In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following. The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults. In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.
In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program. I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students. In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu. This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932. As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis. I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading. (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)
Doing the reading, however, while admirable, is not the same as understanding what one reads. As we worked our way through the book-list, I gradually became aware of a new peculiarity of college-cohort cognition – or miscognition, as it might be. With a few exceptions, students seemed unable to track changes in character or in conscience or point of view, in the personae of the three novels, as Howells, Wells, and Zola develop their plotlines chapter by chapter. The most pronounced instance of this obtuseness involved The Paradise of Women, Zola’s surprisingly positive novel about the first modern department-store in Paris. The entrepreneur of “The Ladies’ Paradise,” Monsieur Mouret, first appears as selfish, not a little greedy for investment capital, free with women including his female employees, and lacking in any humane sense of his enterprise. A country-girl, Denise, who comes to work in the grand establishment and gradually works her way up the ranks, uniquely refuses Mouret’s erotic overtures, but gains influence over him even so, inducing him gradually to alter his attitudes and practices. Denise is an astute and tactful moral reformer. The great shop under her gentle but insistent will becomes a model workplace, with Mouret acknowledging and embracing the betterment. In the last chapter, Mouret offers to marry Denise – and she accepts.
Like most interesting narratives, The Paradise of Women is a conversion story: The main conversion is Mouret’s, who must humanize himself; but there are numerous other conversions in the story, not least that Denise must learn to see past Mouret’s character-armor and find some nucleus of good in him on which she may exercise her hope. When I asked for an essay on Mouret’s character, in comparison with the character of George Ponderevo in Tono-Bungay, the result was as uniform as it was startling: The readers could only see Mouret as he first appears; they were unable to assimilate his pilgrim’s progress of moral alteration under the benign influence of the steady young woman. Neither could they see that Wells’ protagonist, like Zola’s, repents of his youthful cynicism to become, at story’s end, a remarkably different person. Based on the experience in the “Business in Literature” course, I began looking for signs of similar incomprehension in work submitted by students in other classes and ended up wondering why I had not seen it before.
To describe this miscognition in other words, students cannot track the signs of conscience: A character in a narrative is to them as that character first appears and afterwards they remain oblivious to the details of internal transformation. When asked, based on the final chapters of The Paradise of Women, what kind of person is Zola’s entrepreneurial leading man, they answer not that he is a Type-A personality who gradually repents of his obsession to make of himself a decent and generous human being – but merely that he is a Type-A personality, without redeeming traits. Ditto concerning Wells’ Ponderevo: For whom ruthless economy and a bad marriage make unavoidable his business-collaboration with his flim-flam artist of an uncle, but who recoils from being a partner in a snake-oil scheme and gradually extracts himself, in order to do honest work. Ponderevo is only, for the students, the morally suspect co-proprietor, with his founder-uncle, of the morally bankrupt “Tono-Bungay” enterprise.
The same perceptual bluntness expresses itself in the students’ reaction to the films that I screen in order to give us some breaks in the reading. In Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999), Misters Gilbert and Sullivan are only the two signatories of a contract with Mr. D’Oyly-Carte, who, getting into a famous contretemps, violate their contract; the details of how they settle their imbroglio, and reconcile with their contract, with which details the film is mainly concerned, make little or no impression. In David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), sushi-chef supreme Jiro Ono is only a severe taskmaster who forced his sons into his business. That the sons themselves disown their youthful resentment and praise their father’s insight – explicitly, while facing the camera – simply passes over student attention; students cannot integrate the additional information.
What is the source of this insensitivity to moral growth, change of view – or conversion? Here I am speculating, but I am also asking for help. Possibly the students have never themselves experienced noticeable moral growth, change of view – or conversion. This would not surprise me given the facts that few, if any of them, have grown up with any significant contact with religion, and that for almost all of them the main social influence has been public education, which patently omits to encourage anything like moral introspection. Public education is indoctrination. Indoctrination inhibits conversion. The content of that public-school indoctrination consists of simple stories in which the characters are, not actual people, but static entities: The racist, the sexist, the what-have-you – none of whom ever changes even when ritually shamed and humiliated. Popular entertainments ape public-school indoctrination: The characters are as they first appear, whether good guys or bad guys; and, aside from the carnage, the events of the story alter nothing.
So much, tentatively, for probable causes… What about the effects? A person who cannot register moral change in other people probably cannot perceive it, or initiate it, or yield to the providence of it, even if the occasion were to arise, where it concerns himself. He has locked himself into the role of a static entity, a condition perhaps indicated by his perpetual absorption in his devices, including the MP3 player with earbuds through which he listens repetitively to the same three-minute digital track that, in its many repetitions, never changes. Being locked into the role of a static entity might also be reflected in the pervasive uptightness of my students. Uptightness might seem to belong to the vocabulary of the 1960s anti-establishment, but I believe that Traditionalists should appropriate it. Liberal culture, despite having been founded by people who complained about the uptightness of the establishment, is extraordinarily uptight. That uptightness deserves to be mockingly denounced. It is a sign of ultra-conformity to a puritanical expectation on the one hand and neurotic false-sensitivity to violations of the uptight code – otherwise known as political correctness – on the other.
Of course, the mantra of the liberal regime is “change, change, change,” but like the MP3 track, this is an iterative entity that repeats but never changes.
Political correctness – this is where my thoughts have led me – is an ethos of static entity. in which, as on a chessboard, nothing really changes except the configuration of the pieces. One might move the knight this way and that, but he is never anything but the knight. Ditto the pawn or the knave. Once a knave, always a pawn. Perhaps then what I am seeing in the moral obtuseness of overcooperative accountancy majors is merely another index of creeping liberal dehumanization of what remains of Western Civilization.