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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virgina Tech, Huck Finn, and the Novel of Purpose

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/19/07 at 06:28 PM

Like everyone else this week, I’ve lost more than a little sleep thinking about what happened at Virginia Tech.  I fret over the university context one minute, the comparative one the next—two hundred people died senselesly in Iraq yesterday—but more than anything else, it is the professional context that dogs my mind.  Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them.  His plays are compelling evidence that Plato was onto something in Book X of The Republic: literature originates in the base, irrational place to which it appeals; and the production and consumption of it succours the worst in us.  Put mildly, Cho’s work was not cathartic.  He fell prey to the vicious cycle of unreason Socrates described. 

As a senior English major at Virginia Tech, he could have taken courses that appeal to the most hardened culture warrior—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Augustan Literature, Romantic Literature, Renaissance Literature, &c.—or those the cultural studies side considers morally edifying—Ethnic Children’s Literature, Introduction to Women’s Literature, Introduction to African-American Literature, Literature and Ecology, Postcolonial Cultural Studies, Contemporary Horror, Women in Sport, &c.  My intention is not to declare a pox on both houses, but to point to how thin this justification of our work is.  One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist.  On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read. 

Which is what we say we do, careful as we are to pepper our conversations with “critical thinking” whenever we interact with the outside world.  All of which dovetails with a long, unsatisfactory post I’ve written on The Novel of Purpose.  In her discussion of Mark Twain, Claybaugh addresses Huck Finn‘s belated purposiveness via Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target.  I have written previously of my admiration for Arac, but Idol and Target has always bothered me.  Arac is right to say that the book has always been an exercise in self-congratulation—it is an abolitionist novel published in 1885—but as someone who has taught the novel three times now, I think his critical distance shows here.  Students latch onto Huck’s declaration of war against Southern custom: “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says after recognizing his shared humanity with the captured Jim.  It is a powerful epiphanic moment, even if it leads to the odd fact, as Claybaugh writes, “[g]enerations of readers have identified with Huck and have in the process congratulated themselves as if they were alone in recognizing that slavery was wrong, that African Americans are human beings” (175). 

Huck Finn may only obliquely be a novel of purpose, but its characterization of Jim is perhaps the finest argument for the novel as a moral tool.  As Claybaugh notes, when Huck Finn opens, Jim is little more than a caricature; over the long middle section of the novel, Jim displays ever more intellectual and emotional complexity; when Tom Sawyer returns, so too does the caricature.  Only now, it is mediated by effects of the Bildungsroman that supplanted it.  Jim is not a flat character, but a flattened one.

Claybaugh’s emphasis on the reformist tradition leads her to follow Arac and consider Huck Finn a belated antislavery novel.  Though still central, I would say that “All right then, I’ll go to hell” is less significant as an antislavery sentiment than a promise broken by the horrors of the final act.  Huck’s declaration makes Tom’s dehumanization of Jim all the more harrowing, which points to the moral content of the novel: it is one thing to say words—no matter how hard-won—another to act upon them when faced with cultural precedent.  (Which is what Tom represents for Huck, as established in the opening chapters.) The perfidy of the otherwise sympathetic Huck bothers readers not because Twain conned them into self-congratulation, but because it demonstrates the weakness of Huck’s conviction. 

This is not to say that I disagree with Claybaugh’s reading of the novel overall—Twain toys with the conventions of reformist literature throughout the novel—only that the focus on the belatedness foregrounds the issue of slavery, such that it is difficult not to read the novel as self-congratulatory con.  She is correct to insist on Twain’s reluctance to consider literature morally edifying: Huck Finn‘s unfinished sequel, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, a realist counterpart to what he would later call “Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses.”

The sequel picks up where Huck Finn left off, with Tom applying what he has learned—from “Cooper’s novel,” as he admits to Huck—only instead of imposing generic conventions on life, Huck and Tom learn that such conventions aren’t drawn from it.  They expect to meet honorable “Injuns” Fenimore Cooper portrayed, and reality seems to conform with literature at first.  As Huck says, “we was all stuck after the Injuns, kind of in love with them, as you may say, and I reckon I never had better times than I had then.” The good times came to a quick close, however, when the Indians betray them, killing all but one member of the party Huck and Tom had befriended and kidnapping Jim.  This is when Huck discovers Tom learned “about Injuns, how noble they was” from Fenimore Cooper; the rest of their journey to find Jim is an exercise in perpetual disabuse.  The symmetry is telling: in Huck Finn, Tom uses literary convention to enslave Jim; in Among the Indians, Tom must shuck literary convention in order to free him.  In neither book, then, can a case be made that Twain thought much of the novel of purpose.

And yet, the third act of Huck Finn brutally enacts a failure of conviction.  I can think of no other discussion in which the students become as enraged at a character than the one spanning the last two classes on Huck Finn.  They feel betrayed by Huck—so betrayed, in fact, that I wonder whether that anger is a permanent bequest.  Has reading the novel increased the thought they put into a promise?  Has literary study improved them, even if only in this smallest of ways? 


Thanks for the thoughful post, Scott.  I think Arac misses the point that AHF is a critique of the end of Reconstruction--particularly its ending.  Too involved an argument to make in a comment, but to give you a preview of what’s coming to CitizenSE Saturday, in my manuscript’s third chapter I read Jim’s coat of arms as a parody of the end of The Scarlet Letter, the point of which is to link the compromise of 1877 with the compromise of 1850....

By The Constructivist on 04/19/07 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With regard to the critique of “good books make good people”, really, I don’t see how it says anything about it one way or the other.  Cho Seung-hui was insane.  I have no idea whether a psychologist examining him would have said so, but his actions surely prove that he was.  Whatever the claims for reading, curing the insane isn’t one of them.

By on 04/19/07 at 10:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I originally had a caveat to that effect, but decided against including it in the final draft.  I wanted to keep the conversation in the realm of the Platonically—instead of clinically—insane.  You’re obviously correct, inasmuch as any generalization drawn from this is likely to be terribly unexemplary; still, there’s the notion that art saves lives, as well as a lot of people who believe it, and that’s what I wanted to address.

