreary quality of mid-century Oxbridge archeological studies put me off this ambition, I’m rather happy to say, since I have loved walking in Sophocles’ sandals for a lifetime.  Unsurprisingly, my son wound up wanting to be a pilot; when he was still a teenager I induced a pilot friend to take us up in his single-engine plane, but the outcome was disastrous: The boy was violently airsick and never looked with passion at an airplane again.  I had meant well—but I confess I was also a little relieved, since I dreaded the dangers he might incur as a warplane pilot.  Instead, he has become a fearsomely gifted mountaineer, and I’m even more frightened for his daily well-being than if he’d been a pilot.  Oh, for our best-laid plans!

Sophocles would have understood.