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The Carl Upchurch Paradigm

with 7 comments

It’s the 15th of July, and for those of you who were confused on Wednesday–that was my birthday, but although I was born on Friday, the 13th, it wasn’t a Friday.  And I like Mozart.

This morning I got up very early and tried to do something resembling sensible work.  I even managed it, for a while.  Then I went to look at Arts and Letters Daily, and found an article about how reading and writing about literature does not make you a better person.  It might even make you worse.

The article itself was not all that interesting.  For one thing, I’ve never really held the opinion that reading and writing about literature, whether High Cult or lower, will make anybody better.  The idea that that’s something it can do has been the cause of some truly terrible young adult novels over the years.

It also seems to me to be a self-evidently destructive way to think about reading, or about studying the Humanities.  It is a version of the same vocational impulse I’m often driven to distraction by when we have our periodic dust-ups about the Canon.

What’s the canon for?  It makes you a good person.  Wheee!

No, it doesn’t.

The actual claim in the Humanities, of course, is not that the Humanities make you a good person, but only that they make you a better one–better than you would have been if you had not studied them. 

Robert has pointed out that there is no feasible way to test this–in order to do it properly, you’d have to get each person to live his life twice, once with the input of literature and once without.

Unlike Robert, I don’t think we should dismiss questions just because we have no standard method of testing them.  To do that would be to dismiss most of the great questions of human existence.  The scientific method, and the quantification that goes with it, do wonderful things with quanta, smelting, and vaccinations, but they’re never going to get us to understand love or hate or heroism or evil. 

For better or worse, if human beings want to understand themselves, they’ll have to rely on inexact methods approached through metaphor.  But I don’t think that means that we cannot come to an understanding of what is actually true, in these areas as in others.

But all that to the side, my question this morning is this:  never mind if literature can make us better–can anything?

Is it possible for men and women to change for the better at any point beyond childhood?  Is it even possible in childhood? 

It used to be said of young people in their twenties that their character had been “set,” and the assumption seemed to be that after that point there would be no significant change in any direction–and changing for the better would be harder than changing for the worse.

The reason I brought up Carl Upchurch is that he is a famous example of somebody who at least claimed not only that he changed for the better–well, that was obvious–but that he’d done so because of literature.

As a young man, Upchurch was a gang member and violent criminal in Philadelphia.  He eventually went to prison for armed robbery, and when he got to prison he was just as violent as when he was out.

He eventually landed in solitary confinement, and after being there for a while he started being bored out of his skull.  Then he found that there was at least one thing in his cell he could use for amusement–somebody had left a book behind.

The book was a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Upchurch’s account of all this–it’s in his autobiography–is very funny.  How he forced himself to read the thing because he had nothing to do.  How he read it about twenty times before he began to figure out what it meant.  How he found out that you could get books from the prison library in solitary if you asked for them–only to realize that he didn’t know the name of any books.

But he was pretty sure Shakespeare had written other things besides sonnets, so he asked for that.

And it went from there.  He ended up earning a degree, publishing a couple of books, and becoming a rather successful writer and activist for prison reform. 

I have no idea whether or not the story is factual as told.  I do know that Carl Upchurch definitely did change, and for the better, and did it at a time when we tend to think people’s characters have been “set.” 

When he left prison he was no longer violent.  In prison, he settled down to study and work in a way that he never had before, and that he seems to have had no prior training in.  He read nothing and then he read Shakespeare. 

The Christian tradition, of course, relies heavily on the idea that people can change, and for the better, and do it at any time in their lives.   That’s what the entire idea of being “born again” is all about. 

And we as a culture tend to retain vestiges of the Christian idea that change is possible at any time–or at least that change is possible in most areas, given the right combination of circumstances.  We’re heavy on the circumstances, and when manipulating those doesn’t get us the changes we want to see in human beings, we find totalitarianism a more and more attractive prospect.

Of course, when we think there is something not capable of change, we tend to adhere to its changelessness with just as much ferocity as we do to our conviction that if we just raised them right, children could be transformed into noncompetitive, cooperative altruistic automatons that always make the “right choices.”

Chief among the things we think are unchangeable are what we call “sexual orientation,” or don’t call that–things having to do with sex.  People are born gay or straight or bi and no amount of environmental conditioning will change it.   What’s more, any attempt to change this is morally wrong.

We actually feel the same way about bad sex–like pedophilia, or “sexual predators” (rapists)–we just put it into different words.   We talk about them as being unnatural, and perverted, but we treat them as if their predispositions to do what they do are inborn and irradicable aspects of the human personality.  That’s what the sex offender registry is all about, and that’s why we think that the Catholic Church, faced with priests committing pedophilia, should have removed them permanently from access to children:  these people are incapable of change, this is not something you can learn to stop or train yourself out of. 

