A Winter’s Reading (Selections)

Ong

Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982):  Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking.  They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic.  (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture.  Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture.  In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.”  For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture.  Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself.  Speech is time-bound.  To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance.  Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed.  “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.”  The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas.  Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.

According to Ong, oral cultures are “additive rather than subordinative.”  Speakers stitch items together with and… and… and…  In parataxis, the story of indefinite episodes predominates.  Logical analysis or causal review emerges only in rudimentary form with much hesitance or goes entirely missing, usually the latter.  Oral cultures are, again, “aggregative rather than analytic,” “redundant or ‘copious,’” and “close to the human lifeworld.”  Oral cultures are nevertheless competent, as long as they remain intact.  Accepting that Homo sapiens has existed for something close to two hundred thousand years, then humanity’s period of literacy amounts to no more than the briefest fraction of that endurance.  On the other hand, the emergence of literacy, especially of alphabetic literacy, marks a radical transformation of human life.  As Ong argues, borrowing from the research of the classicist Eric Havelock, the Greek innovation of the alphabet brought into play a technology (both Havelock and Ong regard writing as technology) that altered the habits of thought and thus also the structure of mind.  As Ong points out, within two hundred years of the alphabet’s invention, probably between 800 and 750, the spectrum of literary genres, and not just epic and lyric, had appeared: Philosophy, history, physics, logic, ethics, mathematics, and the rest.  Whereas in orality knowledge remains auricular and time-bound, in literacy it becomes visual and achronic; and as text* it resists its own disappearance.  The printed page gives rise to the opportunity of back-tracking, which impossible speech facilitates only with great difficulty or not at all.  The printed page also presents itself in a non-personal way, reducing the agonistic strain inherent in spoken exchange.

The last seventy years of public education in North America have accomplished two disasters.  Public education has gleefully destroyed an intact oral tradition that existed alongside the dominant typographic tradition.  At the same time it has knocked the bases from under literacy (phonics, and rigorous instruction in grammar, to name but two) and, as the phrase puts it, has dumbed down the curriculum by swapping genuine matriculation for ideological indoctrination.  Public education in effect abolished hypotaxis (subordination) and thereby mutilated thinking.  The first-year college student, taking the freshman composition course, or any other course, finds himself doubly disoriented.  He is, in one sense, a victim – of a very deliberate and deliberately disabling deprivation.  The institutions have deprived him both of an intact orality and of a literate competency.  He never reads, in part because he cannot read, cannot stay focused on the linearity of the printed page, and he therefore fails to grasp the causal order that only a book can reveal, whether as narrative or as analysis.  He ought to sue, but he will never discover the swindle.  It is something like the perfect crime.

Havelock

Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (1962):  The scandal for modern readers of Plato’s Republic consists in the dialogue’s angry recurrence to the wickedness of poetry, which Socrates identifies with mimesis or “imitation,” which is, for him, and apparently also for Plato, itself a scandal.  Modern readers of The Republic will also have read and greatly admired Homer and Hesiod, whom they regard as founders of a Western Literary Tradition – Homer especially being unsurpassed in his epic achievement.  Why would Plato, himself a myth-maker, reject the myth-poets?  Does it really boil down to a kind of Puritanism – that the gods of the epos behave badly and thus lower the moral bar for those who are supposed to follow their example?  Havelock’s first stage in coming to terms with The Republic is to tackle the web of meanings in which Plato’s mimesis functions as a center.  Far from being a vague term in the context of Plato’s discussion, Havelock regards mimesis as its fundamental topic.  For Havelock, The Republic is less a political treatise than it is a pedagogical treatise.  The dialogue represents Plato’s attempt to clarify an emergent cultural phenomenon in which his own work figured both as a consequence and as a furthering catalyst.  Havelock performs an exemplary close reading of The Republic, requiring the full sequence of his fifteen chapters.  In Chapter Two, “Mimesis,” Havelock writes that, in Plato’s unfolding argument, “mimesis has become the word par excellence for the over-all linguistic medium of the poet and his peculiar power through the use of this medium (meter and imagery are included in the attack) to render an account of reality.”  Plato had recognized, as Havelock argues, that oral recitation, not being restricted to festive occasions, but permeating every aspect of communal existence, not least education, acted less as the transmission of inherited wisdom (although it indeed fulfilled that role) than as an obstacle preventing the development of an entirely new mode of thought.

