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Archive for October, 2008

Postcards from the Future

with 5 comments

Robert said he had a rough day yesterday, and I had a rough day too, and I’m going to go into that in a second.   Trust me.  I couldn’t help myself if I  wanted to.

But first-Robert says that, classifying literature the way I do, I should call poems or novels “most typical” instead of “best and better.”  But although  I agree that we don’t say that penguins are a “really bad bird,”  we do say “x is the best specimen we have of y”  or “x is the most highly developmed form of y.”

What I’m thinking of for literature is that second one.  Paradise Lost is not a typical anything.  It is the most highly developed form of the epic poem, and it has had an enormous impact on this culture, mostly on people who have never read it and who think that the ideas they have received from it are actually from somewhere else, like the Bible.

Which brings us to the second way in which we study literature, and in the way most people who are not literary scholars find most interesting:  we study it for the ideas it brings, and for the ways in which it impacts the world we live in.

I don’t blame John for wanting to trample Milton underfoot.  Paradise Lost is a book so dense it can make graduate students cry.  And Robert was right in saying, in another place, that nobody ever gets all the allusions in anything, and that Terry Pratchett–in spite of being a “lightweight” writer–requires an unusual range.

But the fact remains that the allusions in both matter, and they matter even if you don’t “get” them, because they go out into the culture and change things.  In the case of Paradise Lost, its expansions on Genesis and Revelation have become the basis for a vast literature of Christain “teaching” that stretches across the range of American folk Protestantism and that color its interpretations and definitions of things like sin (both original and personal), virtue, creation, the Devil, and the “end times.”

And if you don’t think those interpretations and definitions matter, take a look at the referenda on the ballots of numerous states this election season.  Or better yet, because it’s more fun, look at a few of the popular Christian press “scripture novels” available these days.   Their vision of the Devil, of his personality, of his actions in the world, of what they believe we shoud have to fear from him, is out of Milton, not the Bible, even though the vast majority of them don’t even know who  John Milton was.

If we decide to look at the literature that has made the most impact on the culture, we’re going to get a mixed bag technically.  It’s not that literature has to be bad to have an impact (and bad is used here the way  we’d judge a penguin born with only one foot), it’s that it doesn’t matter one way or the other if the literature is bad or good.

It’s hard to figure out why readers want one thing and not another, why one book will have millions of readers and another practically none.  It certainly isn’t level of difficulty in and of itself.   Some very difficult works have been both very popular–anything by Faulkner, for instance, who was one of the best selling writers of his time and an enormous influence on generations of novelists, and not just American ones.

But just being lightweight and stupid won’t make a book sell, either.  Some publishers in the last ten years or so seem to be convinced it will, of course, and writers at some houses are under constant pressure to “clean up” their books–take out the “big words,” make the plots simpler, get rid of anything that smacks of “ideas.”

Then there’s the fact that just because a book is popular doesn’t make it influential.  It’s not just that nobody reads Lloyd C. Douglas any more, and not much of anybody knows his name, but that what ideas he managed to send into the culture haven’t had much resonance.   We still like to watch some of the movies made from the books when they show up on TCM or AMC–The Robe, for instance, or Magnificent Obsession–but to the extent that they promote any ideas at all that we’d recognize, we’re left wth the same sort of squishy-nice Christianity that pervades greeting cards and Miss America pageant interviews.

Contrast that, for a moment, with the monumental impact of two very bad novels:  Gone With The Wind and Atlas Shrugged.  At some later point, we can go into what is technically bad about each of them–Atlas Shrugged is practically the poster child for what is wrong with telling instead of showing–but right now I want to concentrate on the fact that both put ideas into the culture that have been enormously influential and that we are not rid of yet.

Gone With The Wind gave us a picture of the pre-Civil War South that was not only sympathetic to that South, but laudatory of it.  It was even laudatory towards slavery, so much so that all the evils of slavery–families sold away from each other, physical mistreatment of slaves–were presented as the fault of the Yankee overseers who ran the plantations, and not of the plantation owners themselves. 

It’s interesting to contrast this vision of white trash–Northern, uppity, ambitious–with the somewhat more accurate vision in  Faulkner, with the Snopeses and everything they represent.   In Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia,  white Southerners might be stupid, and prone to drink, but they were almost always noble. 

Gone With The Wind was, of course, written and published in the 1930s, and some of its appeal, originally, was simply as an escape from the problems of the Great Depression.  It offered a lot to escape to.  There were plantations and parties, balls in Atlanta, battlefield scenes, escapes in the night.  

But beyond that, the novel offered both the people of the North and the people of the South something they desperately needed:  a vision of the Civil War, and the reasons it had been fought, that did not result in an outright and unyielding condemnation of “the Southern way of life.”  And it did it without the usual Suother protest that the war hadn’t been about slavery, it had been about “states rights.”

Of course, it was about the right of states to maintain slavery, but that’s another issue.

Here’s the thing–it would probably have been impossible for the South to morph itself into the Sunbelt if it hadn’t been for Gone With The Wind.  From the 1860s until that novel was published, the American “take” on the former states of the Confederacy was almost universally bad:  a backward, ignorant, violent region where black people were kept in poverty and misery when they weren’t lynched, a place where no really decent people would want to live.

The interesting thing about Gone With The Wind is that its vision of the South managed to overwhelm not only one generation’s memories of the Great Conflict, but another generation’s present-day experience of racial violence.  The movie was actually rereleased to theaters at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, after literally years of nightly news broadcasts of burning black churches, black children stoned on their way into elementary school, the National Guard called out to protect the first black student at the University of Mississippi–and the rerelease worked.  It was a smashing success.  One of my teachers took our entire English class to New Haven to see a matinee.

Sometimes, really influential but technically bad books lose importance over time.  Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which has become almost unreadable ove time, and is now mostly interesting to history and sociology students studying the abolitionist movement.  Its technical badness may even be working against it.  Its histrionic tone tends to strike modern readers as silly and false.  The book that once made readers outraged at the evils of slavery now makes readers wonder if those evils aren’t being exaggerated.  After all, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, everything seems to be exaggerated.

Gone With The Wind has not become unreadable.  It’s still in print, and it still sells reasonably well.   I’ve owned at least three copies of it over time, and you can buy a hardcover edition if you want something more permanent to put on your bookshelf.   Like a number of other writers of the same era–Agatha Christie, for instance–Mitchell wrote plain, clean, uncomplicated, unpretentious prose, and her very lack of erudition worked for her. 

Besides, Scarlett O’Hara was a stroke of genius.  To the women of the Depression, she was an example of sheer feminine will power overcoming the worst of disasters.   Surely being poor in an occupied South after the Civil War had to be worse that getting through the Great  Depression, and  Scarlett had come out all right.  To the women of the Fifties, fed an ideology of feminine passivity from every expert who managed to write a book, she was a hint that women were stronger and smarter and more capable than anybody was giving them credit for.

For most of America, what life was like in the anteBellum South is what life was like in Gone With The Wind, and no matter how crazy that might drive both historians and other Southern novelists, they haven’t been able to make a dent in the popular mind.  

I said, at the beginning of this blog, and literature sometimes lies.

I’ll try to get to the other lie tomorrow.

For the moment, you’ve been spared the rant I was going to deliver in this post, and you should really be thankful for that.


Written by janeh

October 31st, 2008 at 4:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Let’s Get Back To…

with 3 comments

Anyway, that little public fit being over, let’s get back to business, even if I haven’t had a chance to have my tea yet.  That’s always an interesting situation, really.

Let’s talk, for a minute, about what I mean when I say that one novel is “better” than another, because that may clear up some of what’s been going on here.   As with a number of other things in this discussion, I seem to be hitting hot buttons, and when you hit hot buttons the person assumes that you  MUST be saying what the last person he had the conversation with was saying.

But I’m probably not, so here goes.

There are two reasons to study works of art.

One is to discover what they are–to look at them, analyze them, try to conceptualize and configure them, and thereby come to an understanding of what kind of thing they are and how they work.

The other is to encounter a set of ideas that has been important to this culture getting where it is and that looks to be important in the future.

Neither of these endeavors is as different from “science” as you think, especially if you’re talking about the part of science that is taught to non-scientists as important for them to know.

I’m not worried about teaching what the novel is and how it works to novelists.  They’ll get it on their own without my help.

