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Archive for January, 2009

People. People Who–Oh, Never Mind

with 3 comments

Yesterday, I virtually shredded the skin on the tip of the middle finger of my right hand, and today  I’m finding it  very hard to type. 

But let me get started.  Robert commented on yesterday’s post:

>>>Barring religion and multiple personalities, we are each of us alone in our own skulls, and I have only working hypotheses about what’s going on inside the others. That’s all any of us have<<<

And I couldn’t disagree more.  Some of us do indeed have much more than this, and they don’t just “imagine” themselves as something extrinsic like a 19th century cavalry officer.

Ages ago  I did a couple of posts on characters that write themselves–that do things writers do NOT decide to make them do, that do things that even surprise the writer who is supposed to be “inventing” them.

When this goes on, what is happening is not the writer inventing in any conscious or deliberate sense, and it is not the writer imagining what it must be like to be this person.  Instead, it IS a kind of multiple personality event.  You don’t become “a 19th century cavalry officer.”   You DO become someone whose mind functions entirely on visual cues, although in your everyday life you never notice visual cues at all.  You may even be blind.

This is the reality of point of view–the ability to step out of yourself and into somebody else’s skull, the ability not to be alone in your own skull.

If you can do this AND  replicate it on a page, you’re a good writer.  If you can do this and replicate it on a page for a broad range of human personalities and minds, you’re a great writer.  It is the job of fiction, and the job of writers of fiction, to allow people who cannot do this to step inside other people’s skulls and actually experience how they operate.

That’s what it means to write a character from the “inside.”  And no character written from the inside can be entirely invented, because the fact that that character is written that way is proof positive that at least one human being (the writer himself) is capable of thinking that way. 

You can complain that such characters are not representative of their class–that your run of the mill carpenter or jewel thief or police oficer does not think and feel the way this character does–but you cannot say that such minds do not exist, because the proof that at least one does is there in front of you on the page.

Characters written from the outside, on the other hand, can be entirely false, and usually are.  They’re the ones we tend to think of as silly and artifical whenever we don’t share the political/moral/social/cultural/whatever views of the writer who hammered them into being.  They’re the fictional equivalent of those people in the studies Mike Fisher posted the link to the references to.  We laugh at Topsy and Little Eva and Uncle Tom thes days.  We still step right into the skin of Bigger Thomas. 

Robert goes on to say:

>>>But we now know why our fiction reading barely overlaps. I’ll accept a fairly broad range of thinking and behavior from characters. The last time I can remember insisting that real people just don’t behave like that, it was Princess Amadilla in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (I was OK with Yoda.) But I accept the posited thinking or behavior so the author can get on with the story. If guessing at someone’s thought processes IS the story, the book goes back on (someone else’s) shelves.

Well, I’ll say this.

I say plot is negligible in fiction.  There are only a few dozen plots and people do them over and over again.  They’re not particularly important in a book, although the underlying narrative arc may be important in a culture.

Nor is “guessing” at a character’s thought processes the point.  If you have to guess, the fiction has failed.

The point is EXPERIENCING those thought processes, getting into that other head yourself and actually being that other mind for a while.  It’s a matter of actually being able to think like that, of stepping out of the prison of your own blood and skin and bone and taking up somebody else’s. 

The best fiction is a kind of induced multiple personality event.

The (temporary) ability to do this, and the experience of the broadest possible range of human minds, is the great gift of the arts as they have been conceived and executed in Western culture.  And it is the payoff, so to speak of the serious study of the Humanities. 

It is virtually impossible for any one of us to be fully, completely and consciously human on our own.  Each individual human being is too limited, and there are too many altneratives out there in the form of other individual human beings.   To understand what it means to be human, we have to know ourselves, but we have to know a lot more than ourselves.

This is what all the arts are for, in the West, but it is especially what fiction is for.   And it is on the basis of whether or not a book does this kind of thing that it gets serious consideration as part of the canon. 

If it was political considerations that determined what a “great book” was, Isabel Archer and Daisy Miller would have been drummed out of the club decades ago, because Henry James may have been gay, but he was a stalwart social conservative especially when it came to the role of women.  Feminists tear their hair, and the kind of academic feminist who is tone deaf to fiction tries to drive The Portrait of a Lady off the curriculum in favor of The Women’s Room, but any feminist who is not tone deaf knows that The Portrait of a Lady is a great book, even though it’s telling her a lot of things she doesn’t want to hear, and The Women’s  Room is not, even though it’s so politically correct it hurts.

Plots will never change much.  They’ve been around for millennia, and it’s seldom that a new one enters the landscape.  One of the great advantages of genre novels, if they’re otherwise well written (see definition above), is that they make it possible to ignore plot more or less completely. 

The detective will dicover the murderer and in all likelihood the murderer will be caught.

Good.  Glad we got that over with.  Now show me what you’re offering that will let me live in somebody else’s skin besides my own.

Written by janeh

January 22nd, 2009 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Students We Deserve

with 7 comments

I spent half the night thinking about how to make this coherent, because it all ties in.   So let me give it a try.

First,  you have to understand the situation  I am in with teaching.  I do most of that teaching in a special program for “remedial” students, which is a polite way of saying “backwards” ones.  I didn’t just make up that second descriptive word.  It’s a one a lot of the teachers in that particular program use, and it’s not completely inapt. 

These are not just kids who did poorly in high school and landed in a low-level community college.  I’ve taught those students, too, and they’re light years different from the kind in my special program.  They’re motivated, they’re often older, they’re bright and they know what they want.   They may have blown off school a few decades ago or received a poor foundation for college work, but they’re not stupid and they’re not passive.

The students in my special program courses are different at base.   For one thing, they’re mostly young.  They’re just out of high school or only a few years past it.  Lots of them have GEDs instead of regular graduation credentials, and among the men a high number of those  GEDs were earned in prison.   Among the women, I’d guess the average age at first childbirth was around fifteen, but I may be being optimistic here.   They’re eighteen or twenty when they come to my classroom and they all seem to have multiple children.  A fair number of them have multiple children that have been taken away by the state because of their drug use or hooking.

Note what I haven’t said here–I haven’t said they’re poor, and I haven’t said they’re minorities.  A lot of them are both, but by no means all of them are.   The middle class students who end up in my room have different life stories, but they all have that single characteristic that shocked me so much when I first ran into it and that I still don’t understand:  they are still terminally, embeddedly passive.

Embeddedly.  I don’t even know if that’s a word.  It doesn’t look like a word.

I want to point out that not all my students in this program are passive in this way.  Every once in a while–and it is only every once in a while–I get the exception, the one who’s going to makeuse of what’s on offer.  Those are the bright spots in my day, but they’re few and far between, and I’ve gone for several terms without getting even one of them.

I also want to point out that I have no reason to complain here, and that it wasn’t me who suggested that the administration ought to send me different students.  I signed on to teach THESE students.  On purpose.  I knew what I was getting into, and I  had options.   Sometimes when this stuff gets to be too much for me,  I even use the options–teach other students, in higher level classes, with more “potential.”

But when  I  first started doing this, the issue wasn’t the money I could make from it but getting out of my house after Bill died and the boys were both in school and it was suddenly empty.  And I thought that the least I could do was to try to do some good, and this looked like a path in that direction.

It’s very difficult to find people with academic credentials like mine to teach students like my special program ones.   Most of our teachers in that program are ex-high school teachers with master’s degrees in education from local colleges, older women who need to supplement their pensions and their Social Security.   The good ones are decent enough.   The bad ones hate what they do and hate the students they teach, and it shows.

I found Theodore Dalrymple because I was looking for some explanation for why my students behaved the way they behaved, why their constant and unending approach to life was always to shrug their shoulders and say “can’t do nothing about it.”  I had never met people like this before, in life or in art. 

Note that I am not claiming that these students are “stupid.”  Some of them are certainly not very bright, but I’ve met profoundly stupid people in all walks of life who do not have this passivity.  It’s the passive-ness, not the innate intellectual talent, that is the problem here.

I  went looking for books that would explain it, for fiction or nonfiction, for memoirs, for anything.   I found Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom, which was a brilliant exposition of the problem I look at every day.  It describes the situation beautifully, and in detail. 


It still doesn’t give me what I’m looking for, which is a way to understand how my students think and feel.  What I learn in Life at the Bottom is twofold:  first, it’s not just me and I’m not imagining things; and second, what Theodore Dalrymple thinks and feels and how he deals with what’s been set before him. 