Havelock presents Plato as the discoverer of the difference between an oral culture and a literate one, he himself bodying forth a new literate style of thinking that came necessarily into conflict with the tradition.  Havelock supports his case by surveying the evidence concerning pedagogy in the Archaic period of Greek civilization.  Omitting here the details and recurring to summary only, the evidence reveals to him the systematic inculcation, not of independent cogitation, but of an immersive oral-formulaic view of the world.  That regime prevented the emergence of the individual from the social mass, diverted psychic energy to rote memorization, and restricted intellectual maturity to a paltry short term.  It wasted human potential. Plato wanted, Havelock asserts, to wrest the new generation from its total orientation to the spoken word and reorient it to writing.  For Plato, writes Havelock, “Poetry represented not something we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference.”  One might add: Textbooks of the most rudimentary sort – for first-graders – and works of extraordinarily limited reference.  In Havelock’s interpretation, Plato also objects to the oral paideia because it stirs up emotion rather than reflection and sustains a pervasive agitation in the society.  One thinks of the character of Thrasymachus as the dialogue’s prime exemplar of the phenomenon.  He lives in a perpetual agony, appropriate perhaps in the Heroic Age, but misplaced in the much-developed Athenian polis.

The famous Parable of the Cave appears in a new light under Havelock’s reading.  The oral style tends to catalogue things; it remains mired in the disorganized world of the many, which it iterates apart from logical arrangement.  Chained to his bench, the involuntary pupil views the sequence, in no particular order, of the shadowy images; he does so, moreover, in enforced company, with his fellow prisoners.  Nothing differentiates him from them.  They are one and all the products of mimesis.  A worldview imposes on them; they internalize it, and in so doing remain prisoners.  Under the grace of his liberation, the protagonist of the parable becomes, nascently at least, an individual.  He then progresses, in the direction of light and upward, from the dumb iteration of the disparate images to the domain of the sole and central luminosity – or simply from the many to the one, the former symbolized by obscurity and the latter by the solar effulgence.  Havelock writes: “So it is that the long sleep of man is interrupted and his self-consciousness, separating itself from the lazy play of the endless saga-series of events, begins to think and to be thought of, ‘itself of itself,’ and as it thinks and is thought, man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.”  To take a step beyond Havelock, it required the Platonic critique of “poetry” in order that, liberated from phonic repetition, the subject might re-appropriate on a new level what at an earlier stage he had to reject.

Kraki

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Fourteenth Century —Translated by Jessie Byock): The Icelandic sagas fascinate in part because they base themselves on oral traditions going back to the insular settlement of the “Taking of the Land” in the Ninth Century and because, more so than Homeric or Medieval epic, they break free from the restrictions of verse and inaugurate a new style of prose narration.  The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki can lay claim to another qualification.  It is one of those epoi, like the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, that scholarship long regarded as pure fiction but that archaeology has revealed to possess an historical basis, however minimal.  Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf in fact converge.  King Hroar in the former corresponds to King Hrothgar in the latter.  Diggings at Lejre in Zealand, Denmark, have uncovered the remains of a large mead hall that might well be the Heorot of Beowulf.  The relationship of Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf also suggests that while on one level Norsemen and Englishmen lived in considerable bellicose tension with one another, on another level they participated in an overlapping artistic milieu, with many crossing influences.  (In Beowulf, when the bard initiates a recital in order to celebrate the hero’s defeat of the marsh-stepper Grendel, he sings of the endeavors of Sigurd the Volsung, who figures prominently in his own Icelandic saga.)  As translator Jessie Byock notes in his Introduction, in being one of the later sagas, Hrolf Kraki is also one of the more literary sagas.  This entails something of a paradox, or at any rate an irony, namely that this story of characters and events from a remote era (the late Fifth and early Sixth Centuries), reads like a proto-novel more than it does like a primitive recitation.  Indeed, the commercial writer Poul Anderson once adapted Hrolf Kraki as a sword-and-sorcery adventure, under the title Hrolf Kraki’s Saga (1973).

