Archive for May, 2009
So, here’s the thing. I’e been thinking, and what I’ve realized is that there really was a time in my life when I approached fiction looking for “exotic” settings. I still wasn’t into historical novels. I read plenty of fiction set in times other than my own, but those books tended to be Victorian novels by Victorian writers, rather than books by contemporary writers writing about the Victorian period.
With settings, though, what I wanted was Paris, New York, and “some others” that seemed to depend on how interesting the writer could make them. My favorite novelist at that period of my life–between the time I was about twelve and the time I was fourteen or fifteen–was a British woman named Mary Stewart.
Towards the end of her career, Mary Stewart went in for writing historical novels almost exclusively, but at the time I was reading her, she wrote what’s called “romantic suspense.” I hesitate to use the term, although it was the one used at the time, because these days it seems to be applied to two kinds of books, neither of which Mary Stewart wrote–the romance novel into which a little suspense has been thrown, and the genre Mary Higgins Clark has invented for herself.
The Mary Stewart novels I loved tended to be written in the first person and set in the contemporary period, narrated by a central character who was always a reasonably well educated English girl who for some reason was spending some time abroad. My two favorite novels–The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic–were set in Greece, but, blessedly, not the Greece of my relatives.
It’s interesting that I can still read these novels now and still enjoy them, even though a lot of what I read at that period I can’t make my way through any more at all. The heroines were not the romance heroines of that era, or of any era at least up until the 1980s. They were not virginal, or retiring, or in any way helpless. They did things for themselves, they rarely had to be rescued by the guy in the picture, and their minds were on something else besides their feelings for the male characters. They were also fairly knowledgable about thins like Shakespeare and ancient history.
What also interests me is that I know exactly why I was so attached to those books, and Hemingway’s books about Paris, and a lot of other novels that took place elsewhere than where I was–and that was because, at that period of my life, I truly hated the life I was living and the place I was living it in.
I don’t think I have ever been that violently repelled by any other environment I have lived in since. I’ve had good situations and bad, but I haven’t had that kind of reaction even to the bad ones.
And some of it was certainly being very young and not being in control of where I was and what I was doing. Like it or not, I was living in Fairfield County and like it or not, I was going to the schools my parents sent me to. I didn’t like either thing one bit.
I suppose what I’m trying to get around to asking here is this: do those of you who prefer “exotic” settings (with that word defined however you want to) hate the places you are so much that you’re desperate to get out?
It doesn’t seem to me, from the way the posts read here, that that is the case. Of course, posts are posts, and at home you may be all climbing the walls wishing you could et out of what feels to you like a cage–which is what life felt like to me at the time–but my guess is that most of the people around me knew exactly how I felt about all that stuff. Maybe I was just not as good as most people are at hiding it.
Still, when I look at my situation and my relationships to those books, the most important part of the fantasy for me then was that it was actually possible that such a fantasy could be made a reality. When I was older, I went to Greece on my own for the first time, the Greece I found, and the life I lived there, was very much like the fantasy one Mary Stewart had presented to me in her novels, although the suspense element was (thankfully) absent.
The more I think of it, the more I think that this is always what I have required in my fantasies. I don’t seem to be able to get interested in impossible settings, in books about eras past that I can’t go back to actually live in, or about fantasy or sciene fiction worlds which will never be available to me in real time.
I do read quite a bit of history, and many works of literature written in eras much before mine, but I don’t project myself into any of them. The closest I come is when I recognize that I seem to have more in common with the sensibilities of Sherlock Holmes than I do with the sensibilities of MTV.
>>>In other news, I too was really puzzled by Jane’s description of teachers, nurses and social workers as not “everyday people.” To me, it doesn’t get more everyday than those professions. Trust me, it’s not those people keeping the theraputic culture going, as they benefit from it no more than anyone else subjected to it, and may suffer more than the rest of us. It’s not so much the teacher who wants to deal with medicated students, it’s the administrator who ends up with troublesome kids in their office. Sure, some teachers may see medicating students as an easy way to to an obedient class, but most of them do not. Layers of professionals are required to deal with testing, diagnosing and treating so-called ADD or ADHD kids, and they’re the ones who are directly benefiting from keeping that theraputic meme going.
If nurses spend more time dealing with fake “syndromes” they have less time to do real nursing. And there is no shortage of work for nurses, it’s not like they’re creating work to keep themselves busy. But therapists, mental health professionals, people who run addiction treatment programs (which as Jane points out essentially don’t work) and talk show hosts sure do benefit from keeping us all on the edge of “addiction” to something, real or not.
I quoted that whole thing because it makes a bunch of assumptions I want to address.
First, when I said “ordinary people” I meant “people without a professional connection,” and I should have been more specific.
But the simple fact is this: all the categories of people I mentioned are required to go through state and often federally mandated training of specific kinds related to things like ADHD, child abuse and neglect, and addiction, and all of it is firmly anchored in the assumptions of the therapeutic culture.
Such therapeutic assumptions are now the very definition of “good social work practice,” and the training given to social workers–as well as that given to people with degrees in “educational psychology”–is unlikely to even indicate that some of these assumptions are factually challenged or have no real scientific basis.
Teachers and nurses, on the other hand, get their training in this sort of thing largely from “workshops” required to teach them to recognize “red flags” for various “problems,” and if you looked at the checklist given by the CDC for ADHD, you can tell that those checklists are broad, often described behavior you and I would consider perfectly normal, and vague enough to make a “diagnosis” possible with the least indication of any actual abnormality.
Referrals for ADHD almost always come from teachers, who are encouraged to see sending the kid to the school psychologist for a Ritalin prescription (or referral to a specialist for a Ritalin prescription) as “helping” a child “at risk” for God only knows what.
As to nurses–nurses in hospitals may indeed be too busy to bother with most of these things, but nurses in school are not. In fact, they often have very little to do on a day to day basis. Being the point person for discovering children “at risk” and funnelling them into “counseling” so that they “get help” for their “problems” makes the job a lot more interesting, and can lead to a significant power base that would be otherwise inaccessible to someone in that position.
