I mentioned yesterday how Curtiss’s post provoked my thinking on class and the “liberal education,” but I didn’t manage to articulate everything that I found engaging. Hence this follow-up.
Curtiss quotes a long passage from Leo Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern, with which I’m not familiar, so I’m relying on the account Curtiss gives. I should point out, though, that the term “liberalism” indicates to me that we’re in problematic territory even before we start, since the term — like “class” — is a moving target, and I suspect there might be a bit of play in Strauss’ use of the term to refer either to those in Roman times who were not fettered by slaves’ chains, the ideal cultural values ascribed to such people (and this is the sense from which we get the term “liberal education”), the generosity with money (or pure overindulgence, as in Trimalchio’s case) ascribed to such people, or in contemporary culture, the degree of freedom of the market, or — in perhaps its most common use — political opposition to the right wing.
Anyway — now that I’ve spewed my Recommended Daily Allowance of pedantry — maybe I can actually get to what Curtiss was talking about. He quotes Leo Strauss at length: “The education of the potential gentlemen is the playful anticipation of the life of gentlemen. It consists above all in the formation of character and taste. . . [the gentleman] must possess the skill of administering well and nobly the affairs of his household and the affairs of his city by deed and by speech. He acquires that skill by his familiar intercourse with older or more experienced gentlemen, perferably with elder statesmen, by receiving instruction from paid teachers in the art of speaking, by reading histories and books of travel, by meditating on the works of the poets, and, of course, by taking part in political life. All this requires leisure on the part of the youths as well as on the part of their elders; it is the preserve of a certain kind of wealthy people.” While the suggestion that the patriarch should run the polis like he runs his household could be charitably characterized as feudal, the rest of the stuff on education is practically straight Cicero, right out of De Oratore. In terms of class, there are a few things worth observing.
I was all satisfied with myself for the ways I’d started to get my thinking around the American qualities of the class system I was thinking about in my post yesterday, and I was ready to continue — if you’ll indulge me in a bit of praeteritio — sputtering along in the slow lane today with my foundational readings in Resnick and Wolff. Was being past tense.
The photos of the Genoa anti-globalization protests several months ago made me realize something pretty basic: while the protests dealt with many worker-related concerns, I understood them in terms of nationalist and post-nationalist ideologies. I’d bet that’s an understanding common to a lot of Americans. Darla the Wal-Mart greeter and Ann the librarian and Monte the lawyer don’t watch the news and think about that working-class guy the police shot. They watch the news and think about that Italian guy the police shot. Even when students in American universities learn about the Paris Commune, I’d wager they think of it as an incident in French history, not as an incident in labor history. Despite its title, “L’Internationale” — isn’t. Or at least, it isn’t for Americans: that link back there notes the curious under-/non-reporting of the Tiannanmen Square singing of the anthem in the American press. Contrast this to the American Media’s wholesale embracing of the free-market ideologies of the New Economy. There’s an obvious reason, of course: American ideologies line up much more closely with the ideologies of neoclassical economics than they do with the ideologies of Marxian economics.
Let me shift gears for a minute. Composition, my discipline — university first-year writing instruction — got its real start at Harvard in the latter part of the 19th century, under Charles William Elliot, and got a big push toward its current form at Dartmouth in 1966. To the best of my understanding, it’s a uniquely American phenomenon.
The temperature’s plummeted in the past hour. Still and humid nineties down to cool and breezy seventies. The leaves of the trees have all turned up their pale undersides. It’s going to rain.
Wolff and Resnick, as their title (Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical) might indicate, usefully contrast Marxian and neoclassical theories of economics. Neoclassical theory, of which Hazlitt and Mankiw are exponents, “emphasizes individual behavior, which, it argues, is motivated by rational self-interest. The economy, as neoclassical economists theorize it, is the aggregate end product of individuals maximizing their own material self-interest.” On the other hand, “Marxian theory emphasizes social structure more than individual behavior,” to the point where “The economy, Marxists theorize, is the place in society where exploitation occurs and exerts its powerful influence over the rest of social life” (7). I suspect that most students would be highly unwilling to claim a Marxian view, not only because of its unpopularity in contemporary American culture, but also because the ideology of going to college is one of self-interest, and because students believe that they are acting in their own best interests by going to college. I’d be a jerk and a fool to argue.
I’m asking about student perceptions because Charlie’s questions of whether or not students would claim certain terms and models as their own seems to me both important and difficult, and because various recent discussions of the uses of language make me ask: who is this research for?
It’s for your committee, Mike. That’s all you need to think about.
Do I believe that?
This has nothing whatsoever to do with my dissertation.
In preparation for the final and least pleasant task of my post-ex-girlfriend-moving-out cleaning spree, I bought a pair of bright yellow rubber gloves today, and a matching bright yellow can of Easy Off Heavy Duty Oven Cleaner. I enjoy washing dishes, scrubbing floors isn’t too bad, and I don’t mind cleaning bathrooms, but something about using aerosolized lye just freaks me out. Maybe it’s the warning on the label that says “avoid inhaling spray” and the mental picture of my lungs bleeding on the inside. Maybe it’s the fact that even though I avoided breathing the spray, it still smelled terrible, and my lungs still tingled after using it, so now I’m taking exploratory deep breaths every few minutes to feel just how much they tingle and give myself a morbid thrill at the thought that maybe I’ve done more than cauterize a few thousand alveoli.