But for the rest of the world, consider the following:  over the past seven thousand years of known human civilization, men and women have produced a plethora of written work of all kinds.   A lot of that written work is available for us to read.  Some of it is not, but references to it exist in other written work.   Some of it has just disappeared.

This situation is analagous to the forms of things that  are and have lived on this earth–the extant works to what is living now, the references works to what is fossilized, the missing works to those life forms that lived and then left no trace.

There’s nothing we can do, and not much useful we can say, about works for which there is no trace left at all, but the other two categories provide us with a large amount of information not only about the world in which they were written but also about the forms in which they were written.

We can take these works, read them, discover their various characteristics, and then classify and divide them according to what those characteristics reveal.  For instance, we can take the universe of existing poems and divide them into  epic poetry, lyric poetry, love poetry (usually a subset of lyric), narrative ooetry, devotional poetry, picaresque poetry, and so on.

From there, we can look at each of our broad categories and discover what it is that makes each of these categories coherent–and if we can’t do that, then our categories are wrong. 

Assuming we can, however, we can do three things:  first, we can figure out what an epic poem is, so that we can recognize an unfamiliar one when it comes along;  second, we can establish an evolutionary map that shows how the form has changed over time; and third, we can judge how well each example fits the criteria that defines the category/subset as a whole.

That last thing is what I mean by deciding that one poem, or one novel, is “better” than another in the technical sense.  

I am not talking here about “taste,” or about whether something is “evocative,”  or “transgressive,” or any of the other sillinesses that substitute for real literary scholarship these days.   I’m not even talking about ideas.   I’m talking about looking at literary forms over time to discover what they are and how they have worked and do work. 

Will there be some judgment calls in all this?  Yes, of course–but I hate to break it to you, there are judgment calls in biological taxonomy, too.  There are always edge cases that refuse to comfortably fit into one category or another.  Biologists hae learned to live with it–and creationists have learned to use the fault line to declare that “there are no transitional forms, biology says so!”–so I assume we can learn to live with it, too.

Anyway, non-artists need to study art on this level for the same reason non-scientiests need to take a course or two in biology or chemistry.   A few posts back, John commented that we were never going to make non-scientists think like scientists, and that’s probably true.  But we can show them how scientists think and what the results of that are.

In the same way, I’m never going to teach non-artists to think like artists, but I can show them how art works and what the results of that are.  That’s why I don’t require them to “like” Paradise Lost.  Whether anybody “likes” Paradise Lost is irrelevant on this level.  As an example of and a development in epic poetry, it displays both the characteristics of the form and their limits in a way that, say, Stephen  Vincent Binet’s John Brown’s  Body does not.

(A note here–if you don’t know John Brown’s Body, you should check it out sometime.  Benet set out to write an epic poem about the American Civil War, and this was the result.)

At any rate, this approach to literature, and to literary “hierarchy” is neither particularly subjective nor particularly vague.  It’s important to learn, however, because in the end, art has at least as much impact on our lives as science does, and it may have more.   Art is one of the major fields of human endeavor.  It has shaped our world as much as science or war.  You can’t get here from there without it.  But there’s a lot of it, and just as no non-science major college freshman can look into every member of every phyla and family in existence, or track every chemical element, he can’t  track every epic poem or romantic novel. 

That’s why we take the “best”–that is, the specimens that most completely and strongly exhibit the characteristics of the form–and teach those.

Looking at my students, I would guess that there isn’t one high school in a hundred that teaches literature this way.  In fact, I would say there isn’t one high school in a hundred that teaches literature at all.  It’s not just that many of the high schools have given up presenting anything like a coherent selection of works to their students.   Even the high schools that insist on students reading Oedipus and Romeo and Juliet have fallen victim to what I think of as “me-ism.”

My students arrive in their college classrooms having never said anything, or thought anything, about a work of literature except that they did nor didn’t “like” it, or that they did or didn’t find it “interesting.”   When I tell them they are not allowed to say either thing in any paper they write for me, they’re dumbfounded.  How else can you talk about literature?  What else is there to say?

At that point, I hand out an example of actual literary criticism–Lionel Trilling on Henry James,  Leslie Fiedler on Mark Twain, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare.   It’s way over their heads, but it does a very important thing.  It knocks the props out from under the “English is a gut course and just bullshit anyway” attitude that is the biggest block to getting them to read anything.  

After that, I return to sanity, of course, and try to get them to look at what literature I an make them read through sets of questions meant to direct their attention away from themselves and onto the works.

It works with about one out of fifty of them, mostly because the other forty-nine cannot in fact read in any way  I would define that term.  Real education is as organic as writing a novel is.  You need all the parts of it working together seamlessly to make the whole, and although alerting students to the fact that literature comes in forms and the forms need to be understood is a step in the right direction, it’s not a very long step when they return to the work and still find it incomprehensible,  because they don’t get any of the references and they don’t know any of the history. 

It’s hard to teach even popular novels like Gone With The  Wind to students who don’t know when the Civil War happened.  A novel like Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods leaves them stupefied.  What do you do with students who can’t see a reference to the Cruicifixion and know it has something to do with Christ, who can’t see a reference to Socrates and know it has something to do with philosophy, who don’t know what philosophy is, who think 1984 is just a year that occurred some time before they were born?

What do you do with students who don’t know that, in the world before the one they were born into, a woman who slept with somebody before sh was married to him and got caught at it could lose her family, her home, her livelihood, her children?

What do you do with students who have never heard the term “illegitimate child?”

I need to go act like a sensible person and get back to the day.   More tomorrow, on the other reason we study literature, and the other necessary approach to it.

Written by janeh

October 30th, 2008 at 5:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Where To Start

with 3 comments

Given the comments that have come in, it’s difficult to know what to say first, or even what to talk about first.  I always start these things with grand plans for a perfectly argued, perfectly structured, architecturally elegant exposition, and then it all goes to hell.

First, in answer to Cheryl–yes,  I’ve definitely heard the “ivory tower” smear.  I haven’t mentioned it for two reasons.  First, because it’s really just a variation on the more basic revulsion against education–us peckerwoods are smarter than all you college boys with your book learning!   But the more important reason is that I keep trying to get this subject off the myopic concentration on universities and academia.

Education does not only take place in academia, and the violent distaste for intelligence and education isn’t always directed at “professors.”  In the family in which I grew up, there was an entire subsection of people who responded to my going to the library to take out Anna Karenina with the words, “who do you think you are!”   Note, I didn’t use a question mark there.   It wasn’t a question.

What seems to be offensive to these people, what seems to be offensive to a large minority of the American public, is not the Ivy League per se, or even the real  Ivy League, but what “Ivy League” has become a metaphor for:  a certain habit of mind, a certain set of tastes, and an intelligence strong enough that it cannot be hidden.

Nor do I think the revulsion and derision against smart people–which is what this is–has anything to do with the smart people being condescending and arrogant.  I was certainly neither at the age of ten, when the incident with Anna Karenina occurred, nor even earlier than that, when I used to get slammed for using “big words.”  Mind you, I had no idea I was using “big words.”  They didn’t sound big to me.

What’s more, far from being either condescending or arrogant, I spent most of my time feeling vastly inferior on every level to the cousins who made my life absolutely hell on wheels at least three times every year.  The three times were, of course, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when I would be forcibly transported to my Aunt Dot’s and thrown in the midst of a dozen or so people of “my own age” who not only couldn’t stand me, but spent a lot of their time making sure I didn’t forget they couldn’t stand me. 

When I got a little older, I devised a strategy.  I’d go into the house, sink into the woodwork as far as possible, and then, when nobody was looking, go back out to my father’s car.  In those days, my father favored enormous Cadillacs and Lincolns, and the floors of the back seats didn’t have that little bump thing they’ve got now.  I would lie down flat on the floor of the car, where nobody could see me, and read.  

Sometimes, I managed to read all the way through dinner without anybody knowing I was gone.

My point here–aside from the fact that this got me thinking about it–is that their hatred and contempt for me had nothing to do with my going to some fancy college.  I did that, eventually, but it was years later.  What they didn’t like was something much more basic in me, and they don’t like it in anybody.   That’s as true now as it was in 1961.  Hell,  I think it’s actually gotten worse.

