Sunday, December 17, 2006

Her Holiness Auntie Mame

From my dreary ramblings on this blog, one might think that my teaching style is something akin to the main character on the show House (one of Claire's favorites), or a somber German philologist. In reality, I am very goofy when I lecture, and highly animated. Often I am covered in sweat when I get done. Increasingly, I have been bucking the trend for playing 'learned and ironically dismissive' in academia and lecturing in an over-the-top and exuberant way. I'm turning into Auntie Mame.

I think we all need to emulate Auntie Mame at times. Universities like mine are full of grouches. They sort of perfect a dismissive pose. The undergrads come in with a naive contempt for culture and perfect it over four years. A Freshman will complain about having to learn about any art; but by the time they reach Senior year, they've learned to cuss only the art of 'dead, white males'. Then, in graduate school, they write a thesis about some specific dead white male whose poetry reveals that he was a rapist. After that, they go on to teach seminars on "Images of the Other in Colonial Narratives" or some other such dreary thing.

Add to it the fact that I'm teaching in an American city that God has forgotten, at least weather-wise (eight months of grey skies per year), and you can see why coming to class whistling a song starts to feel like a revolutionary act. Come in and wax rapturous about Mozart and you look like a loon. But, damn, it's fun! One of my favorite lectures to give begins like this:
"Your textbook tells you that 'we must remember that the Renaissance artists did not care about the poor or middle classes. They were only concerned with the wealthy and powerful.' (Pause)... And so what! Why do we always think that art has to make the world a better place? Isn't the overwhelming, the mentally and spiritually elevating beauty of Michaelangelo's David enough? Is Michaelangelo deficient because he didn't have a 'social conscience'? Can you actually call his David deficient?"

And then I'm spinning around the room again, trying to express my idea of greatness through history. There's a real fear of discussing greatness in the classroom. It seems arrogant and elitist somehow. But Massachio and Coleridge are part of an elite. They are gifted with genius, and my role, if I have any, is to develop the sort of beings whose souls can be open to Massachio and Coleridge. So, I'm learning to gush and giggle and have a good time in class. In fact, it's probably the best time I have all week.

And I think this is something that we need to do. Because teaching someone to appreciate greatness will allow them to live fully, and people don't live fully anymore. Teaching them social justice is fine; but an awareness of social justice comes naturally to those who live adamantly- a great soul is innately just. A being who is happy and adamantly free is not vindictive or racist or mysognyist or any of the rest of it. Despair is counterrevolutionary! But making ironic comments in lecture like: "Well, the Founding Fathers said that all men are created equal. Do you think they meant blacks too?" in a sardonic tone (and God have I seen that done a million times!) doesn't do anything but comfort teenagers in their conviction that the world sucks. Which isn't hard really.

And I love the world. It doesn't suck, or at least, it doesn't have to. So let's be a bit more ecstatic, shall we? As Her Holiness Auntie Mame (blessed be her name!) said: "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"

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