Your own people aren't always exactly your own people.

In the past month, in terms of the tough standards I set for myself, I failed at life (out of exhaustion over exponentially-increased teaching duties) in that I allowed myself to be surprised by certain human behaviour.
In one instance, this surprise morphed within me into the enemy of the human being, the feeling of injustice. Intellectually I know that righteous indignation is a dead-end street: called in some languages a "blind corner", which is exactly what I mean here. I don't know that I would be blogging about this quite in this way, had I not come across the sentence I used as the subject here: "Your own people aren't always exactly your own people." It is a fecund sentence for contemplation. One illustration could be of quondam parentals leaving children to choose their own adventure with absolutely no guidance after the first teen year, who later think they have a right to be critical of said children.
But there is another meaning of the quoted sentence that I have been musing over. Another could be related to patriotism. My family has members living all over the world; I have always taken it for granted that one can be both a patriot and a cosmopolite (who can be humble enough to learn from other cultures). To a certain degree (and to be not at all humble for a moment), I also thought that such a generous patriotism was easier for compatriots like myself than for people hailing from other countries (for historical reasons). Compatriots who reach cosmopolite status share a curiosity for esoteric aspects of other cultures and have the intellectual capacity for such appreciation (gaining, for example, expert knowledge of their antiques), and are crowned by a humility, in part stemming from a knowledge of the complexities of the history of their own country...


But today, this approach has come under fire. There is a new kind of patriotism defined in more narrow terms, as if, if one does not comply with these narrow qualifications, one does not love one's country. I can understand that somewhat - it is a kind of reactionism, not unlike my own of righteous indignation mentioned above. But on the other hand, such an approach would warrant if not a fail then a very low grade in not only my class on culture but also my composition class.
To begin with the (advanced) composition class, I set the intellectual exercise that opinions are not academically valid; what is valid is a thesis that has support and is able to articulate and respond to (through rebuttal or concession) viewpoints that challenge one's thesis. In other words, students are welcome to their 'opinions' so long as they can articulate them in terms of viewpoints that might challenge them (yes, this is derived from δόξα). Part of the course is built on cultivating an imagination that can articulate other viewpoints (which I - again not humbly - take to be part of the intellectual legacy of my native land). Similarly, my advanced class on culture demonstrates through examples that a single culture can be paradoxical, and is often comprised of myriad competing world views. This even came up in my intro class: through the example, for instance, of how not all former colonies immediately ratified the Articles of the Confederation. Unity does not necessarily mean unanimity.
How do we respond to scarcity of agreement?
For some, this means that it is no longer a time for the "college games" of dialectics; to them, it means war. Truth can come back another day.


So I ask myself: how do I talk to someone who from the get-go is approaching questions through their agenda? (Apparently such cannot be called bigots, since they are on the side of righteous indignation?) Are you, readers, also wanting to ask me why it's a problem to approach life through an agenda? When I tried, with my interlocutors of late, to explain the complexities of statecraft and the importance of grappling - as contradictory as it may seem - with even abstract ideas like 'truth' in the practical business of statesmanship, if I dared call on Plato, my interlocutors' eyes would glaze over. Which I know from teaching means I need to change my approach. So, in answer to my question of how to talk with agenda-driven interlocutors, reason is not the way. Or, one must learn to package reason differently.
Since yesterday, every time I think about this, I am left with an anecdote from Rumer Godden's autobiography, A House With Four Rooms, with which I shall close this blog post. She writes of how back in the day, authors would often receive requests for an autograph and/or signed photograph. She explains that before she knew better to respond only to those who sent return postage, she would oblige at least the many signature requests though the postage was costly (obliging the photograph requests would have been far too costly). "I had a letter from America with the usual request, sent an autograph and a little later" she writes, "had a second letter; 'Thank you for your autograph. We have had your handwriting analysed. You are mean, petty, selfish and greedy.'"


"Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers"

I recently watched the televised version of J. B. Priestley's Summer Day's Dream, starring John Gielgud, which was thoroughly enjoyable both as a piece and for its performance. It is an example of art that remains timely long after the time of its production. For example, it speaks to the temptations of materialism and the problems of vested interests that attempt to bury the good life:
"It all ends in other people's confusion and  misery in a hopeless muddle of values. If you want to throw your life away for the sake of plastic ash-trays, that's your affair" (1). "You cant go shopping for a good life. You have to live it." (2) This is difficult because, "There is an old tried pattern, a faded map offering some chance of happiness, and still they pay men to rule thick hues across it." (3)


The play reminded me a lot of Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us" - and even addresses the problem of poetry.
Stephen: There was a time when I  didn't care for [poetry].
Rosalie: What was wrong with you?
Stephen: I think I was ill. Most of us were. But l didn't know it.
Rosalie: But now you're all right.
Stephen: Yes — except that I'm very old.
If we feel that we, too, are too old, we ought to abide by Rosalie's diagnosis, that it is possible for "something lost and innocent" to be about us, "like a sort of old baby puzzled but still hopeful". (4)


But ultimately the point of the film is in the 'poetry'; whether one sees this "late and soon", whether one can see release to the "getting and spending" Wordsworth warned of, whether one has the vision to see through the hopeless vision of the hopeless muddle of values in order to attain the timeless poetry of the good life ("For what can there be above the man who rises above fortune?" asks Seneca, who then cites "the cry of the greatest poets" for us to "live right now ... 'If you don't seize the day, it slips away'" [5]). Lest you think I am reading classical studies into the play, compare what are perhaps the most famous lines of the play with lines by Seneca:
Stephen: Take it easy. I spent more than half my life,  when I ought to have been enjoying myself, arguing and planning and  running round like a maniac, all to sell a lot of things to people I  didn’t know so that I could buy a lot of things I never had time to use.  Sheer lunacy. And it took nothing less than an atom bomb to blow me out of it. (6)
Seneca: "Calculate how much of your time has been taken up by a moneylender,  how much by a mistress, how much by a patron, how much by a client, how much in arguing with your wife, in punishing your slaves, in  running about the city on social duties. Add to your calculations the  illnesses that we've inflicted on ourselves, and also the time that has  lain idle: you'll see that you've fewer years than you count. Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you'd intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing; how much time has been  lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms  of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You'll  come to realize that you're dying before your time." (7)

An Either Scholarly or Artistic Picture

To hold questions open, to be able to remain with the uncomfortable questions in one's various quests, can bring answers, sometimes suddenly, like those waves that hide then reveal trails of jewels of shells on the shore. Questions can be at once typological and personal, so can be answered by gazing at what other people retain from the movement of their lives. What follows is a personal anecdote on this theme.
While I was reading about deserts, still (dryly?!) afflicted by the concerns of my previous post, I came to a blog that set out its modus operandi as "either scholarly or artistic". Those words are answers to an uncomfortable question, elucidating two poles that are at battle within me: pedantic methodology vs. the freedom and freedom of application of craft in the exploration of subjects. In those two simple words, are two different approaches - can we say that one is more valid than the other? Scholasticism can be limited by the shortsightedness of the historical situation or variations on Baconian idols; art, by whim and fantasy. But both have the potential to seek something true and meaningful about the lived experience.


As I continued to reflect on this blog that I found (The Southwest Journal), I marvelled at how much of myself and how many of my own questions that I had been uncomfortably carrying around seemed to be dwelling there - that is, beyond the "scholarly or artistic".
For example, what is the point of the scholarly or artistic, if we do not know what it is for? Pedagogy teaches that where learning is concerned, one of the first problems is determining an end-point to the journey is to be. In other words, teachers must have some idea of what they want students to have acquired along the way of a lecture series: a fair teacher not only knows what will be "wanted of" the student, but will make this explicitly clear, over and over again. So, what is the point of the scholasticism and art?
... The noble life [in the] life of the common, day-to-day struggles that everyone faces, ... [which] is only gained through perseverance, inner strength, and the determination to build the character that comes with playing the long game. It is the life-long devotion and perseverance to unglamorous actions that develop into stewardship for that which lies before us in daily life. As Wendell Berry said, “It may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife for 50 years.”
... The noble life has been ignored, I think, because it’s not a shiny object; it does not end in a spectacular singular event. It is not a candle burning at both ends. It has the unfortunate commodity of being personal and slow, built on values not easily measurable or even visible. The noble life unfurls behind the man or woman living it where understanding requires knowing the story, seeing with different eyes, and valuing the slow and steady march of time, for that is what it takes to grow into such a life. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land (Wendell Berry).
This was written by GSH, here. In another post, she writes, "Survival happens through compromise not through hard lines and competition. Compromise is how you don’t lose it all."


