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Sometimes, It Just Gets Two Depressing

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Here are a couple of snapshots, from the week.

The second one:  I was trying to show a class how to structure a standard compare and  contrast essay.  Forget the fact that this is the sort of thing they’re supposed to learn in middle school, I was slogging away at it, doing my best, and trying to think of pairs of terms they’d both recognize and find it interesting to compare.

I’ve got it, I said.  Britney Spears and Albert Einstein are similar and different in many ways.

Okay, it was silly.  But I was right, everybody in the room seemed to have heard of both Spears and Einstein.  Or I thought they had, until I called on a girl to ask her to read her paper and got,

“Albert Einstein said that people were descended from monkeys, and Britney Spears looks like a monkey.”

And then–this is the kicker–when I tried to untangle her problems with both Einstein and evolution, she was mad at me, because announcing her mistakes in front of the class like that embarrassed her, and what did it matter anyway?

But here’s the thing.  She’s eighteen or so.  And she at least knew Einstein was a scientist, which is better than I sometimes get.  The really depressing thing happened before class, while I was waiting to get into the room.

That was when I overheard part of a lecture by the professor who had the room before I did, a tenuted PhD teaching a management course for kids definitely not academically disadvantaged in the way mine are, who told his class that:

Seven million American boys went to Viet Nam AND

More than three hundred thousand died there.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m not really all that good with numbers, but even I know that 300,000 is more than the number of American casualties in WWII, and that war had a somewhat higher rate of service than Vietnam did.   But just to make sure, I went and checked the VA, which keeps a list of these things–7 million is almost twice the number that saw service in Vietnam, and deaths “in theater,” combat or otherwise, totaled fewer than 60,000.

And this is only part of what I heard all the time.  I heard a professor tell a student she ought to self publish her poetry–a friend of hers self published, and his book was right there in Barnes and Noble. 

Of course, your local B an N will definitely carry your self published book, but the B and N national buyer won’t touch it, you won’t be eligible to join any of the professional organizations (because they don’t consider self-publishing legitimate professional work), you won’t get reviewed by any of the national organs–in other words, it’s a really bad idea.

Before some of you jump up and down on my head, I want to point out that the professor with the silliness about Vietnam is militantly pro-capitalist and economically right wing–the first mistake I ever caught him in was in a lecture on just how awful socialized medicine is, using England as an illustration, except it was clear in no time at all that he had no idea  how the English National Health Service actually worked.  He thought it was a form of health insurance, sort of like Canada’s.

I complain about students a lot, and I should, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that nobody knows anything anywhere anymore.  We all seem to live in our little coccoons of “facts” that aren’t really facts.  We all, as Will Rogers said, know things that ain’t true.

And once a popular teacher has said it, it can be damned near impossible to convince a student that the bogus information is wrong.  Which makes the increasingly frequent existence of professors who hold conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, insist that vaccinations cause autism and silicone breast implants cause breast cancer, and a whole host of other nonsense more than disturbing.  It’s downright frightening.

I am, as I’ve said dozens of times, all for challenging authority as much as possible–but we’ve come to a point where people feel entitled not only to their own opinions, but to their own facts. 

And what gets me about that is this book I’m reading, called The Captive Mind, by a Polish writer named Czeslaw Milosz.  And if you want to know how to pronounce that, good luck.

I first heard about Milosz back in 2002 or so, when his essays were released in book form–he had defected from Poland in the 1960s and spend the rest of his life as a professor at Berkeley, but he’d always written, both poetry and prose, in his native language.  There’s  no indication he could not speak English.  In fact, from all reports, he seems to have been able to speak fluently.  But he wanted to write in Polish, for Poles, and he did.

The Captive Mind is a book about how and why intellectuals in the Eastern Bloc ended up supporting Communism, in spite of the fact that it was obvious to them that it was different from Naziism mostly in rhetoric and not in action.  And the first interesting thing about this man is that he managed to get a Nobel Prize for work saying that Communism and Naziism were pretty much clones.

There’s a lot that’s interesting in this book.  At one point, Robert said that the Communists had no trouble teaching the literary canon–The Captive Mind contains a ton of information on just how thoroughly the Communists censored the works of the Canon, how they manipulated what they did allow, how people went to enormous lengths to get hold of such banned works as Wordsworth’s poetry and James Joyce’s novels.

