The Cultural Literacy of Blind Bussardes

One of the meanings of "bussard," or buzzard, is, "A curmudgeonly or cantankerous man ... a mean, greedy person" - so, potentially, one filled with stubborn ideas and opinions.
I found the word in an excerpt of Roger Ascham's "The Scholemaster". In it, he explains the benefits of consulting commonplaces and epithets, which can "induce a man into, an orderlie generall knowledge, how to referre orderlie all that he readeth, ad certa rerum Capita, and not wander in studie". Yet he also warns of the pitfalls of the same, which can occur if study only involves those platitudes, without also developing discernment through methodical reading of the complete texts representative of the best knowledge.
"Bussardes" are worse than those who, thanks to commonplaces and epithets, know something one season but forget it the next (oh, how one finds oneself in the criticism!), but are instead trenchant in the shallowness of the learning that blinds them, having long ceased the pursuit of horizons of learning and thus having nothing to teach.

The excerpt reminded me of another extract - from J. M. Coetzee's foreword to Higgins' Academic Freedom in Democratic South Africa, which takes issue with the claim that "only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy" because such critical literacy can arguably be provided by ("core") courses in cultural literacy - which I think are comparable to the function of commonplace books within the rhetoric courses of yesteryear. Here's Coetzee:
Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses - courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol - one course to be entitled "Reading and Writing", in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled "Great Ideas", in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors. Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of "Freshman Composition".
As an alternative to the commonplace-approach to defending the humanities, he argues, "we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society."

In other words, and to draw from Ascham, if learning ends in platitudes, we will be perpetuating a shallow level of knowledge that can either be forgotten or, worse, lead to blind, trenchant opinion with no appreciation or feel for, say, nuance, context, or even, say, the speciousness of argument that has produced certain thought.
Platitudes are difficult to attain and maintain (though we are helped by commonplace blogs), but to make a claim on knowledge (brave or foolish) requires further, regular dogged revision of entire key and associated texts. Such is not for the "obstinately ignorant", to quote a 1774 entry on what the proverbial use of "buzzard" means.
According to the OED, the word buzzard is used "in names of other raptors regarded as unsuitable for falconry" - so it seems that the secondary meaning is a figurative transfer of the first. Incidentally, the second entry reads: "An ignorant or stupid person. Now usu. with the weakened sense, fellow, chap". So, today's chaps can't be trained; useless and greedy? Surely education is not to cultivate those.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Maison.

1 comment:

  1. I was fortunate to have had profs in "freshman comp" and similar courses who did not see their job as identifying commonplaces that we were to rote-learn. Instead, texts were open to dialog, to interrogation. But also, we somehow became more aware of rhetorical strategies, tropes, arts of persuasion. To begin to understand readings as more than statement - as seduction - equips us for daily life as well as all manner of reading.