The will to power, and need to fuel a fantasy of oneself as the Brave Heroic Crusader who Helps Children, are both motivations I don’t think most of you take seriously enough, but they may indicate why all–absolutely all–the truly awful cases of this sort of thing I’ve run across, the ones that resulted in monumental lawsuits, where parents were threatened with the loss of their children if they didn’t agree to Ritalin prescriptions or to having that child branded psychotic and placed on psychotropic drugs and in a “program”–absolutely all of them started with school nurses.
And I’ve beenlooking up these cases for months now. What scares me is that there are probably a lot more of them, where the parents didn’t know enough to know they could fight, or where the parents found not fighting convenient, or where the parents had bought into the therapeutic culture themselves and therefore bought “diagnoses” that were completely cracked and damaging to the child.
Adults, of course, can do a lot more for themselves, and there is SCOTUS precedent that says they cannot be treated against their wills. Children have no such protections.
But if the therapeutic culture was just a matter of big drug abuse programs and companies that made psychotropic drugs, we’d have a lot less of it and it wouldn’t be impingingon our lives so much.
And it is impinging on our lives, whether we realize it consciously or not.
Well, to start. I wasn’t really suggesting that novels should harp on things like the truly awful smells of Medieval Europe. I only meant that it’s a very rare historical novel that doesn’t get lots of fairly significant things wrong. When it’s an era I’m very familiar with, I find I don’t suspend my disbelief at all, I just get annoyed. When it’s an era I’m not familiar with, it doesn’t bother me.
And it’s not that I think people in earlier eras took themselves, and honor, and morality more seriously than we do. It’s that I think some readers desperately long for an era in which that was the case, and since they’re not getting it out of the twenty first century, they go looking for it in historical and fantasy fiction.
But the thing that really struck me about the comments yesterday was all the enthusiam for “exotic” locales and eras, and it struck me on a number of levels.
The first of these is the fact that, in conventional publishing wisdom, this does not seem to be generally the case. Mysteries with “foreign” locations that are not England have a difficult time selling in the United States, and with one or two exceptions, historical mysteries don’t do nearly as well as contemporary ones. Foreign mystery authors who are not English do really badly here.
What’s more, in my own experience, if I write a novel set in X place or about profession Y, it will reliably produce a little rainstorm of letters from people who live in X or do Y, many of them starting out “I’ve never read your novels before, but when I saw what this one was about, I had to try it!”
I do this myself, and I know why I do it–because for every area or occupation has things that drive you crazy, and if the writer nails them, it can be a lot of fun to read.
I think it’s interesting that so many of you assumed that when I said I liked to read novels set in ordinary everyday life about people with ordinary everyday problems, I must mean “literary” fiction of the “we’re all going to sit around and have upper middle class angst” school.
But I’ve already said on several occasions that I read nearly none of that kind of thing, because most of it is boring as hell and far too predictable.
The contemporary “mainstream” novels I do read tend to be by actually foreign authors: Jose Saramago, Umberto Eco, and that kind of thing.
I agree that novels can help us understand how people very different from ourselves think–in fact, I think that’s the point of what literature in general and the novel in particular does–but I feel that I live among people I don’t understand very well. Some of them I can’t figure out no matter how hard I try.
As for the therapeutic culture being absent from the Midwest–ha. I usd to live in Michigan. Of course everyday people do not think like that, but everyday people are not who fuels the therapeautic culture. That’s done by teachers, nurses, social workers, and myriad other paraprofessionals in the so called “helping” professionals.
I agree that most people are far too sensible to think of shopping as an “addiction,” but if they end up in trouble over it, the courts will insist on “counseling” (read: a twelve step program for your shopping addiction) as a condition of probation or parole.
Iowa now has one of the highest percentages of kids prescribed Ritalin for supposed ADHD, and the United States government is pushing a definition of that disorder so broad that it could be pasted onto just about anybody. You can find that here
So, yeah, that does interest me, the entire movement away from accepting that human nature includes some things that are just not very good for us and defining away both sin and bad habits as “disorders” seems to be endemic, and not just in rich parts of the country like the Connecticut Gold Coast.
But right now, what I’d really like is to understand what makes a setting exotic, and whether people are into the truly exotic (mystery novel by Albanian author writing about newly independent Albania), or more like something mostly just like us, but dressed up differently.
I wonder if one of the requirements of finding pleasure in an historical novel is that the reader know little or nothing about the historical period being portrayed. I bring that up because I know quite a lot about the middle ages, and virtually the only mystery set in that era that I can read without nitpicking endlessly is The Name of the Rose.
I understand why so many people love the Brother Cadfael books. They’re well written, well plotted and the characters ring true. What they are definitely not is true to the reality of life in the Middle Ages, no matter how many of the details they get right. The tone is wrong–again, in the direction of sanitizing the reality. It’s hard not to sanitize the reality if you want to sell books, because the reality of everyday life before, say, the eighteenth century (and maybe even atter, in some places) would make us very uncomfortable.
Let’s take, for isntance, the smell. It was common wisdom in that era that washing in the cold could make you take sick and die, so for most of the months of winter–and it was a long winter; Europe was experiencing a Little Ice Age–nobody bathed. They washed their hands and their faces, but not their bodies, and there was no such thing as deodorant. The best they could do was perfume, and only well-off people could afford that.
Then there’s the matter of the arrangements most people (well off people, city people) made about dealing with the need to urinate and defecate in the night. Country people had outhouses. City people had chamber pots, which they used and then placed (full of shit, literally) under their beds, where they slept above it until morning, when it was taken out and emptied through the window onto the street. That had a fairly interesting smell, too.
Of course, the writers of the era themselves don’t make a point of talking about any of this, because they didn’t find it remarkable or unusual enogh to discuss. It is, however, part of the reality, and a book that doesn’t make you aware of it all the time is going to be essentially false to the period.
I’m not saying that I think people should read or write historical novels, only that I don’t understand the impetus. I’ve read quite a few historical novels in my time, and had a good time with many of them. But I’ve never sat down at the typewriter and been driven to do one myself, and I tend to avoid them when I pick something to read.
I am interested in people living the same kind of life I do i n similar circumstances, with or without bodies. Understanding people, or at least trying to, is the reason I both read and write fiction, and I find the people of my own time completely mystifying in more ways than one.