A couple of years ago, my father and my brother died within a month of each other.  At the dinner after the memorial service for my brother, I went over to talk to that side of the family, all the cousins gathered together in a little knot like a high school clique, and my cousin Chris, seeing me sit down at the table, picked up her chair, turned its back to me, and then planted herself with her arms folded across her chest. 

She wasn’t even going to pretend to talk to a little snot like me.  Who did I think I was?  I ought to remember where I came from!

Someday, I’m going to be forced into the company of these people and I’m going to just lose it.  Which my sons think would be a really good idea.

What I’m getting at here, though, is that this reaction had nothing to do with any of the excuses people usually make for it–I hadn’t gone to any fancy schools when it started, I didn’t think I was better than they were, I wasn’t parading around showing off one thing or the other.  If anything, I was desperately attempting to make sure they didn’t notice me.

As it turned out, they tended to take not bothering them as just as bad as any of the arrogant stuff would have been if I’d done it.  Hiding out in the car?  Who do you think you are!

I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, I really don’t.  I just know it’s there, and I know it’s wrong–morally wrong, not just mistaken.  The people who fulminate against “pointy-headed intellectuals” are not doing it because they think the Ivy League types look down on them or because they think the experts are wrong.  A lot of them have never met an Ivy League type face to face and most of them do not have the background knowledge to make an informed decision about just about anything. 

Who’s going to pay for it is a side-issue, really.  These people would feel this way about intelligence and education and erudition even if they were never called on to fork over a dime for its existence.   Their problem is not their wallets or even the environmental policies of this government agency or that.  It’s with the mere fact that intelligence exists, that it does not exist equally in all people, and that some people got more of it than others.

i want to point something out here:  what I’m talking about is not a function of substandard IQ.  My cousins aren’t stupid–well, okay, one of them is–because they lack the raw ability.  I know plenty of people whose IQs are no higher who do not fall in to this kind of trap. 

In the end, this is a decision, and sometimes people with very high IQs indeed fall into it.  We ought to talk about an academic phenomenon called  Physics Envy sometimes–you can see a lot of this kind of thing in that.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the decision to hate and revile intelligence in other people is, at the same time, a decision not to develop it in yourself.  It is the white trash equivalent of what is called, in ghetto neighborhoods, “acting white.”  And its theme song is always the same:  Who do you think you are!

Note, again, the lack of question mark.  It’s not a question.

There is, on that side of the family, one other person who has the Mark of Cain, or whatever, and it’s interesting to me what has happened to her among the cousins.  She’s definitely tolerated, unlike me, and she’s almost never reviled to her face or outright shunned when the family gets together.

But there’s a price, and it amazes me that she’s willing to pay it.  The price is to show up at every family gathering with a cooked something, to work overtime to “fit in”–and to pretend not to know that they make fun of her as soon as her back is turned.

It isn’t good-natured fun, either.  I know.  I’ve heard it.   The woman has a PhD and a law degree.  Why she thinks she needs to put up with this crap is beyond me. 

As for me, I figure that half a century is long enough to give anything, so I quit.

And I’ll get to Robert’s thing about the usefulness of studies in Thomas Jefferson’s UVa tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 29th, 2008 at 6:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

To Be or…

with 4 comments

Well, Robert insists that he has use even for the hard sciences only because they sometimes produce practical results, and will tolerate history because it produces practical results, too, or could.

I’d say simply that most people think of science as something that “does stuff,” and that the only reason they tolerate it is because of the stuff–but the fact remains that the actual percentage of pure science that is turned into anything practical is extremely small, and in some scientific fields (cosmology, for instance) it approaches nil.  

And the utility or lack of utility of the study of literature and philosophy did not stop anyone from studying it before, say, around 1965, nor did the humanities departments of that era lack “prestige.”  That was true even though the humanities departments of that era would have recoiled in horror from the idea that they should be presenting a program with some “practical” use, and humanities departments now either strive mightily to present just such practical programs (composition courses by the truckload, courses meant to lead to activism of one sort or another), but work day and night to devise mission statements that outline all the practical applications they can think of.

Robert wants to know who pays, what they learn, and who decides, and then he demands to know how much “music, dance and modern literature” existed in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

As for who pays–college study was then, as now, a matter for students and their parents to pay for.   The state universities endeavored to provide their citizens with the same cultural and educational grounding as the best private ones, and everyone (starting with  Jefferson) thought that was a good idea.  We can get to whether or not we want to do that later.  Up until then, I’m assuming that we’re talking about privately funded study.

As for “music, dance and modern literature,” there would have been none in Jefferson’s vision of the University of  Virginia, but then, there is none in the humanities as they are traditionally understood.   There is music history, which is a sub-set of intellectual history as traditionally conceived, but music and dance performance has never been, and usually is not now, part of the humanities.  Most universities who allow “majors” in that sort of thing do so under BFA programs, not BA or BS ones, or as part of “degrees” in education. 

As for modern literature–it depends on what is meant here.  Modern, or contemporary?  The appearance of courses in contemporary literature in the curriculum is fairly new–it arrived even after my time, which was significantly later than 1965–and it is, I think, a symptom of what has gone wrong here.  So is this entire discussion.  It’s obvious that a number of you have no idea what the humanities actually are.  I’d venture to guess that most of the literature and philosophy departments in the universities nearest you don’t know, either.  

As for  Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, what it did include were mandatory studies–no electives here, and no choice–in Greek and Roman literature in the original languages.   Do you really think that reading The Odyssey in Greek and The Aeneid in Latin was presented by anybody at the time as a “practical” course of study that would lead to pragmatic results like better judgment in devising banking policies or writing interstate commerce law?  

If you wanted to learn that sort of thing, you apprenticed to the appropriate business or profession, you didn’t go to a university at all.   And plenty of people, often very poor people whose time had to mean money if they weren’t going to starve, managed to carve out the time to learn ancient languages and read ancient works of literature and philosophy on their own, so important did they consider it to know what looks to many of us now as useless silliness.

And I return to the Land Grant colleges, which were not just institutions of practical instruction, but insisted that their aggies and engineers be grounded in the liberal arts (all three divisions). 

It’s odd now to read people like Lionel Trilling, or Allen Tate, or Cleanth Brooks, men who taught literature in  American universities in the 1950s.   Some of them were New  Critics, some of them hated the whole New Critical movement, but all of them never questioned for a moment the value of what they did or what they studied. 

And they knew what that was, too.  There were no courses in “Gender in the Victorian Novel” or “The Heterosexist Conspiracy in Contemporary Science Fiction,” not because the topics themselves were inherently uninteresting (see Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel) but because they would have found the approaches trivial and silly, and a complete waste of time in undergraduate education.  Undergraduates didn’t know anything.  If they wanted to wander off on side issues, they could do it on their own time.

When  I was an English major at Vassar, we were required to take courses spanning the history of literature in English and then write a long (usually 50 to 100 pages long) thesis on a topic in the field.  My master’s degree thesis was easier and less comprehensive than that thing was.  We had to pass courses in Medieval literature,  Elizabethan literature, Shakespeare (two semesters–read ALL the plays), Milton, literature of the Eighteenth century, the Nineteenth Century British novel, the Nineteenth Century American novel, American literature in survey–okay, there was more of it.

A couple of years ago, a woman I used to teach with gave me a copy of her doctoral dissertation, written in a program at a state university near us.   The thing was breathtakingly appalling.  Not only was it short (not much longer than that undergraduate thesis), and lightweight, and virtually entirely concerning secondary sources, but it was sloppy, badly written and silly.  It was obvious by about page three that she hadn’t read much of anything in the field, that she knew nothing about Medieval literature, about women in it or about the women who wrote some of it.  She was even lamer on the Victorians. 

So I asked.  It turned out that her doctoral program did have what we used to call “prelims”–general exams preliminary to the dissertation–but you could pick and choose among them and take only the ones you wanted to.  There was no need to study up on Elizabethan sermons or the eighteenth century British essay (think Samuel Johnson) if what you were really interested in was “Gender Studies.”

I don’t think the humanities have lost “prestige” because they’re not practical.   They never were.  I think the humanities have lost students–and we’re having the discussion we are–because they’ve stopped being the humanities.

The fact is that lots of people actively seek out the impractical, knowledge for the sake of knowledge humanities in places other than universities.  That’s why things like The Learning Company are profitable.  Men and women whose “college” experience consisted of a scattershot of “electives” in badly conceived, badly taught, and largely uninformed ‘relevant” applications of what should have been a foundation in philosophy, literature and history fork over hundreds of dollars for DVD sets of old guys lecturing on the concepts of good and evil in Paradise Lost and the importance of Original Sin in the sermons of John Donne.

