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Old Schools: Modernism, Pedagogy, and the Critique of Progress


This dissertation marks out a modernist counter-tradition, analyzing a set of texts that locate critical potential in outmoded, paradigmatically pre-modern educational forms. I show that such an anachronism, common to Italian and English-language literary culture and, later, cinema, organizes works by Walter Pater, Giovanni Pascoli, James Joyce, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Glauber Rocha. All of these figures, I argue, oppose ideologies of progress by returning to the Latin class long since left behind by progressive educators.

Across the political spectrum, modernizing reformers claimed that old-school education, often disparagingly called “instruction,” had become a dead weight, an impediment to progress. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau to John Dewey and Giovanni Gentile, these theorists declared instruction obsolete, deemed it empty, mechanical, infantilizing, and futile. Time and again, the discourse of progressive education targeted Latin in particular; the dead language—taught through such time-tested means as recitation, memorization, copying out, and corporal punishment—needed to be updated or eliminated, reformers argued, so that students could breathe free and become modern, achieving a break with convention and constraint.

By contrast, the authors I study look to instruction’s techniques precisely, and they find unlikely resources for a critique of modernity in the very practices that progressive reformers sought to clear away. Registering the past’s persistence, these authors themselves persist in what look like most retrograde attachments—to tradition, transmission, scholastic rites, and repetitive verbal forms. But the pedagogies of constraint that they devise—pedagogies that I call “counter-progressive”—repeat the past to radical effect.

Thus, against his own early liberal tendencies and a backdrop of broad educational reforms, Pater assigns “mechanical exercise” in his late essays, lectures, and fiction. Pascoli’s Paedagogium makes the case for the embattled classical school, complementing the author’s defense of this school against a range of reformist detractors. Joyce re-imagines the pensum, or punitive copying of text, as a literary form in “Oxen of the Sun,” and Pasolini’s Salò radicalizes other instructional rites. Rocha’s Claro, finally, marks the limits of the counter-progressive pedagogy that it continues, returning, like all of the works I consider, to school, to Rome, and to a history that it cannot escape.

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