If I had had a fictional example to give you, I would have given it.   I don’t know of one.  The closest example I can think of is Mailer’s portrait of Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song, and precisely because he claims to be writing from inside Gilmore’s head he calls the book a “nonfiction novel.”  The book is sort of halfway between fiction and nonfiction, based on a real case and real research but written from inside the heads of its various characters as if Mailer had “invented” all of them.

But here’s the thing–I don’t think any decent writer of fiction ever “invents” a character.  Nor do I think that people reject characters as “not the way real people would behave” because those characters don’t suit their prejudices.  In fact, fiction is one of the greatest sources we have of making behavior that initially seems bizarre or wrong seem understandable instead.

When we say that characters aren’t believable, we almost always mean they’ve been written from the outside, with a particular agenda, social or political or religious or whatever, forced upon them. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne didn’t “invent” Hester Prynne and Herman  Melville didn’t “invent” Ishmael and Henry James didn’t “invent” Isabel Archer, they lived them.   Our brains work the way they work, but some of us are capable–to one extent or another–of slipping the reins of our own personalities and allowing aour brains to enter into another groove and work that way for a while instead.

What results when that happens is not just a matter of characters with minds of their own–which we discussed before–but a laying-bare of the process of thought that, as I’ve also said before, can’t be found anywhere else.   The very best of this sort of thing makes it possible for the reader to slip his own groove and enter into that of the character, so that he actually experiences a different way of thinking. 

He isn’t just told that the character felt this or that, or thought this or that, or did this or that.   He takes on the character’s blood and skin and bone and feels and thinks and does it all along with him.  And in that way, and only in that way, can any of us ever understand  the full range and scope of human nature.

I don’t think any character so written can every be completely false.  He might be a minority in the class or category in which he is situated–an unusual thief or mother or priest–but the very fact that a writer and a reader can do what I’m talking about means it is, by definition, possible for such people to exist.  If it wasn’t, our brains wouldn’t be able to do what they do in this process. 

We could, of course, invent characters from the outside and simply tell readers what they’re supposed to be like, but that isn’t the same thing, and that’s when we get complaints that the characters aren’t “real.”

I don’t know why there are no examples–or so few that I haven’t run across them–of people like these in fiction.  I know I’ve tried several times to create such a character myself, and in every case fallen flat on my face.  My mind simply will not work the way their minds seem to. 

That defines the limit of my talent, obviously–and my talent is very limited–but, again with the exception of the Mailer, I don’t know anybody else who’s tried it, either.  And even the Mailer is a half-try, because Mailer chose what seems to have been the one incident in Gilmore’s life when he was not mired in passivity to focus his story on. 

Maybe there is something genetic, or innate, or deeply environmentally planted that marks such people off from the rest of us, so that once we pass a certain point we just can’t think that way anymore. 

But the fact that we don’t understand it, that we have no fiction from the inside of it, means that we also have virtually no knowledge of how to cure it.  And it could use being cured.  People who are passive in this way do not lead happy lives, or productive ones.   If they start out poor, they stay that way.   If they start out middle class, they drift through jobs and relationships incoherently and end up vaguely resentful and confused in an old age defined, again, by a listless resignation to “fate.”  They win lotteries and blow the money.  They leave the scenes of accidents and can’t explain why.   They watch television and don’t understand most of it.  They sit.

We could use somebody who could understand this, who could get inside it and write from inside it.  Before I started teaching in my program, it would never have occured to me that so many of these people existed.  Here they are, though, and I’m not in favor of letting them starve, so it seems to me that we ought to be able to do something.

For some reason or other, these people have been left outside the Western imaginative framework, they are not part of any canon on any level I can think of, nor are they part of any of the forms some of you like to call “popular.”  Nor do they exist in the literature of any other country I have come across.  If the purpose of literature is to present us with the full range of human experience, this is a place where literature has let us down.

But  I will guarantee you, “nonfiction,” whether it pretends to be “science” or not, has not only done no better, but has mostly generated ideas that are downright and probably false. 

I sent you to Theodore Dalrymple because he’s the best write I know of what it looks like from the outside.

I don’t know anybody who can tell you, or me, what it looks like from the inside.

Written by janeh

January 21st, 2009 at 6:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Inauguration Day

with one comment

When I was a child, my father used to take us to Florida every winter for three months.  That is, he’d take us, come back north himself, and then see us on the week-ends or whenever possible until April, when we’d all come home.  We had a house there.  He would make arrangements with our schools.   Sometimes he would hire tutors when the schools insisted, although that tended not to work that well.  I always thought I was smarter than the tutors.  In at least one case, I was absolutely right.

This was before the interstates went through, so in order to drive from Connecticut to  Florida we had to take a lot of those two-lane blacktops people thought of as “highways” before we had real ones.  On one of these trips, going South, we stopped at a small gas station-cum-convenience store in Florence,  North Carolina.  I was standing in the convenience store part, straining to find some suitable kitschy stuff to talk my parents into buying for me, when my father appeared at my side, grabbed me by the wrist, and said, “Come with me.”

I came.   We went outside and around the back of the station.  He turned me so that I faced the building’s back wall, pointed at it and everything that was there, and said, “Look at that.”

What I was looking at was a fountain next to a toilet with a door that would not properly close.  Both of them were marked with big printed signs that said, “COLORED.”

I was seven years old.

It’s inauguration day, and I’ve been sitting around all morning thinking about the day after the election.  On that day, I went looking for a copy of The New York Times. a copy with  The Headline on it, just to have.   Every newstand in three towns was sold out, so I headed for the one place I was sure would have copies untouched:  my campus, where close to half of the students are African-American, and where nobody seemed to care.

Nobody did, either.  I found a huge stack of the things in the free bins in the classroom building where I teach, and I picked up a couple just for me.

I have a class today just after the swearing in ceremony.  The university has brought in several large-screen TVs and put them in strategic places on campus, including in the dining hall, so that people can watch.   I will watch, but I’m willing to bet that that cafeteria will be half empty, that almost nobody would notice.

I know, I know.  I was in the middle of a stream of consciousness thing about characters and whether they’re “invented” or not (I don’t think they are, in the sense Robert seems to mean it).  I’ll get back to it later.

Right now, what I can’t seem to wrap my head around is the fact of what I’m sure is coming, a campus full of African American students the majority of whom will not be willing to rouse themselves from their usual lethargy to see the first African American in history be sworn in as President of the United States.

I’m not saying my African American students are particularly lethargic, mind you.  My white students are equally lethargic, if not more so.  They just express it differently.   My white students whine that they’re “bored.”  My black students just shrug.

Back to the victims and victimizers thing here–I’m sure that there are places where students are taught to think of themselves as victims, and where African Americans and other minorities are especially given reason to focus on the historical wrongs done to their ancestors because of race, but that really isn’t what I’m about to go into here.

My minority kids seem to be taught nothing.  I taught a section of Literature and Comp a couple of years ago.  L and  C is the second semester course on the program that leads to regular admission to a four year degree.  It consists not just of learning how to write, but learning how to write English papers specifically.  Which means we have to assign some actual literature for the students to write about.

I often assign a lot of poetry by Langston  Hughes, both because he’s a good poet and because he’s an interesting man, and that year I fave them a poem called “Theme for English B.” 

“He’s living at the  YMCA,” I said.  “He’s doing that even though Columbia has dorms.   Why do you think he’s not living in the dorms?”

Blank stares.  Lots of shrugs.  Several people looking out the window.  I tried it again.  And again.  And again.  Finally, I just told them. 

“He’s living in the dorms because he’s black,” I said.  “He’s the only black student at Columbia in his year and they won’t let black students live in the dorms.”

There was a stirring at the back of the room.  A kid, a black kid, poked his head up.  “Wait,” he said.  “They wouldn’t let him live in the dorms because he was black?  Just because he was black?”

I could go on at length about this particlar scene, because it stretched through long minutes, but the upshot is this:  this kid, eighteen years old and the product of twelve years of public education, had no idea that there had ever been a time when black people in the United States were prevented from doing things because they were black.

Oh, he’d heard about “segregation,” sort of.  He’d heard about the  Civil Rights Movement, too.  He’d really heard about “racism.”  The problem was that none of these things connected to anything solid for him, or at least anything solid in history.

And he wasn’t the only one.   I had one young woman who had really managed to look into all this, who knew something not only about the standard history but about the history of ideas, who had read not only Hughes before but W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass and  Alice Walker.  She went on to graduate from a four-year degree program at the top of her class, and I sent her a card on the occasion.