I had an Army buddy who worked in the Division Chemical warehouse. He told me this story. He was working in the warehouse one day, he said, when the sergeant driving the forklift missed the proper pedal with his foot. The forklift lurched forward and one of the tines punctured a sealed drum of something particularly nasty and caustic. A lieutenant slapped the alarm. The klaxons sounded, the hazard lights started flashing, and everybody in the warehouse evacuated, except for the sergeant, who couldn’t get his seat belt undone in time. The gate sealed with the sergeant still inside.
The lieutenant didn’t know what to do. Nobody did. It was quiet for a couple seconds, all of them gathered around the door, until the intercom next to the door crackled. “Hal,” the sergeant’s voice said. “Open the pod bay door, Hal.”
There’s an insightful discussion of the academic labor market over at the consistently excellent Invisible Adjunct. Reading the posts there led me to ask whether I should rethink the way I’ve circumscribed my examination of class to focus on students: after all, if I’m going to argue that class structures are enacted, negotiated, altered, or reproduced in the college writing classroom, teachers are certainly components of those class structures. As instructors, teachers may be reasonably expected to foster a student’s class mobility, while at the same time standing as a member of a class to which the student does not belong.
Perhaps somebody’s watching referrer logs: I add a link to my new favorite site, and scant hours later I’m quoted as an example of my favorite rhetorical vice. A vice (or fault or abuse) that I’ve always thought would make a fine name for a cat, I might add. If my grin gets any larger, my ears are going to split.
In other news, I met with Charlie today, who asked me some difficult questions about this project, which is still very, very far from the shaded glades and sunny meadows of Happy Prospectus Land, taking its circuitous path through the Sinkholes of Spleen that guard the approach to the dusty Plains of Overdue Library Books.
Looking back today, I’m a little uneasy about that piece of rather strong language in yesterday’s post. I figure I’d best clarify right off the bat that it wasn’t directed at any real person, but rather the imagined cocktail-party interlocutor. And I just really loved putting “motherfucker” right next to a putting-on-airs untranslated Latin quotation from the Vulgate of Jeremiah via James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I run again tomorrow; I’m going to be doing three days a week, until I get back into the swing of things. I used to be able to do two miles in under eleven minutes, smoking a pack a day, but those days are long gone. My thighs are solid blocks of soreness, partly because the first mile of my two and a half mile route is a steep uphill grade. It’ll get easier. My goal is to be able to do Petticoat Hill, four and a half miles of even steeper road, by the end of Summer.
Anyway, I’m done with Mankiw. Tonight’s project: a quick summary of where I’ve been (I meet with one of my committee members tomorrow), with some questions to guide me on where I’m going.
I should be thinking about Mankiw, I suppose, and the couple hundred pages of macroeconomics I’ve managed to skim through. I’m frustrated, though, because I’ve been following and participating in the discussion about complex language at Kairosnews and its branches elsewhere, and my voice is very much in the minority — as in, what feels like a minority of one.
The consistent thread that I find myself arguing against is the refrain, “Why can’t literary theorists use simpler language? Why does it have to be so difficult?” I’ve already disagreed, at Kairosnews, with the statement’s presumption that language is merely the dress of thought, to be changed plain or fancy at a whim, and I’m disappointed that — after asking twice — I’ve still not heard why people are happy to take English Studies to task for using challenging modes of expression, but would never dare to ask why the language of law, or economics, or theoretical physics has to be so difficult. Part of me suspects that it may, in fact, be class-bound: people see law, economics, and physics as “useful” professions, professions that do powerful work in the world; English and its associated studies are either pleasure reading or memoranda-writing.
I think of the often-told anecdote of the writer who is asked, “So when are you going to get a real job?” and its corollary in the cocktail-party response to the revelation that one is an English teacher: “Oh, I guess I’d better watch my grammar around you, ha-ha.” English, apparently, is the profession of self-indulgent providers of paperback entertainment and the world’s red-pen paper-checkers. I’m sorry: non serviam, motherfucker.
I should be finished with Mankiw by Tuesday evening, I think, after which I’ll be able to start on Resnick and Wolff’s comparison of neoclassical and Marxian economic theories. Tonight, I’m taking a little break from Mankiw after going through a few chapters on macroeconomics, and taking Donna’s suggestion to look at Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality. Faigley’s was actually the first monograph in composition that I’d read, when I was working on my MFA and had just been awarded a teaching assistantship, and was taking a comp theory seminar.
I think an aside is appropriate here. New to the field, I confused (as several people in my situation have done, from what I hear) Victor Vitanza with Victor Villanueva while trying to make a point in the abovementioned seminar. So there was a little mirth at my expense, and I was corrected. (People will say, “How could you? They’re so different!” To which I reply: well, I dunno; if you look at the Marxist angle… But really, it was the Vs. Just the Vs.) But anyway, it started a list for me, of people to never confuse with one another:
1. Victor Vitanza and Victor Villanueva.
2. Sade and Slade. (On a bin in the record store I frequented as a teenager, someone wrote, under “Slade”: “Pronounced Slar-Day.” And, yes, my musical tastes then were such that I was looking in the “Slade” bin.)
3. Patti Smith and Patty Smyth.
4. Alistair Cooke and Aleister Crowley.
You can add to the list, I’m sure.
Back on topic: needless to say, Faigley went completely over my head, and I don’t remember any of it, except that I thought the chapter on “The Networked Classroom” was kinda neat. I was also just finding out about folks like Foucault and Benjamin (my undergraduate days were, how to say, dissipative), so you can probably get an idea of what a big buzzing theory-muddle my head was. But I was enjoying it; I was learning more at one time than I ever had before. So: some initial thoughts on revisiting a barely-remembered Lester Faigley.