I don’t think the wave of anti-intellectualism we’re experiencing is the result of people thinking the experts are full of it.  If anything, a thorough grouding in the liberal arts (all three divisions) should mean you are more likely to feel like that about experts, not less.

I don’t think it’s about left-wing professors, either.  The professors in the hard sciences tend to be just as left wing, if not more so. 

I don’t think it’s about “intellectuals” “sneering” at the masses.  I  certainly think there’s some sneering out there,  but I think the resentment came first, that what sneering there is–and there’s less of it than people want to believe–is a result of the resentment, not the cause of it.

I think that what has happened is this:  I think that the people charged with teaching and scholarship in the humanities have dropped the ball.  Lionel Trilling knew why there should be English departments, and why and how people should study literature.  Our English departments no longer seem to have a clue. 

Forget seem.  They no longer do.  Isolated individuals within those departments get it, but by and large the university divisions are populated by people who think that just about anything is more important than the liberal arts.

They are, in their way, was pragmatically-minded as Robert would want them to be, but the practical uses they want to put literature to are not “building good citizens” but “building good revolutionaries” and “ending racism, sexism and homophobia.”  In a way, they’ve brought a kind of social gospel to the humanities.  We’re no longer talking about ultimate truths and ultimare reality any more.  We’re making our message make a difference in the lives of the people we encounter.

The problem is that there’s very little point to the social gospel, really.  If you want to “make a difference in the lives of people [you] encounter,” it’s much more sensible to study medicine or social work or even manufacturing than to deconstruct Huckleberry Finn.  If literature and philosophy and history are not valuable on their own terms, then they’re at best side issues, distractions, and not really valuable at all.

Why should anybody take humanites departments seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously, if they don’t see the point of what they do, if they don’t even do what it is they’re supposed to do?

I’m not going to say the humanities are dead.  The Teaching Company and The Great Courses and their cousins are in fact keeping them alive.  The real thing is out there, it’s just very seldom out there in university English departments.

And on the very lowest levels of the system as it is now constituted, it is not there at all.  

Ask any of my students why they’re required to take a course in English literature to graduate, and they’ll tell you it’s so the university can make money.  One of them told me, indignantly, that I had no right to expert her to know about things that happened before she was born.  And Milton and  Donne, Shakespeare and Austen, Oedipus sleeping with his mother and Odysseus sailing the wine-dark sea?  They’re boring.

My students, given who they are, might be bored by all this no matter how well it was taught to them.  At the moment, though, they have ever right to be bored.

Written by janeh

October 28th, 2008 at 5:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s It All About?

with 4 comments


Let me try a few more things.  First, Robert wishes I would explain what it is I would teach, instead of what it is that is actually taught now, but I want to back away from that for a little while.  Yes,  I have very strong ideas about how the liberal arts–humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, all three–should be taught, and what the content should be for everybody at large and specific groups within the university community.

And yes,  I do think that the mess we’re in now is largely caused by the fact that those things are either not taught, or are not taught well, or are taught by people who have no idea why anybody should want to learn them. 

If you look around on the main web site, you’ll see that there’s a section called Reading and Writing, and that in that section I have started to put up lists of what I think everybody should have read, as well as critical essays (okay, one so far, Hawthorne is coming) on various writers.  But I don’t want you to rely on the lists yet, either, because they don’t make much sense from the point of view of this conversation at the point we’re at now.

I want you to consider, first, what education is “for.”

And to consider, further, that it’s not “for” anything in the sense people usually ask that question.

Education–real education–will not (necessarily) make you a good human being, morally or socially.  It will not necessarily make you wise, or even sane, about public policy.  It will not make you a good doctor, lawyer, or accountant, or even a better one (again, necessarily).  It will not produce practical innovations for the marketplace.  It will not build a better mousetrap or a set of snow tires that stop your car from sliding on the ice.  

Real education is for exactly one thing:  knowledge for the sake of knowledge, knowing because knowing is a good thing in and of itself.

Real education will situate you in the Great Convesation.  It will tell you where your civilization has been and where it is and give you a little nudge so that you might be able to see where it is going.  It will open up to you all the possibilities of human life, from best to worst, so that you’ll know.

What you do with what you know is up to you.

Before you start howling out there,  I want to point out that this foundation of the liberal arts–knowing in order to know, knowledge for knowledge’s sake–is just as true of the hard sciences as of the humanities.  The only reason we don’t think so is that we’re vaguely aware that “science” gives us lots of things we like, and some we don’t.  Polio vaccine and the atom bomb–isn’t science “for” things like that?

Well, no, it isn’t.  Most scientific research has no immediate practical application, and would be conducted even if there was no prospect of ever having practical application.   Mathematics is a very useful tool for a lot of things, from buying groceries to sending a probe to Mars, but theoretical mathematics is concerned with none of them.  Theoretical mathematics is concerned with how numbers work, with problems in mathematical formulae and systems, with all kinds of things, but none of it is practical.  And do you know what theorectical mathematicians call what they do?

“Pure” mathematics.

The moral overtones are so clear they’re like being slammed over the head with the Reverend Mr. Dimsdale. 

Every one of the hard sciences does what the men and women working in the fields call “pure” research, and in every case “pure”  research has a higher prestige value than the “applied” sort.  Knowing just to know, knowing because knowing is a good in and of itself, is one of the oldest activities known to human beings and one of the ways that human beings are distinguished from all other animals, at least as far as we know to date. 

Granted, this is a hard sell.  Most people find it difficult to understand why anybody would want to do that.  Robert sent me an e-mail in which he called such an enterprise a “hobby,” and I can understand why practical people feel this way.   They always have felt this way.  That was why many Greeks thought philosophers were crazy, or maybe worse.  There’s a wonderful play by Aristophanes, called The Clouds, in which he takes Socrates apart at the joints.  His criticism of Socrates and the way of life he represents is surprisingly modern, too.  You can recognize in it many of the complaints lodged today against “radical professors” in their “ivory towers.”

Of course, Aristophanes only manages it by ascribing to Socrates a philosophical system that actually belonged to someone else, but getting the details wrong is surprisingly modern, too.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to sell the public on knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  Most people want to know what you’re going to “do” with what you learn, and if they don’t get a satisfactory answer they’re likely to decide that they see no reason to pay for your pursuit.  That’s how we didn’t get the supercollider.

But the hard sciences have this advantage:  they’re difficult to understand in a way that is entirely obvious right on the surface.

Hand your average citizen a journal paper on superconductors or the behavior of quarks and he’ll take one look at the equations and decide he doesn’t understand a thing.  Hand him an essay called “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Puritan  Legacy in New England”–the title of the one  I’m writing for the site, at the moment–and it will look enough like what he’s used to that he’ll be convinced he ought to understand it.  If he doesn’t understand it, he concludes that the fault is the writer’s ideas and presentation, not his own lack of knowledge or expertise.  The scientists are smarter than he is, but the literary critics are just producing gibberish.

Now, a note–IMPORTANT.  I am not saying that literary critics do not write gibberish.   Over the last twenty years, many of them have written nothing else.

I am saying that literary criticism–NOT book reviewing, but literary explication–is, when done properly, quite as difficult to handle, as abstract and abstruse, as any “pure” mathematics you can find, and it gets more difficult the farther you get from narrative into the history of ideas.  

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.   Knowing just to know.  That is what a university is for–to bring together men and women engaged in this enterprise, and in many different aspects of this exercise, and give them a place where such endeavor is normal, and everyday, and average. No more philosophers sleeping in the streets, with little family and few friends and barely anybody to understand them.  

That this is not what the universities of the present are doing is obvious, too, but we have to start with what ought to be if we’re going to make a stab at understanding what is. 

The purpose of the liberal arts is knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  It is not to prepare us to do anything in the practical world, and it does not promise to so prepare us.  It will not produce practical results, except accidentally.   It would be a worthwhile way to spend time even if it never did produce those results, though.  It is a human drive as basic as the need for food and sex.   It occurs in all of us as children.  It continues in only some of us, but that may be partially our own fault.