And, interestingly enough, I rarely see the kind of person who mystifies me the most portrayed in fition, contemporary or otherwise.
I don’t think human nature ever changes, not in any fundamental way. I do think that there are new wrinkles in it, new manisfestations of old motivations and desires. The whole therapeutic ethos, for instance, would have been incomprehensible in the Middle Ages, or even in the eighteenth century. It now seems to have taken over the world.
And part of it is definitely my feeling that there are big, pressing difficulties in our relationships to each other that did not exist before in quite the way they do know, and that that way–I’m back to One Nation Under Therapy, as the title of the book went–desperately needs to be disected and explained.
Sometimes I think that part of what goes on in the reading and writing of historical fiction–again, broadly defined, so as to include movies and television and graphic novels–is an attempt to get back a sense of ourselves that we think we have lost, and that we definitely do not have in the here and now.
I think whoever said it is right. 300 was probably nothing at all like the real battle at Thermopylae, or like life in ancient Sparta. But what it was was a depiction of men and women taking themselves seriously, taking life and freedom and honor seriously, made for a world where all those things are explained away as symptoms, or maybe as “disorders.”
A lot of the historical fiction I see keeps the therapeutic ethos of the past half century and dresses it up for a costume party, but it seems to me that the most successful (commercially and artistically) takes us out of that and into a world where we no longer feel required to think of ourselves as “just another animal.”
I think that’s a characteristic of a lot of successful fantasy, too, and it’s certainly what is largely behind the veneration felt by so many people for Tolkein. It doesn’t matter so much that a lot of the people who attempt to imitate him seem to think that “taking ourselves seriously” means doing a lot of silly things kneeling and swords.
As to the vampire porn, I don’t have a clue.
I suppose I could really start this post by complaining about the suggestion that the nation should conscript its eighteen year olds to do things like build roads or teach the alphabet to inner city school children, and part of me really wants to do that.
One of the people you’d have to fight if you tried to get something like that passed is me, because I do not think the state owns me, or my children, and therefore I don’t think it has the right to my labor against my will. I wouldn’t allow my children to attend a public school that mandated “volunteer” work, at least not any longer than it took to file the lawsuit to get the practice stopped.
This goes back to my absolute bottom line–no person may be put to the use and benefit of another person against that first person’s will.
For any reason whatsoever.
And I know I stated it badly, but I really, really, really mean it.
And my position here has nothing to do with anybody’s ability to make money or build a lucrative career.
But I really have been meaning to get around to this other thing, and it’s been on my mind for several days now.
Why do people write, and read, historical fiction?
I’m using “write and read” very loosely here. I want to include television shows and movies as well as novels and short stories.
But the question is perfectly legitimate, and it’s been brought to my attention over and over again over the past few weeks by a sort of weird confluence of circumstances.
First is the fact that my children have always had some assigned reading from me during the summers. In the beginning, I let the project go with the readings required by their schools, but as those became lamer and lamer over the years, I started assigning my own.
My older son is now twenty-two and no longer getting my list, but my younger son read the Odyssey last summer, and I decided to have him read the Iliad this time. So I rummaged around in my office and found my copy of the Illiad, along with a few things to go with it: a complete works of Aristotle; a complete works of Plato; a history of Greece and Rome; some Cicero. I don’t expect him to read all that. He’ll probably mostly stick to the Illiad. Still, I like having the stuff around in case there are issues an we need some kind of context.
Around the time I dug the books out, three other things happened. First, my editor sent me some mysteries by Lindsey Davis, whom I had never read before. They’re private eye novels set in the Rome of Vespasian, just after the Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of the temple. Then my older son came home from college, and he had with him a DVD of the movie 300, which is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel about the battle at Thermopylae. Then the movie Troy started showing up on television, along with Oliver Stone’s Alexander. I’m not going to talk about Alexander, because I haven’t gotten around to seeing it, and I’m not sure I will.
The others, though, bring up the question that I’ve never had an answer to. I know why I do not write historical fiction, and it’s because the process seems to me to be both self-conscious and inauthentic. No matter how hard we try, we can never really capture the reality of a time significantly before our own. Even some times that are not that far in the past can be difficult for us to understand.
In the early days of this blog, I brought up the point that modern men and women are completely unable to understand how the people who came before us viewed death and dying, because we just don’t have the same relationship to it that they had. The world is a significantly different place, and men and women are significantly different as human beings, when we can plan for our futures in the secure assumption that it’s almost inevitable that we’ll live another ten years. As late as the middle of the nineteenth century, even healthy young people could not make assumptions such as that.
I suppose that some of the people who write historical fiction are indeed attempting to recreate and therefore understand the way people thought and lived in an earlier era, but most of the people who write historical fiction don’t even seem to be trying. They write modern people in fancy dress.
Other people who write historical fiction are really giving sugar-coated history lessons. This explains a lot of James Michener, for instance, and some mystery series over the years. You get your story, and packed in around it are the facts and figures and events the writer wants you to learn about. I expect some people read historical novels because they’re interested in history but cannot make themselves read an actual history book.
If we go far enough back, the writing of hstorical fiction was only tangentially fictional. When Homer write the Iliad, he probably didn’t think of it as fiction in the way we would. Instead, he was writing the closest thing to history that the Greeks possessed at the time. Later, when Herodatus and Thucydides because to write deliberate history, with a commitment to facts and to telling the truth, they still found nothing odd in inventing dialogue for people they could not have overheard and speeches they had heard about but did not have the texts to refer to.
Still other people, though, seem to want from historical fiction mostly a staging ground for personal fantasy. They want to imagine themselves living in a period they seem to have romanticized. The romanticizing is important, because in this kind of historical novel the past tends to be scrubbed clean of what is really disturbing, and insisting on accuracy can seriously compromise a book (or movie’s) popularity.
And, of course, there are people who write historical fiction in the same way that some science fiction writers write abou other worlds or the world of the future: because they can use those other time periods to talk about this one.
Still, the phenomenon puzzles me, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m especially puzzled by the historical-fiction-as-fantasy-fodder thing, of the need some people seem to have not just to imagine themselves in costume, but in costume in a world that has been so thoroughly sanitized that it no longer bears any relation to what actually living in that era would have been like.