But the rest of my students, and definitely the rest of my African American students, didn’t have a clue about any of this.  “Racism” was when I gave them a  D on a paper two pages too short for the assignment and having nothing to do with it, or when their math professors had them administratively removed from her course after they’d missed seven classes in a row.

I said this at some point near the beginning of this blog, but this seems a good occasion to say it again:  sometimes I wish some of these kids had been given the kind of “victims education” that drives conservatives wild.  It’s not that I think such education is necessary, or even accurate, but at the very least it would have acquainted them with the history of what is going on here. 

My kids know so little of the history of their own country, or of the world, that they don’t see anything remarkable in the fact that we are about to have an African American President of the United States.  They know so little of the history of their own county, the history of the world, or the realities of human nature that they don’t realize that this event is so unqiue on so many levels, it’s mind-boggling. 

So I’ll go in today, and I’ll ask for a writing sample, and I’ll use the inauguration for a prompt because it’s going to b what’s on my mind.

And I’ll get back twenty essays out of twenty-two that say, “I don’t like politics.  It’s not interesting to me. It’s just boring.”

I will go to those big bins where they put out copies of The New York Times for free and make sure I get myself one.

And  I’ll go back tomorrow and get one with the picture of the swearing in on it, because the Times will do that.

Sometimes I think that that passivity I’ve been talking about goes a lot deeper than just not doing anything.

And tomorrow I’ll get back to business, and why Theodore Dalrymple is not an example of me going to nonfiction for how people think and feel.

Written by janeh

January 20th, 2009 at 6:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Back to the Beginning

with 4 comments

A hundred or so posts ago now, I started this blog by saying that I wanted to talk about a number of things–including harpsichords, which I haven’t gotten around to yet–and that one of them would the tendency of too many people in too many places to assume that “science” is the only posible valid mode of inquiry into anything. 

When Robert sent me an e-mail over night headed “the limits of fiction,” my first impulse was to let it ride and send him a private answer, but then John chimed in with puzzlement about the state of social “science,” and it occurred to me that this might be the place both for the e-mail and the reply.

What Robert said was:


As with you, I feel as though I’m making an easy point poorly.
Let’s try the other way. As a paleoconservative/libertarian, I’m not much impressed by interventionist constitution-stretching government. Could it be that I’m mistaken? That it’s more necessary and useful and less harmful corrupt and corrupting than I asess it to be? Maybe. Will THE WEST WING ever convince me of this? Not a chance.
MASH was dedicated to the proposition that the Korean War was stupid and unnecessary, and that every aggressive line officer was a butcher and everyone right of Harold Stassen an idiot.. Chinese communists, on the other hand, were pretty decent understanding fellows. It failed to convince me–though it did convince me to watch less TV.
Sitting on the Bookcase in Exile is Andrew Greeley’s PATIENCE OF A SAINT. It concerns a man who has a sudden deep religious experience, and turns his life around. He moderates his drinking, becomes faithful to his wife, concerned for his co-workers and interested in his children’s lives. They think he’s having a nervous breakdown, and have him institutionalized. The book stays on the shelves because, by and large, everyone is behaving as I understand people to behave. He also bangs the drums for Bill Clinton as a generally wonderful fellow, and for Chicago for being no more and arguably less corrupt than other major cities. This cuts no ice whatever.
When Snakehead Carville pointed out that at the end of the Clinton administration every division Clinton hadn’t disbanded was at REDCON 1, he had an actual fact in Clinton’s favor. Admitedly it was only one, but that outweighs EVERY piece of fiction on the subject.
My impression of thieves is “lazy, self-centered and (mostly) not very birght.”  Fiction showing them differently, be it OCEAN’S 11 or the BURGLAR WHO series, gets rated as bad fantasy, and mostly doesn’t stay around. If I’m wrong about thieves, the way to convince me is to demonstrate that they work more than 40 hours a week, do volunteer work and score above average on IQ tests. A thief in a novel is not evidence.
But if I AM wrong, then of course I’m sorting for fiction mistaken in the same way–which is my point.
One of my colleagues keeps up a panel from a Dilbert cartoon. Pointyhair is explaining that “Your research disagrees with my intuition.”  The danger of fiction is that we use that intuition to sort and validate it.<<<
What I replied was:
>>>Yes, but completely beside the point.

       None of the things you mentioned has anything to do with what fiction is good for–with what fiction is the ONLY source we have for.

       I’m not talking about “convincing” you of whether the general run of thief is stupid or smart, or if the Korean war was a good or bad thing, or if you should want a “living” or a “static” constitution.

       I’m talking about understanding HOW INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE THINK AND FEEL.

       And you can’t get this from either history or biography–they will tell you what people DO, but not HOW they think and feel.

       And you really can’t get this from the social “sciences,” which are not “sciences,” but ideologies.

       (History, by the way, has traditionally been classified as one of the humanities.)

       But the three social sciences that purpot to tell you how people think and feel are not only not sciences, and not only don’t provide you with facts, but are both outrightly ideological and almost limitlessly destructive.

       The one part of psychology that can be classified as science at all–the genetic and materialist wing, which says things like “when you make the decision to go to the store your postfurtive neurons fire into action one tenth of a second before your machbelarouse neurons do” and “the religious impulse was evolutionarily selected because it provides these benefits to survival”–tells me only one thing that matters about human beings, and it’s the one thing that the rest of psychology simply refuses to accept.

       That is that a lot of our behavior is “hard wired,” and therefore not perfectable.

       The rest of psychology, like sociology and anthropology, declares that this finding is just “fascism” and “racism” and proceeds to ignore it, while producing “data” “proving” that compulsive shopping is an “addiction,” getting sad when the weather is lousy is a “disorder” and ten year old boys who can’t sit still in class need a powerful amphetamine to “treat” their “disorder” because there MUST be a biochemical abnormality to explain their behavior, even though nobody can actually find one.

       Look at that last one.  It should be cut and dried, in “science.”  No data to show a biochemical abnormality, no biochemical explanation for the abnormality–but in spite of the fact that test after test after test, study after study after study, has found no corroboration for a biochemical basis for ADHD, we go on prescribing Ritalin by the bucketful to children.

       Anthropology gave us Margaret Mead and the happy sexy Samaons, and it goes on feeding them to undergraduates as “data” and “fact” twenty years after the “data” were proved to be fraud.  Sociology is so politicized that it’s difficult to know what the “data” is supposed to consist of, but I’ll absolutely guarantee you that it will find that “inequality of economic condition” is bad for us and state-centralized social welfare is good for us, and do it again and again and again even when the ACTUAL data contradicts it on every point.

       Hell, Charles Murray wrote Losing Ground over twenty years ago–it might be closer to thirty now–and he had enough data to bury the idea that the Great Society programs had ever helped much of anybody, but not only has Sociology not accepted this data, it has ignored it while attacking Murray himself as politically beyond the pale.  When The Bell Curve came out, the profession simply labelled Murray a racist and felt free to ignore him.

       Sorry, Robert.  It’s these things that are truly limited, not fiction.

       I like history and biography just fine–but they won’t tell me HOW people think and feel.
       And yes, there is always the danger that somebody writes so well he presents as plausible a kind of thinking or feeling that isn’t true, or that somebody is so mired in his prejudices that he only hear what he wants to hear.

       But as the above will show you, that happens in the social “sciences,” too.  It doesn’t change the fact that fiction (well, the imaginative arts generally, but that’s another story) is still the ONLY place we can go to learn how people think and feel.

       There isn’t another option at the moment, and I think it’s possible that there never will be. 

       Not everything can be investigated by the methods of biology and physics. 

       But those things that cannot be investigated that way are still things we need to know.  In fact, we need to know them far more urgently than we need to know whether the universe is steady state or imploding.

And to answer John’s question–I think that the reason the social sciences are n ot self-correcting in the way that the natural sciences are is that they are not, in fact, sciences.  They’re an attempt to do what the humanities do–to understand the way people think and feel, and the realities of human nature–without the structure, and the brakes, of traditional humanistic study.
Imaginative literature can certainly propose narratives that are factually false in the real world, things that are not the truth even if they didn’t happen, and these narratives can have enormous repercussions in society at large if that society takes them up as true.  But the point of the canon–the point of acquainting students not with some little bit of literature here and another there and a painting or two plus a round of the Emperor’s Concerto, but with a systematic overview of the arts as they have existed throughout time, is to provide a framework for narratives that pits the accumulated experience of being human against any one particular take on it.
And, as I said, the danger of making a mistake here doesn’t relieve us of the necessity of accepting that we can find this information nowhere else and in no other form, and that this information is vitally important to us.
Lymare says that children need to be taught to work hard, and I agree, but my main concern in the last post was not that they hadn’t learned that, but that the therapeutic society had convinced them that  IF the work they were doing was onerous to them, then they must have some kind of “disorder,” that NORMAL people did not find chores and other work a burden. 
That is, as I said, a mistake literature would not make–Shakespeare knew better, Henry  James knew better, even Agatha  Christie knew better. 
We are doing an enormous amount of damage here, in insisting that “science” can tell us all we need to know about ourselves. 

