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On Not Filling In The Blanks

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Okay, yesterday’s post was a little…incoherent.  I apologize.  Part of that was the place where I was working.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my only acess to a computer during the day is in a big, really noisy computer lab where classes full of students get together to do “lab work” in grammar–I am not making this up–and they talk a lot while they do it. 

I would too.

But a lot of the reason for the sputtering yesterday is that, faced with this phenomenon, I find myself unable to stop sputtering.  Yes, of course, there has always been porn.   There has always been amateur porn.  Making sex tapes of yourself and your boyfriend that you can use as love aids at a later date–and that he can use to embarrass the hell out of you after you walk out–has practically become an American sport.

But there’s something fundamentally different going on here, with the gratuitous commando flashes on the red carpet and coming out of limousines.  It’s as if something inside these youn women is blank–that they have a hollowed out, uninhabited space where most of us keep our sense of self. 

Mind you,  I’m not talking about self respect.  That’s something none of us get without working at it.  But the thing I’m talking about is where self respect starts, it’s that place that won’t allo most of us to indulge in “self esteem” when we’ve done something to enable our own degradation.

And as far as I can tell, these women, or some of them, seem to lack it.  They’re not rebelling against it.  It just doesn’t exist.  At least, it doesn’t show any evidence of existing to the rest of us here in the outside world.

For many of my students, the problem is a little more complicated.  They’re not blank in the place self-respect starts, but they’re also without much in the way of real-life examples of what self-respect would look like.  Some of them get lucky, and have connections not only to strong church communities, but to strong church communities of a particular type.  They spend their Sundays, and sometimes a couple of other nights a week, in the company of older women whose self-respect has been earned with so much hardship and relentless determination, they make the rock of Gibralter look like Marshmallow Fluff.

Church communities are like anything else, though.  There are good ones and bad ones, and the neighborhoods these kids come from have plenty of weak churches whose communities are stumbling through the morass of the present by pretty much giving up on anything but going along.

A lot of my kids simply grow up around nihilism.   Not atheism, mind you, or Humanism.  Humanism is a full blown philosophy with a strong ethical arm, and most people have to earn their atheism by deliberate choice if not by intellectual inquiry.

What my kids see around them is another kind of blank, a world of nothing at all.  They have a vague sense of “right” and “wrong,” but it doesn’t connect to anything substantive.  They know there are other ways to live than the ones they do live, but they know it only because they’ve been told.  What they see on TV is not another way to live, but the same way they already live, just with more stuff.   After a while, stuff seems to be the point, and the only real issue becomes how to get it.  

Contrary to the kind of thing you hear about these kids from news reports and the more hysterical organs of the right-wing press, most of them don’t want to steal to get what they want, and the girls really don’t want to hit the streets selling it.  And most of them are too smart to take drugs.  Inner city kids weave no romances around drug addiction.  Unlike the suburban idiots who think they’re going to be  Young Werther, with souls too fine to face the ugliness of bourgeois materialism, as soon as they shoot a load of heroin into their veins, my kids know what heroin really means.  They live with it.   It’s in the vomit on the sidewalk in front of their school every morning, and in the corpses in the abandoned buildings down the block.  It’s in the faces of girls of fifteen who already look fifty-five.

Let’s face it. If there was ever a group of people who could use the things I know, who could benefit from an introduction to the Great Tradition, from an acquaintance with Shakespeare and Coleridge and Dickens and Austen (especially Austen)–this is it.   Literature chronicles the range of possiblility in the human condition, both good and bad.  It provides us with models to examine and work with, ways to be, personalities and biographies to measure ourselves against.  Even bad literature does that.

In the end, though, my kids don’t get much in the way of literature, and what they do get they often don’t understand.   Reading is more than being able to decipher words on a page, phonetically.  It requires a lot of cultural context before you even start.  And my kids have a lot of trouble with cultural context.

Let me tell you a story, from yesterday.  It may help to illuminate the problem.

I gave the kids in one of my classes a fifteen-minute free writing assignment:  Congress is or is not going to bail out Wall Street.  What’s that bailout stuff all about anyway? And why should you care?

I was ready to receive silly attempts at deciphering the problem–bail means jail, right?  so Congress is trying to get people out of jail?–and half-understood mishmashes of snatches heard on the news.

What I wasn’t ready for was the plaintive wail of a tiny young woman in the middle of the room:

“What,” she demanded, “is Wall Street?”

Written by janeh

October 1st, 2008 at 5:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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