Then I run into something like 300, and it stops me dead in my tracks.
Before I get into Wsard Churchill and the dangers of narrative, let me put in a good word for Plato here. And Aristotle. And all the rest of the Greek writers, philosophers or otherwise.
It’s not true that it never occurred to Plato to question slavery–he did, and so did most other Greek thinkers, just not in the way, or to the extent, we want them to.
At the time of Plato and Aristotle, every literate society that had ever existed on earth had had slaves. Every one of them. Nobody writing at that time could imagine a world without slaves, and the basic underpinnings of an anti-slavery conviction would arise only in Christian Europe and not until at least the seventeenth century.
For one thing, unlike the enslavement of Africans in later eras, slavery in the classical world was not based on the idea that some people are by nature inferior to others. Slaves in Greece and Rome were slaves because they’d been caught on the losing side of wars or kidnapped by pirates–in other words, as a result of chance and circumstance, much in the way we might not get rich if we won the lottery.
The classical world was far more fatalistic about chance than we are, but both Plato and Aristotle were very uncomfortable about the institution of slavery, because they believed that the definition of the good life could be reached by reason, and they found justifying slavery impossible in reason.
Aristotle’s most famous comment about slavery–that some men were born with the soul of slave-was not part of a defense of slavery as it existed, but a protest against it. Some men were born with the souls of slaves, but too many slaves were men born with the souls of freemen, and that Aristotle found indefensible.
It’s a longer step than you think between “no man should be a slave if he has the soul of a freeman” and “every man has the soul of a freeman,” but the important point here is that the Greeks were not only the first society to question the moral validity of slavery, they were the only one. No society that has not descended from the Greek has ever done so.
And it was a society–the British–that not only descended from the Greek but that trained its upper middle class in Greek and Latin literature before sending them out to administrate the nation and then the empire. To this day, societies that are truly and thoroughly non-Western do not accept the idea that slavery is absolutely unacceptable, and slavery has been making a comeback (mostly in the Muslim-dominated nations of Africa) in the last fifty years.
That’s one of the fruits of multiculturalism that drives Keith Windschuttle so crazy–if all cultures are equally valid, who is the West to tell the rest that they can’t have slaves?
But let’s get to Ward Churchill, since I promised.
First, let me say that I do not think that Churchill should have been fired from his job at the University of Colorado for saying what he said after 9/11. Part of the point of tenure–the good part, as far as I’m concerned–is that it protects professors from being fired for speaking their minds when their opinions clash with those of administrators and the public. And we hire these guys to speak their minds.
The really interesting thing about Ward Churchill isn’t the content of the nonsense he was spouting about Little Eichmanns, but the stuff that should have gotten him fired–his pretense to an ehtnicity he did not have, his fudged and plagarized research, his incredibly weak educational preparation for the post he held at the institution where he taught.
A lot of us are, shall we say, a bit elderly here, and some of us remember when the bottom of the heap in college admissions was the state university. That’s long gone. In the four-tier system set up by US News and World Report, virtually all the land grant universities are at least in the second tier, and meny of them are in the first. The same is true of non-land grand flagship campuses of other statue universities.
A job at the University of Colorado is a big deal in academia these days, not something low rent, and its student body is far above the kind of students I teach in preparation and ability.
That means that it normally takes a pretty good CV to get hired at this place. To say Ward Churchill didn’t have one is putting it mildly. At Colorado/Boulder, even most adjuncts will have PhDs. To get hired for an actual, full-time tenure-track job, you’d have to have a PhD from somplace really good, plus a record of published research.
Churchill had bachelor’s and master’s drgrees from what was then called “Sangamon State University”–a secondary campus way down the prestige totem pole in the Illinois public university system. His bachelor’s degree was in something called “technological communications.” His master’s was in somethin called “communications theory.” He had no PhD, and it’s’ unclear that he had any academically relevant research publications. It’s unclear because, after all this blew up, it turned out he seemed to have invented most of his resume.
But what Churchill did have was a story, and it was the perfect story, the narrative everybody had already bought into and was looking to locate in a real-life flesh and bloodd embodiement.
What people seem to forget is that Rousseau’s Noble Savage was Noble not in spite of being a savage, but because he was one. The theory was that man was born good, but corrupted by civilization. Civilization was the culprit. Civilization was what had to be rejected. Rousseau didn’t say “Western Civilization,” but that was only because the Western was the only one he knew.
Ward Churchill had a narrative–he was supposed to be Native American, and therefore one of the oppressed, come to the campus to deliver the “authentic voice” of his oppressed people. And that “authentic voice” just happened to say what all the white middle class revolutionaries on campus expected it to say: that the United States was vile, corrupt and racist; that our entire history and our entire purpose was genocide and exploitation of oppressed peoples; and all the usual stuff.
This was not a small thing either, because most Native Americans who make it to university campuses do not talk like this. Like most of their fellow students they major in business, think the military is a good idea (and sometimes join it), and generally think and behave in the way usually considered the “red man’s equaivalent of Oreo cookies.”
It’s a difficult thing, finding that the people you are trying to save don’t much want the saving, but Ward Churchill provided living, breathing proof that “real” “authrentic” “uncorrupted” “Native Americans” actually existed, and for that he got a whole hell of a lot of mileage.
He started out working at Colorado as an affirmative action compliance officer. He ended up a tensured professor and chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department.
You’ll note, by the way, that he never was trained as or employed as a Humanist. He knew no more about the Humanities than I know about the internal combustion engine. Possibly less.
The Little Eichmann’s article was the kind of thing to be expected from Ward Churchill–the kind of thing he had to say–if he was to maintain the integrity of the narrative, which was all he really had to sell. That, and the fact that he seems, from all accounts, to be a highly charismatic man.
Charismatic or not, though, he was virtually unknown outside a very small circle in academia until his “Little Eichmanns” article was dragged into the limelight by the US right-wing press–Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Drudge and the rest were the first to report on him outside the state of Colorado. The New York Times and company only started to give him ink when he had already become a controversial issue on the Internet.