Written by janeh

January 19th, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Victims and Victimizers

with 7 comments

So, I’ve been thnking about Janet’s’ post, and actually I’ve been thinking about the whole “victim mentality” thing for much longer than that.  It’s also  Sunday, and we’re in the middle of yet another snowstorm.  But it’s warmer than it was yesterday, which can’t hurt.

Anyway, here’s the thing.  I know the victim mentality, and I’ve seen it work, but I think that what Janet’s students and mine are really possessed of is something else–it’s the rock-solid conviction that they have a right to certain things–a happy life, to start with.

Every semester I ask all of my students to take that ‘literacy quiz” I posted here back in December, and on question 92, which ask them to pick all the rights granted to them by the US Constitution, the most common mistake is to choose “the right to be happy” as one of them.

This isn’t an unusual mistake to make about what is, after all, something in the Declaration of  Independence and not in the Constitution, but the mistake is now so widespread and on so many different levels and so many institutions, that it’s become one of the principle “social problems” of the era.  We just don’t acknowledge it as such.

For most of the time that humanbeings have been on this earth, the assumption has been that life will not be happy, or comfortable, for almost anybody.  Some very few people at the top of the social scale got general comfort most of the time, although comfort was limited even for them. 

As for happiness–the Greeks thought it was so rare that they instinctively distrusted the appearance of it.  Call no man happy until he is dead, Aristotle said, and he meant not that we’d all be better off as corpses but that circumstances change on a daily basis and what is “happy” on Tuesday can descend inot misery by Friday afternoon.

If we’ve lost the sense that death is natural and can happen to anybody at any moment, we’ve also lost the sense that life is naturally prone to miseries.  The difference, though, is that something real has changed for us in regard to death–we do really die less often, and are really less likely to die young; we have conquered many of the things that used to kill us off in childhood and childbirth and beyond.  Antibiotics mean safe Cesarian sections and cured cases of tuberculosis.

The problem with happiness is that nothing at all has changed in any fundamental way for human beings.  Happiness is not our default mode.  The same Greeks who didn’t trust the idea of happiness, or the experience of it, saw human beings as creatures halfway btween beasts and gods, and because of that continually and inevitably in conflict inside themselves.

What’s happened in the post-World War II West is that we have acquired a belief that happines is in fact the default mode, as is perfect and flawless functioning, and that any deviation from these things is either “disease” or oppression.  If we are causing our problems for ourselves, we must be in the grip of “disease.”  If we can find no way in which we are causing these problems, then somebody else must be causing them.  The idea that some of these problems–laziness, for instance, or a strong sexual attraction to the kind of men who like to cut and run when they’re asked for commitment–aren’t “caused” at all but simply a part of our nature, isn’t an idea that’s even on the radar.

Robrt suggested a couple of posts ago that I could go to fiction to understand people if I wanted to, but the “scientific” people had data and that would be safer–but I don’t agree that the “scientific” people do have data, at least not if the “scientists” involved are what populates so much of clinical psychology these days.

What these people have is an assumption that starts with Jean  Jacques Rousseau and makes its way through every Utopian scheme in the eras since and that has now come to rest as the therapeutic society–the assumption that men and women are “naturally” good and that they ar also “naturally” and infinitely malleable. 

According to Best Social  Work  Practice, as one of my students put it, being  well-organized, focussed and diligent is the default mode.  People who are disorganized, scatterbrained and lazy are either sick (ADHD, maybe) or in some way damaged (bad parenting, child abuse).

My students–and, I’m willing to bet, Janet’s–come to school convinced that not just academic work, but everything else, should be easy.

And by easy, I don’t mean “not difficult to understand.”  I mean that academic work should come naturally.   They should be naturally interested in it.  They should naturally want to do it.   It doesn’t ocur to them, or to their parents, or to their therapists, that there is anything “natural” about just hating the idea of writing a paper, or memorizing Latin declensions, or hacking away at the times tables until they become second nature. 

Life is supposed to feel good, and so many of the things we must do to achieve anything in the world do not feel good.  The students I was ranting about the other day, the good ones who take responsibility and get the job done, are almost never “happy” about doing it.  Studying is a chore for them just as much as it is for their classmates who don’t do the work.   Taking responsibility is difficult and often unpleasant and even oftener requires them to forgo something they would like to do better.  

Here’s a good reason to read–to read difficult books, too, including “old fashioned” fiction–and that’s that it will present to us the circumstances and interior lives of people who choose not to chase happiness, who choose to do what they are obligated to do intead, who do not expect that happiness is something they are just supposed to have.

I feel like I’m putting this badly.  What keeps coming into my head are all those diet commercials on television–try our diet!  the pounds will just melt off!  you’ll never be hungry!

But the truth of the matter is that, in the early stanges of any diet that’s going to b successful in the long run, you will be hungry.  You just have to put up with it until you’ve trained your body to behave the way you want it to, and you may never actually be able to do that.   Some people may “control their weight” only by constant vigiilance and never-entirely-conquered discomfort.

I don’t think that the students I teach–the passive ones, that we’ve talked about before–think of themselves as “fictims” in the sense that the various Victims Rights and Victims Studies movement define that term. 

I do think that they look on themselves and the world as a place were what is “natural” is ease and happiness, and when the world is not that way–and it neverhas been, annever will be–they think that there must be something “wrong” that somebody else must fix.  Because the bottom line in a therapeutic culture is that everything can be fixed.

I think my students are passive because the world they believe they live in does not exist.   They do not just require just being made to do their homework, but to somehow be rendered capable of wanting to do it.  They are sure that the mere fact that they don’t want to do it means that something is wrong–the teacher is boring, or the work is, or they’ve got a learning disability, or whatever.

It takes a lot of pseudo-science, complete with charts and studies and data, to conclude that ten  year olds who won’t do their homework or sit still in class have “attention deficit disorder” and that fifteen year olds who defy their parents have “oppositional defiant disorder.”  Sane people call these things “childhood” and “adoslecence,” but then sane people don’t believe that diligence, obedience and common sense are the default modes of human personality.

And it seems to me that at some point, we’re going to have to have a corrective arc here, another acknowledgement that life is not easy and often isn’t either comfortable or happy, that some suffering is unavoidable, that nobody has a “right” to be happy or even a reasonable expectation of it.

The term is about to start in a couple of days, and I am once again going to face classrooms full of students who…just sit.  Some of them come to class and some of them don’t, but the ones who do won’t have done the reading.   They tried, but they couldn’t get into it.  They’re not interested in any of this stuff.  They don’t care and they don’t see why they ought to care.  Besides, this hasn’t got anyting to do with their major. 

What I do insist is that I will not, now or later, gve in to the presumption.  I assume that every single one of the excuses they give me is absolutely true.  I also assume they don’t matter.

Do it anyway, I tell them.

They aren’t interested.  If it has to feel bad, there must be something wrong, they must have a learning disability or I must be a bad teacher. 

Because as far as they’re concerned, nobody is supposed to feel bad or bored, ever, and the only legitmate “difficulty” is the kind of thing that happens when it takes four tries to beat the next game level. 

Here’s one thing that literature will tell you the truth about, and science will not.

Written by janeh

January 18th, 2009 at 11:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Good Murder

with 4 comments

The title of th is post comes from a bit of French (possibly faux French) from something that may or may not be an actual French poem, called La Belle Homicide.  I admit to not having the patience to read through the conversation on the list I saw this on, mostly because  it’s about four degrees below zero where I live and my office, where my computer is, is in a sunroom.  Meaning it’s really, painfully cold.  That said, I like the term–The Good Murder–and I can even think of half a dozen ways it could be meant.

Cheryl says that the civilized murder, like the handsome young detective investigating it and the half dozen suspects with interesting motives who may have committed it, is a fantasy.   I don’t think I agree.   Oh, the handsome young detective is fantasy enough, but I can think of a whole raft of cases off the top of my head that fit the definition of “civilized murder” the way  I used it in the last post.   There are even a fair number of cases out there that read like murder mysteries.  In the early days of shows like American Justice,.those were the cases they concentrated on.

