I recently heard about a project to modernize classical political philosophers (Hume and Locke were two of the names on the list). The reason given was that the "archaic" language usage in the originals, as well as the fact that they referred to other philosophers that the student "may not have heard of" created "obstacles" for students. It was funny to me, because I do not frankly remember reading Hume, but I know that I read the specific Locke text mentioned, the 2nd Treatise on Government. I had no problem understanding it. In fact, I thought that although Locke was English, the American student should, in particular, find his thought rather familiar, given his influence on the Founding Fathers who authored our source texts (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, e.g.).
I mentioned this on the Crooked Timber blog, where the subject was being discussed, and got the response from another poster, "well, not everyone has high verbal abilities" - and that got me to thinking. Why, indeed, do I HAVE high verbal abilities? Because I am a natural genius? Or because I was exposed to writing that was truly too hard for me and had to work to understand it? And it occurred to me that although genetics may have played a minor role (both of my parents having been college English teachers), the main reason that I am "good at" reading comprehension is that, from the age I started reading (3 - my mother used Montessori methods on me) I have always been reading things above my ability or grade level, that I did NOT totally understand, had to work at, or that required the use of a dictionary.
The difficulty of a given text, in fact, I do not see as a burden to the student. Rather, it is a valuable opportunity for the student to gain reading comprehension skills. In fact, the more difficult stuff the student has to read, the more chance the student will become a good reader capable of understanding complex ideas expressed in no-longer-standard (but still beautiful and eloquent) English (such as the writings of Locke).
However, I do understand that philosophy or political theory teachers are less interested in their students' overall reading skills than in their ability to grasp the teachings of Locke or Hume by whatever means necessary (Sorry, Malcolm). I believe this is really shortsighted. Perhaps English faculties should cooperate with the other disciplines in bringing students' reading comprehension up, if it is really that pervasive a problem in universities today.
I realize the last sentence is probably not much of a solution. I am better at defining problems than solving them, and I don't work in academia so don't have an idea of how these disciplines get along. Probably, knowing what little I do about the hallowed halls of learning, expecting the faculties to work together would create more problems than it would solve.
Next: (God Willing...) I will learn how to do links and do a separate post pointing to the sources for this - both the original website describing the "modernization" project and the discussion I took part in.