But it’s the way Milosz tries to get inside the heads of the different kinds of “party writers” he knew before he left–including the kind of party writer he was, since he was one–that I find fascinating.

It confirms me, however, in a feeling I’ve had ever since I read an essay by George Steiner called “The Archives of Eden”–the big mistake capitalist societies make is that they find no useful place for their high-end writers. 

If narrative is important to all of us, if we can’t live without it, then brushing off that segment of your population that’s going to be writing yours is probably not the best idea.

I have no idea if I’m making any sense here.

Written by janeh

February 19th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Sometimes, It Just Gets Two Depressing'

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  1. Ses-low Mee-lowsh, I’m guessing. I told you I grew up with lots of Polish friends & neighbors.

    So your last couple of paragraphs (before the angst) raise the question of who *is* constructing (note I do not say “writing”) our narrative now. Certainly a case can be made that the traditional authors, literary, scientific or political, are falling down on the job. It seems that nobody fact-checks any more, either for periodicals or in fiction. A recent thread on RAM has a mistaken attribution in a Nevada Barr novel taking on the aspects of carelessness, or wait, was it racism? (She misattributed a Chief Joseph quote to Geronimo)

    Whichever, it would have passed many readers’ filters and entered their minds as a quote by Chief Joseph. Why would it even occur to an average reader to do their own fact-checking on that particular fact?? That’s how erroneous facts, urban legends and the wrong things People Know get started…carelessness or apathy on the part of the writer, and the gullibility of people who *could* determine the truth but are too busy or too apathetic themselves to take the time.

    So who is, in large part, constructing the narrative of our lives? It used to be that people pretty much studied and read the same things in school. That is no longer true. There is no longer any consistency in nationwide curricula, or a commonly accepted “must read this” for all the school boards. I’d say most school board members themselves are actually too young to have read the Canon themselves, so why should they see the importance of including it? Say all you want about our national right to a locally determined curriculum, with local control comes widespread inconsistency.

    With the internet, and the growing isolation of many people, one is becoming responsible for constructing one’s *own* narrative out of the bits and pieces presented in advertising, media, reality TV shows (many of which seem to celebrate ignorance as a positive value), random net browsing (no need to check more than one source, it must be true, it’s on the internet), peer misinformation, and seemingly the least important, what one’s parents tell one.

    Even if we could find a common desire to give our “high end writers” a widely disseminated and respected voice, given the overwhelming plethora of other inputs, could they carry the day and construct a narrative that would persist and influence? I don’t know. I doubt it.

    The impenetrability of the currently admired stone ignorance is awesome. Your student above with the essay knows two things about science…Einstein had something to do with it, and evolution is probably associated as well. So no wonder she conflates the two. Ask yourself, is she even willing, when presented with real facts in an easy and palatable way, to create some new neuronic pathways and LEARN? I’d bet not.

    As for teachers teaching the wrong facts, there’s nothing new under the sun. I spent all of 8th grade history period in the Library because I kept challenging the teacher on his errors, (and being provably right) and he couldn’t handle it. That was 40 years ago. Some people can just say the stupidest things with an air of authority, and I’m guessing (a certain type of) teacher gets really good at it.

    So in determining how to construct a new and perhaps more consistent narrative, we have to determine just where the current narrative is coming from. I submit, it’s not literature, either classic or modern.


    19 Feb 09 at 1:57 pm

  2. I bet I can tell you how the professor put his foot in it. He probably found something about seven million soldeirs “serving in the Vietnam era”–meaning also including the ones who were sent to West Germany, for example–and “300,000 casualties.” Given our fairly generous tally of wounded, that’s probably about right. Nothing like reading in a field in which one doesn’t know the vocabulary.

    As for “finding a place for high-end writers,” a lot would depend on the definition of “high end” but I have my doubts. I don’t think you could make much of an impression on the real writers–the Rands and Solzenitsyns, the Tolkiens and Heinleins. There are, of course, many writers who would be thrilled by a position in a National Literary Academy, a copy of their collected works in public libraries (printed on acid-free paper, of course) and a position as junior-grade censor to keep out the obvious cranks and trouble-makers.
    The place I’d like to find for them would be at one end of a shovel.


    19 Feb 09 at 7:33 pm

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