[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]
I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.
Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…
Socrates, the great teacher of Greece and of the West, once explained to a group of half-drunk party-goers that the beginning of philosophy lies in adolescent infatuation. Socrates had learned this doctrine from his teacher, the rather scary Diotima of Mantinea, an expert in Eros, or “Love,” a prophetess, and a caller-down of demons. According to Diotima, the transcendent principle of the Good and the Beautiful, with which philosophy properly concerns itself, first speaks to us in the form of the contingent individual person in respect of whom we experience our awakening to sexual attraction. In my own case, at Malibu Park Junior High School in October of 1966, it was Miss V__________ T__________, or rather the rear view of her, walking with stately grace down the corridor to Mr. Vincent’s Civics and Government class, where I had hitherto shamefully failed to notice her. As I closed my locker door, a small voice, possibly speaking with a Greek accent, said to me: “There is a divinity that shapes our ends.”
I was abruptly convinced of it, as I was convinced of it again, in rapid succession, in the case of Miss J__________ M__________, and again in the case of Miss E_________ R__________, and so on and so forth. It was fall, not spring, but I felt the proverbial “young man’s fancy” all a-stirring. Eventually, I found myself in graduate school immersed in Plutarch’s essays on the godhead of Isis and on the nature of oracles, Byron’s poetry and Baudelaire’s, Old Norse grammar, the novels of Henry James, Harry Martinson’s Aniara, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and a clutch of other unlikely interests, each one of which had (as it has) a direct relation to Miss T____________’s vanishing loveliness. How could this be so?
Youthful fatuity normally befalls us, unrequited, so the same youthful fatuity is also normally quite fickle, but this very fickleness can itself serve for instruction. When we have noticed the cosmetic beauty of more than one cosmetically beautiful individual, as Diotima told the young Socrates, we begin to notice that all cosmetically beautiful individuals have a quality in common – or rather that a quality possessed uniquely by none nevertheless endows all with like attractiveness. After our false starts in love have stung us more than once, and we yearn for constancy, we begin to understand that the real loveliness is not cosmetic, but ethical. We see that it is better to love a spiritually than a cosmetically beautiful person – although the boon of their coincidence never exceeds possibility.
Once we can see beauty in the decorum and generosity of good people, we become capable of seeing it again in the institutions that preserve such ideas as decorum and generosity across the ages and from which, under favorable conditions, the masters imbue those qualities in each rising cohort: I refer to law, art, lore, piety, and education. Finally, supposing that we persevere in philosophic rigor, we gain a glimpse, after many dialectical stages, of the essence of what is good and beautiful in both persons and institutions – the Absolute Beauty, ensconced in a Heaven above the Heavens, towards which our Eros has been goading and guiding us all along.
One important function of education in the Platonic scheme is to seize on the adolescent mind at the moment of its erotic awakening and so divert its incipient passion away from contingent persons to other, more stable and rewarding objects. As the divine Miss T__________ never returned my awkward interest (still less the others), my passion needed other objects. I lived, fortunately, in the age of the fifty-cent science fiction paperback, and I began a lifelong affair, as it were, with the imaginary worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Martian princess offered much consolation, E. E. Smith, Leigh Brackett, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and their peers. The order in which I list these writers corresponds not only to the order in which I came under their successive spells, but, from left to right, to the order of their ascending literary quality. Once I had graduated to Last and First Men and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, which I did in high school, I could pass naturally to the Platonic dialogues, to Dante, and to the fantastic poems of Keats and Shelley.
Along the way of this path, I received significant encouragement from a number of teachers who also navigated the sea of life by the star of passion. G__________ J__________, a remarkable English instructor at Santa Monica High School in the 1960s and 70s, plied his students not only with Greek literature, but also with the novels of Mann and Hesse, with the operas of Wagner, and with the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. A correspondent who passed through J__________’s classroom a few years before I did recently described him to me as “Socrates, Eros and all.” Many of my contemporaries in high school responded, as I did, to a still healthy curriculum, as mediated for us by enthusiastic mentors like J__________. A kind of divine madness touched us, a craving for beauty and for intellectual stimulation.