Consider the three most prominent examples of spousal murder over the last ten or fifteen years, the three  Petersons, Scott, Drew and Michael.  In at least two of these cases (Drew and Michael) there’s the possibility that the man in question murdered one or more wives before the one he became notorious for.   In one case (Michael) the accused was a best selling writer of thrillers.  In all three cases, the victims and murderers and suspects were all solidly middle class or better. 

There are more cases, if you want to look.  There’s Barbara Suger of Durham, North Carolina, who also managed to get away with one spousal murder before she got caught in the replay, who was also solidly middle class and whose story sounds like something out of a Marple, at least, complete with fraud, publishing and really complicated forensics.

But I don’t have to go that far afield.  I have one of these, more or less, in my own family.  I say more or less, because it concerns the mother of the husband of one of my cousins, who murdered her own mother and sister for the insurance money. 

“Civilized” murders, murders of the kind that make the basis of many traditional murder  mysteries, do occur, they just don’t occur as often as murder mysteries make them seem to.  So the question remains, is there a difference in kind, or only in degree, between this kind of thing and the mob of idiots who bludgeon homeless tramps to death for the hell of it?

Robert says it’s only a difference of degree, and in fact the underlying assumption of the traditional murder mystery is just that.   In fact, by the omission of any kind of acknowledge of “regular” murder in the traditional murder mystery, “civilized” murder is left to stand in for it. 

I think though, that looking at the two kinds of crime makes the issue a lot less clear.   Certainly the people who commit the two different kinds of crime have very different kinds of personalities.  Maybe there’s a kind of continuum, beginning with that mob of idiots who kill or maim because they’re bored,.moving up through the deliberated violence of organized thuggery, and ending up on the doorstep of these two little old ladies who murdered half a dozen old men to get hold of their monthly social security checks.  I wish I could remember their names.  It was one of  my favorite true crime documentary stories, and I’ve misplaced it.

Robert suggests that fiction is a bad place to go for information, and several other people have said that they read to “relax” or to “escape” or for “fun.”  I’ll go on record and say that I agree with  Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren, that there are three levels of reading:  for entertainment, for information, and for understanding.  I am, with books, the way a good skiier is with slopes.   The easy stuff doesn’t entertain me, it just bores me.

But I don’t read for information, either, although it’s a plus if I get something that.  I read for understanding.  What I go to fiction for is help in understanding people, and a book is “good” for me to the extent that it gives me a view into the way people very different from me think and feel. 

And, in case you’re about to ask–yes, I do think fiction is the best place to go for such understanding.  In fact, at the moment, I would say it’s the only place we can go.  Psychology does a fair, but only fair, job of giving us the general patterns of  characteristics in wide categories of people, and it can describe the symptoms of diseased minds, but as soon as it gets near individuals, or attempts to describe the functioning of normal minds, it falls apart.   Or worse.

We bring psychologists into courtrooms and parole hearings to predict the future behavior of criminals, and their predictions are less accurate than chance.  This is, after all, a group of people who vote on what is to be classified as a disease, and who are unable to distinguish between an “addiction” and a “habit.”  The result is a multibillion dollar rehab industry with a 97% failure rate and story after story in the papers about axe murderers released from prison as no longer a danger to the community only to hack up their landladies in the first week.

The other result, of course, is the wholesale ditching of Constitutional protections for anybody ever labeled a “sex offender,” no matter what he did to be handed that appellation.  In some states, anybody who has ever been accused of a sex offense–even if he was never charged, or acquitted–is labeled a “sex offender” and registered and tracked.  Apparently, peope accused of sex crimes are not innocent until proven guilty.

So,  yes, fiction is where I go to understand people.  Theoretically, both biography and true crime should offer much the same kind of understanding, but for some reason I don’t understand, they don’t, usually.  My best guess for biography is that it usually takes in too much of a person’s life, tries too hard for the big picture, rather than zeroing in, as fiction does, on one particular arc in the personal narrative.

With true crime, I think the fault may be true crime writers, a lot of whom come from either law enforcement or psychology and who have therefore been trained to look at people from the same kind of theoretical perspective that makes so much psychology so lame. The two true crime books I  can think of that did excellent jobs on the understanding people front–In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song–were both written by first-class novelists. What’s more, they both called their books “nonfiction n novels.” 

But the question remains, or returns, as to whether there is something fundamentally different between the kind of violence committed by all those Petersons and that committed by those random thugs on the street–and, unfortunately, fiction as it exists so far doesn’t really help. 

Traditional mysteries don’t deal with ordinary violent crime.  The more realistic kind of “crime novel” does, but almost all of these are written almost exclusively from the points of view  of their detectives, with only minimal exposure to the points of view of the perpetrators.   And the perpetrators are often stereotypical, more excuses for the plot than attempts to explain and explore real human individuals.  

Mailer and Capote are better, but the didn’t go all the way to the bottom of the barrel, either, although Mailer’s Gary  Gilmore came closer than any character I’ve ever seen to being a type of mind completely and utterly foreign not only to me, but to what I can undestand of the Peterson boys, too.  Mailer’s Gilmore lives in a world of dotted lines, where nothing connects to anything else, where picking up cigarettes can lead to murder because, well, it was Tuesday, and…I don’t know..things just happen.

In civilized murders, things do not just happen.  They have to be planned, and no Gary Gilmore could commit one.

Written by janeh

January 17th, 2009 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

All Over Again

with 2 comments

Yesterday, I daid that I had two things on my mind, one of them related to books, and the other not.  I never got around to the one related to books, so let me start there.

I’ve got a lot of books in my office.  I mean a lot.   We’re talking a hundred or so, at least.  Some of these books I’ve already read, but many of them I have not.  I bought them at one time or the other, or they were sent to me, or something, but here they are, piling up, and often nothing much happens to them unless one of the cats decides he hates one.  Then we’ve got a shredding and marking problem.

Every once in a while, I feel the need to start reducing the numbers of unread books I have lying around, and then  I go looking for something that fits my mood.  And it’s easy for me to know which books I have read and which I have not, because I have this sort of odd habit when I read–my right thumb is constantly ruffling the bottom of the pages while I hold the book, leaving a distinct dark swath across those bottom edges when  I’m done.   If you want to know if I’ve ever read a particular edition of any book, all you have to do is pick it up and turn it upside down.

I’m going on about this because I’m having a peculiar experience at the moment with a book called The Stargazey, by Martha Grimes.  I found this in my office on Sunday, looked at the bottom of the pages and realized I hadn’t read it, and decided that I’d give it a shot.  It’s been years since I read any of Grimes’s books, which is interesting in and of itself.  I loved her work when it first came out, and I read every book as it was published for years, and then I just stopped.

I don’t have any of the usual explanations for stopping.  I didn’t think her work had fallen off.   She hadn’t taken it in a new direction where I couldn’t follow.  She writes well–extremley well, in fact–and she’s not so light I can’t concentrate.  I just stopped being interested for a while, and then I forgot all about her.

I’ve had the book for a good long time.  It’s a nardcover, and what feels like it must have been a book club edition, and the pages have already started to yellow.  Chances are good that I got it in the year it was published, which was 1998, and I know I’ve run across it on and off in the years since.  And part of the reason I hadn’t read it has to have something to do with the fact that I went “off” murder mysteries entirely for a while. 

Now that I am reading it, however, it bnrings up a question I had even back when  I was a big fan of the seires, and that’s this–why do American writers write murdery mystery series set in England?

Okay, let me try to straighten out the question a little bit so that it doesn’t sound as silly as that. 

Martha Grimes was the woman who invented the practice of American writers setting their mystery series in England.   The Man  With A Load Of Mischief was the first of those books to come out, and later there would be rumors that Grimes had threatened to sue Elizabeth George when George’s series carried on in the same vein.

Writers set books in all sorts of places.   They don’t always write about their home countries, even if they’re living at home and not in whatever semi-exotic locale they’ve decided to set their stories in.  But this particular example is peculiar for a number of reasons.

The first of these is the fact that the Brits themselves have embraced these books as if they were “real” British mysteries.  They didn’t right at the beginning.  There were a lot of complaints about the things Grimes got wrong about London streets and Scotland Yard jurisdictions and British police procedure. 

