Friday, April 17, 2009

You are reading inferior texts, kid!

On today's college campuses, you're more likely to hear a werewolf howl than Allen Ginsberg, and Nin's transgressive sexuality has been replaced by the fervent chastity of Bella Swan, the teenage heroine of Stephenie Meyer's modern gothic "Twilight" series. It's as though somebody stole Abbie Hoffman's book -- and a whole generation of radical lit along with it.

Last year Meyer sold more books than any other author -- 22 million -- and those copies weren't all bought by middle-schoolers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was "Our Dumb World," a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was "The Tales of Beedle the Bard" by J.K. Rowling. College kids' favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splendid Suns," the choice of a million splendid book clubs. {snip} Professor Eric Williamson -- a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory -- argues that "the entire culture has become narcotized." An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students' dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. "I have stood before classes," he tells me, "and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn't sell books. 'Then why are we reading him if he wasn't popular?' " Today's graduate students were born when Ronald Reagan was elected, and their literary values, he claims, reflect our market economy. "There is nary a student in the classroom -- and this goes for English majors, too -- who wouldn't pronounce Stephen King a better author than Donald Barthelme or William Vollmann. The students do not have any shame about reading inferior texts."

-- from "Where's the Radical Lit?" by Ron Charles, The Washington Post (full article here)

*
This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. . .

The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview—a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue—a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

-- Roger Scruton, from his McNish Lecture for the Advancement of Western Civilization at the University of Calgary

13 comments:

Jennifer S. Flescher said...

Well, I am currently, actually, for real contemplating teaching a graphic novel version of Crime and Punishment next semester. Or the Cheese Monkeys -- whatever that is.

This semester I engaged my students in a frank discussion of literature -- after they didn't read the book they had lots and lots of time to read -- they thought it was useless, hard, didn't make any sense and didn't think it should be required or graded at all.

Mind you, I was teaching Vonnegut at the time. In four classes, across two schools I would say roughly 40% of my students (freshman lit) used Spark Notes for their papers. And didn't see why there was anything wrong with that. They got angry when I suggested the figuring it out was the work...

I don't blame them. Or consumerism.

I honestly believe this is the end result of 16 years of emphasis on testing. Students have not been taught to experience or feel literature. They have been taught that there is right and wrong -- that there are answers -- and that there are punishments for everyone should they not understand.

Anonymous said...

why not just flunk them?


or will you just move them on so that they can become teachers and pass this insanity on to even younger kids who are starting out solidly brain-dead but pay tuition to fund more teachers who (etc)

Jordan said...

Testing is definitely part of it. Overworked underinvolved parents are another, and the devaluation of teaching, adjunctification... if only there were a name for what was causing all these separate drains on our lives.

Anonymous said...

You did flunk them, didn't you, Jennifer? I mean, "you must do x, and the consequences of not doing it are y, no ifs ands or buts" works pretty well for most students I've encountered. Lots of testing and across-the-board standards go on in Western European, and you can bet they're better educated and better read than Americans.

Henry Gould said...

Scruton's "culture of repudiation" seems to have trickled down to students' attitudes in class. The late Gillian Rose, a British philosopher, wrote extensively on postmodern philosophical relativism & its effects (everything is reduced to opinions; there are no objective realities or standards; everything is "just words", sophistry; your words against mine...).

Ironically, Scruton's comments seem hardly differentiable from Rorty's. It's all a matter of states of mind, temperament, modes, disposition... subjective attitudes, in other words, rather than effects stemming from something objectively real. Of course "the freedom to believe" will appear pathetic or delusional (as Scruton seems to think), if there is no objective truth to ground such belief.

As for the actual situation in classrooms, it seems to me that "testing" is kind of a red herring. If there is no enthusiasm or interest in reading & storytelling in the family & the home, then teachers will have an uphill battle, & children will come to reading more by "force" than by persuasion or pleasure. These attitudes have to change, obviously, in the early grades... teachers & school administrators might focus on some kinds of partnership with families, a sort of "reading outreach" program for the whole family, beginning with pre-school...

Jennifer S. Flescher said...

Well, I was raised of the educational philosophy that grades are irrelevant. Responsibility, creativity and motivation are my objectives. I did not grade them for the assignment -- so to say that if that was/is anybody's motivation it was not achieved. I believe we have a broken system, and no single blame helps anyone at all. We need to reconnect our students -- our children -- with literature. We are the teachers, the writers, the parents and the readers; it is our failing.

Jordan said...

The best way to reconnect our students is to make sure our own connections are grounded and well nourished. We show what that love looks like. Sometimes it takes the form of granting the students permission to accept as real what in themselves looks non-standard and therefore demands to be dismissed. Sometimes it just takes the form of reading all the Narnia books aloud to the class. (I'm talking about third graders there.)

The pain of the situation -- the broken social contract -- will get back to the students, but they're resilient, I have to believe that. Gilded ages have happened before. Hang in there.

Michael Robbins said...

Barn door. Horse.

Jordan said...

Cynicism. Depression.

michael robbins said...

Well, duh. Both warranted.

Henry Gould said...

Cynicism. Do-Nothingism. Avoid- guilty-feelingsism. Validate-superiority-of-advanced-schooling-over-primary-schoolingism. That, in a nutshellism, is today's Michael Robbinsism commentism. Warranted by what, exactly? Revolutionary utopianism? Throw out the bathwaterism? Based on cynicism? Good luck with that ism.

Henry Gould said...

... unless, on second thought, I am obtusely missing your main point, Michael : that reading itself is a thing of the past. That the Visual-Performative has definitely replaced the Literate.

I think not. The so-called Digital Age is an age of text & textual signs. "Video" is just starting to catch up with that.

Anyway, I hope I'm right about that [sign for anxiety gesture].

Michael Robbins said...

You were indeed obtusely missing my obtuse point, Henry. But my point wasn't quite what yr revised take takes it to be.

It's too late, baby, now, it's too late, though we really did try to change things.