Sunday, September 27, 2015

Definition Exercises and Liberal (by God!) Education: "Hero," "Science Fiction," "Marriage" …

[Of the goals] of this law
[for establishing public education]
none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of
 rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate,
 guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the
reading of the first stage, where they
[young people in general]
will receive their whole education, is proposed […]
to be chiefly historical. History, by apprising
them of the past, will enable them to judge
of the future; it will avail them of the experiences
 of other times and other nations; it will
qualify them as judges of the actions and
designs of men; it will enable them to know
ambition under every guise it may assume; and
knowing it, to defeat its views [i.e., intentions].
 — Thomas Jefferson (1784)

Sent my kid to college to get a degree, and she came back with a bunch of ideas!
— Probably apocryphal parent

            Back in 1969, the "counterculture era soul song" called simply "War" repeated the rhetorical call-and-response question, "War […] / What is it good for?" and the non-rhetorical answer "Absolutely nothing." That's good propaganda and, especially in 1969, good, ethical politics, but not a very good answer in terms of cultural anthropology. An institution of such long life, requiring such great investment in deaths, suffering, and destruction, war must have some social functions.
            Alternatively, one could note that the human population was 1.75 billion in 1910 and 2.4 billion in 1950, so two world wars, Stalin's purges, a major epidemic, and a good many deaths as World War II came to an end and the Cold War began — well over 80 billion deaths — caused barely a blip in the rise of human population. So, one might argue, most warfare is to cultural evolution as the vermiform appendix is to the human anatomy: a vestigial invitation to pathology that so successful a species as ours just can afford. Except that the appendix may have a survival function after all as "a haven for useful [symbiotic] bacteria when illness flushes those bacteria from the rest of the intestines," which reinforces the idea that if nature or cultures put a long-term investment into something — especially if it's a big investment — there's a good chance that "something" earns its keep.
            Which brings us by a route I hope will prove instructive to the question of "What are US schools good for?", a question that should come up when people argue that many US schools aren't all that good at education.
            A quick look indicates that US schools have numerous functions, of which education is only one. For an extreme example, consider a hypothetical high school in Texas or Florida where the only thing they have to be proud of is the football team. One answer to the question of "School — what's it good for!?" would be precisely that football team and how it functions to hold together what is likely a disparate and potentially (or frequently) contentious community.
            Similarly for other functions of the schools including the ambiguous jobs of helping to assimilate immigrants to the local subculture and training kids in such basics of American employment as subordination, punctuality, and obedience to frequently dumb-ass rules such as dress codes enforced by authority figures who must be treated with a show of respect even if they don't particularly deserve respect.
            You may not like what schools teach, you may not consider it education, but oh, indeed, in the formal curriculum and more so the implicit one, schools do teach a lot.
            And in some school districts, schools may provide basic nutrition and health services, and keep potentially troublesome teens out of the full-time job market and still off the streets for much of the day or subject to seizure by the forces of law-'n'-order if they're on the street when school's in session (in which case they can be on the road into the pernicious but highly efficient prison-industrial complex).
            These are no small things, to which we can add for older kids and young adults that schools provide venues for dating and mating — basic biological concerns — and for forming social networks to reinforce and lately replace the family, clan, and village.
            Still, some parents, agitators, and folk in the Ed. Biz talk as if education were the primary purpose of schools and we should frequently ask the question, Well, then, what is education good for? And, more specifically, what is liberal education good for?