As the years passed, however, the complaints died–or rather, they didn’t.  They just started to seem as if they didn’t matter.  British reviewers complained long and hard about George’s love affair with an aristocracy whose ins and outs they didn’t think she understood, but the BBC produced a series of television movies about her books and thos were then sold back here to PBS. 

What’s more, even  American reviewers started treating these women-and for whatever reason, all of these writers are women–as if they were “really” British, too.  The New York Review of Books, which reviews crime novels every once in a while but actual detective stories only if they’re written by the  English, started reviewing Elizabeth George and taking her seriously. Given the general attitude over at TNYR,. this is not a small thing.

What interests me, at the moment, is what it is about the British setting of these American books that so many people feel drawn to.  And they do feel drawn.  Both Grimes and George have appeared on the major American best seller lists, which is more than you can say for a lot of actual British writers writing about Britain–Ruth Rendell, for instance, or Val McDermid.

And what occurs to me is this:  I think that what American readers find in Grimes and George that they can’t find in “real” British books is the picture of an imagined civilized society that they know doesn’t exist in America, and that they aren’t interested in hearing doesn’t exist any longer in the UK.

Civilization is an odd thing.  I keep using the word without defining it, which can cause all kinds of problems.  In this case, though, I think I know what it is that these readers want.

The first thing is the picture of a world where money is not the most important, the defining thing.  Grimes and George present worlds that are very different in a number of ways, but they are the same in this–status is not determined by money alone, and simply having or not having money does not pigeonhole anyone as either “elite” or “white trash.”

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the way we do it in America.  Given a reasonably open society, money is available to anyone who wants to work for it, and therefore status mobility–not just financial mobility–is open to anybody, too.   We’re about to inaugurate as President a man who is not only a member of a racial minority, but the son of a mother who was once on food stamps.  It has been possible for him–and for dozens others like him–to make the transition from “lower” to “upper” class here in a way that is still seriously closed to most people in Britain.  I think that if most of the people who enjoy these books were forced to live with the actualities of an entrenched class system, they’d hate it.

But the downside of a society that uses money as the sole criteria of status is the tendency to think that money is the only thing that actually matters–so we celebrate not only Bill Gates and Barack  Obama, but Paris Hilton and various romanticized organized crime figures.  We don’t know what to do with people like Myron Rolle at all.

The other thing, the other reason why  I think  Americans not only like to read mysteries set in England but often prefer mysteries written by Americans set in England is this:  they’re looking for a place where they find it believable that crime is not what they know it is..

I’ve said several times on this blog that most real crime is unbelievably stupid.  Let me now say that it is also unbelievably brutal.   If you know anything at all about real crimes and the ways in which they’re committed, you know that they are committed by violent, savage thugs who show less intelligence and finese that your average inbred hillbilly member of a lynch mob.

When we in America are afraid of crime, what we are afraid of are thos thugs.  We see them on TV news, on shows like Lockup and Cops, on the front pages of newspapers, and they are always the same.  Pummeling the crap out of some other human being, watching the blood and skin and bone fly into fragments, committing rape in a way that cracks the vixtim’s public bone and tears the hell out of her insides–it’s violence for the sake of violence, a pornography of violence, a celebration of ugliness and death.

Those thugs occur on the pages of Rendell and McDermid, but they almost never appear on the pages of Grimes and George.   The landscape of crime in the books of Americans who set their detective stories in the UK has more in common with Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers than it does with actual crime in the UK today, or with the work of British writers chronicling that crime.

Real crime in the real Britain is much the same as real crime in the real United States, and if you’re worried about being set upon by thugs, you’re probably safer in New  York than you would be in contemporary  London.

But most Americans don’t know this, or if they know it they know it only intellectually.  What they do know–or what some of them seem to–is that they do not find it believable that “civilized” crime and “civilized” (meaning intellectual) policing could occur in the United States.  What they want is not Brtian, but the fantasy of Britain my late husband used to call Christieland.  When British writers and production companies produce Christieland, they become very popular here–think Foyle’s War.   When they produce reality…well, we’re got our own writers who produce that, and all too well.  

The question becomes this:  is “civilized” crime, “civilized” murder, different in kind or only in degree from the stuff meted out by grunting halfwits waiting in alleyways with knives?

Written by janeh

January 15th, 2009 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Passive Tense

with 4 comments

Here we go again–this is another post I started the day before and then couldn’t seem to get out more than the title.  But I’ve now got two problems, one having to do with books and the other not.  So let’s start with the one that doesn’t have to do with books.

Lymare and some other people wrote indicating that I might be talking about people with low intelligence, and I’m certainly willing to entertain the possibility that the kids I’m talking about aren’t very bright.  Some of  them aren’t.  One of the great revelations of the last few years, for me, has been just what “not very bright” can mean.

I grew up around very intelligent, very educated, very driven people, and my tendency is to feel that I myself am “not very bright,” because next to a lot of the examples I had growing up,  I wasn’t.  I therefore have a lifelong tendency to feel that if sometbody I’m dealing with doesn’t understand something that’s perfectly obvious to me, then that person must be feigning ignorance and incapacity.  In other words, that he must be playing stupid on purpose.

I did understand that there were people with mental disabilities, with  Down’s Syndrome, for instance, or autism.   And  I had no problem getting my head around that.  What I often had difficulty accepting was that somebody who–like the students in the example  John gave–claimed not to be able to figure out the square footage of a room might actually not be able to do that, even after you showed him several times how the process went.

When  I look at the least capable of my students, I am often stunned by the fact that they are not the least capable members of their generation out there.  They may have trouble “getting” work that I consider no better than junior high school difficulty, but they’ve left behind dozens of other kids who are even less capable than they are, and who never see the doors of an institution of higher learning, no matter how bogus.

But people who are truly mentally incapable are rare, and that wasn’t what I was talking about in my last post.   I was talking about passivity. 

On some level, I assume passivity is a matter of temperament.  Some of us are just hard wired to be more passive than others.

But I also think, more and more, that passivity may be a human default mode, that given the right set of circumstances–or lacking them–most people fall into a doing-nothing mode, a sit-still-and-wait-and-see-mode.  I also think that we can, and do, both discourage and encourage that mode.  If we’re going to use students as examples, then I’d say we do it in two ways.

The first way is the way that makes me angry, because it’s deliberate, and I am more and more convinced that it comes with a set of underlying, unacknowledged biases that have infected the whole system of public education in poorer neighborhoods and communities.  This is the attitude that sees the people who are poor and struggling as innately incapable of doing much of anything at all, almost as children who have to be cared for as dependents forever, because they really can’t do anything for themselves.   And there’s no point in pushing their children to be more proactive, either, because they’ll just fail, and feel  bad, and what would be the point in that?

I think this is an attitude that underlies a lot of contemporary thinking about how to relieve poverty and what it means to be poor, and not just issues about education.  I’ve often contended that most of the arguments we have in the United States about social issues aren’t really arguments–two sides taking two different positions on the same subject–but mutual shouting matches about two entirely different things that only sound like they’re the same subject.

I’ve pointed this out elsewhere in reference to the death penalty–when the anti-death penalty side says the death penalty is not a deterrent, they mean it doesn’t stop future criminals from comitting future crimes.  When the pro-death penalty side says the death penalty is a deterrent, they mean it stops this criminal from ever getting out and committing more crimes.  It’s no wonder that the two “sides” can’t come to any kind of compromise. 

There is a similar definitional problem when it comes to discussions about poverty, and this is it:  what does it mean to say that somebody is NOT poor?

To the advocates of a wider and more expansive welfare state, a person is NOT poor if he has food, clothing, housing, education, and all those other things that middle class people expect to have, when he never had to go hungry, when he never has to worry about finding himself homeless.   It therefore makes sense to “throw money at the problem,” as the saying goes, because money is what is at issue here.  

To the opponents of such an expanded welfare state, however, a person who has food, clothing, housing , education and the rest of it because the government gives him money for all that is STILL poor.  He’s only  NOT poor once he can get those things for himself, with his own work.

And herein came a huge problem, because when Lyndon  Johnson declared war on poverty, a large segment of the United States interpreted this to mean that we would have tremendous push to get people back on their feet, and once that happened they would be NOT poor in the sense of able to do it on their own.  When it turned out that the Great Society programs defined “lifting people out of poverty” as “making them permanent clients of the welfare state,” a lot of people were furious.  They still are.