Hrolf Kraki offers the reader not only a fast-paced tale of heroic ordeals, covering several generations, but also a fascinating and rich anthropological panoply.  As does Beowulf in his story, a number of characters in Hrolf Kraki, including the protagonist, participate in the ancient Scandinavian warrior-tradition of the berserker.  The berserker foreshadows the comic book character of the Incredible Hulk.  A devotee of Odin, through the bear-cult sponsored by that god, the berserker (notice the first syllable, ber!) can, on the eve of battle, transform himself into a near-indestructible and near-unstoppable raging animal-man, on analogy with a werewolf, except that werewolves cannot transform voluntarily.  Ferocity in battle is one of the berserker’s talents, but, through his communion with Odin, he also deals in prophecy and in visionary access.  One of Hrolf’s ancestors, Bjorn (in Norse, a bear) refuses the romantic suit of the thoroughly nasty Queen Hvit.  She insults him; he slaps her.  She then places a curse on him to live his life as a bear.  A woman named Bera (in Norse, a female bear) wanders through a forest and sees “a savage bear.”  At the same time “she thought she recognized in the eyes of the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son.”  Bera follows Bjorn to his cave, entering which he reverts to human form.  The two fall in love.  At intervals Bera gives birth to three sons, the third bearing the descriptive moniker of Bodvar Bjarki (Bjarki – in Norse, a bear-cub).  Bodvar comes into the employ of Hrolf and proves himself a great champion.  He recruits his brothers, who have the traits one of an elk and the other of a wolf.  Bodvar defeats the much-vaunted berserkers of King Adils the Swede, who might, like Hrothgar and Hrolf, have a historical basis.

Hrolf Kraki features numerous fantastic elements centering themselves on berserker-dom, but it conforms in other ways to the reality of Norse society when it first emerges into legend and history.  Feudalism takes its name because feud dominates relations within the community and between communities.  Just about every Icelandic saga takes the form of a long sequence of feudal murders.  The pattern of offense, ambush, torture, and murder repeats itself in a seemingly endless cycle, spreading through the society like a cancer and involving parties who had no truck with the instigators.  The sagas affirm the mimetic nature of human violence.  In this too they offer the reader rich anthropological nourishment.  Hrolf Kraki, under the influence of Christian morality, links feudalism in the gross sense of rippling revenge, to the heathen status of its heroes, whom the author seems genuinely to admire.  Now excess belongs to feud.  Hrolf, in responding to provocations, commits excess so that the cycle returns to him implacably.  He stands with his warriors, including Bodvar Bjarki, while his enemies, having achieved surprise, cut down the defending ranks.  A Christian observer, a missionary, named Master Galterus, remains unharmed.  He says to the king: “Events have come out as expected… Human strength cannot withstand such fiendish power, unless the strength of God is employed against it.”  As Galterus explains: “That alone stood between you and victory, King Hrolf [that] you had no knowledge of your Creator.”

Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (1849 – Translated by Alastair Hannay): In one of the peculiarities of inveterate and omnivorous reading, books that on first sight cannot possibly enjoy a relation to one another nevertheless converge and intercommunicate.  The Sickness unto Death, appearing under the pseudonym of Anti-Climacus, communicates, of course, with what Kierkegaard called his “authorship.”  It goes beyond that, however.  The Sickness carries on Kierkegaard’s project of a New Socraticism in the service, not of Christendom, which the Dane despised, but of Christianity, which he rigorously differentiated from a nominally Christian society, and to which he dedicated his massive apologetics.  The Sickness fashions itself, as do many of Kierkegaard’s works, on the model of an extended sermon.  The sermon qualifies as a paradoxical genre.  The homilist delivers it as oratory, but he secures its foundation in Scripture.  The New Testament of Scripture, like the dialogues of Plato, originates in and celebrates a Master who never wrote, but who only spoke, whose word lives and vivifies, but, to the dead-of-soul, lies apparently inert on the page.  As a dialectical treatment of speech and writing, of life and death, of the return of death into life, The Sickness, quite apart from its author’s intention, communicates with Ong’s Orality and Literacy and Havelock’s Preface to Plato – men and their respective works that Kierkegaard could not have known because he predeceased them.  Kierkegaard puts forward as the major thesis of The Sickness that, in endowing men and women with life, God wishes them to realize their individuality as much as possible, a task quite high in the degree of its challenge, so much so that most people despair of it and lapse thus into sin.  Kierkegaard defines sin as “being unconscious in despair of having a self,” “not wanting in despair to be oneself,” and “wanting in despair to be oneself.”