            Liberal education includes training in various skills, but in origin the term comes from artes liberalis, which translates a Greek term, both of which literally signify "the arts or sciences of the free person, the education of a free person": i.e., the education to become a citizen of the Greek city-state (polis) or a citizen of Rome. It's a snobbish word: a young citizen asserting his rights in Aristophanes' The Congresswomen (Ekklesiazousai) claims that he's "Athenian, male, of age, and free" and therefore "won't put up with sex by decree." We can ignore the specific assertion of freedom — The Congresswomen is a satiric sex comedy — and just note that this guy is native-born Athenian and not a foreigner; a man, not a woman or child; free, and not a slave; he belonged to a small portion of the population of Athens. He was part of the demos (the people) that counted in Athens, our oldest democracy: rule by (some of) The People.
            If you're radically into political and social equality, one way to get it is to have pretty much everyone treated like an ancient woman, child, slave, or resident foreigner: i.e., as a second class citizen or lower, as in some really ancient theories in which all land belonged to the ruler, and so did all the people on the land, as the ruler's slaves.
            And in much milder ways similar ideas are around today.
            A very good and very honest instructor of mine in the 1960s said that what he objected to with fraternities was that frat rats had too much freedom and control over where we lived and would reduce us all to the status of carefully-monitored dorm residents. And that theory would have support today. Similarly, if treating all suspects equally is an imperative for police, then it follows that they might and arguably should  treat all the people they arrest as dangerous felons, leading to such media moments as the handcuffing and shackling of one of my colleagues (an old, male, White professor) arrested for staying past closing time in the Hamilton, OH, office of at-the-time merely Representative in Congress John Boehner; and, in the Fall of 2015, this was the non-racist, non-Islamophobic part of the motivation for the handcuffing of a fourteen-year-old suspected of bringing a hoax bomb to school and apparently quite guilty of seeking approval for his tinkering while being Brown and Muslim. Charges of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and such can be avoided by a whole lot more "kids in cuffs," and equalizing mistreatment.
            In a sense, in the old days when the occasional aristocrat or military officer was flogged like a peasant or common soldier, or hanged rather than genteelly getting his head chopped off, it was a kind of progress. That is not, however, all that great a kind of progress.
            And in education it is not good if equality is increased by giving to just about everybody except a very small elite — let's say just about everybody going through the public school and public higher Ed. system, just about everybody who gets student loans — giving to everybody except a very small elite a merely vocational education.
            Jefferson thought public education would be good for commerce, but that was just "to boot" (my old-fashioned phrase, not his). Public education would help the US economy and improve American individuals, and that was fine, but public education's prime purpose was the preservation of a Republic. Or it would preserve a Republic if the rulers were to be the People — and "the People" defined in a way that we today correctly find abhorrently restrictive but which in his time made Tom Jefferson a traitor to his class: proper Virginia and Maryland aristocrats should hold that educating poor White boys would just give them ambitions unsuited to the station in life to which they were born, hence to which God had called them.
            For proper aristocrats, the formula would be some variation on "Virginian, male, of age, and free," or the more recent variation of "free, White and 21," with a slight — very slight — nod to women's suffrage and the US 19th Amendment.
            We can go for equality on a very low level with most Americans treated not so much as citizens as economic units of production and consumption, with most more consumers than producers. In that case, liberal education is for a portion of the privileged elite, leavened with the occasional "poor scholar" picked out of the mass and sent on to university. Or we can be serious about an expanded demos and expanded electorate, in which case we would indeed need training for jobs and all but centrally need an updated ideal of education for citizenship.
            I.e., we would need rededication to liberal education, and the ambiguity of that phrase in current political usage points at the nasty controversies in the background of whether or not liberal education is "a Good Thing," or, if A Good Thing, good for whom?
            If deep down inside you want a Republic on the old Roman model of patricians and plebeians, if in your heart of hearts you long for a genteel caste society like the plantation system of the US South or Elizabethan Ireland — or even if you just want your kid to go to school and get a degree and not "a bunch of ideas," then you should oppose liberal education, at least for most people.
            But if we go with a republicanism with democratic aspirations, we're back to an expanded view of Jefferson's justification of public schooling and find liberal, liberating education not just relevant but central.

So: I immodestly present an example of what ironically turned out to be a screamingly relevant bit of teaching plus a couple of examples from what one parent anyway thought the most irrelevant of my teaching (courses in science fiction).

