Teaching Barbarism: The Contemporary University

Shock of the week: my discovery that freshmen (excuse me: “beginning students”) do not know how to analyze a text in terms other than seeing it as audience-manipulation.  I had already ruefully observed, here in the final semester of my career, that I enjoy but a tiny fraction of the academic freedom I used to know. I scarcely get to decide what’s done in my own classroom any longer, as if I were teaching third grade.  I can’t choose my own textbook; the state has mandated that I thrust an online tutorial into my syllabus (full of nanny-nags about intellectual honesty that wouldn’t be necessary if our robotic curriculum taught thinking instead of imitation); and my department tells me that every paper assigned must have a citation page, marginal annotations, etc., etc., even though you’re not going to cite other sources if your topic is to think through an issue for yourself.  We once called that “critical thinking”… and, oh yes, the phrase still holds an honored place among various buzzwords.  We just don’t actually teach it any more.

Instead, students for probably about two decades now (for the lifespan, that is, of my fresh-beings) have been taught to profile the intended audience of any given piece, and to adjust their “rhetorical choices” to that audience.  Sounds damn near the same thing as selling a used car.  And what’s the difference, really?  The capitalist system in general, and advertisers in particular, are universally loathed by academics in my area… and yet, what do we teach our own students?  To pitch their position so as to make it maximally appealing where the “target audience” is likely to be most vulnerable.  Apparently, manipulating people for the prospect of reaping a lucrative material profit is squalid and disgusting—but manipulating them for ideological reasons is a skill that every educated, enlightened person should acquire.  Academe agrees entirely with the “putrid business community” that no such thing as objective truth or absolute value exists; but “those people” deal in dollars, whereas we deal in… ideas!

I’m supposed to be preparing students for writing within their special discipline in upper-division courses, so I have attempted to get them to see why science needs quantifiable data reached by replicable experimentation, whereas any field related to human behavior is allowed to consider anecdotal evidence, surveys, art work, and so forth.  What did I find out?  That an archeologist, for instance, takes aerial photos of an ancient site so that the reader won’t get bored, and that a biologist divides a paper into paradigmatic sections so that readers won’t get lost in a complex discussion.  Everything is a courtesy to the almighty reader; none of it is ever a concession to researching the specific kind of truth reserved for the field’s study.

Well, this is what we’ve taught them; this is how we raised them.  If there’s an idiot in your son’s or daughter’s college yearbook, it isn’t one of the kids.  We’ve taught them to ape thinking—to dress up in the costume of a thinker: we haven’t taught them how to connect and prioritize propositions on the basis of logic, probability, common sense, morality, or anything else.  And indeed, the articles that we ourselves grind out as “scholars” are long with needless citation intended to show the world how dazzlingly erudite we are (known as “ethos” in composition textbooks, after a dull-witted misconstruction of Aristotle).  Our writing is full of obscurantist jargon aimed at the same end—and which, frankly, could well stand to be a little more reader-friendly.  The purpose of “scholarship” in our own lives isn’t to draw closer to the truth; for—to repeat—truth does not exist objectively.  No, our publications are engineered to show how incredibly bright we are.  Always ourselves, front and center.

In an act of reading, the reader is of course front and center.  So, you see, it all holds together: put yourself in the middle of everything you do.  If you need people to read your crap, seduce them into believing that you’re serving them hand and foot.  If you need the masses to gape at your opera magna uncomprehendingly, write gobbledygook.  Whatever it takes.

Any wonder that our society is in its present shape?

Trying to Be Scholarly in the Hypocritical Land of “Scholarly Publication” (Part Two)

Pardon a slight ellipsis.  This is just a little beyond where I left off quoting from the Preface of my new book on Amazon, The Traditional Mind in Greco-Roman Antiquity and Gaelic Ireland.