The above constitutes a minimal summary, whose inadequacy readers may take for granted.  Kierkegaard’s treatment is subtle in the extreme and relentlessly “dialectical” in his anti-Hegelian sense of that term.  Consider, however, by way of a detour, the scriptural or literary basis of Kierkegaard’s idea of the self – and consider it doubly in light of Ong and Havelock.  In a famous sentence-sequence at the beginning of The Sickness, Kierkegaard writes: “The human being is a spirit.  But what is spirit?  Spirit is the self.  The self is a relation that relates itself to itself, or that in the relation which is relating itself to itself.  The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.  A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  A first-time reader of The Sickness will likely be baffled by the involutions of Kierkegaard’s thought and prose in the quoted passage, but by the time he turns the last page, he will have overcome somewhat the vertigo that the involutions first inspire.  But not entirely and never entirely.  The involutions, which could only occur in written language, resist full resolution.  Yet that irresolution perfectly symbolizes the necessary incompleteness of the spiritual adventure, with its numerous deadly pitfalls, of this mortal existence.  For Kierkegaard, the true Self that the brave Christian endeavors to attain in order to honor God, always backs off from full appropriation.  It stands ahead of the seeker perpetually. The concept of the Self, of the person, while it originates in the Living Word, requires scripture (with or without the capital S) or text (that much-abused word) for its comprehensible articulation.*

The human subject becomes truly a subject when he stands outside himself and reads himself objectively as though he were critiquing a written argument.  According to Havelock, Plato had arrived at a similar conclusion.  The spoken word, however inspired it might be at its first utterance, can die; it can become the equivalent of a dead letter.  The rote-paideia based on phonic repetition had ceased to vivify (supposing that it ever had vivified), as Plato saw things; if men were to graduate from purveyors of opinion to independent seekers after wisdom, it would be through the mediation of writing.  Ong’s idea that writing, especially alphabetic writing, restructured consciousness seems apposite.  Letting Kierkegaard, Havelock, and Ong freely associate – one might venture the thought that God has revealed himself in stages and that the ultimate stage has to do with the emergence first of the chirographic and then of the typographic page, or scroll, or book.  St. Augustine approached conversion by stages, one of which consisted in reading the Platonic literature, which he characterizes as a precursor to the Gospel and as part of a larger revelation.  What of those poor freshmen in the basic composition course?  Are they not, as Kierkegaard puts it, “being unconscious in despair of having a self”?  And is not their functional illiteracy part and parcel of a petulant resistance to instruction; that is, of their collective not wanting in despair to be themselves because they enjoy the maternal coziness of the coddling opinion-world more than the prospect of redeeming their debt to the Creator-Savior?

*The word text is somewhat unwelcome here at The Orthosphere because Pomo-speak bandies it about, but it might be time to redeem the term; it is useful.

18 thoughts on “A Winter’s Reading (Selections)

  1. Enjoyed your thoughts. See The Vikings Secret Yoga. No Kidding. Ha. Best, * * * *

    * *Steven * *

    On Thu, Jan 30, 2020 at 12:40 PM The Orthosphere wrote:

    > Thomas F. Bertonneau posted: ” Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy > (1982): Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in > for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by > teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or ” >

  2. Dr. Bertonneau,

    Thank you for your essay. I read many years ago Kierkegaard’s The Sickness – actually in the same Penguin Classics edition you illustrate here. I was so mystified by it that I bought his Fear and Trembling although I must confess it has remained unread for many years. I’m not sure how much I understood of Kierkegaard at that time, but I do remember his was one of the first attacks on my own confused empiricism which considered “self” as nothing but my brain and it’s functions.

    Your essay has reminded me of one of the challenges I had understanding Kierkegaard: what is modifying what in his prose? One example is his defining sin as, “not wanting in despair to be oneself.” Is this, “not [wanting in despair to be onself]”? (I take this as unlikely.) Or is it, “not wanting [in despair] to be onself”? (More likely?) Or, “not wanting [in despair to be onself]”? It was very challenging. I wish I had had good teachers at the time to help explain!