Knowing in order to know. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  What has been called, through many centuries, the Life of the Mind.  Education is an introduction to the Life of the Mind–and that’s all it has to be.

One of the first great markers of an anti-intellectual culture is exactly that it demands that the Life of the Mind produce results, that it be for something, something practical, something useful, something everyday.  We’ll support physics if it will build us an atomic bomb or a nuclear power plant.  We’ll support history departments if they make us more (or less) patriotic.  We’ll support literature departments if they teach us to “analyze narratives” so that we’re better at catching the scam in advertisements.  It’s all got to be for something.  You’re majoring in philosophy?  What can you do with that?

Of course, whether or not the modern American ( or Canadian or English or Australian) university actually provides a place where teachers can live and stuents can be introduced to the Life of the Mind is another question, and more complicated than you’d think, or than it should be. 

And  I do, of course, think that spending at least some time being so introduced has certain practical effects on the way we live, because everything we do has practical effects on the way we live.  What those effects are, however, are more in the nature of habits of mind than of efficacy at deciding between the relative practical wisdom of rival public policies.

When you want to expose a person who claims to have paranormal powers, you don’t get a scientist–they’re hoodwinked more easily than two year olds.  You get a magician, who knows the tricks of the trade.   But if you want to know the nature of the atom, or the rate at which the universe is expanding (if it’s expanding at all), the magician isn’t going to help you much.

Let me duly note, here, one thing:   I am NOT proposing that Matthew Arnold’s defense of the humanities (that the study of the humanities will make each of us better people, more humane people (he would have said), than we would have been without such study) has merit.

In fact, Ithink he was wrong.

I was only using that as an example of a question for which there exists an objective answer–that is, an answer that is objectively true–but that we do not have the means to test the hypothesis to determine the truth.

There are a lot of questions out there that we don’t know how to test yet.  That doesn’t mean we should stop asking the questions, or abandon them for questions we do know how to test.

Written by janeh

October 27th, 2008 at 5:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Boy, What Happens When I Decide To Go To Bed Early…

with 6 comments

Okay, before I get started for real, I need to stipulate a few things.

It’s interesting to me that I can never seem to begin this particular discussion without getting sidetracked onto a million things that are also worthy of discussion, but are either beside the point or part of the point, but not the point people think I’m making.

So, as to the stipulations:

1) I am  NOT defending Ivy League education as it presently exists.   In fact, if Yale and Harvard and Vassar and  Wellesley were doing their jobs, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.

2) I am NOT claiming that a “liberal education,” as it used to be called, will make you a better person, or even that it’s “useful” in any way.  The point of a liberal education is, precisely, to pursue knowledge for its own sake, to seek to know because it is good to know.  Practical applications of that knowledge do exist–of all of it, really–but those practical applications are the  province of professional training, not of education.

3) One of the things I  mean to argue against here is the idea that the only legitimate way to acquire knowledge is the “scientific method.”  At the moment, the scientific method seems to be very good for a certain class of things and completely useless in approaching anything else, and that anything else has a great deal in it.  That doesn’t mean that the anything else has no need for facts, or no need to test its ideas against reality.  It only means that the approach to such facts and testing in, say, physics seem to have a really bad effect when we try to apply them to politics, or to love.  If you don’t believe me, go look at the  DSM-II again.  It might be III by now.

4) I am NOT defending the “intelligensia” as it now exists.  In fact, I think that the mess that is now our self-consciously intellectual class is itself a result–and then a continuing cause–of the denigration of intellectual work outside the hard sciences.

That said, let me clear up one point that has been making me crazy for some time now. 

Too many of you use the words “liberal arts” when what you actually mean is the humanities, or the humanities and the social sciences.

The liberal arts have three divisions–humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences (including mathematics).  Physics is just as much a part of the liberal arts as philosophy is.  What makes something part of the liberal arts or not–aside from long tradition–is whether or not the knowledge pursued is, to repeat, for its sake alone, and not in order to make practical applications of it.

Of course, people do make practical applications of all this knowledge, or try to, but the issue is the impetus for acquiring the knowledge in the first place.

And yes, I know.  In practice, over the last forty years or so, all this has gone to hell.  But that’s part of my point, and I’ll get there.

I just want to clear up one more thing.  Robert complained, at one point, that there was something wrong with calling a standard of excellence “objective” when it could only be perceived by a small group of adepts.

Actually,  I don’t think that excellence in literature can only be perceived by a small group of adepts, if you keep in mind that recognizing excellence is not the same thing as “liking” a particular work, or “enjoying” it.   There are a lot of first rate novels out there that I can’t stand–anything by Louis Frederick  Celine, for instance, and most of Gogol–but  I can see, technically, how they rise to the level of complexity and artistry that makes them “great” works.

And, as a novelist, albeit a very minor and probably bad one, I can recognize in such work solutions to practical problems in writing, character development and plotting that are considerably in advance not only of anything I can do (that’s not hard) but of most of what has been done.

That being said, none of this is restricted to literature, or unknown in the hard sciences.  I have a good friend–well, okay, the first boy I ever dated, we’ve known each other since we were in diapers–who took his doctorate at Caltech before he was twenty.  In mathematics.   Well, okay, mathematics is the field where you take PhDs before you’re twenty, if you’re going to do it at all.

All my life,  I’ve been listening to this person try to explain to me why the solution to one mathematics problem or another is “elegant.”  This is apparently a big thing in mathematics, and important in deciding whether the solution to a problem is  “excellent” or not, but I don’t understand it, and my guess is that most non-mathematicians don’t understand it either.   It’s not unusual for people inside a field to be able to perceive  excellence in that field more clearly than people outside of it, or for excellence to be dim or unpercievable to quite a few people.

My students not only wouldn’t understand what “elegance” means in mathematical equations, most of them wouldn’t be able to understand why vaccination works or the work that disproves the contention that vaccinating children causes autism.  

Quite a significant proportion of them couldn’t do the following exercise:   After a week and a half discussing the Electoral College, putting the numbers up on a map,  and counting to 538 about three dozen times, I put the web site


up on the board before they came in to the room and, as soon as they sat down, asked them what the web site was about and how they knew.

Most of them couldn’t even guess.  And it wasn’t because they’d forgotten the number, or that it was the number of votes in the Electoral College.   Having met a stone wall of mulish silence–I’ve never heard of that web site!  How am I supposed to know what it’s about!–I told them to go back to what we were discussing the class before, and in the first sentence I got somebody who told me that “there are 538 total votes in the Electoral College.”

I waited.


I had the young woman repeat what she’d said.


The web address was still on the board.


I gave up and pointed out the connection.

The response?  “But, how were we supposed to know that?”

This is, to use the common cliche, not rocket science here.  This is elementary thinking, and even my worst students are smarter than the 50% of American students who don’t make it to any kind of college at all.  

There isn’t a single person out there who would claim that standards of excellence in mathematics, or physics, or biology must be reduced to the level capable of being understood by that bottom fifty percent.  There’s no reason to say that the standard of excellence for the novel should be reduced to that level either.  

It’s a mistake to believe that it’s possible to quarantine anti-intellectualism so that it affects only those fields you don’t like, don’t understand or don’t respect.   We’re seeing the first mini-epidemics of measles and whooping–the first deaths of children from measles and whooping cought–in fifty years.  Why?  Well, you know.  Those scientists don’t know everything.   Never mind what the studies say.  I read an article  and it said that vaccines can cause autism. 

Our political life is being poisoned by wave after wave of conspiracy theories.   Our public education is being poisoned by wave after wave of assaults by people who not only don’t accept evolution but who don’t accept geology, either (I don’t care what they say–they can’t prove a rock is fifty million years old). 

The great no-knowthing surge is not about snooty English professors or left-wing sociologists.  It is not a protest against “intellectuals.”  It’s a protest against intelligence

And we did it to ourselves, those of us who do what I do.  Which is what this series of posts started out to be about, and what I’m finally winding my way back to.

That said, I’ll try to repeat what I said in the first one.

Joe Biden is a profoundly ignorant man.  But when he gets caught in a moment of ignorance, he’s embarrassed by it.

Ignorance in and of itself doesn’t worry me.  All of us are profoundly ignorant of some things.  We correct that ignorance when we feel we need to, and, yes, we are embarrassed when our ignorance shows. 