Constructivist, I’m looking forward to reading your response.  Your criticism that Arac forgot about Reconstruction neatly echoes what Brook Thomas said about the book when I took his Twain seminar.  While I think that’s a powerful critique, I still hold that the real problem is that he misunderstands the novel itself, ascribing antislavery sentiment to what is, in fact, a novel which only uses that sentiment to make a point.  (As described above.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/19/07 at 11:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the question of whether or not the students are “improved” depends on how they understand “an abolitionist novel published in 1885” to mean.  As readers in 2007, to what extent does the distinction between a pre- and a post-war abolitionist novel register?  How does it affect the reading of Huck’s promise?  If the specific historical context is paramount, then they can only be angry at Huck “in history,” for his action as it related to a particular set of events, and it does not bind their own promises.  But if it’s simply the issue of the promise at stake, then the text angering them doesn’t need to be Twain’s, the trouble Jim’s, etc.  In order to make the betrayal matter more than either of these two courses suggest, I think there would need to be articulated the promise of abolitionist texts that is (always) yet to be realized:  I would want to involve them, as readers of American literature, as party to the promise of freeing “Jim” and engaged by their anger to continue the project.

By on 04/19/07 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I’m not sure you’ve fully addressed Rich’s comment. You seem to be jumping from maximalism, in this case the idea that Cho Seung-hui could have been cured by his studies in English, to an extreme minimalism, in which the only effect of reading a good book well is an access of suspicion about the influence of texts.

I very much liked the end of the post, since I liked what the students were doing with Twain, and my guess is that the way you were teaching Twain would appeal to Claybaugh also.

I’m just questioning whether skeptical metafictions have to represent an alternative to the notion of textual efficacy, rather than a complement. In fact, it strikes me that they can’t be an alternative, since books like Huckleberry Finn presuppose effective discourses and are themselves highly effective at influencing thought, even if they do so only by producing disillusion.

None of the things we value in ordinary, practical life, come with the guarantees we seem to expect from literature. Medical treatments are almost never 100% effective, particularly psychiatric treatments and medications. Nor are supportive environments and close-knit families always able to produce happy, well-adjusted individuals. Still, none of this leads us to consider such things to be without merit.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/20/07 at 12:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, it’s your students’ anger that I think Twain was aiming for in his time--and that his readers aim it where it’s deserved, at the architects of the Tilden-Hayes compromise.

By The Constructivist on 04/20/07 at 03:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a great post.

I’ve always thought really great novels with moral content to be question marks rather than answers. That make the reader reflect, rather than offer simple conclusion. What is considered to be a moral book Orwell’s Nineteen Eight Four works well because it does drive home a moral point, but ends with a sour taste in the mouth that profers the question - would you conform too? Isn’t it easier to conform than die for your beliefs?

By on 04/20/07 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps I’m cooperating with media sensationalism too much by mentioning it, but based on a Washington Post story linked to by Kevin Drum, Cho’s poetry teacher could tell there was something wrong with him, and tried to get the school authorities to do something (which they couldn’t).  According to this link he’d been assessed as mentally ill in 2005.

I don’t think that Cho-as-individual has that much to do with what we talk about here, so I’m going to generalize wildly.  First, in some stands of contemporary literary thought, there is a kind of admiration of insanity as opening up new possibilities—not violent insanity, obviously.  Personally, I’ve never found the art that (non-violent) insane people produce to be at all interesting.  Inability to cope with ordinary life in some way almost always is associated with inability to produce art that reacts productively against the constraints of the medium.  (I’m not talking about neurosis here, but more serious problems.)

Second, I guess that in terms of the effects of reading, I’d adhere to the same extreme minimalism that Joseph says that Scott has switched to.  It’s not just that I think that art has no effect on clinically insane people beyond, possibly, making them a bit more happy.  (Which may not be considered “minimal”, but I mean “minimal” in terms of changing behavior.)

It’s also that I don’t think that graduates of an education in the literary humanities come out of it with any real change in their habits or modes of thought.  I mean, look at the literary blogosphere.  Almost all of the people flaming each other are bog-standard middle class, very few of whom seem to have gained any appreciation for subtleties of texts except within a narrow professional context.

By on 04/20/07 at 09:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s only when students are taught that their anger can be delimited to nineteenth-century politicians that they end up without “any real change in their habits or modes of thought.” If they can leave their anger in 1876, or 1885, why take it with them?

By on 04/20/07 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Shari, I disagree.  Even when they’re taught to “take their anger with them”, they don’t, except in stereotyped cases that the middle class has accepted require a stance of angryness.  In other words, their willingness to generalize in these cases becomes part of education as a marker of class status.  Obviously I’m generalizing tremendously, but I’d say that the people who were able to read subtly in a wide range of cases generally started with a personality that let them do that, and that education helped them develop this ability along professional lines but did not really enhance it.

By on 04/20/07 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott asks a provocative question with regards to the role of English/humanities studies and development WHOLLY of the individual that pursues these studies:

“Cho Seung-hui was an English major, after all, and thus an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them.”

“One course in postcolonial literature does not a progressive make, nor will reading Shakespeare transform a troubled soul into a humanist.  On one level, we know this—witness the photograph of the SS officer, feet on desk, reading Goethe—but on another, our professional identity intertwines with the notion that good books make good people, so long as someone teaches them how to read.”

The situation at Virginia Tech paralleled (sadly) serendipitously with my students’ study of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  I teach high school reading- the bottom 25% of our lower level readers in the junior and senior grades.  A majority of them are far from being English majors in college, fewer than half may have a successful run at college at all.  However, they are actually pretty sharp kids, and soon after the Viriginia Tech massacre, began to make comparisons between Holden Caulfield and Cho.  “Do you think Holden would go on a rampage like that Mr. Pyne?” they asked me.  They weighed the possibilities: ‘Well, Holden is going crazy but he still has Phoebe,’ ‘Yeah, but he wanted to smash the guy’s face bloody that wrote the Fuck you on the wall of his sister’s school,’ ‘Well, what about when he realizes there is no place nice and peaceful?’ ‘Okay, that’s the trigger, then,’ ‘No- he saw here on the carousel,’ ‘Yeah, but didn’t he possibly try to kill himself when he went home?’ ‘The V-Tech guy just wanted to kill the rich- maybe he thought they were phonies?’ ‘He didn’t have a Phoebe, though.’

And so on, you get the picture.