    • Kierkegaard argues (and I am simplifying — because I am unsure whether I understand his argument completely) that one can only achieve one’s Self “under God” or “before God.” But “under God” or “before God,” everyone is a sinner, facing the ordeal of his redemption. This Self is the actual Self, standing all at once as desideratum and rebuke to the onlooking ego, who typically turns away in the delusion that he is “good enough” without trying to perfect himself. Delusion plays a big role in The Sickness unto Death. Every style of dodging the Self entails one’s lie-to-himself or delusion. I’m going to stop now because I am probably not making things clearer.

  3. Pingback: A Winter’s Reading (Selections) | Reaction Times

  4. In reading and making one’s way in the intellectual world the reader follows his nose, one book leading to another one, interest leading the way – exiting the cave. I have heard it complained that philosophy isolates because we come to believe things that differ from others, but, following Havelock, it would be better to say it individualizes, helping to realize our spiritual nature. The process of self-ostracism from the herd mind involves a certain amount of pain as one hears oneself described as no longer belonging to the tribe of the good and the virtuous.

    • With enough distance, the calumnies, while still audible, are no longer of interest. Only the conversational exchanges with other distanciated eccentrics are of interest.

  5. It would be interesting to connect the shadows on the back of the cave which represent physical reality, the phenomenal world, with the rote memorization of poetry and the herd mind. The herd mind, being the lowest common denominator, gets stuck in empirical reality perhaps, and adopts the perspective of the atheist since it can never perceive the noumenal. Or, if the herd mind is religious it becomes fundamentalist and dogmatic with no room for the individual who of necessity understands things only to the best of his current ability. Either represents prisoners chained by the neck to look in one direction and not to become a self.

  6. Dr. Bertonneau,

    When I read of Eric Havelock – who I was not familiar with – in your post, my mind thought of the only other one I am familiar with, Havelock Ellis. I’m on passingly familiar with even him, but enough to know he would likely be no friend of the Orthosphere. Anyway, reading the beginnings of his Dance of Life I came across this: “We cannot remain consistent with the world save by growing inconsistent with our own past selves.” I think he means this as a way of becoming good little progressives, but I thought it was fairly interesting in light of the above Kierkegaard quotes.

    • As the old saying puts it: Even a stopped clock — like Havelock Ellis — is right twice a day. (See also Richard Cocks’s two comments above.)

  7. Interesting ideas by Ong. What does he make of the Phaedrus, though, where Socrates has some less than kind words to say about literacy? Also, in the Platonic _dialogues_, men begin to struggle their way out of the cave through dialogue — where shared speech is an exploration in search of truth. Plato’s own creations — and the in-dialogue character of Socrates’ own series of images and stories — show the importance of mimesis as a tool in the ascent of the mind. Yet, we err if we become idolaters of the image or text (cue rapid and disorienting visual montage of po-mo promoters and their silly slogans). Both oral and literate culture have their own proper vices and virtues that obstruct and assist a life striving for wisdom.

    • Ong points out that Plato makes his criticisms of writing in writing.

      According to Aristotle, writing in the Poetics, man is the most mimetic of the animals — a theme taken up two and a half millennia later by Rene Girard. If we speak and write English, it is because as infants and toddlers and later as schoolchildren we imitated the speech of our parents and extended family and larger community. Human beings cannot escape mimesis, but mimesis has two faces. It is good that we learn our native tongue from our parents. As Girard has pointed out, however, it is potentially bad when we imitate the desires of others, particularly those of the one closest to us, our neighbor — hence the Tenth Commandment with its discursive injunction against covetousness.

  8. I think the philosophic objection to poetry is that unreason can be smuggled in under a fog bank of beauty. This is not my opinion, but what I read in the rationalists. They are not wrong, just insufficiently appreciative of the value of the smuggled goods. I do see something analogous when poetry is set to music. Gorgeous music is in this case the fog bank under which unlovely verses can be smuggled.

    Would you say that the discourse of American Blacks is predominantly oral? Everyone can see that Blacks can be stupendous orators, and also that the transcripts of their most moving speeches do not stand up under close reading. They do not have a monopoly on “jive talkers,” but this is certainly an area in which they are not “underrepresented.” If their discourse is predominantly oral, recognition and understanding of this fact would likely improve racial dialogue.