            The English Department of Miami University offered a series of British Literature survey courses in which I usually taught early BritLit. For the early course we finally decided to cover Beowulf by Anonymous (set ca. 600 C.E., composed maybe 700) to Paradise Lost by John Milton, who futzed around with his text between 1656 and 1667 for the first version and then until 1674 for a "tweaked," arguably more epic version. That added up to more or less a millennium of literature for the course, which we thought made clear it was definitely a "Greatest Hits" exercise, with the challenge to instructors to find ways for to hold the course together.
            I was from the generation of "The Theme of _______" books, so along with looking at how women and "the feminine" were handled from Beowulf to Paradise Lost — and it was far from straight-line progress for women — I tried to unify the course with "The Theme of the Hero"; and, generally, it became clear that "the Hero" is indeed a contested idea in a number of cultures, and I came to use "Hero" as a term for definition in a number of courses, from College Composition to Science Fiction Film. (Ellen Ripley in Alien [1979] is the "final girl" in a space-based horror movie, and a hero who happens to be a woman; Ellen Ripley in Aliens [1986] is a hero who is significantly a woman. That gets interesting academically, and socially/politically significant.)
            The Germanic warrior Beowulf is a properly macho hero: he kills a malicious monster called Grendel (a descendent of Cain, the first murderer), and he also kills the rather-more-admirable mother of the monster — she loves her baby and will revenge his death, as a loyal family-member should — and Beowulf kills a dragon, dying heroically (if complexly ironically) in the near-archetypically heroic action — think St. George — of "dracocide." Now a sophisticated Christian audience listening to Beowulf in a thoroughly up-to-date mead hall might follow the recitation with a deep philosophical/theological discussion of whether or not Mrs. Grendel did well to seek vengeance and whether Beowulf was only a hero "In that day / Of this life": back in pagan times, looking at things only in terms of this earthly life, in the material world, not in this Christian era, with a Christian way of looking for salvation in the life to come. Yeah, they could, but since most literary critics missed the sophistication of Beowulf until J. R. R. Tolkien rubbed their noses into it in the 20th century, I strongly suspect that almost all the mildly-buzzed to dead-drunk warriors and their women in the original audience saw revenge-seeking as one good thing you could say about Grendel's Mom, and saw Beowulf unambiguously as a properly kick-ass nobleman/warrior/hero (the words — minus "kick-ass" — were pretty much interchangeable in Old English battle poetry).
            And, indeed, that unambiguous evaluation was how most of my students saw Beowulf: including many women, including products of strictly orthodox Roman Catholic schooling.
            Most of my students were convinced that "You're a hero or a zero," and that being a hero required winning. "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," as Vince Lombardi said, if not always in that form and not originally. And street wisdom where I was brought up was "Don't get mad, get even." Real men/warriors/heroes — and a properly butch monster-lady like Mrs. Grendel — do indeed seek revenge; and they may die trying, but they succeed in killing that dragon.
            And among Germanic and Scandinavian warriors real men don't survive a battle in which their war-lord is killed off, and among all the early warrior elites — you can throw in Greek and Roman heroes, too — heroes "don't take no crap from no one," they deal it out.
            Then what do you do, if you're trying to Christianize these macho violence fans (ancient, Dark Ages, or late-20th-c.), what do you do with Jesus of Nazareth and that peace-love-dove turn-the-other-cheek stuff; what do you do with Jesus as a victim: someone who in Christian doctrine chose to be humiliated and tortured to death like a slave?
            The question isn't rhetorical, and it has answers.
            One is that Holy Church got philosophical early on, and after Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire (380 C.E.), a lot of that peace-love-dove stuff got pushed into the background, and Christ as the arguably wimpy, feminine Suffering Servant became more the warrior Christ of the Book of Revelation (see 19.11-21), and, immediately relevant for the audience of Beowulf, the young warrior Christ of the beautiful Old English poem "The Dream of the Rood." The "rood tree" is the cross of the crucifixion, and in the poem the personified cross itself presents Jesus explicitly as a hero consciously acting to save His people:
                                          Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
Then the young hero (who was God almighty)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
Well, and so forth. We needn't definitively define "hero" here, nor for that matter in my classes. Here we need only note that there are serious questions as to whether a woman can be a hero, whether a loser or villain might be a tragic hero, whether there can be heroic survival.
            And with this history and LitCrit as entirely neutral background, a US citizen could listen to Donald Trump — a candidate for President of the United States — and understand that Trump raised a serious question when he denied that Senator John McCain had been a hero in Vietnam since McCain had been shot down, taken prisoner, and survived. And they would be able to see that Mr. Trump raised a highly serious question casually and handled it flippantly: ignoring that McCain had chosen to remain a prisoner, "refusing early release even after being repeatedly beaten."
            Whether or not suffering and endurance can be heroic is a serious question; whether mere surviving might not be heroic but still can be worthy of respect and even admiration — those are important propositions. That the central thing Heroes do, as a general principle, is choose, and that in his specific case McCain chose to do right is an a crucial point for a discussion of heroism.

Donald Trump's lack of feeling for John McCain's suffering, Trump's blindness to the connections to be made between McCain's experience and those of other survivors, Trump's deafness to his own words — all demonstrate that on this issue at least Mr. Trump is not a serious person. With minimal consciousness, he's applying standards of heroism appropriate to young drunks in a Dark Ages mead hall or coachly bullshit appropriate to a locker-room half-time harangue.
            And something like Trump's lack of seriousness should be obvious if a citizen can bring to an impassioned, ongoing American political debate background from debates on similar issues from before there was a France or England we'd recognize, let alone a United States.