The point to scholasticism and art, in this iteration, is character building and other people. Indeed, it is through other people that the very seeds for this post were spotted.
Just as invisible and uncomfortable questions can inform the outcome of one's daily thoughtful desert wanderings, keeping an eye on character building and the importance of others can inform the effect a life has...
... if one can handle the discomfort. To hold open space for other people is uncomfortable; they are unpredictable and will require ever-newly-invented responses, testing one's resolve and intentions (does one really care about others in practice, or only in theory?) There will be times one will have to face an unfortunate image of oneself, when one fails to choose the right response in the moment to unpredictable interlocutors. But there is a bigger picture - which can be intuited and incorporated into the picture of one's own life, if one has the scholastic or artistic inclination to grasp it.

Brush: misprinted type.

What Is My Problem? (... with teaching extracts)

This post has been updated. In teaching, I struggle with which texts to assign: more fruitful, complex texts (like speeches by Cicero or Demosthenes, or Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator") can lead to drops in attendance and participation, but less dense ones (like select think pieces from, say, The Atlantic or The Millions) seem to reinforce the common view held by 20-year-olds that they pretty much know it all. It is a problem when students do not participate because if they bring nothing to the conversation, there is nothing to tie the material to, to make it relevant. Some years, I almost exclusively use excerpts from the more complex texts - if only inclusive of a few non-sugar coated ones, but I maintain that this method is rife with dangers, which may or may not have been indirectly apparent in my last post, which drew only on excerpts.
To use an excerpt is to take on the responsibility of filling in the context of what the excerpt was cut out of. This not only includes explaining parts of the text that surrounded the excerpt, but also explicating related schools of thought, historical details and precedents, specific references, etc. This is particularly challenging where it cannot be assumed that there is a shared 'cultural language' to begin with - which means that I might not know how important it is to emphasise certain points, or might not remember to point things out that I take for granted.
It may be because of these problems that I am increasingly interested in "the rudimentary" - and doubtful of whether I have a sound enough mastery of the basics: to use an example mentioned above, I might forget to explain points I have long assimilated and internalised.
There is also the problem of what "knowledge" is - for example, how can one claim to know a book when second, third readings bring elucidation of ideas one failed to see or retain the first time? Or, when further readings bring entirely new meaning? Such basic and common experiences are further warnings of the inadequacy of the outline.
Since initially publishing this post, it became clearer that perhaps the ultimate problem is that, as the late and great D. G. Myers wrote, "nothing is considered essential knowledge" in academe today; he wrote that he could not expect "any common background knowledge, not even in English majors". Among the enlightening comments to that post, is a link to another blog post, which presents a brief, invaluable exploration of the history of the "fragmentation of the curriculum". The author cites Barzun's scepticism of the trend to shop for majors, and Santayana's lament that "in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible."

 

In Auerbach's his famous essay on "Philology and 'Weltliteratur'", he describes the problem of achieving "synthesis" - which, I might add, is similar to the outline, or summary, in its concern for a vision of the whole. Synthesis is difficult because of the problem of the uncertainty of what is truly known of the past, as well as the challenges of grasping "the conditions under which ... literature developed", which includes religion, philosophy, politics, etc. He explains the "problematic and the ordering categories" of literature by writing: "Most of them are too abstract and ambiguous, and frequently they have too private a slant. They confirm a temptation to which neophytes (and acolytes) are frequently inclined to submit: the desire to master a great mass of material through the introduction of hypostasized, abstract concepts of order".
The pitfalls of abstracted overviews is, as suggested above, no new concern. I think it is also reflected in the phrase non multa legere sed multum, which I will poorly render as: read not many but much. If the meaning of this phrase is not immediately apparent, I think it is rather well illustrated by the reading habits of A. W. Verall (in the foreword to his Collected Literary Essays: Classical and Modern, eds. M. A. Bayfield and J. D. Duff):
"For mere information he did not care overmuch, he preferred multum legere potius quam multa. What he asked for from serious books was nutriment, and this he got better (if I may pursue the horrid metaphor) by repeated mastication than by the hasty omnivorous feeding which makes assimilation impossible."