And, of course, once the investigations started, they ended up uncovering an entire, festering mess that had nothing to do with Churchills views on 9/11 per se.
American Indian representatives denied that Churchill was Native American at all. It’s unclear if this was just a lie Churchill told or one of those family things–it’s common, in the American West and Southwest, for families to pride themselves on having “Indian blood.” Some of them have more pride than blood.
But even the ethnic issue is minor compared to the academic ones. As more and more people began to pick apart Churchill’s research, more and more of that research seemed to be either invented, plagarized, or deliberately misrepresentative.
And for that–not for his views on 9/11–the University of Colorado tried to fire him in 2007.
A court reversed their decision in 2009, and the reasonin is worth looking at.
The chances are good that if there had been no public uproar over Churchill’s Little Eichmanns article, and no calls in the Colorado state legislature to fire him because of that article, the court would have let the University’s action stand. The University did, after all, have good and academically sound reasons for firing him, all of them allowed even under the tenure rules. You’re really not allowed to make up your research.
The court, however, understandably worried that no matter how legitimate those charges might be, the University would never have moved against Churchill if it had not been for his political speech and for pressure from the state legislature. And the court took the protection of freedom of speech as a more important issue than that of academic malfeasance or lack of it.
I pointed out, a while back, that what worried me most was lack of respect for the Humanities within the university.
I think people misunderstood what I meant by respect.
Had the University of Colorado had respect for the liberal arts (natural sciences, social sciences, and Humanities), it would never have hired Churchill to begin with, and if it had it would never have renewed his first contract. It was able to behave the way it did only because it assumed that standards in anything but the natural sciences are illusory, that there is no real content in any of these fields, that it’s all subjective and a matter of taste anyway.
Had Ward Churchill behaved the way he behavedin the chemistry department, he would have been unceremoniously out on his ear in an instant. But then, the University of Colorado does respect the natural sciences.
When I say that the university should “respect” the Humanities (and the social sciences, too, which is what Ethnic Studies would probably come under), I don’t mean that it should show them deference.
I mean that it should uphold standards, the strictest and most uncompromising standards.
I mean it should take these fields seriously enough to hold them to the same kind of standards it expects from the Department of Physics–and the Department of Engineering.
So, everybody is ranting today. It’s always interesting to see what gets this sort of thing going.
But right now, I want to take a look at the end of John’s post, which asks why intellectuals all bash their own country, and why the Pope apologized for the Crusades.
I think I would buy a book that tried to trace the history of what is usually called the Adversary Culture, but as far as I know there isn’t one–Paul Hollander’s book of that name traces mostly modern Leftism of various sorts–and the more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that the issue isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface.
In a way, the Adversary Culture has been with us since the beginning of Western Civilization. It was the ob of the philosopher–we’d call him an “intellectual” now–to point out the imperfections and wrongdoing of the polis and individual citizens within it, in the hopes that they would learn from the criticism and change.
This is a signature attribute of Western societies, in spite of the appearance of stray individuals in other civilizations that tried to do the same. In the West, there has, from the begining, been the idea that good and learned men ought to tell rich and powerful ones where they were going wrong, and try to bring the general populace down from mob-rule highs of one sort or the other.
Of course, philosophers in classical culture didn’t just write and speak about what they saw wrong in their societies, they conciously attempted to live in a way that ran counter to what they saw as wrong in those same societies.
Philosophers weren’t rich and powerful men. They didn’t “come from money” or seek high office or special favors. They fulfilled the ordinary duties of citizenship. Socrates was a soldier before he was a philosopher.
But it’s not quite the case that the earliest example of the philosophers quite fits the present Adversary Culture. For one thing, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had no trouble seeing Greek ideals and values as the best that could exist, they only thought the actual Greek polis didn’t live up to them. They didn’t talk about how wonderful Persian society was and how awful the Greeks had been to defeat its armies. There were often individual things they like about other cultures, and they were all in favor of learning about those cultures and adopting whatever looked like good ideas, but that was ornamentation, mostly. Their core allegiance was Greek, first and foremost and always.
“Honor the gods, love your woman, defend your country,” Hector is made to say in the latest screen adapation of the Iliad. It would serve as a pretty good personal motto for most men of classical Greece.
The Adversary Culture that we know now has other attributes, and stranger ones. The most obvious of these is the tendency of some people in it to see “adversarial” as necessitating a rejection of Western Civilization, at least as a matter of rhetorical policy.
I say rhetorical policy, because it’s been pointed out by dozens of people (including Hanson, Heath and Thornton, whose book I referred to last time) that the biggest West-bashers we’ve got not only choose to live here and not there–Western culture might e racist and oppressive, but Edward Said never made a move to go back to live in Egypt–but use peculiarly and demonstrably Western methods to make their points.
So. Let me make a suggestion. The behavior of people like Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal–and their less erudite, intelligent and accomplished brethren, like Ward Churchill–is not a rejection of the West, per se, but an attempt to establish as a general principle that the West has no right to pass judgment on them.
I do not, by the way, think that this explains all the silliness out there. Some of it is definitely caused by a woefully adequate acquantance with the literature, art, philosophy, politics and history of the world up to now. Nobody who actually knows anything about the Middle Ages, or the Crusades, would think for a moment about apologizing to the Muslims for them. In that particular constellation of conflicts, the West was at least as much sinned against as sinning, and maybe more so.
And the behavior of the Arabs, and the conditions in Arab societies, were nowhere near as enlightened and tolerant as they’re being made out to be. Not by a long shot.
For Pope Benedict, though, I think the issue is compounded by a deep sense of personal unease. He’s historically ignorant, yes, but he’s also a child of his time, the grown man who was once a member of the Hitler Youth. He may understand, intellectually, that he was too young to be responsible for that decision, but what we understand intellectually isn’t always what we feel emotionally. Benedict is a complicated and conflicted man, and I don’t know if he’ll ever find a way to resolve those conflits in this life.
But there are also other issues besides ignorance of other cultures, and of any relevant history, but one of the most important is the simple fact that we haeve a set of ideals to live up to, and that we say we live up to , and that we are therefore more blameworthy when we don’t live up them than that guy down the road who didn’t have them to begin with.