I wish to issue a challenge to the college students who, as the organizer of this conference tells me, are in the audience today. This challenge takes the form of an observation, which I report with candor and honesty, about my classroom. When I ask my students nowadays what they love in the arts or literature, or simply what they read for pleasure, I rarely get an answer. Few report that they have ever read a novel or a poem voluntarily, and the number of novels or poems that they have read under mandate is always small. Even when I ask them what movies they like, silence usually constitutes the answer. They have seen plenty of movies, to be sure, but they rarely admit to liking, much less to loving, any of them. They listen to music constantly, too, over their headsets, but they never admit to love in that respect either; although, absent love, it is difficult to explain their obsession.
The word love seems to embarrass them. This embarrassment tends to be true even of the self-described conservative students whom I sometimes, although only rarely, meet. They tell me that they have read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand, or How to Argue with a Liberal, by Ann Coulter, than either of which a book more bereft of love or beauty can hardly be imagined.
Had anyone asked me, in my freshman year, what I cherished in music or the arts or what I or read for pleasure, I might have filled many a blank page. I might have said that I loved Lucian, a Greek satirist, and Robert Sheckley, a Brooklyn satirist. I loved The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, and re-read it obsessively; I loved The Research Magnificent, by Wells, and re-read it obsessively. I took a girl to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Brahms’ Second Symphony and she said to me afterwards, “that was a really pretty song.” She lacked the requisite musicological vocabulary to describe her experience, it is true, but she responded forthrightly to it with what resources she had, and without prejudice, and I have never ceased admiring her for it. I noticed afterwards that when she mentioned the occasion, in my presence, to her friends she did so in positive terms; it did not embarrass her to have taken a stab at adult culture, nor to have enjoyed it.
As I am talking about the relation of Eros to learning, I call to your attention those important absences in the educational experience, as the naively appreciative girl and I had undergone it, in what seems in retrospect to have been the idyllic age of the 1960s and 70s.
Here is the list: At no time in elementary or secondary school had our preceptors forced on us anything like the explicit, often semester-long, programs of so-called sex-education that have featured in middle and high school for the last twenty years, and which steadily grow more explicit, antinomian, and perverse; at no time had our preceptors forced on us anything of the so-called sexual harassment training, on the assumption that all men are inveterate aggressors; nor had the propaganda of so-called date-rape panicked the girl or turned her against men; although the adults in our lives, including teachers, had mildly admonished us about smoking and drinking, we were not surrounded by the vehement, official rebuke of these things that is now omnipresent in the academic environment; nor had we heard – as it was still possible in those days to be free of such things – that the poems and plays and stories that we read, or the old movies that we went to see at the revival house, served as secret codes for racial or sexual or class-based oppression.
I knew the young woman in question from my Swedish class, where she impressed the teacher, Professor S__________, and everyone else by her enthusiasm, her love, I daresay, for the language. Her presence improved the work of the whole class of learners.
Where are the flames of yesteryear? My winsome Hollywood-Bowl date followed a teacher-education major and wanted to coach girls’ athletics in high school. It never struck her that her language and literature courses meant nothing in respect of that goal. Body and mind were one. I would describe her – that shapely, lively girl – as having an intact Eros, capable of effective kissing and groping, but by no means confined to them; clearly, at the right moment, the secondary education of those days had launched her passion in a higher, spiritual direction. Painful though it is to say so, I rarely see such passion nowadays although of course it might be prudish and therefore invisible. (We should not underestimate how prudish the present moment is.) I can only conclude that something prevents its development. As one student wrote last spring by way of a course-assessment, “I would give Professor Bertonneau’s class a higher recommendation, but I don’t like reading books.”
