My former student Joshua, now ambivalently quartered at UC Santa Cruz (home of the fightin’ Banana Slugs and currently under Federal investigation for systemic anti-Semitism), has an article in Literary Matters about cheating. Not students cheating; students who feel cheated. He's found a couple of excellent literature classes (Cervantes) but most just use books as a vector for stone-cold political ideology. When he was at Monterey Peninsula College, Josh was the midwife who helped deliver a great books program to a college that had been out to axe all its literature courses. In my Intro. to Lit., class he heard me refer to Robert Hutchins’s metaphor for Western literature as a “Great Conversation,” and in Literary Matters he writes
“Within weeks other members of the class and I were meeting on our own time to discuss the Great Books. We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before [my emphasis].”
Josh devoured a copy of Hutchins’s The Great Conversation that he found (where else?) in the college library discard pile. He says, ". . . the students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.” An Iraq War veteran, Josh notes that he was
inspired by The Iliad. I read the Robert Fagles translation and understood, finally, that this poem was not only about the Trojan War, but also about humanity and warfare. It might have been any war. It might be every war.”
In a similar vein, my current student Lisa says that "Before last semester I had never even read a book entirely. I realized how much I really enjoy it. Reading has opened up a whole new world for me. I am glad I finally got introduced into this world . . . .” That they both say “finally” speaks volumes about K-16 education today. Thankfully, The Great Conversation lives on, and it's encouraging that more and more students, such as Josh and Lisa, are growing tired of being excluded from the dialogue.
Clare Cavanagh was in town last week for our colloquium on “Imaginative Freedom and Political Freedom.” A celebrated translator, Clare is also the author of Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics (2010) in which she analyzes how the lyric poem served as a form of resistance and subversion in communist Eastern Europe. She stresses how the lyric presumes that each of us has a solitary, private, and unique inner being which determinist, mechanist, and collectivist communism cannot tolerate since that unitary self lies beyond the reach of the state. The same week, the Wall Street Journal (10/22) published an article about quantifying the worth of professors (from the same folks who brought you the Skinnerian snake oil of SLOs). In this latest move, professorial value reduces to profit produced for the college with no notice of anything that can’t be immediately observed, measured, or counted. But the real value of a professor can’t be observed, much less measured, because it happens for the student in Cavanagh’s internal and private self, sometimes years later. Last week I got two emails from former students, the first on Robert Hutchins’ The Great Conversation:
I opened that book and I felt like Hutchins spoke to me personally across the decades, saying that `…reading these books will make you a better companion to yourself.’”
Almost a year and a half after taking your class (Summer 2009), I'm still finding all sorts of references to the materials we read/watched and love that I have a broader perspective on the topics they address.”
I think my students found my classes worthwhile but darned if I know what metric can quantify my value.
In Friday's Pope Center piece, English professor Sarah Adams argues that today's college students ("Millenials"), while often derided for their apparent indifference to serious reading and thinking, will respond to the material in a classical liberal arts curriculum. I think she's right. While some students will tune out (or avoid if possible) courses that make intellectual demands on them, others will rise to the challenge. That's better than serving up pabulum to keep everyone content.
I just hosted a three-week colloquium exploring the relationship between great books and democracy which featured former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson, and poet and former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia. Pinsky stressed how the medium for poetry is the body of the speaker, making poetry individual and on human scale in our mass media world. Hanson argued three positions which give postmodern academics hissy fits: that there is such a thing as human nature, that we can learn from the past (reading gives us knowledge without having to go through painful experience), and that life is tragic, not therapeutic. He attributed California’s manifold problems to a utopian desire to be what we should be rather than a realistic desire to be what we actually could be, reminding me that California was the cradle of the Self-Esteem Movement. Gioia warned about the cultural dangers of not reading, citing in particular non-readers’ disengagement from civic and social life. Reading requires “sustained linear attention” which is not a property of electronic entertainments. Although Gioia was optimistic (“we can create the society in which we want to live”), the nagging question at the center of the colloquium remains: if reading and poetry nurture the individual and have positive civic consequences, might it be that the fate of liberal arts education is tied to the fate of liberal democracy itself, that the fate of literature is entwined with the fate of the West? Analytic philosopher Martha Nussbaum offered her answer in the Times Literary Supplement (April 30). As colleges carve away the liberal arts in the name of economy or productivity, Nussbaum says,
[r]adical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through. Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful, docile, technically trained machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.
I run a Great Books Program that offers courses online so that students anywhere can earn a certificate. Recently I heard Gareth Williams, Chair of Columbia’s famous Lit-Hum core and emailed him for his thoughts on teaching great books online. He was, not surprisingly, dubious:
As for Core courses online, I myself would be sceptical about the feasibility of such a step, at least from a Columbia perspective: so much here depends on the seminar format of voices heard around the table, and I feel that that format would be very hard indeed to reproduce in anything like its 'real-life' vitality if we tried it online.
I confess to similar doubts, admit that synchronous live dialogue is not reproducible, and acknowledge that the online courses are a marketing tool. Still, in 2010, perhaps discussion takes a back seat to getting students exposed to challenging texts at all. I started my program basically to keep frequently-cancelled literature courses alive in my institution (administrative pluses: lower cost and a draw for disenfranchised literature students across the country). Yet Professor Williams’s reply started me thinking about other virtues of online courses (I have taken at least a dozen and taught even more). My defense of the online mode was bolstered by an experience of “voices around the table” while reporting to an informal group of students about the Association for Core Texts and Courses Conference where I heard Dr. Williams. I could hardly get a word in edgewise with all the interruptions and crosstalk. Everyone wanted to speak at once; everyone had an opinion; no one had a question; no one cared to listen. I finally gave up. Neil Postman preached that
for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.