Let me stipulate here that I do know that there are some people who are simply incapable.  I’ve met them.   For better or worse, they just weren’t born with the basic requirements of getting along.  They’re “not very bright” with a vengeance.   They mean well, and they try, but there’s never going to come a time when they can manage on their own.  And personally, I think cutting such people off of welfare or food stamps after two years or five, demanding that they get with a program they can’t even begin to udnerstand or risk losing their children to Protective Services, is unconscionable.

But I also think that most people do not fall into this category, that most of what I see of that weird passivity that infects many of my students is a matter of habit.   They grow up in places, and around people, who don’t see that there’s any use in trying.   They get told, in ways that are hardly subtle , by their teachers and their social workers, that there’s no point in THEIR trying, anyway, and besides they shouldn’t have to, it isn’t fair, it’s the responsibility of somebody out there to do it for them.

The only thing I’ve ever found that can turn this attitude around is time spent in the military, and unfortunately most of these kids wouldn’t be accepted even if they thought about applying.  I sometimes wonder if some of them would have been accepted in the days of the draft.   As far as  I can tell, the military has little use for passivity in soldiers, and spends most of its time stressing personal responsibility, and the kids who do two or four or six years before coming to me are the best I have.   Almost all of them will “succeed,” in the sense of completing a degree.  They’re been taught how to get organized, get focussed and get things done.

But here’s the thing.  It would be easy to take the usual way out here and claim that the passivity I’m seeing is a result of the welfare state, which is therefore evil and should be abolished. 

The problem is that I could show you plenty of passive kids from rich and middle class families, kids with that same unshakable immobility.

And I’ll tell you this–if you have to struggle with that passivity, you really, really, really want to work with a kid who’s been poor.  With a kid who’s been poor, you’ve got at least one unshakable argument for why he should do it your way.   And you’ve got examples you can use–pick up the garbage in the hallway, don’t just step over it and leave it lying there; wash your underwear in the sink if you don’t have the quarters from the laundramat; get off your ass and do something if you don’t want to be miserable.

Th problem with the rich and middle class kids who exhibit this kind of passivity is that they’re not miserable.  They have comfortable homes to go to, food on the table, money for extras when they want it.   Some of them hold jobs, but not usually for long–which, in the world in which I teach, makes them stand out, since most of the middle class kids in the classes I teach, whatever their race, work two or three jobs routinely.

The passivity is, I think, a refusal to take responsibility for themselves or anything or anybody else.  My middle class kids do not have the excuse of poverty–a state that can cause grinding depression, which an itself make a person passive–or of the stress of wildly dysfunctional neighborhoods to explain their behavior.  

They’re not bad kids.  They aren’t violent, or criminal, or pathological.  They’re just passive.  They do whatever you make them do, and not one whit more.  As far as they’re concerned, everything is somebody else’s responsibility–and I do mean everything.   They are proactive about nothing, but they aren’t even responsive about much of anything.  If something bad happens to them–if they have an accident in their cars, or the roof of their house falls in, or they get fired from their jobs–they sit and wait for somebody to come along and fix it.  They do not even think of trying to do anything about it themselves.

The issue for me, more and more, isn’t poverty or the lack of it, or intelligence or the lack of it, but passivity.  It’s passivity I don’t think we can accommodate as a culture or a civilization.   Plenty of people who are not Harvard-level academic talents are not passive–a good plumber, a good roofer, a good auto mechanic has to be proactive and responsible just as much as the President of the United States has to be. 

A world full of people who just sit there and wait for other people to do it for them is a world in collapse.  Running school systems that accommodate such passivity isn’t helping.

Written by janeh

January 14th, 2009 at 6:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s Really Wrong With The Country

with 6 comments

Several weeks ago, John sent me a link to an article–I tihnk it was in a British newspaper, but it might have been Australian,  I can’t remember–bemoaning the way elementary and high school students today are carefully shielded from competition, les their tender self esteem be destroyed forever.

This is not the world I, or my sons, live in.  My sons either go or went to academically rigorous private schools whose admissions are often as selective as the most selective colleges, and whose programs take competition more seriously than the most dystopian movie.  Anybody who has ever seenAmerican high school kids compete for places in the top tier of colleges and universities can’t say that we’re shielding them from anything.  When the best places get ten to twenty applications for every space they have to fill, you can have straight As and perfect boards and still get rejected, and kids with records like that do, all the time.  That means a race to do other things to make yourself stand out–sports (seldom, and not usually team, as the take too much time), community service work, whatever. 

I’m really not worried about the top tier.  Even just trying for it usually insures that a kid gets a decent education in most high schools.  Those are the kids high schools take seriously, if only because those are the kids likely to have parents who also take school seriously. 

The kickers are the kids who show up in my classes, which are largely remedial, and definitely not in the first tier.  They’re not even in the third tier.  Robert once commented that I shouldn’t worry so much about what was going to happen to my kids.  They’d have a second rate degree, but they could work with that.  I agree.  If they got a second rate degree, they COULD work with that.  The problem is, what they’re actually doing is considerably poorer than that.

I’m back on this kick because I just handed in the final, not going to discuss it any more, grades for a remedial class of thirteen students, out of whom eight–count ’em, eight–received Fs. 

Before you decide I must be one hell of a stickler, I’d like to give you some idea of what these people did to get their Fs.  One missed paper, even four or five missed classes, didn’t phase me.

But I assign ten short papers plus a research paper in that class.  Of the kids I failed, most did not do more than two of the short papers.  Two.  As for the reearch paper, half of them did one, and half of them didn’t.  The half who did one handed in a page or two, to which they appended a liste of unidentified URLs as a “works cited” section.

The assignment was five to seven pages–about half what I ask from my non-remedial regular composition classes–with an annotated bibliography of at least five works, at least four of which had to be NON internet sources, and all in proper MLA format.  There also had to be five citations in the text and at least one properly executed block quote.

I know, I  know.  I complain about their lack of background, preparation, and work eithic all the time–but this time,  I’m not.  Let’s just stipulate to the catatonically mind numbing silliness I have to go through with this on a regular basis.

No, what I’m complaining about today is this:  at this particular school, any teacher who fails a student is subject to an automatic administrative review of the grading process.

To quote Dave Barry:   I am not making that up.

Look at this for a minute.  What would make an administration, ANY administration, assume that a student’s bad grades are somehow the fault of the teacher, that a teacher is to be presumed guilty of bad teaching until proven otherwise?  When did we reach the decision that student performance was caused by teachers?

And before you say that we have concluded no such thing, that there are lots of bad teachers out there who need to be removed from the classroom–well, I agree with the second part but not with the first.  I don’t know when it started, but over the last decade or so the mood has shifted steadily to the corner that says students are lumps of clay that teachers mold, and if the teacher is any good at molding, the student will do well.

This is, after all, the entire rationale behind the No Child Left  Behind Act, which assumes that if the majority of a school’s population fails to achieve an arbitrary “grade level” standard, then the school must be doing something wrong.   Never mind the obvious, which is that if the majority of your kids come from neighborhoods where drive by shootings are more regular than mail delivery and parents on crack are just a fact of life, it’s just possible that something besides poor teaching is causing the sag in test scores.

But much as I like to beat up on NCLB–weren’t the Republicans the people who promised to abolish the  Department of  Education?–the attitude didn’t start there, it just ended there.

Kids who get  Fs get an automatic administrative review, but any student can request an administrative review if he doesn’t like his grade.   I get quite a few of these lodged against me, almost always from students who end up with Cs.  Why?  Well, because they came to all the classes, and they handed in all the work–obviously, they deserve at least a  B.

What we have done to the kids in the less-than-top-tiers academically is to habituate them to a world in which success means doing nothing much of anything at all.   Show up, do the bare minimum required on the syllabus, that gets them at least a B, and in some cases an A.

Hell, even not showing up is okay, as far as most of them are concerned, because most of their high schools have let them get away with it.  I’ve had kids miss half of all classes, and some miss more, and still expect to pass, at least, if not to do better.  If they don’t know  how to do something, or don’t want to do the work required, they just sit there shrugging until frustration makes me go in and demonstrate for them–essentially writing their papers for them, doing their  MLA format for them, doing their research for them.

That’s what makes the plagarism question such a difficult one.  I get plagarism all the time.  I get buried in it at the end of every term, when the research  project kicks in.   It’s not subtle plagarism, and it’s not something sneaky and sophisticated like buying papers from a term paper mill.

No, what I get is kids who log on to the Britannica site and just copy out the entire article, then log onto Wikipedia and do the same, then log onto maybe one more and do the same, just cutting and pasting and slapping it all together.   When  I give them an  F and point out that I could report them to the Dean, they’re indignant.   I said to write a research paper!  That was their research!  What else were they supposed to do?

