Thursday, May 29, 2008

Plugging the Holes

(Note: This would be part 3...)

And, indeed, I did get a lousy education, truth be told. I am painfully aware of how middle-brow I still am. During those early years of the 90s, when my friends in university were out protesting the film Basic Instinct (seriously), I was working on the road crew and trying to read my way through every book I had ever heard was great. I watched as people who were getting the education I desperately wanted, but could not yet afford, denounced it as nothing more than “sexist, racist, anti-gay” rubbish. I can still remember a college feminist patiently explaining to me how the majority of Western art was a series of “rape scenes”. Well then, goodbye to all of that!

When I finally got to university, I tried to plug all of the holes that I could, but alas, even when I got to the “good school”, many of my courses were rushed and shallow. I remember being told to read scholars like Clifford Geertz or Jacques Derrida without having read the people who came before them. Derrida makes no sense without Plato, and perhaps not much sense with him; but I was never assigned Plato. It was always assumed that you got the foundations somewhere else- maybe in the German lyceum. Friends often commented on a notorious lit professor at our university who would frequently complain in her Modernism course that nobody reads Proust these days- but never assign anything by Proust.

The end result is that I am self-uneducated. I would say that I’m better read than most of the grad students that I meet, but there are constant reminders of just how much I still have to learn. I can see the road, dimly before me. And this is the most frustrating part of it: there is a road there; it really exists! I find myself always reading backwards in my studies. Say, for example, that I am studying 19th century travel-writing and I notice how much of it discusses the sublime; this leads me back to Burke and Boileau, and maybe Kant; and then back to Longinus, and eventually Cicero. Ultimately, all of those “dead white males” were able to take part in discussions that went back for centuries. The more you read in the Western tradition, the more coherent it becomes. It’s not self-contained or hermetically-sealed- there’s much that is eastern in the western tradition. But it is a tradition, or at least it was until very recently. Learning it is the work of a lifetime.

I find that the only people who really think that tradition is throwaway are those who are themselves versed in it and take it for granted. For the rest of us, there is much work ahead, and surprising rewards that we were never told about. Why did no one ever mention Plutarch for example? His Moralia are full of good advice and lively ideas. Why was I never assigned Longinus or Rabelais? Why was my education so damned passive when the tradition was once so much alive? It is hard to know who to blame for the fact that this tradition is now as dead as Dillinger.

And who cares who’s to blame? Maybe it’s just that a liberal arts education now has to be too many things for too many people. When I took Western Civ, we had a 1200 page text; now the course is called World Civilizations, in covers the entire world, and the text is about 300 pages. It’s like watching a train pass: oh, look, there are the Mongols! And there goes the Renaissance! Everyone wave! However, my hope that things will improve remains, rooted in one fact: I know that I myself received a good liberal arts education and was still cheated of a good liberal arts education. And I imagine that, one day, others will feel that they’ve been cheated as well.


Holly said...

It's my perception that liberal arts education has reached a state of self-referentiality that fails to reward, and perhaps even punishes excavation of origin. That is to say, each course is designed as a stand-alone module of Learning, that has a list of explicit Things To Learn. But it's not so much about understanding as it is about coaxing students toward understanding why the instructor has constructed the syllabus so. This is institutionalized, as well, which is why you can read 1200 pages of western civilization, and not have the faintest clue what bearing that information has upon your own life.

Perhaps the critical part you're leaving out is not what is there, but what is not there. A person who sees no relevant connection between what they're studying and what they're doing in life will never access that information again.

This happens in fine arts education, as well, and perhaps I can make a more concrete example of it in that context. A mediocre, or even shitty, fine arts education may teach you everything you need to know about making art, but it will never bother to tell you what to do with it when you're done with school. There is no context. There is no instruction on how to network, how to get patrons, where to show, what museums look for versus what galleries look for, how private collectors, how to afford to live and work, what agents do, how to get items mass produced, and how to write a wining proposal for public arts funding.

The common excuse for not addressing anything of this kind is, "that's BUSINESS, not Art"... and yet, the good schools, from which a person can reasonably expect to make a fine arts living after graduation, routinely teach these things.

More importantly, those things ARE the history of art. Sure, lots of art was created "in the service of god" but god didn't pay anyone's rent, or make anyone a sandwich. Lots of art was created for government projects, but what was the payoff? How was it delivered? These aren't casual questions, these are critical to being involved in the field.

