In the Valley

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, my colleague down the hall asks:

What does it mean for an undergraduate to pass the morning reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the afternoon parachuting from a helicopter?

It’s a form of the question I’ve been asking myself in the year since I came here, and it’s a question she’s been asking herself much longer. I admire the way she extends the questions she poses into a meditation on the purposes of teaching, and I admire the conclusions she draws as well. Her article is the most thoughtful representation I’ve seen of what it means to teach here, of what it means to teach English here, and of what the productive complications teaching here might bring to the teaching of English. She’s working from the perspective of the teaching of literature, and some of the ways I look at concerns associated with the teaching of writing here are somewhat different — but for much of what she wrote, I found myself nodding my head and saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”

The essay well describes what we do. I’m interested to hear what you might think, reader, especially if you work in rhetoric and composition, or are at all curious about this place. Check it out.

In the Valley

6 thoughts on “In the Valley

  • September 30, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    I read the blog and the article a few days ago and it got me to thinking. Most of the military students I get are those who have just been discharged, or on active ready reserve or something of that sort, typically after serving several years and several tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Except for the former Air Force we get (Fairchild Air Force Base is just outside of Spokane, with it’s survival school as well) most have been the grunts your students will command.

    One thought I had was with regard to the recent “atrocities” that have hit the paper, whether from Blackwater shoot ’em ups or the snipers who laid bait and shot and killed Iraqis before planting detonation wire on them to make the kill “legit.” For the most part, and maybe it’s because these stories don’t make the papers for whatever reasons, I’m not seeing where the First and Second Lieutenants, or Captains, are involved in these events. It’s the non-commissioned officers and their charges. Now, I know, or hear, that the sergeants are what makes the platoon level tick and they require a lot of experience, but despite that, the problems seem to be occurring from that level down.

    Would some time with poetry and literature help these men and women see beyond the brutality? I have on my class sites a quote taken from Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: “It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless” (118). Would the poetry of someone such as Sasson or Owen help prevent the enlisted man from becoming too ruthless? The humanist in me wants to think it would, but I just don’t know. Does including it in the curriculum at the academies help those men from becoming too ruthless?

    Of course, we then have so many career officers who do become ruthless down the road. Do these lessons wear off? Do they only stick with some? Probably yes on both accounts. But I can’t help but thinking that if enlisted men were exposed to poetry and literature, whether it’s The Things They Carried, God is my Co-Pilot (about Flying Tigers and Burmese Hump) or other solid war literature (All Quiet on the Wester Front?) as part of their training and military indoctrination, perhaps there would be few atrocities of the My Lai sort and those that we are tarnishing our national reputation today. One can only hope, at least, can’t we?

    Great article by your colleague. It deserves a wider audience.

  • October 1, 2007 at 7:43 am

    Brad, I haven’t read the article yet, but your response here deserves a wider audience, too. Have you sent it to the NYT?

  • October 1, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    My response, uh, no. Maybe I’ll see if they have a comment section following the article itself. For now though, off to class!

  • October 1, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Mike and Brad, I’ve read the NYT article and offer you a link in return, concerning a young soldier-poet whose brother was in my poetry(writing) class last year.

  • October 2, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Bradley, I’ve certainly encountered some junior officers with expedient morals, so I think it’s more a function of character than anything else — but I want to hope that education can shape character. There are two modes of instruction here: there’s the Army way, which is to give you PowerPoint slides and say, “Don’t do X, Y, or Z!” And then there’s the education side that Elizabeth talks about. It’s an interesting thought you raise: that readings like those that she describes and you suggest might have a place in the enlisted soldier’s basic training. I remember being a sergeant and having one of my colleagues ask me if she could borrow my copy of Ulysses as we prepared to leave for a month-long field training deployment.

    I’ll have a look at your link, Joanna.

  • October 2, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Two people I’ve read of late point to the character issue. One is Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate. The other is Marc Hauser and his Moral Minds, about the hard-wiring, to a certain degree, of morality. The premise of each is that, in essence, there’s nothing we can do with certain students/people, that their morality is beyond our reach as educators. This isn’t an absolute for either, but it gets at the limits of what education, particularly in the humanities, can do. Pinker would say what you call character is human nature, though peculiar to each individual rather than something immutable we all share. It’s not the sore of reading that makes one jump up and go rah-rah, education will save the world. If Pinker and Hauser are right, we can only salvage the salvageable. The rest are beyond our ken.

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