Monday, January 19, 2009

Creatures of the interlude

Tomorrow morning, after a year or more on leave, I must return to the classroom. The teacher’s job, says Michael Oakeshott, is “to get his pupil to make the most of himself by teaching him to recognize himself in the mirror of the human achievements which compose his inheritance.”1 This is not what Charlotte Allen describes as “the educational philosophy of ‘constructivism,’ which holds that teachers don’t teach things but rather, that students ‘construct’ their own knowledge out of what they already know.” By recognizing himself in the mirror of human achievements, Oakeshott does not mean that a student sees something familiar. He means recognition in the Aristotelian sense. Anagnorisis. The shift from ignorance to awareness. A person is brought to the sudden uncomfortable realization that he must rethink who he is from top to bottom, and that his best self is contained, not in his own limited achievements to date, nor in his interests nor even his talents, least of all in his self-esteem, but in a world of meanings and understandings to which, until now, he has largely been a stranger.

Such a concept of education is not very popular at the moment. It will be immediately seen as the system that used to pass by the name of humanism. When Jonson asked himself what sort of education was needed by a poet, he concluded, “[T]hat which we especially require in him is an exactness of study and multiplicity of reading, which maketh a full man.”2 Now poets study creative writing, which maketh less than full men and women. It’s not their fault. No course of study is designed to crank out human beings, and it would be demonized by the familiar vulgar epithets if it were. The products of a university are graduates, those who are advancing by degrees.

Why, then, do I bother? For this reason. Many students—perhaps not a majority, but a hefty portion—have not received the message that they are to fill the four-year interlude between childhood’s dependence and adult responsibility in gaining a livelihood. Some even want to make the most of themselves, and if they do not believe in advance that the study of literature will contribute to that end, they are willing to give it a shot. Don’t get me wrong. There are almost no self-starters among them. None takes my syllabus as the entry to a world of learning. To a man or woman, they assume that it is exhaustive. Once they have read the books on my reading list, they have finished with the subject. They are concerned with credits, not lights. But to adapt a line from Yvor Winters, their deficiencies but gauge their own weakness and the age. Their strengths are those of childhood. Because life is still an adventure for them, they remain open to surprise. Because they are still trying to make something of themselves, they are interested in what sorts of things might be made. Because they have yet to memorize the answers, they can be snapped awake by the questions. Although some have, most have not undertaken practical obligations—car payments, children, a mortgage—and so they are, as much as anyone ever can be, creatures of the interlude. The weakest among them are anxious to get to the main act. The best leave their seats and join the players.

My job, to return to Winters, as deeply as I otherwise admire him, is not to teach Corrosion and distrust, Exacting what I must. My job instead is to catch them at the right moment, to divert their attention with a flash of the mirror, and to coax them back from the brink of responsibility for just a few more weeks. I have not tried to do so in over a year. Tomorrow I shall see if I still have what it takes.

1. Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 48.

2. Ben Jonson, Discoveries, in The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 448.

Update: Rats. I see that Stanley Fish has beaten me to the punch in quoting Oakeshott. According to him, Oakeshott’s idea is that education must “not [be] regarded as instrumental–valued for its contribution to something more important than itself.” This is not entirely wrong. Oakeshott would have used the word practical rather than “instrumental,” and he would have pointed out that practical life is just one “mode of human experience.” The problem, for Oakeshott, was not with an instrumental education, but one that reduced human experience to just one of its modes.

At all events, an interpretation of Oakeshott is not really what Fish is about in his latest New York Times blog entry. He examines The Last Professors, by his former student Frank Donoghue, and argues that the humanistic philosophy of education, or what he calls the “ethos of the liberal arts,” is dead beyond resuscitation. “Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums),” Fish writes, “the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past.” The exemplary institution for the new model of education is the “for-profit university,” especially the University of Phoenix. (Coincidentally, the same day that Fish was posting his analysis of the shift from liberal to instrumental education, the University of Phoenix, which has no football team of its own, hosted the National Football Conference championship game. The symbolism was neat—a university that makes no pretense of fielding amateur athletes, and prefers to be associated with the openly professional and aggressively commercial kind.)