Even God can’t fix that one. 

But the question remains, of course–what can be changed, what causes the change, why do some people change and others not?

And, while we’re at it–what do we want to change?  And what should we want to?

And no, I don’t have the answers for any of it. 

I only know that, in real life, unlike in novels, human change is often only temporary.

Written by janeh

July 15th, 2011 at 7:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'The Carl Upchurch Paradigm'

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  1. Do you know that if you are born on Friday the 13th, that day becomes lucky for you although unlucky for everyone else?

    As for change – yes, people can change, although in the current social climate I can see why the Catholic church doesn’t point out that all sinners, including child molesters, can repent and change their way of life.

    Change – especially in adults – is far more difficult than many people realize. (As an aside, this is why I think it’s a great idea to train children in good habits really early, and disregard any idea that you train animals but not people.)

    The real wrinkles in this are (a) a lot of people don’t really try to change themselves in any profound way and (b) different people find different things hard to change (and tend to assume everyone else finds the same things easy as they do, or would if they only tried.)

    For (a) – if you’re functioning reasonably well, there’s no particular reason for you to make any major changes. Oh, not everyone feels this way (see the self-help industry), but I think many do. There’s also the type who isn’t functioning as well as he/she thinks he/she is, but lacks the self-awareness to realize personal faults might contribute to the situation. If you really want to know someone’s weaknesses, the places where improvements would be useful, don’t ask them, ask their family or immediate co-workers or both.

    In the second case, people who find it relatively easy to control their drinking don’t understand that there’s a small group in the population that finds it agonizingly hard, and a smaller group that can’t manage it at all. Ditto for almost anything else, from overeating to stealing to lying… Not only do they think others can change as easily as they can, they tend to think that once the change is made, it’s permanent. But often it isn’t. People who have a serious, dangerous personality flaw, one that’s a danger to themselves or others, that they want to change may well have to settle for working around it or suppressing it. And if they can do that – manage to avoid hitting people while in a rage or fondling a child – the effect on people around them is the same as though real change has occured because the behaviour has changed. But whatever fault deep in the psyche or brain chemistry that causes the violence, the sexual aggression, the need for chemical stimulation or sedation is still there.

    So I guess I’m saying you can have your cake and eat it too – underlying causes may never change, but actions might. And change in something central to one’s personality is so damned hard that a lot of people fail.

    Psychiatrists can provide some suppport. Religions often encourage the use of practical methods of repressing undesireable behaviour and encouraging desireable behaviour.

    As for what to try to change – anyone who follows a religion will have a guide – give to others, don’t steal or cheat, etc. Identifying a trait that is damaging to me or to those around me, or the absense of some contribution others expect of me are also places I could start to work on change.


    15 Jul 11 at 10:39 am

  2. Yes, of course people change. The Old and New Testaments are full of changed people, but so are more recent histories: William Penn once lead cavalry charges, and Hitler took leave with Jewish friends. My father was once a credit manager–back before credit cards–and always tells me (a) people do change, and (b) don’t count on it. There are, if you will, more New Nixons out there than new creatures. He talked about marriage or the birth of children as changing events–but he wanted proof of changed behavior, not proof of life-changing event.

    Which gets us to proof. The scientific method is, and I think will remain, the gold standard. We can argue for centuries about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, but we don’t argue about the relationships of hydrogen and oxygen. We have proof. Outside of that, we either play word games–sadly, all too common–or we tell one another stories and decide for ourselves how satisfactory they are. I am very far from despising that. For the deeper moral questions, we have nothing else.

    I was and remain outraged by the whole “better than you would be otherwise” business, because it is neither proof nor a story. I can say my evening walks cause you to live five minutes longer than you would otherwise, or that the Holocaust killed fewer people than would have been killed otherwise. Both statements are, like the moral benefits of the High Culture, unproven, unprovable and incapable of disproof. They aren’t just “not the scientific method.” They’re not reason of any sort. In the case of the High Culture, it’s the fall-back position taken after the first half of the 20th Century ran the list of monsters with a good classical education and a taste for the High Culture past all counting. Before then, the High Culture was to bring about higher morality and none of this “better than it would be otherwise” hedging.

    I frankly have no use for the notion of the High Culture as moral force. But I am prepared to listen attentively when someone tells me a story. The High Cultist must step down from his pulpit, and explain to me the mechanism by which this moral regeneration takes place. This is how Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, Marx, Darwin, Malthus, Kropotkin and Weber made their cases. But the apostles of the High Culture as such don’t seem as inclined to explain and speak as equals to those they address as the best of the High Culture itself. “It’s true because I say so” is not how one deals with adults.