The point is that the kids were generating a psychological profile of both Cho and Caulfield through comparison of art and reality; and in addition, relating it to their own experience by the question “What would I do?” Needless to say, I was immensely proud of them, given that the very word “book” elicits the gag reflex from some of my students.

Why?  Because good books create THINKING people, so long as people teach them how to read.  My opinion is that Cho probably had a one-track mind, and did not open himself up to other possibilities that his studies could have revealed to him.

On a second level, we can look at Holden himself and see how he interacts with literature and how it colors his reality: He loves The Great Gatsby, doesn’t understand Hemingway (D.B. gives him Farewell to Arms), admires Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet, and when it comes to Hamlet: “What I got to do is, I got to read that play.” I haven’t developed my thoughts fully on this as it relates to Scott’s post, but something is there . . .

By gregory on 04/20/07 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Rich, in general, I don’t think that anger is the response I’d want most to provoke in my students, as it is such an often unproductive middle-class cliche. Reading subtly/closely is better suited to disturbing or unsettling the reader--in subtle ways, but in ways that I’d like to think do shift his/her patterns of thinking.  And I don’t know if you can necessarily teach someone how to read in such a way that s/he is disturbed, but even if just modeling that approach results in some disturbance for the duration of a single class, I think it has effects--subtle ones, most often, but teaching at the university is in many ways a micropolitical action, no?

By on 04/20/07 at 05:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment


In order to make the betrayal matter more than either of these two courses suggest, I think there would need to be articulated the promise of abolitionist texts that is (always) yet to be realized:  I would want to involve them, as readers of American literature, as party to the promise of freeing “Jim” and engaged by their anger to continue the project.

Obviously, antislavery is an important element of the novel; less obviously, writing an historical novel about recent history is a fraught act.  If I were to write a book about a woman getting an illegal abortion in the 1950s, its relevance to contemporary affairs would be apparent.  That said, I’m not sure I’d be attempting to “continue the project,” since the establishment of Roe v. Wade and the defense of it entail a different set of commitments.  I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, only that I may be less sanguine about the successfulness of advocacy pedagogy. 

Which brings us to Joe: I don’t buy the maximalist argument, but I’m not nearly so minimalist as I seem.  Since neither I nor anyone else can quantify “humanization,” I like to think that what I do is “mitigate” the positions the students bring into the classroom.  The liberal leaves a little shaken that the pieties which earn him As in other classes have been challenged; the conservative wonders whether the fair hearing I gave his ideas unsettles his bichromal expectations, &c.  Another way to say this is that I don’t think open advocacy works in the classroom for two reasons:

1. You will alienate the students who disagree and they’ll tune you out.

2. The students who adopt your positions in order to please you are not actual victories.  As soon as the quarter ends and they have another professor, they’ll adopt those positions.

So what I try to do is influence them in subtle ways.  By being a political cipher, I force them to constantly evaluate what I say not for political content, but for the assumptions subtending whatever they imagine my affiliation to be.  So I’m not quite a minimalist—but I have no way to prove the effectiveness of what I do in the classroom.


In fact, it strikes me that they can’t be an alternative, since books like Huckleberry Finn presuppose effective discourses and are themselves highly effective at influencing thought, even if they do so only by producing disillusion.

This is why, in the end, I find the idea of con-as-operative-metaphor persuasive; thing is, I’m not sure who’s conning who, or into or out of what.  The irony of dismissing the efficacy of literature in a highly efficacious work of literature isn’t lost on me, I’m just not sure where to take it.  Because I put so much pressure on the radical shift in the novel’s final act, I’m not comfortable basing speculations as to intent on the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.


First, in some stands of contemporary literary thought, there is a kind of admiration of insanity as opening up new possibilities—not violent insanity, obviously.

There’s an inherent insanity in the production of literary works—no one would have put up with Joyce/Pound/Eliot/Woolf/&c. had they not been geniuses—but I think we’re talking Artaud Country here:

At this point, man withdrew and fled.

Then the animals ate him.

It was not a rape,
he lent himself to the obscene meal.

He relished it,
he learned himself
to act like an animal
and to eat rat

To which I can only answer: fair enough.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Artaud—like every other budding theorist, I read him because of and alongside Deleuze—but there is only so much actual insanity one can stomach before becoming violently ill.  The performed insanity of the surrealists is less authentic but, for that very reason, more meaningful.  Because they lacked a true break from the world, they were able to produce works more meaningful to those living in it.  (This worked better in the days when poetry was more formal, i.e. William Blake is more interesting, even when certifiable, because the formal demands of the genre reeled him in a bit.)

I mean, look at the literary blogosphere.  Almost all of the people flaming each other are bog-standard middle class, very few of whom seem to have gained any appreciation for subtleties of texts except within a narrow professional context.

In my experience, the people who do graduate study in English are either 1) upper-upper-middle class or 2) lower-middle class.  Few people fall between Ivy-type and reader-with-chip-on-shoulder.  I’m not sure why this is, and as any speculation will insult everyone—myself included—I decline to ponder as to why.

gregory and Shari, I’ll address your further comments a little later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/20/07 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not advocating advocacy pedagogy--if what you mean by that is trying to get my students on board with any particular political platform.  I don’t think that’s a useful way to approach literature, for the reasons you suggest and because I’m teaching them how to read, not how to vote.  I think that’s probably clearer in my exchange with Rich.

What I was trying to suggest with the idea of accountability to the text’s Jim is a method of reading whereby one is responsible not only to the text in terms of the history it represents (slavery & its aftermath or pre-Roe v Wade days, in your example) but to the fact that they are reading it today and can make sense of it pretty easily, not only because the society is racialized but because this literature is canonical even pre-college.  So the text is never just about how it connects to events that preceded it, but how it bears on those of us who continue to read it.  In this sense, “freeing ‘Jim’” means recognizing one’s response to the text (anger, frustration, etc.) as an obligation that has never yet been met, that will never be met, as the narrative will never readjust its ending.  In other words, as long as the novel continues to be meaningful to its readers, there is an obligation to think about and discuss why & how we inherit its meanings.

A quick example that came up with a student today:  thinking about Charles Chesnutt’s stories is harder than thinking about Puritan writings--because the suppositions of the former are familiar, whereas the latter seems foreign and therefore not to implicate her.  I’m not going to tell her how she’s implicated, but the fact that she feels so can never not be on the classroom table, so recognizing that has to be part of what I do.