It's also useful if students can learn generalizable strategies for defining contested terms, in the pretty safe environment of only mildly contested terms.
            E.g., my colleague Thomas P. Dunn and I were chided at least once for doing a "List of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface" in science fiction and then "SF" without defining "science fiction" or "SF." And science fiction fans and scholars care about such definitions enough that I could give my students a handout with a couple of pages attempting to define the terms — and I handed out such handouts in classes I organized around defining "science fiction," "SF," "science fiction film," and "SciFi." Still, in the lore of the science fiction ghetto there may be stories of a punch or two thrown over such definitions but no stories of bricks thrown, or acid, so the contest has been mild among those who care, and still milder among people who show up for an academic course on the topic.
            So classes can discuss pretty dispassionately what "science fiction" might mean, and downright somnolently a term like Tragedy, and can see the possibility of an empirical approach. The US Congress and other authorities could take it upon themselves to stipulate, say, what "drug" means (it didn't always include ethyl alcohol or nicotine) or "weapons of mass destruction" (which still includes World War I style chlorine gas but not cluster bombs) — but they usually don't get involved with literary or cinematic genres. Well, at least genres outside of pornography. So my students could look at those couple pages of attempts at elegant definitions of "science fiction" and apply to them the great Law of the Counter-Example: "The Exception Proves the Rule," where "proves" is an old word for "tests" ("The proof of the pudding is in the eating").
            Early on, but certainly after a few weeks of reading and/or film viewing, it became easy to find counterexamples to most of the elegant definitions — although they were all quite useful in getting at what "science fiction" might be. And, eventually, most of my students could at least sympathize with Dunn and Erlich's declining to define "SF" and to tolerate the squishiness of my references to "the look and feel" of a science fiction work and asking them to picture genres as like unto amorphous (electron) clouds that can and do overlap and in which some particles/works can be two places at once. Or something like that, but where we note carefully our shared and defensible intuitions that some works are more central to the cloud, others peripheral.
            And some works are just, generically speaking, weird.
            For example, I would start the Science Fiction Film class with a Reader's Digest/Quickread version The Wizard of Oz (1939), fast-forwarding through the songs. (Sorry, after the tenth time through or so, I wanted to yell at Dorothy that she can't fly over the rainbow because it's an optical effect and she bloody well can't fly period so just get the hell out of Kansas or shut up: which is not an appropriate thing to do in class.) Anyway, no way The Wizard of Oz is going to get classified as science fiction. But why not? Wizard has a high modern WONDER CITY OF THE FUTURE in The Emerald City, a robot-like entity in the Tin Man, sentient aliens in the talking Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, at least two "view screens" in what we see Dorothy see out the window of the flying house and the Wicked Witch's view-ball ("videology" is a central SF motif) — and more!
            In the terminology of pedantic pedagogy, I'd attempt to problematize the definition issue for the class and maybe disrupt a preconception or two. And, with luck, some of the students would pick up the technique and be able to apply it to a term of passionate "contestation," such as — to bring this essay up to date — marriage.
            Definitely, though, "with luck."
            One should take very seriously the student expression "cram and regurgitate" for exams, and I'll note that some of my students in the late 1960s objected to subjecting to literary analysis lyrics of "their" music, even when the lyrics were written by a guy with two teachers for parents and a degree in English literature. For some students, school stuff is a variety of mild poison, to be ingested quickly and gotten out of one's system faster (regurgitated on the exam, not digested and assimilated), and not to intrude into important real-life areas such as popular music.
            Some students, though, will fall into the habit of analysis and critical thinking — or come to delight in it; and even if just fallen into, it can be a difficult habit to break. If "science fiction" can be examined, so can "marriage": looking at different varieties in an anthropological sort of way, and different varieties over history, in a way that might please the ghost of Mr. Jefferson.
            The State (or Commonwealth, in Kentucky) may say or may have said that marriage is a contract between one adult man and one adult woman — or at least two above the age of consent; that is a stipulated definition and may have been and may be once again the law. And it is certainly the sort of marriage at or near the center of the cloud of entities that have been marriages. But …
            But we needn't get into the marriage debate since my point is that liberal education prepares one to take part in such debates. With luck and some effort, sensibly, usefully, intelligently participate.
            And liberal education can get across the idea that its products, even when plebeians and peasants, have the right to participate in such debates and can win them if people in power will submit, or can be forced to submit, to rules of logic and evidence.
            And it can give people useful information, sometimes in a powerful way.

            In our course in Science Fiction Film, we looked at Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which I suggested could be a serious work, and somewhat subversive. The movie features Sarah Connor's recurrent dream of a thermonuclear bomb exploding over Los Angeles. Combined with historical knowledge of the bombing of Dresden (and other cities) — which we covered in studying Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) — this image can be useful in questioning any politician who says in reference to, say, The Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program, "Nothing is off the table." The obvious semi-rhetorical question to ask is, "Are you sure you want to threaten dropping hydrogen bombs on Iran, or conventional high explosives followed by incendiaries on Tehran?" When the politician responds that s/he threatened no such thing, a serious discussion probably won't, but could begin. The designs of ambition won't be defeated by such potential democratic discussion (pace, Mr. Jefferson), but Authority will have been questioned, and liberal education will have been, just a bit, justified.

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