Readers not fully indoctrinated into the academic brotherhood will not grasp how outrageously anathematic are the comments just written. The first scholarly article I ever succeeded in placing with a “respectable” journal sought to elucidate a cryptic metaphor in the poetry of Sappho by juxtaposing to it the same metaphor—duplicated unwittingly about two millennia later—from the tongue of the Hebridean Gaelic singer Mary MacLeod. Soon after, I saw my little gem cited in the copious footnotes of a legendary scholar writing for Transactions of the American Philological Association. He had singled out my piece as representative of “all that has gone wrong” in contemporary classical studies. His own oracular pronouncement on Sappho’s image, ironically, reached precisely the same conclusion as had my vile comparative method: His Nibs has apparently read no further than my title!

I offer this anecdote as a way of embarking upon my concluding remarks. Yes, the synthesizing of the classical essay with two shorter essays about Irish Gaelic was convenient in that, without that stratagem, I should not have had sufficient volume to fill out a book; and I have already explained that I have no further plans of researching the Greco-Roman proverb, so the inaugural essay was destined to grow no larger. Yet I will also underscore now the high probability that none of these essays would ever have been accepted for publication in any form unless I had spent years rewriting and resubmitting them, one by one, to “respected” scholarly journals. Even the shortest of the three is likely too long for such venues. More to the point, however, one cannot find a home for scholarly writing if one does not come to the door dressed suitably for admission. Classicists, for instance, will have nothing to do with the proposition that Homer uses triadic structuring as a mnemonic device in assembling his great epics; to Celticists, the same proposition has been acknowledged of their traditional texts for decades. Classicists will not entertain the argument that a skeletal myth disguised superficially might be intended to evoke a subliminal response—not unless one can point to scribal marginalia that aver, “Priam’s journey to retrieve Hector’s body is an allegory of the passage to Hades.” Of course, proof of such a nature rarely exists… so the speculation must not be entertained by serious minds.

I know these charges against the scholarly establishment to be justified. I have the letters of rejection to prove them, one of which implied—not very coyly—that I was out of my mind!

In my three decades of teaching at the college level, I have grown invincibly weary of such “insider politics”. The process of peer review has degenerated into a sort of Old Boys’ Club where the referees, “established scholars” all, denigrate submissions mildly contradicting their own magna opera and give the nod only to research confirming the results of their own illustrious monographs (copies of which they will rain—with uncharacteristic generosity—upon any graduate student who strays into originality). No doubt, human nature leaves such disappointing evidence of egotism in all areas of endeavor. One hears ad nauseam from this same scholarly class, for example, about how the auto industry and oil companies have bought up innovative patents just to keep grinding out their unimproved and wasteful products on creaky old assembly lines.

Yet presently we are witnessing more than garden-variety egotism. Ideological warfare is afoot. The very notion of human nature has come under direct attack at least since Darwin, as I have suggested (for one cannot mold the race’s glorious destiny if basic nature stands in the way); but especially during the years that have overlapped my adult participation in the academy, the assault has been stepped up. One may not so much as hint that we humans have any characteristics that culture has not grafted upon us (the sin of “essentialism”), unless these be our most rudimentary biological drives. An implicit moral nihilism has locked its fatal grasp upon college humanities programs, in my humble opinion; for when right and wrong are mere cultural constructs, and since no two cultures are minutely alike, no such thing as absolute goodness or evil can exist. We have, instead, a jungle of lusts, impulses, and defense mechanisms as we await the strongest of apes to declare himself—or herself—“peerless leader”.

This insistent relativism, of course, underlies the great scholar’s sneer at my comparing Sappho with Mary MacLeod. No two cultures must ever be compared without a final and heavy stress of their differences, for to do otherwise would suggest that human beings share meaningful characteristics beneath their cultural conditioning. Such non-empirical, quasi-spiritual suppositions must not be allowed to leak into the discipline—into any discipline that would preserve its claim as such.

Yet if literature may not be studied except through material data and as a material artifact, why do the “humanities” exist; and in what sense might their cultivation credibly be said to make us better, inasmuch as “better” implies a moral judgment, and moral judgments have been ruled off limits by our “humanitarian” elite?