By on 04/20/07 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting about the class background of English grad students.  There’s an argument, though, that anyone who makes it to English grad school is pretty much middle class no matter what their prior class background used to be.  For the upper-upper-middle class, they might be an undergrad in the humanities, but they wouldn’t go to grad school in it if they wanted to work in an upper-middle class job.  For the lower-middle class, education is such a marker of class status that they are pretty much considered middle class from that point on even if they get no good job afterwards.

And Deleuze was indeed one of the people I was thinking of in terms of the admiration of madness.  “Where is the joy in schizophrenic processes of desiring-production promised to me by Deleuze and Guattari?”—from larval subjects in an interesting exchange with Joseph.  But in general, the romanticization of insanity is part of the long-standing Romantic trope of the tormented genius, isn’t it?  There’s some doubt that Pound, to take one of your examples, was so insane that he needed to be institutionalized, as opposed to it being a convenient way to avoid an embarassing treason charge.  Woolf seems to have been bipolar, true, and it was eventually fatal, but I wasn’t aware that Joyce and Eliot were that severely dysfunctional.

In terms of the humanization of ordinary people by the humanites—I think that if this really occured, you’d expect grad students in the humanites to be significantly more humane than a sample of the population.  I don’t think that this is observationally true.  They are certainly more educated and articulate, of course, and can rationalize their choices better than the average person.

Getting back to the novel of purpose, I think that there really is a sense in which novels are effective, and which education is effective at being “micropolitical”, that has nothing to do with making individuals more humane.  Attitudes of reform within literature become class markers.  Being racist, sexist, or homophobic, for instance, is socially disapproved for more than just humane reasons—it’s also lower class.  I think that a lot of good has been done by this element of class emulation.

By on 04/20/07 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting post, Scott. I’m persuaded by your reading of the ending of the novel, and I’ll certainly teach it your way if I ever do teach it. But can you tell me why I should teach it? To be sure, Twain’s mastery of dialect is extraordinary and his handling of narration is deft, and these formal achievements are well worth discussing in an upper-level literature class. But you’re talking about teaching this novel for moral, rather than formal reasons, and I find myself wondering why one would use *Huckleberry Finn* to think about promising rather than, say, *Portrait of a Lady.*

The answer, of course, is that however much we might talk about promising (or anything else) in *Huckleberry Finn,* it’s on our syllabuses because of race. And Arac is absolutely right, I think, to remark on how strange this is: why has our culture chosen this work of literature, out of all possible works of literature, to serve as one of the chief occasions for teaching high school students how to talk and think about race?

By on 04/21/07 at 12:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I never thought reading literature humanized anyone or made them better citizens or better persons or more moral or whatever. My favorite two books on this point are James Anderson Winn’s “The Pale of Words” and Bill Readings’ “The University in Ruins” [Readings’ book, especially, is a must-read, I think, for anyone planning a future working in the humanities at the university level--it is a pessimistic but also hopeful book]. Furthermore, what Cho did at Va. Tech. has nothing to do with his being an English major [or even a creative writer] and it really surprises me how many blog posts have been generated on academic and literary studies blogs hashing through the anguish of that fact. Art and literature attract devils as well as angels and both sane and insane men and women create art and literature. Of course, as a professor of medieval and other literatures and as a scholar of literature [and of literary and cultural thought], obviously I have to have some faith that what SEK might call the cultivation of good reading [and interpretive] practices [which practices, further, would not be couched in overt ideological contexts] might matter somehow in the inculcation of certain types of moral [and other] understanding in our students. But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer. Remember that moment in the movie “Frankenstein” [not the book] where the monster is stumbling around in a field somewhere and he sees a girl throwing flowers into a well and he’s like, “ooooo, ugh, oooo, cool” [said in his inimitable inarticulate way]? And then he’s also throwing flowers in the well and having fun? And then said girl ends up at the bottom of the well? In any case, the incident at Va. Tech. does not indict the humanities; I thought we stopped carrying that flag a long time ago. You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it.

As to the discussion unfolding here about pedagogy, which is really fascinating, I also stopped thinking about that a while ago. I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or the subtle and laudably non-ideological method SEK practices. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel--"to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature. There is some kind of predisposition, I think, to being “open” to that possibility, without which ethics, of any sort, cannot be possible.

By Eileen A. Joy on 04/21/07 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This conversation brings to mind George Steiner’s essay “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” which argues, in brief, that the Nazi destruction of Europe has shown us how easy it is for people to commit acts of mass murder while enjoying Beethoven, Holderlin, Goethe, and Mahler. We all know this to be true: cultural refinement, an appreciation of literary or aesthetic subtlety, the capability for abstract thought at a high level—none of these is a guarantee that a given individual will be capable of acceptable, or even coherent, moral choices.

Steiner (writing in the 1950s) argues that the only justifiable future for literary studies is the abandonment of national literatures and a wholesale movement into comparative literature and translation (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the essence of his argument). But he makes no guarantees that such a change will improve matters, and I would argue that it hasn’t.

But in a sense all of that is beside the point in this case. To me the question of Cho Seung-hui’s behavior has less to do with English or creative writing than on our collective failure to treat mental illness seriously and decently. To say that Cho is “an example of the abject failure of the liberal arts to humanize the troubled souls who study them” is, I think, letting the rest of us far too easily off the hook. Cho was a mentally ill young man who ought to have been treated, closely monitored, kept away from those he might harm, and, at the very least, denied access to weapons. That isn’t a failure of the liberal arts; that’s the failure of a society at the most fundamental level, which is its moral obligation to care for the helpless.

By on 04/21/07 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, I should acknowledge the willful naïvety of this post.  One of the reasons I thought it inadequate in the first place was because the events of last week so marked my thoughts about Amanda’s book.  I know that shouldn’t have been the case, but life intervened.  Second, I should say a little more about why I’m willfully naïve: Edward James Olmos.  I must’ve watched Stand and Deliver fifty times growing up.  It’s the reason why continuing into graduate school was not the typical non-decision of the English graduate student: I always wanted to make a difference.  As I said above, this has led me to be a little wily; liberal students have their expectations, conservative their fears, libertarians their sense of superiority—I kid, I kid, but only a little bit, as libertarians tend to be autodidacts and fiercely independent-minded, despite the fact that at this point in their intellectual development they’re spouting platitudes.  In my Stand and Deliver moments, I strongly reject Eileen’s claim (which echoes a point Rich made earlier):

But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer.