Another student wrote with certainty that, “Professor Bertonneau, like all foreigners, puts too much of emphasis on thinking.” The “foreign” professor also gave offense to this second student by “acting like he knows stuff.” The shoddy diction is all too typical. Unlike the lyric persona of Keats in the “Ode to a Nightingale,” the majority of my students seem sadly not to have chosen for delight, for the sweetness of the unseen song, but for an anti-spiritual detachment that distances them from the buffetings, so unpredictable, so scary, of awakened passion.
We might talk in existential terms about anhedonia or alienation; or we might cite Lyotard’s “post-modern condition” or MacLuhan’s “cool communications”; or we might invoke, with some justification, “the dumbed-down curriculum.” I prefer the Socratic diagnosis, as recorded by Plato. I say that we will never understand contemporary classroom reserve, or the disintegration of the vital curriculum, without the vocabulary of soul, beauty, Eros, and Heaven.
I argue that a jejune and deforming paideia, the modern one, has deprived many young people of the chance to develop the enthusiasm requisite to a genuine edification of their souls. In consequence of their deprivation they lack the ability to recognize the fiery allure of Heaven through the earthly phenomena of good and beautiful things. I think I know the specific measures in the deformed paideia that have blurred student acuity and blunted student response.
Here is the list: A perniciously secular and culturally anemic curriculum, from Kindergarten right through college, in which everything that might provoke the real Eros has been stripped away, while what remains is trivially empirical; the imposition on young people of a two-sided, and therefore contradictory, program of sexual indoctrination, one half of which anathematizes sexual relations as the evil of patriarchal oppression, the other half of which urges them to “hook up,” as they say, serially and unsentimentally, with free prophylaxis available from the campus clinic; and finally, a cult of ugliness, especially in music, which now thoroughly dominates popular culture. This is a formula for killing Eros.
The education-crisis in the humanities is real and it is severe, but it is not strictly a crisis of “policy” or “economy” or even of a de facto quota that only allows for one Republican English professor out of every ninety-nine Howard Dean-type Democratic ones. It is a crisis of the soul, of a debilitated and moribund Eros. In saying this, I mean to indicate that those responsible for the crisis are even wickeder than they would be were they merely the perpetrators of bad policy or bad economy or bigoted party-quotas. By “those responsible,” I mean in turn to indicate not only the academically dominant Left, especially the sex-hating feminists, but those among traditionalists and conservatives who have, in effect, adopted the Left’s purely immanent and entirely materialistic view of human nature, and who therefore venerate a defectively instrumental idea of education as mere training for purely banausic ends.
I predict, although it is only barely a prediction, that traditionalists and conservatives, including my old friends at the National Association of Scholars, will make no headway in the reform of higher (or any other) education until they see past policy, economy, and quotas – and learn once again to talk about the soul – and about the Good and the Beautiful and the True and the essential image of those qualities in the Heaven above the Heavens. Has it occurred to anyone that the “higher” in higher education might actually refer to Diotima’s Absolute Beauty, which speaks first to us as much in our loins as in our brains, but which, under the proper tuition, as Goethe put it in Faust Part Two, “leads us on high”? Has it occurred to anyone that a bit of Dionysiac intoxication might animate an increasingly gray-haired traditionalist and conservative program, not to mention students?
Has it occurred to anyone that the codes that brutally suppress speech, or brand all sexual interest as predatory prior to any fact, or banish those things, like great art and literature, which might awaken passion in students – has it occurred to anyone, I ask, that these wretched devices are all manifestations of hatred, which is the opposite of love, and of impotency, which is the opposite of capacity, or that they are all first and foremost assaults on the soul?
Socrates, on one of his few sojourns outside the walls of Athens, once told a pupil that God had charged the philosopher with the mission of fanning the ember of his own Eros, so that he might kindle fiery contagion in other demonic souls. He also issued a warning: The one who learns to love the Good and the Beautiful and who concerns himself with the soul will likely appear a madman to those who know not of such matters. I fully expect that I now appear to you as a madman, and I have even given you the origin of my madness – that blessed knowledge – for in Miss T__________’s absolutely beautiful end was my own fateful beginning.
Incipit curriculum. (TFB)