To me, that is akin to the difference between being told that Proust is important and wonderful and amazing... and being told to read Proust, and then discussing it.

Rufus said...

I've got about two more of these written that should finish this off, but I think we're going in the same direction: there needs to be a lot more explanation of why this stuff matters instead of assigning chunks of it and expecting the students to figure out why it matters.

For me, as I've studied this stuff, what has been a revelation is how worthwhile it is just from the point of view of finding out what it is to be human. We don't get an instruction manual for that, so art and history and literature help towards learning it.

I think really those of us in the humanities need to figure out how to treat this material as if it was brand new, and remember how it is to discover it for the first time. But I get into that in part 4!

narrator said...

The problem you are speaking of is really this: No one can really explain why people actually do attend universities - especially North American universities. There is the vague argument that it provides a credential for employment - a self-created prophecy. College grads hire college grads, after all. There is a vague argument that it provides the basic education no longer offered in K-12 institutions, but that is patently untrue. Most US universities are high schools with better schedules. And there is the somewhat European argument that universities hold down the unemployment rate.

But it has been a very long time since North American universities were interested in education (read The Education of Henry Adams for details on this circa the US Civil War).

Tradition does not matter in US society (the society built, in fact, by those complaining capitalist conservatives), so it is not included in school. If your goal is to build compliant consumers, why the hell would you expose them to traditions of western philosophy? You leave it out, as you leave history out. And this hole - this massive gap in learning one's own culture makes it virtually impossible to learn the cultures of anyone else.

Holly talks about the bearing of this information on the lives of the students - and this is exactly what "they" do not want. No one in any position of power in America, for example, wants students to truly relate Thomas Paine or any of those thinkers who led to Paine to their own lives. That would be stunningly dangerous. Far better to teach each item as isolated nonsense. It is easier to test and it won't stir up any homegrown thinkers.

Look at other nations - including France - where a far greater proportion of education is devoted to thought and language and history. In those nations the "canon" (whatever it may be) is brought in early in education, so it is absorbed and understood. This makes it far easier to discover and compare other canons later. It is no surprise that it took a French author to write the history of French philosophical theories in the US. American "academics" can't ever stand far enough back to see anything like that, and they don't have enough training in what came before to make the connections.

Watch, as you walk the Paris streets - how Sarkozy with his goal of American consumerism, disses French culture and history. He knows the capitalist benefit of a tradition-free, canon-free, society.

Rufus said...

You mean the book "French theory"? I enjoyed it at any rate. And I definitely see what you mean about training and capitalism.

Actually, I think what's prompted me to think about all of this is seeing just how they treat the cultural patrimony in France. You're right- they learn it early and well, and that is directly at odds with a capitalist consumer culture whose central message is "Goodbye to all of that! Buy the newest and most shallow culture!"

US academics don't learn the canon, but many of them have no problem bashing it as reactionary, sexist, racist, xenophobic, and so forth. This strikes me as knee-jerk anti-intellectualism, although we never label it such. Those French theorists, who could certainly be critical of the tradition, were also steeped in it, which is why I find it easier to listen to their critiques than those of say a freshly-minted PhD who wants to argue that the canon is "imperialist". (Which, sad to say, I have encountered more than once)

What I encounter most often in my work is academics who vaguely understand the canon, but who accept the idea- posited by cultural conservatives- that if you value a strong grounding in the western tradition, you are de facto a conservative, or even part of the bullshit "clash of civilizations" which always, always, always ignores just how important the other side of the Mediterranean was in the development of western culture. The Western tradition includes Islam for crying out loud! In other words, even trying to revive or hell, institute a deep study of the western tradition is looked at askance by many academics. I've known more than a few who just assumed that I am a conservative.

And yeah, that's exactly it- this debate doesn't really exist in France or elsewhere in Europe. Getting a grounding in your own tradition isn't seen as reactionary- it's the basis of intellectual autonomy, which is understood as being the grounding for criticism of the Sarkozys of the world.

narrator said...

Yes, French Theory,. A good read. The angry responses to it were also most entertaining, especially Stanley Fish in the NYT who wrote 10,000 words dismissing all post-modernism as unimportant.

I'll jump to the next post and tell a story.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I liked it too. I actually recommended it to a prof. Stanley Fish is always amusing.