Baakko N’Telle, Upstate Consolation University’s Ngombian-born Special Assistant Dean for Sensitivity Issues, has introduced a plan to equip all classrooms with “sensitivity airbags.” According to N’Telle, although UCU’s classrooms have been “smart” for almost a decade (according to an in-house survey, they are the “smartest” classrooms by far in the state system) they have not been “sensitivity smart.” Should N’Telle get his way, as it appears he will, this is about to change. What is a “sensitivity smart” classroom? The dean describes it this way: “A ‘sensitivity smart’ classroom is a digitally ‘woke’ classroom. Tiny ‘open microphones’ and video cameras installed all around the classroom or lecture hall are connected to a voice-and-body-language-recognition computer. The computer’s algorithms, which have been offered gratis to UCU by a Silicon Valley software firm eager to gather data from a field evaluation, can detect microaggressions, hate-speech, male toxicity, white privilege, cultural appropriation, lacrosse-affinity, the Pro-Trump mentality, and all skeptical attitudes towards transgenderism and intersectionality. The voice-and-body-language-recognition computer interfaces with a router that communicates with ‘sensitivity airbag’ canisters attached to the backs of the seats in the classroom or lecture-hall space. At any time during the lecture-period, should anyone say or do anything that triggers the algorithm, the computer will tell the router to actuate the airbags, which work as they do in an automobile.” The system qualifies as sustainable and eco-friendly, its computer, dubbed the M5 by the manufacturer, being powered by rechargeable dimbranium-chloride batteries. Dimbranium refers to a rare metallic element of the Woketinide series found mainly in Ngombia, in neighboring West Mumbambu – where N’Telle incidentally received his education degree – and in the bedrock deep under offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles in coastal North American Cities.
Beginning in the mid-1990s and for about ten years I published a number of articles about the dismal state of the humanities and one of its causes: The savage war against literacy being waged in the public schools by the state-university departments of education that set curricula for K-12. My Modern Age article from 2003, “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition,” synthesizes several of my argumentative strands at the time and suggests the dire state of American literacy already nearly twenty years ago. (Click on the emboldened link to go to a PDF of the article, which may be read online or downloaded.) Things have not improved and they are getting worse all the time.
I find myself prompted to call attention to “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” by the appearance at The American Thinker recently of an article by Bruce Dietrick Price under the title “K-12: History of a Conspiracy against Reading,” which I strongly recommend. (Again, click on the emboldened link to go to the article.)
The decline into a post-literate condition, in which there is no intact oral tradition to which the deprived parties might repair, belongs to the general subscendence of our age.
I believe that “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” does a fairly good job of summarizing the findings of three important scholars of literacy: Walter J. Ong, whose Orality and Literacy (1981) is indispensable; Eric Havelock, who wrote on the early phases of alphabetic literacy in Greece (see his Preface to Plato, 1963); and Barry Powell, whose Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), is bold and monumental.
I merely borrow my headline, which is not original to me, from an article (here) at the Campus Reform website. I urge Orthosphereans to read the article. Meanwhile, so as to quell embarrassment, the CEO of the college has sent out this message:
I am writing to reinforce our deep and abiding commitment to free speech and open expression of ideas at SUNY Oswego. First Amendment rights are foundational to learning and critical thought. Be assured they are honored and respected here.
In the past few days, an interaction and email exchange between a student speaker at “Open Mic” on April 26, 2018 and a staff member has been reported on in Campus Reform (Campus Reform is a project of Leadership Institute. On its website, Leadership Institute says it teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media). Several other media outlets across the country have published the same account.
We have looked into this matter for several days now. We see that misunderstandings and miscommunications might have been avoided. And, while our staff member acknowledged the speaker’s free speech rights and did not literally issue a reprimand, sanction or prohibition, the words used were of a nature that likely led to misinterpretation. For that we sincerely apologize.
I met with the student and had a full discussion of the matter. I commended her on voicing her opinions and seriously explored her impressions of the campus, especially relative to safety. I was heartened to know she is proud she could speak out, feels safe, and has many friends and supporters at SUNY Oswego. She also expressed her love for SUNY Oswego.
But please know, we will not let our guard down; we will continue to encourage all members of our campus community to embrace diversity in all its forms — diversity of people, thought and expression. And, we will remain vigilant about safety, encouraging anyone who feels unsafe or threatened to let us know.
We will remain steadfast in educating all students, faculty and staff that while some ideas are different from and may even be anathema to what we think, it is important that we allow them to be expressed. If we take the opportunity to listen and civilly engage with each other, we might more easily build bridges across our divides, reflect more clearly on our own beliefs and hopefully, acquire greater knowledge. That is who we are at SUNY Oswego.