What bothers me about Sarah Palin  is that, when she gets caught being ignorant, she stands up in front of a crowd and says, “See what the elite mass media is trying to do?  They think they’re better than real Americans.”

Apparently, real Americans are not only ignorant, but proud of being ignorant, and if I insist that it’s important for the Vice President of the United States to know what a vice president does, then I’m probably “anti-American.”   Or, you know, a Communist.  Or something.

And no, I’m not making that up.  I’ve been hearing all of it–including the phrase “elite mass media,” which must establish some kind of record for bald-faced contradiction–on FoxNews, which I’ve been watching obsessively for weeks.

If people could really spin in their graves, William F. Buckley,  Jr. would now be chugging along fast enough to power a generator.

Written by janeh

October 26th, 2008 at 6:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Objective, Subjective, Educated, Dumb

with 4 comments

Let me try backtracking a little and see if I can make myself clearer.

I was NOT trying to assert the superiority of the Ivy League over all other American colleges and universities–although for one reason or another, that’s what always ends up being under discussion when  I try to bring this up.

What I was trying to point out is this:

In this culture, at this time, “Ivy League” is used as a code word for “well educated,” and it is BEING WELL EDUCATED that a big hunking minority of us resent.

Whether you actually get well educated in the Ivy League is another question, and I even mean to get to it later, but at the moment, it’s not the point.

The point is this:  why do so many Americans seem to think that being well educated is a BAD thing?

And my point about Sarah  Palin is this:  whatever else she may be as a person or a politician, she seems to be on the Republican ticket at the moment BECAUSE  she could not in any way be mistaken for being well-educated. 

It’s this, this hatred and revulsion at education, that strikes me, continually, about this culture at this time. 

Of course, we talk endlessly about “education,” and we even claim to support it, but what we actually support is training.  Going to college is supposed to be about getting to “be” something–a doctor, or a nurse, or a social worker, or a lawyer, or even (in one of the places where I have taught) a garage mechanic.

But this is not education, and at one level or another I think we know it.   Education does not give you practical skills for the marketplace.  It introduces you to what one of the literary critics of the 1950s called The  Great Conversation–the history of ideas in the West, what those ideas were, what they are, how they have affected us.  

In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the librarian accosts the hero, Brutha, when Brutha wants to take out a pile of books.  “Why those books?”  the librarian demands.  “They teach you how to be a plumber,” Brutha says.  The librarian holds out a different stack of books:  literature, philosophy, history.  “These,” the librarian says, “teach you how to be a human being.”

My apologies to Mr. Pratchett.  I’m always getting my copy of that book stolen, so what I just did up above was from memory.  But I got the gist of it right. 

Unlike being a cat, or even a dog, being a human being is a problem that every one of has has to resolve one way or the other.   That’s not the same thing as saying it’s a problem society has to resolve-I think that I could make a good case for there being one, and only one, answer to the question “what does it mean to be human?” for societies.  One of the advantages of the Great Tradition is precisely that we can test ideas against their historical consequences, and for this particular question and its answers we have more than we need to connect the dots.

But for individuals, the “meaning” of life, the way it fits, the way we fit, even what it means to be a “decent human being” is more complicated than quantum mechanics and a lot more likely to get us into trouble.

If you’re part of a religious tradition that answers these questions for you, maybe you can drop out of the conversation, but I don’t it.  At least in the West,  even devout religious believers have found themselves taking part in the arguments, discussions, and, yes, the art that asks the question and tests the answers.

Augustine did it.  Aquinas did it.  Kant did it.  Matthew Arnold did it.  Even Freud and Marx did it.

They left for us a record of their ideas, and history has left for us a record of what has happened when people have adopted their ideas, or tried to.  To be educated means to become part of that conversation, to be able to situate yourself in it.  It means to be able to reference it when things turn up that seem to be “new.”  It means to know what is actually “new” and what is really something old dressed up in modern rhetoric.

Hell, some of the recycling of ideas over the last forty years hasn’t even bothered to go in for modern rhetoric.  It uses the same old same old, and it gets away with it, because too few people are actually educated, and know what they’re seeing.

Robert complains that there’s nothing “objective” about philosophy because we haven’t decided that Aristotle was “right’ and Plato was “wrong” or vice versa, but we still study them both.

But that misses the point.

First, because what he’s asking for from philosophy is not objectivity–which just means that the standards by which you judge something are not something you invent but something you discover–but certainty.

Second, because objectivity in this cases means not deciding if Aristotle was “right” and Plato was “wrong,” but first and foremost in deciding whether Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hegel, produce work that rises to the level of philosophy, which is the application of reason to the human condition.

As opposed to, say,  Chicken Soup for the  Soul.

Or just about anything by Sam Harris.

Reason is not the same as “thinking,” nor is it the same as “not religiously based.”  Thomas Aquinas applied reason to the human condition just as much as Aristotle did. 

Reason is not “written in complicated language practically nobody can understand,” either.  Which is why  Heidigger produced philosophy–bad philosophy, that is bad for us, but maybe more on that later–but Sartre did not.  Being and Nothingness is, at best, derivative (and of Heidigger, yet), but at worst it’s gibberish, and politically dangerous gibberish at that.  There was a reason Albert Camus refused to call himself an existentialist.

Once we’ve figured out whether or not we’re actually looking at philosophy,  the next question–also possible to investigate objectively–is whether or not the work in question has influenced other philosophers and societies and how and when it has done so.

We can see the influence of Aristotle in medieval Europe, for instance, not just in the sillinesses that sometimes passed for knowledge (the whale is a fish), but in an entire approach to politics, ethics and morals, and science.

When Aquinas “Christianized” Aristotle, he brought into the culture the idea that it was not only possible, but necessary, for human beings to investigate the world around them “by reason alone”–that is, that man could, and should, study nature on its own terms, without the help of revelation.  Revelation was forever afterward to be relegated to the purely religious.  Revelation would tell us (and reason could not) that Christ died for our sins, but we could discover how the blood circulated in the body and even what it meant to be a morally good man “by reason alone.”

It is, to this day, a dogma of the Catholic Church that any human being, making use “of reason alone” and a good conscience, can discover God’s moral law without being exposed to revelation of any kind. 

We can go in to whether or not this is true at some other point, my point is just that the second question we ask about philosophy is whether it has had a long term impact on the culture and what that impact has been.  With Aristotle, the impact has been long and very complicated, but without it there would have been no science as we know it.  

In every other civilization on earth, the workings of nature were supposed to be a religious question, or completely irrelevant to anything any sensible person would think about (the “life is an illusion” of some forms of Buddhism).  Only where Aristotle had an impact did men being to investigate, experiment, and test in the way we now call “scientific.”   Polio vaccine, jet airplanes, the Empire State Building, central heating–it’s not an accident that they happened here and nowhere else.  It’s the direct result of a specific set of philosophical ideas.

Of course, those same ideas have had other results as well, and some of those are not so good for us.  They can be catalogued and examined, too, and the catalogue and examination can be entirely objective.   It is not “just a matter of opinion” that investigating nature on nature’s terms brings many benefits to human beings.  The only “subjective” element comes in the ability to delare (in contradiction to reason) that it is not “beneficial” to human beings to be protected against dying of polio at six or of cold in the winter at any time of life. 

And the fact that human beings can do this–that they can deny reality with conviction if they want to–dos not make the investigation of philosophy as described above any less objective.

Education makes you an active participant in the  Great  Conversation.  It does not make you a morally better person, all by itself.  It does not increase your IQ or decrease your golf score.   It simply makes you aware of where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten there, and of the full range of human possibilities, both good and evil.   It leaves it up to you to decide what to do with what you know.

It is, however, the single most vitally important set of knowledge you can have, and to live without it is to live always in the danger of recreating the mistakes and the evils of the past, and of wasting the one life you have on trivialities and worse.

What I’m objecting to in the marketing of  Sarah Palin is not that she didn’t go to Yale, but that she PRESENTS HERSELF as ignorant and proud of it.

If she was just ignorant, she wouldn’t bother me half as much.  

But that thing–that “Look at me, I’m ignorant–that makes me better than you!  I’m stupid–that makes me better than you!”–which is, in fact, the subtext of the entire Palin campaign, is something worse than actually being either ignorant or stupid.

I’ll try to get to just what tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 25th, 2008 at 7:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Stupid Thing

with 5 comments

I titled an essay this once, or part of an essay.  It’s over on the main page of the site in the political essays, under the main title Why I Don’t Vote Republican.