Fish supplies a delicious quotation from John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix: “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ bullshit.” (Fish softened the last word.) Phoenix is balanced, Sperling says, upon “the ideas of the marketplace–transparency, efficiency, productivity and accountability.” Who cannot applaud such plain language, such blessed freedom from the stale pieties, such clarity as opposed to the scented candles of humanism (see above)? Who indeed? Until he becomes a parent, or falls ill, or grows old, or becomes distracted by a problem that is not so breezily solved?

Given time, all universities will become the University of Phoenix, Fish clearly believes, while expressing gratitude that his own academic career will be over before that happens. But I am not so sure. There is at least one tradition that holds out for the belief that there is something more important than the marketplace. It is the Christian tradition. The religious college (predominately but not exclusively Christian schools, because Yeshiva University fits this definition) are probably the last best hope, ironically enough, for the humanistic ideal.


Novalis said...

The monastery during Western Europe's Dark Ages comes obviously to mind here.

D. G. Myers said...

A school, writes Oakeshott, “is ‘monastic’ in respect of being a place part where excellences may be heard because the din of worldly laxities and partialities is silenced or abated.”

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post, but I suspect that you may have soft-pedelled the study of literature in a way that smacks of the very sort of self-esteem concentrations that you so dislike.

If I recall correctly, anagnorisis was in Aristotle's Poetics the "recognition" of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall, the classic example being Oedipus's recognition that he married his mother. Perhaps you're being ironic, but I don't really see this as an experience leading to the realization of one's own best self, whatever that is, or one that is particularly educational - it led Oedipus to blind himself after all. The same point is implicit in Socrates' great line in the Apology, that the unexamined life is not worth living -- this is not the same as saying that the examined life is, though that's how many rush to undersand it.

I think the same point is implicit in what you say about how one does realize one's own best self -- though, to be true to Aristotle, you might drop the new agey "self" for activity. Contemplating the true and great and beautiful is for Aristotle the perfect activity of the soul. But if that is so, what does that say for turning out students who will have to come down from the mountaintop and work at dull, dreary activities of the workaday world?

One of the feel-good notions of the day is that through great literature, the giants of civilization take us dwarfs on their shoulders and show us the view from on high - as if literature where some sort of glorifed space needle. This is a nice democratic conceit, but you've got to wonder if that's really the sort of business giants go in for. You've also got to wonder if arranging for dwarfs to play with giants is really going to work out all that well.

D. G. Myers said...

Dear Anonymous,

I regret that you do not like my talk of a “best self.” The expression is not, however, “new agey,” but Arnoldian:

“[I]n each class,” Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy, “there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery, for simply concerning themselves with reason and the will of God, and doing their best to make these prevail—for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection.”

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, DG.

But I'm still not buying it. Arnold nods. That entire line of self-talk - as opposed to soul-talk, or Aristotelian talk about activities -- derives from a rather pernicious strain of German idealism. Their objective was to displace Classical and Judeo-Christian thought and undermine its influence by replacing its language -- ideals became values, virtue no longer manly spiritedness but female chastity.

Arnold's use of self shows their success. That new agey self-talk may be the retarded cousin of this intellectual familiy tree doesn't sever the link between it and Arnold. Rather, Arnold's defense of the highest and best has been infected by very leveling tendencies he is fighting against and is doomed to fail. He himself is forgetting the very heritage he is seeking to defend.

Alternatively, Arnold's use of self might be ironic. He may be consciously using a word whose diction is inappropriate, a degenerated concept of modernity to talk about pre-modern excellence, to subtlely highlight that our access to the excellence of great literature and thought is limited by our need to translate them into an inadequate vernacular of the contemporary world.

Anyway, good luck fighing the good fight and remember to say a prayer to St. Jude every night.