Okay, that paragraph should be shot, but with any luck you’ll know what I mean.
And, you know, that still doesn’t explain the Chomskys.
But I think this does: I think people of a natural intellectual bent–and there are lots of them–do very badly in the ordinary high schools of North America. They’re never the Cool Kids. They don’t usually have much talent for sports. Everything that confers status in adolescent society is stuff they’re no good at and can’t do.
And then they emerge from school only to find that society is a lot more like high school than they’d ever imagined. Sports stars, rap singers, and other self-consciously “cool” people still get the biggest rewards. What bookish people do is still looked down on and laughed at and not paid very well.
And the more truly democratic the country, the more this paradigm pertains. In Europe, the anti-democratic forces determine who gets to be a filmmaker, and who gets to be a successful filmmake. In the US, it’s please the public–learn to be Popular–or die.
Put this reality together with a particlar kind of psychological temperament–the kind that needs someone to look down on in order to feel “up,” which is also the kind with an insecurity complex the size of Lake Superior–and you’ve got a hard core knot of people who are going almost crazy trying to get through the day in New Haven or Palo Alto.
They can’t even trust their own institutions, because those institutions consistently pay people in the hard sciences more money and give them more resources than anybody else. And the reason for that, it turns out, is the same thing that’s making them crazy otherwise–because more students sign up for those classes, because those fields are more Popular.
I don’t know if it’s possible to fix this. There are some temperaments that will never be well suited to a democratic society.
I do know it’s possible not to hold that particular group of people up as Intellectuals, as if they defined the breed, and pretend that the rest of the Intellectuals, the real Intellectuals if you will, don’t exist.
Of course, Hanson, Heath and Thorndike think the real reason these ideas are the rage of academia isn’t that the professors hold them, but that the professors know that that’s the kind of thing they have to say if they’re going to get promoted, so maybe I’m overanalyzing this.
The barbarians are at the gate because we sent them an invitation engraved in deconstructionist gibberish and philological minutiae. –John Heath
The quote above is from an article called “Self Promotion and the Crisis in Classics,” which was included in a book of essays by Victor Davis Hanson, Bruce Thornton and John Heath called Bonfire of the Humanities. It’s a good collection, with a concentration not on the Humanities as such but on Classics, but for someone wanting to go further with the discussion as it’s been going here, I’d recommend Who Killed Homer (by Hanson and Heath), instead.
Still, the above quotation speaks to the point, and I’ll get to it as soon as I clear one thing out of the way.
Although today’s adjunct faculty may appear to resemble graduate student grunt workers, their situation is much different, and it extends much farther. Graduate students exist only in research universities granting doctoral degrees, for one thing. More importantly, a graduate student slaving away as a teaching assistant has the reasonable expectation that once she’s paid her dues, she’ll be granted that degree and be hired as a full time faculty member somewhere, with benefits and the prospect of tenure.
Adjunct faculty have no such expectations. Many of them already have doctorates and have found it impossible to find full time teaching positions anywhere. Very few institutions are willing to consider their own part timers for full time positions when such positions open up, and many institutions think a record of five or ten years teaching part time is nothing but a negative–if this candidate was any good, wouldn’t he have found a full time position to begin with?
What’s more, many of the small liberal arts colleges like the ones Mary Fox and I attended now rely very heavily on adjunct faculty and have been steadily decreasing the number of full time faculty in the Humanities for decades.
This is not a good situation, and noto only because adjunct status is often a form of exploitation. It is also a signal of the level of respect the academic institutions themselves now have for the Humanities.
It’s one thing if people outside the academic enterprise don’t understand what the Humanities are “for.” It’s another if people inside it don’t, since the people inside it, and especially those at small liberal arts colleges, are at least theoretically committed to the value of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Robert is certainly right about one thing–a lot of the problems of the Humanities are self-inflicted, in that they are caused by a restructuring of these fields into loci of narcissistic silliness. When I graduated from college in 1973, English was the most popular major on almost every college campus. It’s now in the bottom quarter, and not just because we’ve admitted so many students who come only for the vocational end.
But it’s one thing to say that this particular set of Humanities professors is doing nothing important–honestly, there’s nothing important about one more foray into exposing the dark underbelly of white male heterosexual European hegemonic discourse–and another to say that the study of the Humanities is not important.
I think Robert’s wrong about how long it will take this system to collapse, because it’s already collapsing. Outside of a few very heavily endowed institutions, fields like English Literature, Classics, Philosophy, Art History and even History are going the way of the dodo, not because politicized legislatures are eliminating them but because students simply will not sign up to major in them. They’ve heard all that stuff about hegemonic discourse. They’d prefer to take a class in just about anything else except math.
This does not mean, however, that interest in what the Humanities really teach–instead of what gets offered as courses in too many universities–is nonexistant. The Teaching Company and a few others offer full courses in the Humanities on DVD and audiotape–the nineteenth century English novel, the pre-Socratic philsophers, art and religion in the Middle Ages. People spend money, often hundreds of dollars, to buy these courses so that they can follow them on the radio in their cars on their way to work or on their television sets at home instead of actually watching television.
If the institutional support and promulgation of the Humanities is collapsing, I think the individual support of the Humanities may be rising. At the very least, there are interested people out there, and my guess is that there would be a lot more of them if more people understood what the Humanities really are.
Then there are the successes of imaginative work and documntaries: the novels set in ancient Rome or medieval Florence; PBS and BBC miniseries like the ones produced by Michael Wood (In The Footsteps of Alexander the Great); movies of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair.
That there is a market out there for the Humanities, that more people are interested in pursuing them than the present state of college enrollments indicates, is, I think, fairly undeniable. And I have argued several times in this blog that we should stop thinking of schools as the one and only way to transmit knowledge of any kind.
Still, the real danger of what is happening on college campuses now is twofold. First, those colleges and universities who claim to be providing a liberal education have too often turned over their Humanities departments to the constellations of Marxist Feminist Multiculturalist Gay Marginalized Problematized Indeterminate Subjects who all seem to be saying the same thing, so that the only distinction between the history of Greece in the Classical Age and the Gothic novel in 19th century Britain is the “text” one uses to give the standard lecture.