I can teach anyone literature, damn it.  I will reach these kids, change their lives, make a difference, &c.  The self-importance is overweening, I admit, but it’s how I approach teaching, and why a novel like Huck Finn appeals to me.  That said, my practical mind knows that Eileen’s point about modeling the life of an intellectual is a far better approach, and one I also take.  For example, when I taught literary journalism, my favorite article to teach—who knew how handy course blogs could be?—was David Quammen’s “Strawberries Under Ice.” As I wrote elsewhere:

Quammen’s demonstrating the way in which a scholar or writer’s research colors all aspects of his or her life, creating meaningful but ultimately irrelevant juxtapositions of research and lived experience.

And I go further than that.  My idle chit-chat at the beginning of class about how hard I work, the hours I keep, &c. is not intended to muster sympathy, but to give my students an idea of what commitment to an idea entails.  All of which is only to say that Eileen is correct to emphasize the life of mind in the classroom, and that the horse I ride in on is often high indeed.

gregory, you’re a brave man teaching Salinger to high school students.  It’s difficult for me to imagine reading Catcher in the Rye in a formal setting, since for my set in high school, it was the samizdat which spoke truth to the oppressive adult power oppressing us oppressively day and curfewed night.  You’re right, though, about the creation of thinking people; it wasn’t shocking, for example, that almost every blogger responded to Kurt Vonnegut’s death with an admission that they’d read everything he’d written before whatever year they graduated from high school.  In addition to getting them to think, it’s about creating a culture of reading, albeit in small, in which people can speak from common (reading) experience. 

Shari, I think we’re on the same page here.  “Advocacy pedagogy” was a stronger dram than I’d intended.  That said, I’m not sure that undergraduates can “make sense of [Huck Finn] pretty easily,” if only because that familiarity works against the critical impulse.  Because it seems transparent, they have to work twice as hard to divine its details.  Students often write better papers on works requiring effort to snap into meaningfulness.  For example, the best paper set I’ve ever graded was on Light in August, because the bar to comprehension was so high they had already performed much of the analytical work required of them by my prompt; the Huck Finn essays, however, suffered from the student’s relatively shallower engagement with the nuts and bolts of the text.  Thing is, I worked twice as hard to 1) get them to re-read Huck Finn and 2) find a way to create depth from its apparent shallows.

Rich, we may end up middle class, but—I speak from experience—English grad students spend a good decade living at or below the poverty line.  For former members of the upper-upper class, the experience must be transformative.  Also, do you really think someone could write a book like Finnegans Wake without being a little daft?

Amanda, first, an admission.  (I love having all this proof I’m not making this up available online.  Put differently: “See!  I did teach Light in August!” But I digress.) We teach Huck Finn because of race; but your point about its formal achievement is important too.  I would go further and say that we teach it because it’s a historically-fraught, formally challenging novel.  You’re right that it may be too arch to be an effective arbiter for racial equality, and too focused on antislavery to work in a class on “moments of decision”—I hadn’t even realized I strayed into Hillis’ territory, but now that I think about it, I should acknowledge it as a probable influence on my reading ... even if we did read Portrait of a Lady and not Huck Finn in it.  Another way to say this, though, is that we probably didn’t read Huck Finn because his decision seems overdetermined, its tension vitiated by its belatedness (both in historical and novelistic terms, as Huck should’ve come to that realization well before he did).  But I need to think more about this, as I don’t have a ready answer to the question, at least, not outside dull arbitrariness-of-the-canon wrangling.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/21/07 at 02:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jess, you’re comment appeared while I was working on the other one.  I’ll respond later this afternoon.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/21/07 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"English grad students spend a good decade living at or below the poverty line.”

Well… the way I remember it from my personal experience of about 20 years ago, a grad student in the sciences got $7,000/year (for teaching or in research grants) plus health insurance.  That comes out to something like $12,000 in current dollars, which is over the official single-person U.S. poverty line of about $9,000.  But, more to the point, if you didn’t have a family (and I have no idea what grad students with children do to make ends meet), then you generally still lived like a student, in cheap student housing.  Most of your time was spent studying or working, and for things beyond that you were in the middle of a university, with a lot of free events of various kinds.  So, sure, grad students are poor, but they have a lifestyle well-suited to being poor.  And they don’t have *social* poverty, the feeling that they are trapped in the same dead-end situation forever with no way out, or low social status, or the feeling that their work is meaningless.  I always think that it’s a mistake for a grad student to read off their income and list their poverty level as if it were the same as someone who was forced to work at McDonalds full-time.

About teaching and Stand and Deliver—here’s an evil idea for you to consider (which you’ve probably heard plenty of already).  What are you actually teaching these kids?  Love of literature, humanization?  Or are you actually teaching them how to be middle class?  When someone learns how to read literary works, they’re being forced to internalize the values of study, deferred gratification, fitting apparently disconnected events into an overall narrative, scrutiny of the motives of self and others, etc.  When advocates of humanistic education say that it teaches people how to think, I tend to mentally complete the sentence “... like a knowledge worker”, or when they say that it humanizes people, I think “ ... and the middle class is very humane.” Which it really is, because it can afford to be, and because unlike the upper class it has not much to gain from being inhumane.

Don’t get me wrong; education is wonderful and all that.  But the defense of education as changing lives, making a difference, etc. runs into complicated ideological territory that makes naivete about whether you can have an effect or not only the first of the possible hazards.

By on 04/21/07 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is teaching The Catcher in the Rye in high school that uncommon?  I know we read it in mine and may also have read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.