But in fact, the thing I want to go ranting on about here is not the fault of Republicans alone, or even primarily.  I’m not sure that it’s the fault of anybody primarily.  But I also know that most of the people not only willing but able to read this blog have very likely seldom or never come in contact with the kinds of things I’m going to talk about–well, the kind of people I’m going to talk about–or at least have no idea that this is not only a common thing. 

I have a son in the kind of college where these things don’t happen, and he tells his friends stories about my students, and they refuse to believe him.  They think I’m making them up.  I’m not making them up.  

This link


is to an article an on-line friend of mine sent me.  He thought it was sad.  I thought it made perfect sense.  

These are the students I teach–at least, the ones called DUMB CLIENTS are–and they are, increasingly, the students who populate the lower tiers of the state college and university systems and the no-name private places where an applicant with a  C- high school average and board scores that don’t look like the kind of thing you’d like to see on an electric bill are considered highly desirable catches.

At the end of that article my friend sent me, there’s a paragraph on the incredible rip-off college is for students like these, who get nothing from it, and I completely agree.  The extent to which the lower levels of American “higher education” have become a cash cow that pumps tens of millions of dollars out of students and their families in exchange not just for nothing much, but for an effect that is actively harmful to the students and the society they live in is truly astounding.

But we can’t get there from here unless we consider The Stupid  Thing first, and The Stupid Thing is the way so many of us revile and resent the people around us who do get first class educations–and the way in which any suggestion that some art (novels, paintings. music) is objectively better than any other is nothing but a form of snobbery.

Or, as another online friend sent me in response to the post before this one:

>>>    You DO realize, don’t you, that when you go on one of these tears you sound very much as though you think the peasantry isn’t paying sufficient deference to someone’s diploma?<<<

For what it’s worth, I’m not asking that anybody pay any deference to anybody else’s “diploma,” nor has anything I’v said indicate that I think anybody else is part of the “peasantry.”

Try to think of what this sort of approach would look like if you applied it to, say, basketball. 

You think guys who play for the NBA have more basketball talent than the rest of us?   Well, you must think all of us shooting hoops at the Y are part of the peasantry!

I could do this for a hundred other things< and in every case you”d be able to see,  straight out, just how ridiculous an approach it is.  Most fields of human endeavor offer varying levels of  possible accomplishment.  And in every one of those cases, the people able to reach the highest levels of that accomplishment are a very small percentage of the total population.  The people able to appreciate those levels but not to reach them are larger in number, but still a small percentage.

And yet, in no other fields but the intellectual do we declare that those people who reach the highest levels and those who appreciate them somehow look down on the rest of us as “peasants” because we do not. 

What’s more, in no other fields but the intellectual do we have any objection to accepting quick-and-dirty shorthand for such achievement.  Not every world class basketball player will make it to the NBA.  Some won’t want to.  I knew a kid about twenty years ago who turned down basketball scholarships from practically every school in the Big 10 because he wanted to go to medical school and he couldn’t do pre-med adequately and play college ball.

Even so, we accept “he’s an NBA player” as a pretty good indication that he’s a world-class basketball players.

So here’s my first proposition–getting a degree from the Ivy League is like being an NBA basketball player.  The standards for getting in and getting out are exponentially higher than they are for my students.  So much so that I’m willing to say that “college” is not the same experience at Yale aas it is at West Podunk State  University.

This wasn’t always the case, by the way.   Forty or fifty years ago, in a very different world with a very different set of assumptions and priorities, less prestigious colleges and universities often at least offered their students education on a par with the best of the “first tier” places, and the tiers had more to do with money and achievement.  I taught composition at Michigan State during the late 1970s, and you could have gotten a first rate education there if you wanted to put in the time and effort.

What’s happened to  Michigan State since, I don’t know, but I do know what’s happened to the colleges downmarket from there, and most of you reading this would have to see it to believe it. 

And we can rant and wail about how the liberals or the conservatives or the whatevers have destroyed American education, because they want rote learning or they have no sense of standards, but the truth is a lot worse than that. 

We have lost, on a society-wide level, any sense at all that there are real, objective, important intellectual standards of any kind at all.  We sort-of accept them in math and science, because even if we don’t understand the equations and the formulas we do understand that there’s a ‘right” answer and somebody has it,  but when it comes to literature, art, history, philosphy and everything else that was once the core of “education” in the West, we’re been taught that it’s all “subjective,” it’s all “a matter of opinion,” and in that case, if you think your opinion is better than mine, you must be some kind of dirty elitist snob.

And make me know something about literature and h istory and philosophy before you give me a college degree–you’re worse than a snob.  You’re probably a racist, or maybe just a bitch.  I need a college degree to have a decent life and you’re trying to tell me I can’t have one unless I know all this useless stuff I’m never going to learn at all!

Okay, all right.  I had a really, really, really bad day yesterday, and dealing with just this kind of thing, too.

But before I get to it, for real, and in detail, I want to point out a few thing.

First, that it doesn’t bother me that the lightweight and ephemeral sells better than the serious and artistically difficult.  Of course it does.  Many of my students are not capable of understanding Jose Saramago, but I can understand Saramago and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure both, and it’s a pretty good guess that both my students and I  own a copy of the second, but only I own a copy of the first. 

Second, it’s not deference to a diploma I’m looking for, but an end to the outright hostility and resentment of intelligence, and what accompanies it, the hostility and resentment to anything that isn’t “just like me,” the endless insistence that what is most important when it comes to intellectual work and intellectual understanding is being “just like everybody else.”

That’s what I have against Sarah Palin.  I have no idea what she’s like as a person, but I do know how she’s being sold to the American public–“Hucka-hucka-hucka, hor-hor-hor, looka-me!  I’m just like you!  That’s why the elite mass media doesn’t like me!”

It”s not her conservatism.  William F. Buckley was a conservative.  Or how about somebody just as conservative, and maybe more so, actually available to be McCain’s running mate? 

Mike Huckabee is a lot of things, and the name is unfortunate, but he gives every indication of being an intelligent and educated man.

I don’t think Sarah  Palin was chosen for her conservatism.  I think she was chosen for just the quality her publicity machine has been hammering home ever since she accepted the nomination, that ability to appear, well, stupid.

When did Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the nation that built a system of Land Grant colleges that tried to insure that our engineers had read Plato and our aggies understood King Lear, get to the point where stupid and ignorant became qualifications for high office, and an objection to stupid and ignorant became  the badge of evil, the mark of the “elitist?”

I promise to be more coherent tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2008 at 10:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Back to the Beginning

with one comment

Well, you know.  Sort of.

Back to the writing of Cheating at Solitaire, anyway.

I writer I like, who writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, once defnied the “cult of celebrity” as the “marriage of glamor and banality.”  I wish I’d seen that definition before I started writing the book, because it encapsulates one of the things that was bothering the hell out of me when I started.

Certainly part of my fascination with the subject matter, part of the reason why I wanted to write about these people, had to do with the way other people see them.  It’s an odd fact that in a country where just getting a degree from a decent university will get you labelled an ‘elitist,” hordes of ridiculously rivh people dedicated to almost relentless conspicuous consumption are not only not resented, they’re positively adored.

I don’t mean that we think well of them exactly.  The people I know–students, mostly–who spend great swaths of time keeping up with the doings of Britney, Paris, Jessica, Lindsay and their clones know that the women whose lives they’re following are shallow, and often stupid.  But it’s like we’ve erected some kind of national version of the American public high school.  Here they are, the Cool Crowd, the Popular People, and like the Popular People at John F. Kennedy High, they don’t seem to do much but look good and act like snots.  And yet the very people they insult, ignore and look down on respond to the abuse by wanting nothing so much as to be their friends.

One of the first things I noticed when I started paying attention to these people, instead of just flippnig by them on the way to the nearest cable news station, was that they mostly comprised the least talented members of their celebrity cohort.  Britney Spears’s voice is so weak, ithas to be teched up until it’s damned near unrecognizable on any video she does.  Paris Hilton has the acting talent of a sea slug.  Jessica Simpson seems to be take “deer in the headlights” as a philosophy of life.  They’re all over the tabloids and the music stations and the entertainment news shows.   Cristina Aguilera, whose voice is a force of nature, seems to stay home unless she needs to be out promoting something.