I tend to suggest, at that point, that if they had come to more than 14 of the last 28 class sessions, they might know what to do, but it goes right past them.  They are angry to think that anybody would expect them to know how to do anything. 

And no amount of effort is ever too little to be too much.  The library at this place is very central, only steps away from the cafeteria, but it’s too far to walk for most of them.  That’s why, tehy tell me, they don’t have any books on their works cited list.  And they looked at some newspapers and magazines and that kind of thing, but there wasn’t anything they saw on the topic, so they just went online and looked there.

In the middle of  wading through the mountain of crap that is student excuses for not every doing anything, I’m likely to remember that when my older son was a sophomore in high school, he wrote a forty-two page research paper with 246 footnotes and over fifty entries on his works cited list, all in correct Chicago/Turabian format, for an American history course–and the paper got a B.

What I think I’m getting at is this:  we have created a two-tier system of education.  The people at the very top are expected to work like horses, to produce, in h igh school, the kind of work my generation didn’t manage until they were college upperclassmen, to take responsibility for the founding and runninng of clubs and activities.  Everybody else is given to understand that they’re entitled to a free ride.

My kids think “the government” controls gas prices and car prices and home prices, that it sets tuition even at private colleges and universities, that it handles their financial aid, that it creates all the jobs and then it’s ust not fair handing out the good ones.

For a long time, I used to think that what these kids needed was a good civics education.   Let’s teach them what the government does and does not do.

Now I think that “the government” is actually code for “people like those suckers over there.”   You know those people.  The ones who, when there’s no chess club or repertory theater or  ROTC on campus, don’t sit around whining about it but start one of their own, or set it up.  The ones who volunteer at the local homeless shelter because they were walking by it one day and it bothered them to see people in pain.  The ones who start their research projects the day they get assigned.  The ones who read more outside of schoolwork than in it, and tutor everybody in class on how to use Blackboard because, well, for some reason, they don’t seem to be able to figure it out on their own.

And, okay, I’m at the moment in a state of high piss off, and probably typing badly as a result.

But gearing up to answer an administrative review of the  F I gave a student who missed half of all our classes, turned in less than a tenth of the papers assigned, and twice called me up to say he wasn’t going to be in class because of a “family emergency” when the “emergency” he was having was obviously measured in liters of beer–what to say.

I don’t think Western Civilization r any other Civilization can afford to run on its talented tenth, not if it’s only the tenth that are doing any work.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Making an End of Things

with 3 comments

I actually started to write this post yesterday, and then things happened, and then it snowed.   It was a disappointing snowstorm.   We’d spent three days hearing about what an awful whack we were going to get, and being given prospective snow totals that seemed to go up every hour, and then when I woke up this morning there was barely a dusting on my walk and not much more on the car and the porch.  It’s not that anybody really minds that much.  Snow is fun when you’re still too younger to shovel that.  Afterwards, it’s just a chore waiting to happen. 

I was thinking about that business about knowing  how a books ends, or else readers, or at least some readers, won’t read it.  I’ll stick by what I said.  I’m not much interesting in books when I know beforehand how they’re going to end–at least, in most cases.   Yes, of course, I reread books and that means I must read some whose endings I know in advance. But I don’t read those books for their endings.

And I agree, of course, that reading a genre novel restricts the possible endings a novel can have, but how far it restricts it depends on the genre.  Don Westlake once said that the Gothic romance was “a story about a girl who got a house,” and maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t like romance novels much  and don’t like category romance novels at all.

But the problem with those novels for me is not just that I know the hero and the heroine will end up together in the end, but that I can anticipate every step on their journey in that direction.   These are Patient Griselda stories, as rigidly predetermined as a Tridentine Mass.  Our heroine will be beautiful but poor, forced to earn her living as a gentile servant in the house of a cruel but stupendously handsome man.  Our hero will be tall, dark, handsome, compelling, always on the edge of violence, and hiding wounds that will not heal.  Somewhere in the picture there will be the  Evil  Rival, the beautiful woman from the hero’s own social circle who will stop at nothing to drive our heroine away and bring our hero to marry herself.  “Some way or the other the hero and the heroine will get married by the end of this book” is one thing.  “I know in advance every single thing that is going to happen here” is something else.

Murder mystery certainly come with some expectations of how the book will end–the detective will catch the murderer, as John says–but apart from the creative habits of particular writers, there’s not much more that a reader can count on from the genre itself.

And even that bottom line–the detective will catch the murderer–is not always rigidly adhered to.  In one of the more memorable examples of a divergence from the expected, the detective did catch the murdererss, but was unable to determine exactly who she was.  That’s because she was one half of a set of identical twins, and it was the other half she murdered, and there was largely no way to tell the difference between them except by an admission of the murderer, and she wasn’t talking.  The writer didn’t help us out, either.  The book ended without our ever being able to know.

That sort of thing aside, however, the only reason why a murder mystery need be predictable in the sense that a Gothic novel is unless the writer wants it to be.  And a lot of mystery writers do write one version or the other of the Completely Predetermined Plot.  But that’s a choice.   The form itself, and most of its subforms, are loose skeletons into which you can and do find a lot of variation. 

And, in case you’re wondering, I tend not to read the Compltely Predetermined stuff.  I have in mind now things like, say, Patricia Wentworth, a writer of country house mysteries in the “golden era” in whose books the murderer was almost always one of the servants.   I got to thinking that this might be a kind of social statement, but not one I wanted to plow through a dozen books to hear over and over again.

The detective may catch the murderer, but that’s not a reason for me to read a book.  It’s no reason at all for me to read it more than once.  There has to be something going on in a book that I did not expect, something new that is being said that I’m interested in listening to, before I’m going to devote a day or two to reading it.  My house is full of books.  I get sent a few more almost every week.  There’s got to be a point.

I  agree with FE in at least one way:  the more I hear from readers, the more it seems to me that what most people want is to hear what they already think is true.  If you think the US military is full of brave and honorable men doing their best to defend civilization, you  read Tom Clancy.  If you think the  US military is full of corrupt assholes for whom civilization is but a thin veneer, you read Ron Kovic.

Maybe this explains the persistant phenomenon of readers who are convinced that writers hold the opinions of their characters.  If the character is sympathetically presented, then the writer must agree with him politically, or socially, or whatever other way. 

I suppose that explains the plethora of small-niche politcal magazines, targeted to audiences of a few thousand, or a couple of tens of thousands, like-minded readers, where the other side is invariably presented as evil and conniving (if they’re liberals) or evil, conniving and stupid (if they’re conservatives), and no mention is ever made of the possibility that everybody on every side is just trying to do her best for the country.

This is, I think, why students often have so much trouble with the idea of evil people–if I ask them to write from the point of view of a villain, they almost always produce pages of  gloating, self-conscious malice.  Aha!  Look at me!  I’m evil and I’m going to destroy you!

They have a hard time understanding that people who do truly evil things–even blatantly evil people like Himmler and Charles Manson–don’t think of themselves as doing wrong.  If they did, they wouldn’t do what they do.  Students think that in order to be guilty, you must not only choose to do what you do, but choose to do wrong knowing it is wrong. 

There’s a weird echo of that in the old statutes determining who has a valid insanity defense–did he know what he was doing?  Did he know that it was wrong?  If the old statutes had meant what my students mean, anybody who showed up in court would have half an insanity defense merely because they didn’t think they were doing “wrong.”  What the old statutes meant, though was, simply that the murderer knew what he was doing, chose it consciously, and was aware of the fact that the society around him thought this was wrong.  It wasn’t an era when we worried a lot about the interior lives of criminals.

I need there to be something in a book that I’m not expecting.   I need there to be something in a book that I don’t know.   I want my mind to work, and preferably to work hard.  I don’t want to relax.  I don’t want to escape.  And I really, really, really don’t want to feel as if  I’m being conned, which is how those political magazines always make me feel.

And I do mean all those political magazines, left, right and libertarian.   That schtick, that tell the reader what you already know he wants to hear, is the first resort of the con man.   And I’ve known some con men in my life.  I don’t need to pay good money to get to know more.

I reread books because, in good ones, there’s always something I’ve missed.  If I ever get to the point where a new reading isn’t giving me something new, I stop rereading that book. 

And it’s one of the odd circumstances of my life that a couple of the books I reread on a regular basis happen to have been written by me.

Written by janeh

January 11th, 2009 at 11:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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