By ben wolfson on 04/22/07 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the world goes against the truth, then I will go against the world – the decision expressed in Huck’s great Damn it then I’ll go to hell moment. Huck, at least in the moment, takes a “stand,” the root word of “resist,” a great moment of “resistance.” When I first read it as a young person, I saw and felt of course what he was referring to literally but I also referred it to my own life and my own decisions I had made, and had seen made, and had failed to make, and decided and reaffirmed to make then in the moment, and how I wished to proceed generally in the future. The text moment catalyzed the facilitation of my own thinking, meditation really, in the vein of Huck’s thinking, about my own testing situations I was facing, had faced, and might face. I couldn’t mentally join Huck shoulder to shoulder about chattel slavery in the US thanks to abolition but I could feel in solidarity with his spirit and stand, his spirited stand, about, say, the wage slavery of today and many other such injustices I was aware of. Moments of reading and thought like that can put steel in your blood and spring in your step. A real experience. Real effect. Reading books (and experiences of all sorts) change some people’s lives, in various ways, at least in that they can have this real affirming or strengthening or committing or otherwise galvanizing effect. Can many people who have devoted their professional lives to literature really not come up with a variety of examples of this well-documented fact or phenomena off the top of their heads?

I’ve taught Huck at the college level as part of Intro to American lit, but it never occurred to me to teach it solely or even primarily in reference to race (even though we also read critical articles of it that critiqued race and other aspects, aesthetic aspects and so on, at my choosing). You can take Jim and nearly all the moments of race out of the novel and still have the story of Huckleberry Finn that primarily accounts for the form of the work – which is in my view, the drama of a perspective of “youth” engaging a corrupt and villainous adult world, society. That’s the key to the form of the novel: the struggle of youth (in society). Take that away, restore Jim and moments of racial intersection, and you’re left with little more than one of the great aesthetic flaws of the novel—the crude novella that is the last third of the novel, plus some preceding stretches. (The last third of the novel actually works better on its own, if it were a separate novella/story, than it does as an aesthetic and thematic part of the novel.)

When Hemingway famously (over)said, “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” he wasn’t referring to race, of course. Lionel Trilling claims that much of what he was referring to is that the novel “reinforces the colloquial tradition with the literary tradition. Indeed, it may be said that almost every contemporary American writer who deals conscientiously with the problems and possibilities of prose must feel, directly or indirectly, the influence of Mark Twain. He is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.”

I think one could go farther and add: the voice of youth. (Which may be a clarification of what is perhaps unconsciously implied.) The voice of youth struggling to survive and live in face of a very often corrupt society. Huck Finn is not primarily a bildungsroman, nor comedy, nor satire, nor caricature, nor tragedy, nor romance, nor polemic, nor melodrama, nor lit, nor pop, nor nature writing, nor essay, nor colloquial catalogue – though it is all of these things and more at various times. It’s primarily the voice of the struggle of “youth” (in society) (as lit/pop feast, at its best).

This fundamental form of Huck Finn—young Huck like a pinball through adult pins and paddles while desperately avoiding terminal holes—is so often used today, we many not see the significance it may have marked in American literature: the ascendancy of a worldly youth perspective. We can scarcely get away from some version of it today, but I would guess (I’m MFA degreed, no Victorian scholar) that the novel HF was the first great American instantiation of this form-creating-perspective or perspective-creating-form. Dickens in England before Twain. The Anglo-American child hero. (I think it’s Sylvia Hewitt’s studies that have shown that continental Europe has much better general child care provisions and child well being outcomes than does Anglo-America. Maybe there’s a real link between lit and life there, maybe longstanding, maybe mutually feeding. Been studied?) Race is one element in this form in Huck Finn, arguably a primary element, but still only one element of many. Jim’s situation as “runaway slave” seems to me to function more as a device to drive the plot so that Twain could ever further explore the great theme of the book: youth perspective on society. That theme exploded post WWII (socio-political reasons pop to mind), perhaps post Catcher in the Rye so that today maybe we almost don’t see it as a perhaps “peculiar” formal device. If I think of a Henry James novel in relation to Huckleberry Finn, I think of What Maisie Knew.

I’m curious about who is, and who can, assert that HF be taught mainly in reference to race. Of course it can be examined well and good for any number of reasons, race critique not least, even as the novel is built and directed more in other ways.

Reading (and writing) is an experience that can help people think about all sorts of things – including the moral, the psychological, the political, even simply the factual, you name it. It can help us make up our minds about so much. The evidence for this is overwhelming. And when we really make up our minds about certain things, really set our minds to something, the effects can be, sort of, limitless. Hiroshimic. Or otherwise. Literature/art has played extraordinarily oppressive and libratory roles. It’s important to have some idea how. And which. And why, what, when, where, and to what degree. Some of this has been studied and determined. And more such important studies, including experiments, are badly needed.

For example, does “advocacy pedagogy” work? Done effectively, of course. That’s what teach-ins are. That aside, simply on the basis of regular literature classes, parents complain all the time, for example, that after their children read The Jungle in school they become vegans, or vegetarians. We need to know, what books prompt how many people to become, say, pacifists, or anti-militancy activists – etc.

Doing so may cause us to seriously revise our notions of what fully civilized literature is, and what it isn’t—(erudite and sophisticated, as sufficient criteria? – or more fully vital and humane, in its time, or in any time? libratory and expanding of other valued normative qualities, and understandings, as criteria?)

And when employing one of the most classic teaching methods – of comparing one set of facts/ideas/books to another opposing set of facts/ideas/books – while trying not to at all let on your own views as teacher—then it is useful, necessary, to have literature of all sorts, including novels, from all poles, that so thoroughly explore, say, opposition to a war of aggression that they will be known as much for their antiwar stand as for any, even high, literary quality. Put that up against some hotshot soldier’s memoir or novel that is generally ultimately not fundamentally critical of the basis of a war of aggression – a status quo war book. Or even something like Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, with its limited Iraq War exploration. Similarly, teach different combinations of books: all antiwar books in some classes and all much less antiwar books in another, or all status quo supportive books (consciously or implicitly). And use mixed percentages of these types of books in other classes. And different teaching “philosophies”. After the courses, as scientifically as possible, sample students’ views, knowledge and attitudes – later on track them and record what they go on to do. (Of course, control for or account for the nature of the students initially, to the extent possible.) Also sample parents’ subsequent complaint level! Or compliment level. The results may be surprising, or they may not. They may be highly determinate or totally indeterminate. One problem is, such worthy experiments cannot even be carried out in literary realms (not even anecdotally, piecemeal) if there is no diversity of literary books – no or few literary (or popular) antiwar novels, for example.

I think we might be forced to revise some of our notions of what great literature really is, and be led to create anew. I think we can run through some of these thought processes simply in our heads of course, that’s what thinking and discussing are all about. In fact, given the interest and lacking some such experiments, we have to, based on what is already known.