Part of me thinks that the public popularity of these people is a kind of Lottery Syndrome–the tenor of mind that truly admires and envies somebody who hits the Powerball jackpot, but resents the hell out of somebody who works his ass off, gets into a first-class college in spite of a poor background, and ends up winning the Nobel Prize for medicine by discovering a vaccine for some form of cancer.

One of the things I discovered when I was researching Somebody Else’s Music–yes, I do research, a lot of it; sometime I’m going to have to do a post about that–what I discovered was that if you’re the downtrodden high school dweeb who grows up and makes good, the people you grew up with will not admire you for it.  In fact, they’ll hate you for it. 

I think that what’s happening here is this: winning the lottery, being born looking like Angela Jolie, is just a matter of luck.  Nothing any of us can do can get us there.  It happens, or it doesn’t.

The things we have to work for, however, are sometimes frightening to the people around us, because they imply that if those people did not also achieve, then they are themselves at fault for not achieving. 

It’s one thing to tell yourself that nobody from your neighborhood does any better in life than you’re doing.  It’s another to tell yourself that when the girl you sat next to in algebra just graduated top of her class from Harvard Law and took a job at a top Manhattan law firm for $150,000 a year to start.  Her parents were no richer than yours.  Her family’s house was no bigger.  She didn’t have “advantages.”  Why did she succeed when you didn’t?

A lot of us resent, I think, the implication that we have an obligation to be the best human beings we can make ourselves, that we are somehow required to do the work to make something of ourselves.

Stupid celiebrities are popular precisely because they don’t seem to have done that.  What has happened to them looks like luck, and they ratify that assumption by having tastes in things like clothes and music that are completely, utterly and unquestionably “normal.”  It takes work and time to learn to understand Mozart’s operas or even Fellini’s movies, but anybody can buy a Prada bag,  All it takes is money.

Part of the populism that has swept this country in the last twenty years, is just this, Lottery Syndrome:  a deep seated resentment of anything that reminds us that we should be doing better than we are.  I don’t mean making more money, but being more accomplished, more intelligent, better educated, better read, more morally upright. 

The marriage of glamor and banality–really pretty people with really expensive possessions who are the moral and intellectual equivalents of the captain of the varsity cheerleading squad at some small town high school that spends more money on its football team than on its science program.

Maybe the simple fact is that we get used to that kind of hierarchy in high school, and for many of us, it’s the only hierarchy we’re willing to accept.

That’s why the worst thing anybody can say about a politician is that he’s an “elitist”–you know, that he’s smart, did all the hard work to get a first class education, and (the kiss of death) actually expects us to be smart, too.

Sorry.  I’m doing something worse than blithering.  I think Sarah Palin has popped my corks, finally.

I don’t mind the ignorance, all that much.  Anybody can be ignorant and learn.

I mind the celebration of the ignorance.

You know,  the only “real Americans” are badly educated hicks who don’t know and are proud of it.

I’m going to go teach something now.

Written by janeh

October 22nd, 2008 at 10:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Analyze Whatever

with 2 comments

So, Robert wants to know about plots, and Cheryl thought writers analyzed characters, and in some odd way, those things actually go together.

For the plots, first:  I know some writers who do a lot of planning.  I don’t know how well the planning works out.  I know more writers who have no idea what the plot is going to be when they start, although they usually have a situation.  I always have to write a draft to know where the plot is going, so on those few occasions these days when I need to write an “outline”–which is not an outline the way you think of it; it’s more like a scenario, which is what publishers want before they give you money–anyway, when I have to do that, I tend to write the draft first, really, really fast, and then summarize that.

Only, I don’t tell anybody, because then they want to see the draft, and I never show first drafts to editors.  EVER.  I did it once.  It was a big mistake.

A friend of mine used to write those “outlines” when asked, just sort of throwing in whatever came to him, and then, contract in hand, money in bank, hand in a book that often had little to do with the outline.  One of his editors complained and he said, “She’s bitching at me that this isn’t the book she expected.  Of course it isn’t the book she expected, the moron.”

I don’t know.  That seems a little harsh, so I try to rush a draft.  But at this point in my career, very few people want that much from me before deciding to okay a project, and for that I am very thankful.

All that said, for me, the extent to which I know the plot in advance has a lot to do with the amount of time between my first conceiving the idea for the book and beginning to write it.  This is usually only about six months, so I don’t know much of the plot when I start, and things sort of evolve organically, as with characters.

Actually, they always evolve organically, it’s just that, if I take long enough, I know more.  And there was one book, finally published as Somebody Else’s Music, that I mulled around in my head for twenty years.  When I first started thinking of it, I wasn’t thinking of it as a mystery, and I had not yet conceived Gregor Demarkian.  I have no idea why, after several false starts, it suddenly fit into that series.  I do know that I knew a ton about what was going to happen by the time I did start it, though. 

I even knew scenes, which I almost never do.  There is a scene near the end of that book where the main non-series character, Liz Toliver, suddenly finds herself cured of her phobia of snakes.  I saw it in my head like a movie nearly a year before I wrote it.

Of course, some plots take a lot more work and a lot more planning.  All those complicated caper novels, for instance, must take graphs and charts, at least, just to keep all the pieces straight.  Maybe the writers of those plan meticulously.  I can’t tell.  There’s a perfect wonderful book out there, called Dancing Aztecs, by Donald E. Westlake.  I’d give a lot to know how much that that was deliberately planned. 

As for analyzing characters, though, I think the verdict is in.  People do not seem to do that well when they try to analyze other people, to go at other personalities in an intellectual way.  If you don’t believe me, consider most of modern clinical psychology.

I know individual psychologists I respect and admire, and think are insightful, too, but the field itself can be breathtakingly clueless.  Let me give you an example.

About ten years ago there was a child abuse case in New Hampshire.  A woman took her small son to the emergency room with a broken leg.  The ER people called in a social worker to determine if the break was really an accident or abuse, and the social worker, deciding that the case was ambiguous, decided to be safe rather than sorry and take the child into foster care while an investigation was being done.

So when the ER workers came out of the X-ray room, instead of having the kid, they had the news that the kid had been “removed,” pending investigation.

And the mother went ballistic.  To put it mildly.

But here’s the kicker:  when the mother finally forced a hearing, one of the pieces of  “evidence” the social worker presented as tending to lead to a verdict of abuse was that…

Wait for it…

The mother was angry and combative and refused to co operate.

I might have more respect for clinical psych if this was an isolated incident, but things like this happen all the time.  And they’re worse than clueless.  It’s difficult to understand how a social worker could honestly think that a “normal” response to having your child spirited away to an unknown location while you thought he was having an x-ray would be to “co operate’ with the people who did it.

Shakespeare would have known better than that.  Agatha Christie would have known better than that.  Hell, Snoopy would have done better than that. 

Any quick look at DSM-II will give you a wealth of other examples.  And virtually any other “science” that produced results this abyssmal would have been laughed off every respectable university campus years ago.  For some reason, psychology gets a free pass, and the pass is so free it gets really remarkable results.

Consider the “priest pedophilia” scandal.  Let’s not bother to go into whether or not most of it had anything to do with actual pedophilia, and consider this:

The Catholic Church got hammered for responding to this crisis by sending the offending priests into therapy, then putting them back into parish service as soon as they were pronounced “cured.”

But these cases all date from the Sixties and Seventies, a period of time when psychologists were recommending exactly this policy in dealing with pedophiles and the sexual abuse of teen-agers.  If the Catholic Church had asked for the best expert advice available at the time–and it did–that advice would have been for them to do just what they did, and what they’ve just been penalized for doing.

But nobody has said a word about the advice, or about the fact that there are certainly thousands more cases across the country where the advice was given to individuals instead of instutitions and good old Uncle Jack was sent away for a few weeks and then, at the urging of his therapists, welcomed right back into the family to take another whack at little Cindy as soon as he had a chance to get her alone.

Again, it’s not a mistake Shakespeare would have made, or Agatha Christie, either.

So my tendency is to feel that analysis is not necessarily a good way for people to learn to understand people, and understanding people is what creating characters is all about.  The psychologists I admire all tend to temper the professional “literature” with common sense–and, come to think of it, they’re all avid readers of fiction.

Written by janeh

October 21st, 2008 at 11:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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