That means that some of the brightest students in the country who, given the inadequacies of most American high school education these days, show up at the college gates knowing nothing of the Great Tradition quickly get the idea that there is no such thing. It’s all the same stuff about oppression and colonialism and cultural genocide repeated over and over and over again, and infinitely boring.
The second problem is that in those institutions where the Humanities have been effectively routed, other students see no evidence that there is any such thing, either. As my student, and they have no idea what they would study in a course in Philosophy, never mind why anybody would want to bother to study it.
The Humanities are not disposable. Two and a half millennia ago, a civilization arose in Greece that was fundamentally different from anything that had come before it, and anything existing around it, and most of what would come after it outside the tradition it founded itself. It proposed not only the fundamental equality of all citizens and the universality of both morality and truth, but a secular and entirely non-aristocratic approach to learning and art that is still the singular characteristic of Western (as opposed to any other) life.
No matter how much we fight about the particulars–communalism vs individualism; religious vs. atheist; whatever–we share this, and in sharing this we are fundamentally different than anything else on the planet.
Which is what I meant, all those weeks ago, when I pointed out that Communists and capitalists are not only both Western, but more alike than either of them are to Confucians.
Let’s start with John, who says he had a compostion course in 1954, and the he learned to hate Milton and Hardy in it.
What he actually had was something we’d now called “Lit and Comp”–essentially a standard intro to Literature course with a writing compoment, meant to teach students to write about fiction, poetry and drama. You can still find “Freshman Comp” courses of that same kind at first-tier colleges and universities (where they can assume that most freshmen will come in knowing how to write), and a similar course is often offered at less prestigious places as a second English requirement.
But Composition as it now exists as a freshman course in most of the colleges and universities below the first tier in America is nothing at all like that. There is no Milton, and no Hardy. There is no Shakespeare. There is no Donne.
If any imaginative literature is assigned at all, it’s done in a single week or two at the end, and it’s restricted to short stories. The two favorite ones are Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”
Mostly, though, composition students these days don’t get even that much fiction. What they get instead is a steady stream of nonfiction, contemporary essays meant to illustrate specific essay forms like “the persuasive essay” and “the compare and contrast essay” and “the process analysis essay.”
In case you’re wondering about that last one, the process analysis essay is a “how-to,” except we can’t call it a “how to” essay any more, because–I don’t know why because.
And we’ve recently seen a shift in the landscape in another way, too, because universities below the top tier are incresingly reluctant to hire people with PhDs in literature, since they teach virtually no literature. Instead, we’ve got new programs offering PhDs in writing and composition, that is, PhDs designed specifically for people who will spend their careers in “communications” departments rather than English departments.
Robert says I shouldn’t underestimate just how badly educated people with bachelors degrees in the fuzzy sciences can be, but in the systems I’m dealing with there are no graduates in the fuzzy sciences.
In the place where my program runs, it is not possible to major in English, or sociology, or chemistry, or history. There is a course offered here and there in these subjects, but no major. Majors are things like criminal justice, marketing, recreational management, nursing, even automotive mechanics.
Cheryl says she’s unhappy with the idea that the proprietary schools are treating their employees so much worse than public schools and nonprofits, but they’re not. The reality in the Humanities these days is this: every department will have a very small number (single digits) of full time faculty. The rest of what the department is called upon to teach will be taught by part-timers who make virtually no money (one place out here pays $1900 per course), get no benefits, and are hired on a course by course term by term contract basis, meaning they also have no job security.
All the proprietary schools do is reduce the number of full timers to one per discipline, and actually expect that one to teach. The higher up you get in institutional prestige, the less likely it’s going to be that your full time faculty teach much of anything, especially to undergraduates. They write books and papers, do research, go to conferences, and never see the inside of an undergraduate classroom if they can help it.
Mary thinks that the colleges are going to be going more and more in the direction I’ve been noting, and Rober thinks it’s a good thing.
I’m a little ambivalent. I agree that most colleges and u niversities below the first tier will go the way I’ve been outlining here. They pretty much have to, since nobody involved in them wants anything else.
And I don’t think it would be a bad thing if we reduced the number of real colleges and universities, and reduced the number of people attending them, from where they are now. I’d reduce them a lot more than this drift to vocationalism is likely to do.
I only object to two things.
The first is that we’re teaching this stuff on the “college” level at all. Most of it belongs in high school, or even earlier. I’m all for providing second and third chances for people who screw up as teenagers, but I want people who don’t screw up to be able to get an actual high school education in high school. The entire concept of “college algebra” ought to make us all cringe.
Because most high schools do not offer the average student the chance to develop high school level skills, we waste a ton of his time and money forcing him to acquire them in tuition-paying higher educational institutions.
(Note to Cheryl and others from Canada, Australia, and other places: in the US, even public universities charge tuition and except students to buy their own books.)
The other thing I object to is the complete removal of all opportunity for those same average students to get a liberal (meaning real) education if they want one. It is increasingly the case that if a student doesn’t qualify for Harvard, Yale, Vassar or Johns Hopkins, he can’t join the Great Coversation at all, because the schools he will be allowed access to don’t teach it.
As practical as the plan for the Land Grant colleges was, they did, from the beginning, take pride in their ability to turn out engineers and Aggies who knew Plato and Homer and Milton and Donne, on the assmption that the liberal arts were “liberal” in the old sense of the word–they were “liberal” because they liberated the mind from provincialism and lack of intellectual rigor, and (to get back to Thomas Jefferson here) were therefore the form of education most important to the lives of free men.
We get all caught up in particulars, in what constitutes the Canon and what parts of it to teach, in the mess that’s been made of the Humanities in the modern universsity, and we forget that the course of study deemed fundamental in Western civilization has been with us since the end of the sixteenth century wars of religion.
It’s not a question of whether or not you read Milton or Hardy or Shakespeare or Plato or Aristotle or Liebnitz. It’s a question of whether or not you understand that you’re part of a centuries long–millennia long–quest to understand and explain the human condition, and that it is the story of and the fact of the quest itself, not the right or wrong answers to particular questions you might find inside it, that is the point.