    When I was a boy, my playmates would chide me for “talking like a book.” I wouldn’t be surprised if you and many others here at the Orthosphere were likewise chidden. Some of this was due to a precocious vocabulary, some due to “speaking in sentences.” As you note above, oral discourse loves no word so much as the word “and.” About a month ago, a colleague (PhD, naturally) chided me for this same offensive habit. Actually, I should say she admonished me, for her remark was well meant.

    I believe she was trying to tell me that people dislike a man who they consider their equal (or inferior), if he presumes to stand out by speaking in sentences and using big words. Actually, big words is not correct, since oral discourse loves words that are impressively long. What I mean is words in surprising places and novel combinations. Oralists do not speak in sentences, but they do tend to speak in set phrases and clichés.

    These people seldom “talk like a book,” but if I may coin a new verb to denote authorship, they very often “book like they talk.” I can easily imagine some shaggy tribe chanting the phrases of postmodern scholarship in the shade of a primeval forest.

    • Havelock and Ong claim plausibly that books restructure the mind. One of the ways in which books — the good ones — restructure the mind is by provoking the reader to internalize a careful syntax, a sense of grammatical propriety, and a large vocabulary. Inveterate readers will be the beneficiaries of this type of “restructuring.” The perceptive ones among my students notice that I speak in complete sentences and even that I can insert subordinate clauses during an extempore lecture. It appears to them as a novelty. I doubt whether they aspire to the same fluency. (Too much work.) Other students probably take silent umbrage, lapse into resentful confusion, and wish that they could resort to their cell phones, which I ban from the classroom. When I have completed the lecture, I ask questions about it. Most students, when I address them, stare at me as though they suffered from autism or had just been tasered. Their mouths gape, but they only stutter and finally say, “I don’t know.” They can be adamant about “I don’t know.”

      I never observe white college kids sitting in a group conversing in a lively way about a topic that has excited them. They sit like isolated hunchbacks over their devices. Black college students have this over white college students — that they can sit in a circle, pass around gossip, and laugh loudly at the expense of some scapegoat. (White college students can only scapegoat via Twitter.) But black college students too are addicted to their cell phones, and just as badly as the others. Meanwhile, just about every survey shows that the reading and writing skills of the two groups differ significantly on graduating high school. The “higher performers” nevertheless perform at a level depressingly, oh so depressingly, low.

      For both groups taken together, I tailor written assignments carefully, wording the instructions so as to put off bullshit and limiting the topics to what I might call “non-topical topics.” Let students “choose topics” freely and they “choose” from the narrow range of pseudo-topics on offer from the contemporary mimesis. Then they regurgitate the cliches. Of course — the vast majority of their teachers, from K-12 to college, likewise borrow their topics from the contemporary mimesis and likewise regurgitate cliches. (“Clean-up in aisle five!”) If I did not enjoin students in the instructions from doing so, many of them would write narcissistically, oh so narcissistically, about themselves.

      You wrote: “Oral discourse loves words that are impressively long.” As does pomo prose, which is perpetually busy in recycling polysyllabic philodoxer-material that was already hackneyed in 1848. (Can you say, “intersectionality”?)

      These and other factors have persuaded my wife me and to cut our ties with the institution and settle into retirement when the semester ends.

      • I am sorry to hear that, but I understand. I’m actually a true believer in the university. I don’t want the schools to fail or to disappear; I want them to return to being what they truly are. Who will instruct the barbarians if every civilized man retires to the desert?

    • Very sad. Our nightly lounge talks in undergrad. were ideal mental digestion times, where we would discuss, argue over, and play with what we had recently learnt. Without them, I doubt that I would have really absorbed much of my lessons — I certainly wouldn’t have integrated them into the larger whole of my interior world.

      • I am also a believer in the university, but what now calls itself the university is something else, and something much less than a university. The first chartered university was that of Bologna, which came officially into being in 1088. The university is a Western institution par excellence. The modern West is perversely and vehemently anti-Western. Its subversion of the university belongs to its deadly revaluation of all values – that is, its destruction of all values.

        Literacy probably engenders the art of conversation. I too recall from my undergraduate years (and my drop-out years) how we would read the same book and talk about it long into the night while drinking cup after cup of strong black coffee. Richard Cocks and I, with the cooperation of our friends, do our best regularly to revive the custom at our favorite tavern, Old City Hall. Guinness stout tastes like coffee, and it is a good session beer.

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