Yesterday around 10.15 in the morning, I entered the classroom where I teach to set up the audio-visual equipment so that I could screen a film for the students in my 10.20 class. Normally I would have been in the classroom about five minutes earlier, but the previous instructor appeared to be in conference with a student, so I politely delayed my appropriation of the premises. At 10.15, however, I judged that I ought to assert my presence. As I walked through the classroom door, I noticed that the other instructor, a young adjunct, was indeed in conversation, as it seemed, with a tall, male, Caucasian person with long dark hair, whose manner struck me as heated and over-animated in a peculiar and immediately disturbing way. That something odd was going on was instantly confirmed when the person, turning to face me, loudly and truculently demanded to know where I stood on school shootings and gun ownership. When I made it evident that I had no interest in discussing the issue with him, he demanded that I give him my email address so that he could “send me a message.”
I looked at “Bob,” the young instructor, shrugging my shoulders in a silent appeal whether he could explain who this agitated party might be. Bob replied in a quiet voice that he had no knowledge of the loudmouth’s identity. That voluble person was now verbally harassing those of my students who were seating themselves in expectation of the film – insisting loudly and aggressively that they should answer his bizarre and random inquisitions. Drawing me aside, Bob said to me swiftly and in a manner sotto voce that this person had inserted himself into the classroom uninvited early in the session, asking whether he could participate in a debate that Bob’s students were conducting and that he had overheard from outside.
My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.” The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature. I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be. Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet. I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out. I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem. In what person is the poem couched? Whom does the speaker address? What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images? I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone. Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.
It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate. A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention. There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence. A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors. Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins. Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently. While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous. Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more. Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence. In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them. To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade. It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.
A hierarchy that is not consecrated and thus ordered in all its parts to the vision of the Good vouchsafed by the common cult is as likely to work good as is a broken clock to display the correct time. A profane institution is finally, and thus fundamentally, and thus thoroughly misdirected away from the proper mundane end of all human acts: the achievement, maintenance, repair and restoration of that proper harmony among and within things under and toward heaven, in virtue of which alone is there any health, prosperity, propagation, contentment, wisdom.
Reading a book of evangelical theology this afternoon, I realized that there are a few reliable ways we can be sure that an author is a liberal weenie, and that the text he has written is therefore ideologically driven, ergo tendentious (whether witly or not), and probably wrong in its arguments. It is very simple, at least in books of theology. We can be sure that an author is a weenie if:
- He uses “impact” as a verb.
- He uses “image” as a verb.
- He avoids using masculine pronouns in referring to God.
- He uses “gender” to indicate sex.
- He uses “gender” as a verb.
If furthermore there is ever in a writer about ancient texts anything like environmentalism or feminism, egalitarianism or communism, relativism or nominalism, we can be sure that he has read them anachronistically, and therefore wrongly. We can, in short, be pretty sure that he is a hopeless idiot, and what is worse, not even therefore much useful to his sinister god.
What can we take from this? That we should never, ever, ever in a million years commit any such howlers.
Probably I have missed a few. I welcome correction of any such omissions.
As the fall semester began in the first week of August at Upstate Consolation University, student radicals and their faculty sponsors, seeking solidarity with their fellow Social Justice Warriors elsewhere in the country, rallied in the Mehar Shandruff-Danpoo Multicultural Center and Cafetorium, formerly the Andrea Dworkin Memorial Housing and Parking Office, to announce their determination to overturn and smash all statues of Confederate Civil-War heroes currently standing on the teaching-college’s architecturally bland lakeside campus. On leaving the rally, however, to go in search of offensive icons to topple and desecrate, the emotionally overheated crowd could find none. There were various commemorative statues scattered about the grounds of UCU, but not only did none of these represent or honor any Confederate Civil-War hero, none represented or honored any Civil-War hero, or, with one exception, any participant in any war. This fact is perhaps unsurprising given that UCU was only founded in 1958, nearly a century after the Southern surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The absence of targets nevertheless provoked the protesters maddeningly, causing them to retreat to designated “safe places,” where volunteers supplied them with pearl necklaces to clutch and offered smelling-salts to redeem the marginalized and oppressed from their debilitating white-privilege-induced vapor-attacks.
Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic? The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest. Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic. The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix. Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary. The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens. Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest. We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.
Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories. The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole. More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres. The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality. The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness. There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them. No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards. Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death. We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.