There are no shortcuts in learning or teaching. That is, if we care about knowledge and learning.
To return to my initial ramblings in this post: "select think pieces" offer immediate relevance to students, the familiar, the contemporary. This is important if one wishes to reach a potential audience at the crossroads between what listeners can actually apply on their journey beginning from where they are at present and more distant horizons. This crossroads represents part of the mystery of learning, as its coordinates will always be moving where there is thought.
Horizons to be striven towards can be afforded through rich history and rhetoric. I was about to add theory to that list, but after having tried to teach it alongside the former two, I cannot claim that it is as rich. Even theorists reach towards Plato, or Homer... Distant contextual horizons are important, but so is where we are standing, in more practical and immediate terms.
So the problem is how to encourage an orientation towards horizons, for students to embark on their own Odysseys. One hopes the journeys are informed, for what use is travel in the wilderness if one knows nothing of the elements or navigation (important even today). Teaching navigation through overview-courses based on extracts seems reasonable because extracts are short but deep enough to encourage star gazing and the connection to greater coordinates. But teaching via extracts is also riddled with problems. That's my problem.
And why I feel the burden of bussardes - I sometimes feel the fear of being a bussard myself (one responsible for teaching!), even though that fear is more a fallacy than a reasonable assessment. Such reactionary thinking on my part stems from my lacking proper mentors, and critical stance towards the status quo. I will illustrate what I mean by this.
In teaching composition, I found I was dissatisfied with the handbooks, readers, etc., on the topic and found I had to compile my own selection of instruction from various sources (for example, to describe essays, as so many "college handbooks" do, as "narrative", "descriptive", etc. is ridiculous, as most good essays combine these "types"; by contrast, teaching composition via rhetoric, where those same "types" are assembled under "invention" is far more constructive). But this very illustration reveals my problem: I do not have a degree in the classics: can I be sure that my occasional ("excerpted") references to classical oratory are accurate? One needs to be guided in such things by specialists. I of course make an attempt to research into what I teach, and should add that I truly enjoy the opportunity of taking a broad approach that is perhaps characteristic of a "core" approach to the humanities, but I am just trying to articulate here what I think are some of the problems of this approach.

Photo of a bee-eater, not a bussard. 
Brush: misprinted type.

The Cultural Literacy of Blind Bussardes

One of the meanings of "bussard," or buzzard, is, "A curmudgeonly or cantankerous man ... a mean, greedy person" - so, potentially, one filled with stubborn ideas and opinions.
I found the word in an excerpt of Roger Ascham's "The Scholemaster". In it, he explains the benefits of consulting commonplaces and epithets, which can "induce a man into, an orderlie generall knowledge, how to referre orderlie all that he readeth, ad certa rerum Capita, and not wander in studie". Yet he also warns of the pitfalls of the same, which can occur if study only involves those platitudes, without also developing discernment through methodical reading of the complete texts representative of the best knowledge.
"Bussardes" are worse than those who, thanks to commonplaces and epithets, know something one season but forget it the next (oh, how one finds oneself in the criticism!), but are instead trenchant in the shallowness of the learning that blinds them, having long ceased the pursuit of horizons of learning and thus having nothing to teach.


The excerpt reminded me of another extract - from J. M. Coetzee's foreword to Higgins' Academic Freedom in Democratic South Africa, which takes issue with the claim that "only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy" because such critical literacy can arguably be provided by ("core") courses in cultural literacy - which I think are comparable to the function of commonplace books within the rhetoric courses of yesteryear. Here's Coetzee:
Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses - courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enrol - one course to be entitled "Reading and Writing", in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled "Great Ideas", in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors. Basic courses in cultural literacy are not a new idea. They have been mounted at countless American universities under the rubric of "Freshman Composition".
As an alternative to the commonplace-approach to defending the humanities, he argues, "we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society."


In other words, and to draw from Ascham, if learning ends in platitudes, we will be perpetuating a shallow level of knowledge that can either be forgotten or, worse, lead to blind, trenchant opinion with no appreciation or feel for, say, nuance, context, or even, say, the speciousness of argument that has produced certain thought.
Platitudes are difficult to attain and maintain (though we are helped by commonplace blogs), but to make a claim on knowledge (brave or foolish) requires further, regular dogged revision of entire key and associated texts. Such is not for the "obstinately ignorant", to quote a 1774 entry on what the proverbial use of "buzzard" means.
According to the OED, the word buzzard is used "in names of other raptors regarded as unsuitable for falconry" - so it seems that the secondary meaning is a figurative transfer of the first. Incidentally, the second entry reads: "An ignorant or stupid person. Now usu. with the weakened sense, fellow, chap". So, today's chaps can't be trained; useless and greedy? Surely education is not to cultivate those.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Maison.