But then these concerns may apply only if you agree with Calverton that “granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.”

By Tony Christini on 04/22/07 at 09:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think what Tony has written here is the perfect tonic to what I posted earlier. I wouldn’t change my view that the humanities cannot be *expected* to “humanize” its learning subjects [or that we need to recognize that goodness is often cultivated by those who are predisposed, to a certain extent, to *want* to be good or “better"--on this point, see Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics"], but I think Tony is right to remind us [as I believe SEK is also reminding us] that “Reading (and writing) is an experience that can help people think about all sorts of things – including the moral, the psychological, the political, even simply the factual, you name it. It can help us make up our minds about so much.” Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

By Eileen A. Joy on 04/22/07 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, the problem is that advocacy pedagogy is expressly forbidden by the AAUP and most college and university guidelines.  Of course, few institutions actually regulate politically indoctrinating courses, but more and more are (due to the pressure maintained by conservative groups like ACTA, FIRE, and the Horowitz Youth).

By on 04/22/07 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All courses are ideologically loaded. The status quo is always going to try to force courses to represent status quo ideology, all the while pretending and/or believing that this is not political indoctrination.

As Terry Eagleton notes in “Conclusion: Political Criticism” in Literary Theory: An Introduction: “Radical critics…have a set of social priorities with which most people at present tend to disagree. This is why they are commonly dismissed as ‘ideological’, because ideology’ is always a way of describing other people’s interests rather than our own.”

Beyond that, it seems to me that there are so many very effective (and needed) ways to teach progressive/humane knowledge that are not typically considered to be “advocacy pedagogy” by the status quo power structure (including every example I noted in my previous comments), ways that fall under the standard of academic freedom, that far, far more could be done along these lines than currently is being done, without potentially being confronted by any but the most extreme right wing zealots like Horowitz.

The third issue here, it seems to me, is what happens when teachers take advantage of such vital progressive/humane teaching possibilities, so that there is a greater cumulative libratory effect than currently, and/or what happens when certain teachers go beyond whatever the status quo powers accept on a case by case basis? Well, then you have real struggles for real power and real education and real action that should exist wherever illegitimate authority is imposed. That’s essential to progress.

Otherwise, if we don’t push the boundaries of what teaching and creation is appropriate, we get a culture that, well, we may contribute to some of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism --

“The modern history of literary study has been bound up with the development of cultural nationalism, whose aim was first to distinguish the national canon, then to maintain its eminence, authority, and aesthetic autonomy…. [There has been] an absolute requirement for the Western system of ideology that a vast gulf be established between the [ostensibly] civilized West, with its traditional commitment to human dignity, liberty, and self-determination, and the [supposed] barbaric brutality of those who for some reason—perhaps defective genes—fail to appreciate the depth of this historic commitment, so well revealed by America’s Asian wars, for example.”

Now Middle East wars, etc. I see it strikingly in my area of creative focus: we wind up with a culture that fails to produce a flood of overt antiwar novels, and many other so-called partisan novels about other crucial issues.

If professors and students don’t take such stands, in teaching and learning (that they are perfectly entitled to take, if not under certain laws, or certain interpretations of certain laws), then everyone contributes to Nazifying the country and beyond, actively or by omission. Nobody knows what the “tipping point” is, or might be…nobody knows how many war debunking novels, for example, need to circulate in classrooms and without, be “taught” and read, how many plays like Lysistrata need to be put on, how many women need to stop sleeping with men, and/or how much else elsewhere needs to go on before students and others on campus, say, call a “college strike” that avalanches into labor strikes, and a general strike altogether that shuts the country down for a period of time that thus forces the end of the Iraq occupation, or cuts the military budget in half, or more, etc.

The problem is – not enough people resist the illegitimate, thus – slaughter. The problem is, too often, I think, we don’t see what we are doing and not. We’re conforming to the extraordinarily ideological status quo, habitually obedient, in thought, in action – which is the only way a country as otherwise free as the US could wind up with a government that carries out such crimes against humanity and other violations. What could be more truly educational in especially virtually any contemporary humanities or social science course, at least, than teaching in such a way that is ideologically and factually and aesthetically and socially and politically and educationally, etc, liberating? Again, this is what the status quo often calls simply, ideological, as Eagleton notes. It seems to me we have an obligation to resist, though we must each choose our own way. The same goes for soldiers in the military, and citizens in general. These are often hard choices, hard decisions (though sometimes not; sometimes we just have to recognize the real possibilities). We can think of options that are suggestive in various ways. But to give advice would seem almost worthless. It’s hard enough just to try to “advise” one’s own self. Each person has to make his or her own call, in face of problems real or perceived.

By Tony Christini on 04/23/07 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tony, I don’t quite buy the “it’s all ideological” defense.  Sure, there’s an ideology of instruction defended by the AAUP and most university policies: what Michael Berube often refers to as procedural liberalism in the classroom.  This is what Stanley Fish means when he tells professors to teach thinking rather than ideas.  Of course, procedural liberalism is itself an ideology, is itself an idea—or at least a process governed by a set of ideas. 

But it’s one thing to teach students to carefully think through and weigh various positions on an issue and another to teach them one idea, such as the belief that all war is inhumane. 

And literature in particular should not be taught in terms of ideas.  That’s my biggest problem with a lot of race/class/gender criticism and instruction.  Again, it’s one thing to examine literature as a socially symbolic form, to teach how literature filters the stuff of history.  It’s another to ask students to take a particular stance in relation to how literature filters socio-historical matters (i.e., anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist).  (Thus, when Jameson takes a stance—see *Postmodernism*—he winds up praising Maoism, which is about as dehumanizing a belief system and political reality as we’ve ever seen.)

This is why both the Allan Bloom and the Paulo Freire modes of pedagogy are ultimately the same and ultimately problematic: both seek to “humanize” students, the former into classic Judeo-Christian values, the latter into progressive Judeo-Christian values. 

If one’s ultimate goal in teaching literature is to stimulate a general strike in response to the American War in Iraq, I don’t think one should be allowed in the classroom.  How can such an instructor ever fairly evaluate a student who vehemently disagrees with one’s notions—let alone fairly evaluate those students who agree with one’s assumptions?  If mastery of a body of material means agreeing with an idea—war is inhumane, American Out of Iraq Now, etc.—those who enter a class already agreeing will learn little, and those who remain steady in their arguments for the use of war will be punished for not “fulfilling the course goals.” Christ, I’ve met professors who can’t fairly evaluate an historicist grad student because they themselves are New Critics (and vice versa), let alone when it comes to huge social debates about war.

