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Intentions 5 (The Defense, 6)

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It’s remarkable what a decent night’s sleep can do for you. 

Tea also helps.

With any luck, this will be the final post in the “what we intend to teach in the liberal arts” part of this exercise.

I say with any luck because, when I started on this project, I thought that part was going to take one day and one post, or maybe two.   Now it’s nearly a week later, and I’m still doing this.

And, of course, this part–the part about teaching literature–is inherently problematic.  I’m like everybody else in that I tend to take my own field a lot more seriously than I do anybody else’s.  I also know more about it, so that I tend to see some specifics as crucial particularities–when, of course, for somebody outside the field, they may not be.

I don’t really care if AB, or anybody else, “likes” Shakespeare’s plays, or thinks they “good.”  And I really don’t care if any of you think he’s a “genius” or not. 

From inside the field, though, it looks to me as if it were important to know that, good playwright or bad one, Shakespeare represented the literary equivalent of a paradigm shift in the way plays were written and theater was experienced in Englished.  There’s a good book about this by Harold Bloom–Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human–but I would think it’s also necessary to remember that it all came together:  the first glimmerings of what we as moderns can recognize as what we call science; the explosion of new techniques of art and architecture; the theological movement called Renaissance Humanism; the Protestant Reformation; the way Shakespeare wrote plays with individual characters rather than allegorical ones–

It was all of a piece, a single sudden spurt in one direction over the course of about 250 years, ending in the Enlightenment, ending in us.

I really like that kind of thing, watching a particular intellectual structure come into place.  When you look at it in hindsight, it all looks inevitable. 

But I’m trying here to outline why somebody should study each of the liberal arts even if that part of them is not what he expects to spend his life doing, and the last real post I wrote was talking about narratives.

Somebody who read that post wrote me an e-mail saying that I should be careful:  yes, I could teach literature as a way to make people understand what a narrative is and how to recognize one, but that it was always possible for narratives to be false. 

But that is, I think, largely my fault–narratives can be false, and since they can be false, they can be dangerous. “Buying into a narrative” is what most people mean when they say they “believe” something rather than “know” it.   Their “knowing” may require buying into a narrative they’re not aware of, but “believing” means buying into it wholesale.

And we cannot do without narratives.  Narratives are the way we order and organized our thoughts and our lives.   We live in narratives.  We think in narratives.   We couldn’t get up in the morning and get ourselves to work if we didn’t have, imbedded deep in our subconscious, the narrative that makes that make sense.

Narratives are necessary.  Narratives can also be useful.   That Enlightenment narrative I was talking about last post hooked into a new idea just rising in Europe (you shouldn’t take things on authority, every man had both the right and the capacity to make up his own mind for himself), gave it a compelling story aimed at the most powerful authorities then in power, and spurred a lot of people to make innovations in science, art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy and government.   It was a big deal.

My problem is that we’ve come to a point where so few people understand what a narrative is and how it works, and that it is not and can never be “truth” in the sense of being entirely factual, that we’ve got all kinds of people in all kinds of places running around acting on narratives they aren’t aware are narratives and then blowing themselves up (along with everybody around them) when reality refuses to get with the program.

And I don’t just mean suicide bombers.  I know a fair number of university administrators who are doing this, too, and a lot of folk Protestant evangelicals. 

What I want from asking “everybody’ to study literature is this:  they should be able to spot a narrative; they should understand that all narratives are constructs and that some are more true than false, some more false than true, some completely false and none completely true.  Then I want them to be able to take that knowledge and apply it to other people’s behavior, and have other people apply it to theirs.

I don’t think any of us can ever be completely objective about our own narratives, but if enough of us from enough different perspectives could do this, we might be able to make the present situation in the world at least a little more coherent.

It might also help us with something else, vital but often in short supply:  it might make it possible for us to listen to other people and actually understand their point of view.

Except that I don’t mean “point of view.”  Internal logic, maybe?

One of the things literature does is to allow us to live other people’s lives, to get inside their heads, to feel what they feel and know what they know as they know it.

We talk a lot of trite silliness like “walk a mile in their mocassins,” but most of us seem incapable of even conceiving that some people think differently or feel differently than we do. 

I can’t count the times I heard, on some of those atheist forums I used to frequent, that William F. Buckley was probably only saying he believed in all that Catholic stuff, he probably didn’t believe it–how could he?  He wasn’t stupid.  

On the other hand, they often didn’t believe that the people they called stupid believed that stuff either–those people were “afraid of change,” or afraid of death, or had some deep-seated fascistic impulse to rule the world and get back at the rest of us.

Or something.