First, to answer Cheryl’s question–a propriety school is a school that’s run for profit, like a business.
Most private colleges and universities in the United States are non-profit corporations. They aren’t expected to make money for anybody. They don’t pay dividends. And they’re not fly by nights. Many of them–the big names like Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Vassar, but also smaller places like St. Olaf’s and Kenyon–have been around for over a hundred years. They have endowments that help them keep running, but they do not ever need to show that they’ve made money, nor do they usually do that.
Proprietary schools, on hte other hand, are businesses just like GM and Microsoft. They exist to make a profit, and they do that by running their offerings on a business model. Even a small college like Kenyon supports a number of faculty members whose entire focus is research, because the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is what it is they’re supposed to be doing. A proprietary school supports no such faculty members, because for them it would be pointless. They’re in business to deliver a service and make money from it.
And as businessnes, they lack some of the constraints of their non-profit competitors. For instance, Harvard and Yale must deal with rules on the hiring and tenure of faculty laid down by the AAUP. Phoenix can hire pretty much everybody piecemeal and part time and avoid all that.
But what I really want to get to is Robert’s contention that:
>>>There seems to be an implicit assumption that schools hire high schol or college graduates because they have certain skills, that the students need or want to aquire these skills, and that the schools are threatened when they don’t educate the students. This is true–over in the schools of Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and a number of others. But they’re doing fine.
The crisis seems to be among students looking for a job which requires “any four-year degree” the employers who hire such, and the faculty of the “fuzzy science” end of the Humanities. >>>
Let me try to untangle this for a couple of minutes.
First, I think that students and their parents think that students are in schools to acquire skills that employers want them to have. This is not the purpose of a college education, h owever, and it never was. There is a fundamental mismatch here between the institutions and what they’re being used for.
The English department in a research-level university or high-end liberal arts college does not exist to teach its students how to write. In fact, it’s a fair guess that there will be nobody on the faculty of such a department who would know how to go about doing that. Professors of English are trained in the intellectual history of prose in English, and that’s what they teach.
The assumption that colleges and universities will teach composition is fairly new. It arose in the last twenty or thirty years, at the point at which we could no longer asume that the students coming into higher education had already learned that in elementary and high school.
I’m with Robert. The persuasive essay and the reesearch paper are subjects for eighth grade English, whose teachers are supposed to be trained to teach just that. But outside of honors courses or gifted programs, we no longer teach that then, or in high school, for the simple reason that if we insisted on such a standard too many people would fail.
That said, as far as I can tell, Mary F, who actually has to hire liberal arts graduates, is having a good time with them. They have the communications skills she needs. But I do think they have those things not because they were taught them in college courses, but because the fact that they’d managed to make it through four years of a good university meant that they were more likely than people who didn’t have that background to have acquired those skills along the way.
It’s useless to rail at the “fuzzy scienes” and the Humanities for not teaching students how to read and write, for the same reason it’s useless to rail at the Chemistry department for not teaching people how to draw and play the flute–those things are not what the Chemistry department is meant to teach.
But the fact is that the people who have the most problems with reading and writing are very unlikely to be majoring in the fuzzy sciences or the Humanities–they’re going to be majoring in various kinds of business (marketing, management, human resources), or in majors that have been concocted from whole cloth over the last decade or so, like “criminal justice,” “equine management” and “pre-law.”
These are the kids in the bottom half of the achievement/ability distribution, not the kids who go on to Vassar and Northwestern. They were unlikely to be in honors or AP classes in high school, or they went to the kind of high schools where such classes, although a significant improvement over the standard offerings, were so watered down vis a vis the AP offered in good schools that they made very little difference.
Robert asks how people can gain sufficient context to read well if they don’t read for pleasure, and the answer is–quite easily, if the schools they go to are providing it. Lots of people who read very well indeed never read for pleasure, and a fair number of people who read for pleasure seem to have very little context. That’s who buys all those Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
Schools used to provide their students with context through continual reinforcement–history class was careful to cover the Boston tea party, the Civil War and the bombing of Pearl Harbor; English class read Longfellow, Thoreau and Faulkner and visited those same events as a side issue. Etc.
This is the premis behind E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy project, which has been adopted (with significant success, by the way) by charter and private schools all over the country. Kindergarten children do little plays about the First Thanksgiving. Middle school children read the story of Miles Standish. Junior high school students read Washington Irving. High school students read The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage. Everything works together. The general knowledge I’m talking about becomes literally part of the landscape, things students know without remembering where they first heard them and without being aware of consciously studying them.
Does doing things this way insure that every student will acquire the necessary context?
It never did. We most certainly insisted on the persuasive essay and the research paper in eighth grade–but we did it in while we allowed far more students to flunk out and leave school.
The problem, I think, is that we’ve defined “everybody should have a high school education” as “everybody should have a high school diploma.” The two things are not the same.
If we insisted on adhering to the same standards that defined a high school education in 1945, we would almost certainly see a lot fewer people graduate from high school.
If we insisted on adhering to the same standards that defined a college education in 1945, we’d have to close the huge network of lower-level state schools that have arisen essentially in an attempt to provide high-school-level skills to the kids who know have the diplomas without the skills because we’ve dumbed down the high school program to allow them to graduate.
And while we’ve been doing that, we’ve been dumbing down the skills levels even for a lot of the kids who would have graduated under the old system, because keeping up appearances–pretending not to be doing what we are in fact doing–has meant making sure it isn’t too obvious that “honors” mean “a whole different universe.”
What I would do, if it was up to me, would be to set the standards back to where they were at the end of the Second World War, and then allow any student who wanted to to give them a shot. I wouldn’t allow schools to sort students beforehand–oh, you’re not college material, you take shop. That decision should be up to the student.
But it should also be the case that if the kid fails, he fails. The standard should be what it is. The kid should get to try it as often as he wants. But if he can’t do it, then it makes sense to acknowledge that he can’t do it.
What we’ve got now is a kind of hat trick. We declare thatwe’ve made so much progreess–so many more people graduate from high school than used to in the bad old days.
But they don’t, really. They’re no m ore able to do high school level work than their grandparents were, they’ve just be given a nice, but mostly meaningless ceremony in a cap and gown.