By on 04/23/07 at 04:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bravo, Luther. Actually, we’re seeing a lot of good thinking on these threads about non-ideological methods of teaching literature (and so, inevitably, teaching the ideological elements of literary works).

Pedagogical form is an arena where ideologies clash; I have no problem asserting that a commitment to the free exchange of informed viewpoints is inherently progressive, while a commitment to indoctrination—or a willingness to discuss uninformed views—is inherently rightist, even if the teacher imagines herself to be on the left. That is why I like what I’ve read of Freire—I like what he says about the way a class can be run.

Really, though, all of this was argued best (as Luther notes) in Bérubé’s book What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?, and interested readers should check out the archive of our event on it.

Any good teacher of literature is teaching students to stand outside of the work, and therefore outside its ideology. For all our talk of “sympathetic” or “immanent” criticism, a student cannot fully identify herself with any single work; that is the pre-condition of an intelligent understanding of the contrasts between different works, and between different authors. Thus, in all good criticism, an objective distancing and the spanning of that distance is the truth of the critic’s performance of proximacy.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 04/23/07 at 09:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, it’s not a “defense”. I’m observing, claiming, arguing, discussing, just like you. Some of what I say could be used as a defense in some way, but that’s not what I’m doing here. Maybe it’s your view that we’re both defending something, but my view is that we are discussing openly toward understanding.

Yes, of course, some ideologies are appropriate, some aren’t. Simply holding an open argument or discussion, as we are doing here, advances certain ideological assumptions. That’s appropriate. Considering a question from all sides – that’s appropriate. Having one party dictate what may be, say, drawn as evidence or not, or be brought up for consideration or not, is not appropriate (not, of course, that anyone is doing that here). 

It’s also entirely appropriate for a professor to advance, to argue a certain point of view, such as, say, the US is the world’s leading terrorist state, or God is a fiction that cannot be proved, or autobiographical novels are the greatest novels of all, in a class so long as the professor also allows for and helps to facilitate open discussion. That’s all ideological and all appropriate, since the norms of free exchange of ideas (again, also ideological) are observed. The professor should want to be challenged; that’s appropriate (also ideological). Disallowing open discussion on the basis of, say, some notion that the professor is more experienced and therefore knows better is ideological, sure, but again what isn’t? The fact that it’s ideological doesn’t/shouldn’t disqualify it, but the fact that it is not normatively appropriate should bar it. It violates norms of free and open inquiry that are vital to intellectual activity (at the least).

Yes, I too had professors who couldn’t get anywhere close to 2 + 2 = 4 when discussing on certain ideological grounds.

Of course when you are examining literature as a socially symbolic form you are teaching literature “in terms of ideas” in some way. It’s also entirely appropriate to discuss and think about any number of conceptual elements of the work or that are raised in the work. I’ve here been speaking a lot of thinking about the normative elements of literature—how valuable it is, in what ways, to whom...? Also conceptual elements of all variety.

Is it appropriate to offer a class full of hate literature (like Mein Kampf or the Turner Diaries) without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. Is it appropriate to offer a class full of literature that tends to reinforce a complaisant status quo view of a society that is homicidal in many ways without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. Even less so, because isn’t doing the latter even potentially more monstrous than the former? Everyone or virtually everyone knowingly rejects the obviously heinous as compared to not necessarily seeing anything wrong with, say, the also heinous but officially sanctioned, like the Iraq invasion, etc. Is it appropriate to offer a course full of, say, progressive novels without subjecting it to normative and conceptual critique? Of course not. It should all be questioned and discussed openly.

Some classes too are properly taught in a division of labor sort of way in that the focus may be almost entirely on some array of technical aspects of a work without going into any normative aspects or normative implications of the technical.

The thing is, it’s not unreasonable for professors to, well, _profess_ about the conceptual and/or otherwise technical and/or the normative. Haven’t you ever gone to a great talk where some author/artist/intellectual goes into great detail about his or her view of something – the world, politics, something technical, whatever? You can learn so much. Oftentimes you learn the most in the question and answer sessions that should immediately follow such talks. That is entirely appropriate in a regular classroom, so long as you encourage students to challenge your views and understandings and facilitate their ability to do so. It’s not the only way that teaching can be done, as I’ve discussed previously, but it’s one lively and appropriate way. And it works better for some teachers and students than the also effective but sometimes dry teacher-hides-his-own-conclusions approach. The one style can be problematically passionate and/or phony; the other can be problematically dry and/or phony as well.

“If one’s ultimate goal in teaching literature is to stimulate a general strike in response to the American War in Iraq, I don’t think one should be allowed in the classroom”

_Ultimate goal_ is your phrase, not mine, which I suppose is why you put “if” in front of it. But I don’t pretend to deny that teaching has consequences. The teacher Socrates was killed by the “state” for that. And I don’t pretend to be entirely ignorant about what sort of teaching can lead to what sort of consequences. Ideas have consequences, art has consequences. The state knows it. We teachers should too, and we should use that knowledge responsibly. More responsibly than the state does, much of the time.

“Advocacy pedagogy” is a term I first heard here at the Valve a few days ago. I don’t know if it has some specific legal technical meaning in some context. But I’ve used it here to refer to teaching in such a way that teachers think is likely to be illuminating and consequently to have some other likely constructive individual and/or social or political (that is, public) effect, or any number of other effects. This, after all, is what university mission statements and expressed core values are all about: advancing the well being of individuals and the public, not least—intellectually and otherwise.

Somewhat like universities, and other public and private institutions, the military often doesn’t live up to its expressed ideals and values and missions either. If it did, none of the Generals and soldiers would have obeyed the President’s illegal and immoral command to invade Iraq. The analogy isn’t perfect, but some soldiers do stand up and stand against, as they ought, and it has been reported that lately even the Generals have been making it known they will only go so far. Teachers, students, people generally, have analogous obligations in their own various realms. We shouldn’t pretend or allow ourselves to be conned into believing that it is otherwise.

By Tony Christini on 04/23/07 at 11:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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