Anything, really, except the obvious: people think differently, they want different things, they know different things in different ways, they have different priorities, and all those differences are real.

The age of diversity not only doesn’t like diversity, it mostly doesn’t even believe it exists. 

So I’d say that it’s important to study literature for those three reasons:  the original one of providing examples of moral and immoral, good and bad, prudent and imprudent behavior; the more modern one of learning the nature and structure of narrative, and how it works, and how to spot  it, and how to use it; and that last and universal one of being able to spend some time in other people’s lives, in the hope that you’ll finally get the point that there are other lives.

And that should give, I think, a fair overview of why I think we bother to study all those things, the rationale behind teaching them.  Whether we actually do teach them–that is, whether in teaching them we actually get the students to learn what we intend them to learn–is a different issue, and I’ll take it up later.

But this is what we intend to teach when we teach the liberal arts.

And I’ll get on to why it would be valuable for an individual to learn it, next post.

I have a Saturday class to teach.

Written by janeh

September 24th, 2011 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Intentions 5 (The Defense, 6)'

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  1. I used to think of it as broadcasting past each other – The other person’s receiver couldn’t pick up what I was saying and I couldn’t understand them.

    I think I spotted this when I was in my teens. I can`t say I really understood how the other person thought, but I knew it was different from the way I think. Now it sometimes fascinates me to try to work out someone got from point A to B when I think it’s obvious it only leads to C, but I don’t always succeed, I suspect because I don’t have enough information on underlying assumptions.

    I’m still working on the connection between courtesy and hypocrisy. Given that a certain level of polite ignorance about other’s views and beliefs seem necessary in order to have even the minimum amount of tolerance needed to keep a family or a workplace or a country running, it’s hard to see at what point you stop to avoid being a hypocrite.

    Naturally, being concerned about this when it’s my cherished belief I reallly must defend only shows how hard tolerance is – tolerance of difference means tolerating differences that offend my cherished beliefs. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating anything, I’m merely accepting beliefs or actions which are either hardly different from my own, or or very little interest or importance to me.


    24 Sep 11 at 1:07 pm

  2. Here’s an interesting quote that might be relevant:

    “These [terrorists] are not people who have discovered new medicines, built new industries, invented new labor saving machines. In spite of the fact that many of them were very well educated, among the best educated people in their home countries, they have produced no new knowledge, or philosophy, or art. They haven’t written books or made movies or composed music. They haven’t founded companies or universities or hospitals or museums. The culture they wish to install not only at home but over the rest of us is a nightmare time travel trip backwards into the days of ignorance, savagery, and despair–rape victims stoned to death in public, girls forbidden to learn to read, indoor plumbing and central heating branded as the tools of Satan.

    Jane Haddam, 2002 (emphasis added)

    I’m not sure if quoting this is “fair use”, but if not, I’m sure the author can prevail on the owner of this site to remove it.


    24 Sep 11 at 4:16 pm

  3. “Naturally, being concerned about this when it’s my cherished belief I reallly must defend only shows how hard tolerance is – tolerance of difference means tolerating differences that offend my cherished beliefs. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating anything, I’m merely accepting beliefs or actions which are either hardly different from my own, or or very little interest or importance to me.”

    Cheryl, you might like to check this book out:



    24 Sep 11 at 6:55 pm

  4. OK. A good succinct explanation of the liberal arts program. Quibbles:
    If we’re going to insist on meaningful, rigorous liberal arts degrees, then we as a nation will have to stop using them as the union card for professorships. Otherwise, sooner or later we wind up saying, in effect, “I don’t care that he’s the greatest evolutionary biologist since Darwin: he just can’t grasp the modern novel” or “Well, he can pack them in for Classics, but we can’t use him: I’ve got a pet cat with better math skills.” Whether we regard the university as a place of teaching or as a center for research, getting the best researchers or the best teachers has to take precedence over the credentialing program. The more difficult we make the creentialing process, the more we sharpen the dilema.

    We also have to understand why a generation of university professors with sterling liberal arts educations chucked all this out, and have some program to keep them from doing so again. When a bridge collapses or an prototype plane crashes, you do NOT go out and build another one from the same blueprints–not without understanding the failure.

    All three reasons for literature sound reasonable, but I see no reason why they should lead to the same books taught in the same ways, and none of them is the “best of type” argument from a few years ago. Here the Devil really is in the details, and I want to see them before I’m sold. When the same authors show up with different reasons, I can be a very hard sell.

    Keep in mind that a lot of things would be beneficial taught with sufficient rigor, and always be sure it’s the right things to be taught, and not just the rigor.


    24 Sep 11 at 7:44 pm

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