For now, the cost of electronically embracing what Victor Davis Hanson calls the “vanquished civilization of readers” may be the loss of “voices around the table.” The advantage of online discussions, however, is the opportunity to complete one’s thought. Students can also take time to frame their words, reflect rather than react, revise, expand, cross reference, corroborate, and fact-check. My online classes often turn into one-on-one tutorials, epistolary, more time-consuming than the classroom but with a balance of distance and intimacy. The shy can “speak” as loudly as the bold. Discipline is limited to enforcing the flaming policy. No one is watching the clock or tweeting, and students are no longer packed in a box (by the end of the day, my 1940s era classroom is redolent of a high school locker room). Martin Pawley used to argue that all technology acts as insulation against human contact. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing.
The Chronicle of Higher Education jobs list includes this gem: “The Department of English at UCLA invites applications for the position of Assistant Professor in Residence, in the area of 19th-century American literature . . . .” “Candidates should demonstrate engagement with the changing dynamics of the field, which is now characterized by disparate approaches and new configurations of interests, including (but not limited to) transatlantic studies, hemispheric studies, print culture and material textuality studies, gender and sexuality studies, visual culture studies, comparative race and ethnicity studies, geographical studies, disability studies, and other innovative frameworks.” Literature? The mind boggles. Disability studies should have a field day with Captain Ahab.
Teaching Introduction to Literature, I see a curious new phenomenon: more and more students complain, bitterly, about how dark the readings are. I’m not sure what this new critical term means; I employ a canonical set of works including Hawthorne, Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Sophocles, and newer works by Phillip Larkin, Tobias Wolff, and J.G. Ballard. If such authors do anything, they force us to face existential questions. Once, students went to college to experience just this sort of perennial questioning. Today, questioning is a nonstarter having been replaced by what Phillip Rieff called “the triumph of the therapeutic” and, as he predicted, by students preoccupied only with themselves and with attaining a “durable sense of well-being.” This ends any interest in reading about what Victor Davis Hanson calls “the tragic limitations of human existence and how to meet them and endure them with dignity.” When Larkin observes that
At death you break up: the bits that were you Start speeding away from each other for ever With no one to see
it does not sit well with the Facebook and Twitter crowd, many of whom are now convinced that advancements in regenerative medicine will indefinitely postpone their senescence. With death no longer inevitable, they find that a literature based on the tragedy of mortality is both archaic and irrelevant. In insulated, technological isolation, with electronic “friends” and avatars, Comedy Central and Family Guy, they are more concerned with distraction and are irritated that plot and character create inevitabilities and moral consequences. That’s just so...dark.
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Professor Tim Mosteller writes about his efforts at establishing a new college that will focus on great books and liberal learning. I'm wholeheartedly in favor of ventures like this that offer students a better option than they find at most colleges and universities. Trying to change higher education is only a bit less difficult than turning lead into gold. Let's give students who really want education -- rather than just a bunch of course credits -- the kind of experience Tim Mosteller has in mind.
Around 10 B.C.E., the Roman poet Horace asserted that poetry’s purpose is “to delight and instruct.” More recently, in the Wall Street Journal, James Collins declared that in her novels, Jane Austen delights and instructs in how to live a moral life. He asks, "What, then, are the values that Austen would teach us? Value-laden words and phrases appear again and again in her work, often in clusters: self- knowledge, generosity, humility; elegance, propriety, cheerful orderliness; good understanding, correct opinion, knowledge of the world, a warm heart, steady, observant, moderate, candid, sensibility to what is amiable and lovely." Austen’s words boggle the modern mind as quaintly alien and vaguely religious. They are signifiers of archaic virtues foreign to our national conversation. Today, there is only one master virtue that trumps all others: tolerance. However, real moral instruction is predicated on narrative, the arrangement of events in Time such that choices and actions have perceptible consequences. Unfortunately, our wired and wireless world tirelessly militates against narrative. On electronic networks, as Sven Birkerts put it, everything is “laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative” and what comes before is unrelated to what comes after. The hyperlink replaces the transition word (linking may be a major factor in the decline of student ability in logic, grammar, and narrative understanding). Students don’t even perceive cause and effect relationships because they have returned to an Eden-of-the-screens, outside of Time, dwelling in what Lewis Lapham called “the enchanted garden of the eternal now.”
Last April I sat in Automatic Slim’s Restaurant and Tonga Club in Memphis reading Lord Jim on my iPhone. The text scrolled faster or slower depending on how far I tilted the screen. Last week, rummaging through my basement, I found my Signet Classic paperback of Lord Jim, a textbook for a 1970 grad school course in Conrad, filled with yellowed pages, spidery underlines, and cryptic notes. Seeing the cover, holding the book, and turning the pages brought a flood of memories—the classroom, Dr. Singh Dhesi, frequent teacups of Earl Grey tea, long afternoons with a book in my hands. Suddenly, my college cats, Tabby and Mopsy, were alive again, and I was still driving my 1955 Buick . . . Curiously, a few weeks ago, the poet Rosanna Warren told me she had read The Hand wherein neurologist Frank Wilson argues that the evolution of the human hand parallels the evolution of the human brain. Wilson thinks that the complex capabilities of the evolving hand may have necessitated corollary brain development and even language itself. If he is right, I wonder if today’s thumb-typing, scrolling, and swiping fingers might produce an atrophy of the hand-brain connection and contribute to students’ steadily declining language facility. Rosanna thinks so because she has her poetry students do manual manipulative tasks lest they become dis-embodied, as we all are when online. Should I have students embroider? Screw birdhouses together? I don’t know. What I can say, with certainty, is that my iPhone dutifully reproduced Lord Jim electronically and backlighted, but with no evocation, no reverie, and no memories at all.