    As for Mr Upchurch–well, I suppose it’s no good telling stories of people with only a Bible to read. The KJV is as much the High Culture as Shakespeare. But I can in that case understand the mechanism. Here I do not. There are too many educated monsters for me to believe that education by itself gets you anything but a more skilled monster.


    15 Jul 11 at 5:53 pm

  3. The Humanities “make you a better one–better than you would have been if you had not studied them.” Perhaps there is no ‘proof’ as Robert says. However, I would submit that the truth of this position is logical if you accept the premise that the study of the Humanities causes us to open our minds and consider positions, ideas, beliefs, that we had perhaps not previously considered. By doing this, the student is more open, more educated, more exposed to variety in thought, therefore “better.” And yes, some people are monsters and education doesn’t change that. But while they may get a lot of publicity, their numbers are proportionately very small. For the average person, the non-sociopath among us, I see evidence daily that education does make us better.

    Can people change? Certainly. Do they? I would contend only when they see some benefit to themselves to do so. Upchurch, whether his change was triggered by his exposure to Shakespeare as he claims or not, changed because he saw a benefit to himself. Those who choose to change their behaviors or outlooks are those who see the ‘new way’ as being better than the old — enough better that it is worth the effort to change. Many people who choose to wallow in their disease or dysfunction, do so because it gets them what they want, or at the very least, they are comfortable enough in it that the reality of actual change is simply too much work.


    15 Jul 11 at 10:32 pm

  4. For this to work, I think it’s necessary to define “education”, and from what I’ve seen and read over the last few decades, genuinely educated people do not seem to be the outcome of the billions, perhaps trillions of dollars expended on students in western universities.

    I did not graduate from university although I briefly attended Sydney University in the late 1950s, and I’ve undertaken various university level courses since. Yet, in almost every respect, I think I was better educated (in the old-fashioned humanities) on graduating from High School in 1956 than either of my degree-qualified sons, one in law and the other in Arts (English and history), on their graduation from University in the 1980s.

    While I certainly wouldn’t consider myself well-educated in comparison to someone who who has done rigorous post-graduate work in a quality university, I wouldn’t consider many if not most of today’s graduates with bachelor degrees in the humanities as currently defined as being even literate, let alone educated.

    In Australia, you simply need to read an average newspaper story, or letters to the editor, to see the truth of this.


    16 Jul 11 at 3:49 am

  5. Well, it’s all very well to say that education broadens your perspective and opens you to new ideas – there’s no particular reason to assume that those new ideas make you a better person, at least, not from the point of view of others in the society. Eugenics was a new and better idea in its day, and still has its advocates, although they generally propose abortion and euthanasia rather than sterilization. So were…do I really need to make a list?

    I don’t know that people manage to change only because they see some benefit to themselves, unless you define ‘benefit’ so broadly as to include ‘making life better for family and friends’. Admittedly, major change is probably slightly easier if the person making it sees, well, hopes for, some personal benefit. They certainly have to desire something more than anything else in the world, including their own short-term benefit and (in some cases, friends and relatives and entire social circles) who benefit from their failings. Maybe books can give them the hope and inspiration they need; maybe other humans can; maybe the motivation is strictly aversive – I’m never going to prison again.

    But a one cure fits all? I don’t know. Many, perhaps. And lots of people have been inspired by the Bible, by other books, to change. But lots of people haven’t been, and some have been inspired to change in bad ways.


    16 Jul 11 at 7:36 am

  6. Judy, the problem may be in the other end. Certainly once you define education as Jane does–exposed to all the varieties of thought in the Western Canon–“more open to varieties of thought” would be part of the definition. I believe I mentioned “word games” earlier. In fact a full-bore “multi-culturalist” would be even more “open” than the High Cultist, not being limited to the Western Canon.

    But I tend to define “better” as more like the Good Samaritan, and less like his priestly (and educated) counterpart. The better person is less likely to lie, to kick me when I’m down, or rob the till, and more likely to speak the truth and show up with bandages and a loan. I’ve known humanities majors and graduates all my life–the closest proxy we can get to familiarity with the High Culture without actually demanding transcripts or handing out tests. As a body, they may be less prone to criminal convictions than the poor. They know the law–or lawyers–after all. Many are lawyers. But if I were lying bleeding by the roadside, it isn’t the Prius Hybrid I’d expect to stop, and if I were taking depositions, I would give no extra weight to that from the NPR fan.

    Rather the reverse, in fact, though the highly educated liar and thief is more likely to be doing it “on principle” or “for the children.” I cannot myself see that this make it better. Perhaps a deficiency in my own education.


    16 Jul 11 at 7:43 am

  7. Here in Oz, fund-raisers collecting door to door for charities like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and St Vinnies know very well that working class homes are much better sources of donations than the inner-city elite areas. It’s a truism here.


    16 Jul 11 at 7:53 am

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