Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Academia and Poets

Well, I've given in: I've decided to give these ramblings informative titles. This one is taken from my response to a quarrel between two poets about the efficacy of college education. It's basically a letter to someone who teaches poetry at a college and resented someone else's idea (not mine) that colleges are useless to a poet and most likely harmful:

I have a lot of mixed feelings about academia. I "go both ways" on it. I did 8 years of college and taught for 2 years as an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell, but dropped out of academia in 1969 and have not much looked back.

I think the value of a college education is often overrated, but I also think those who try to make nothing of college degrees or scholars or the like are glib on the subject.

For example, a while back a poet friend of mine in L.A. sent me a poem that harped on the rather too-familiar concept of scholars as being dry as dust and being a kind of parasitical growth on the great bards (especially Shakespeare). My response was (is):

Critics of Scholars

Poets love to gripe about the dry triviality
of scholarship. This is like a flower
telling the fertilizer it stinks.

Of course,too much fertilizer can kill,
and far too much shit gets heaped up
around Shakespeare and other eminences
(who yet tower above the heap);

but this Shakespeare, with whose blaze
we are wont to rout all scholars, as if
rousting bats from a cave by waving a torch --
this Shakespeare, who gave him to us?

We know him because scholars troubled to go blind
searching through scraps of quartos and folios
to patch together what we call "Shakespeare,"
while other scholars glossed for us
the lost meanings of Elizabethan English
("Get thee to a nunnery" -- who knew
that could mean a whorehouse or that,
as recent scholarship reveals, the flowers
in which Ophelia draped herself for drowning
were all well-known abortifacients?)

(Who cares? I do. I want to know.)

And Homer, who is he? (Or she? Or they?) The scholars
spent many a night, many a decade spinning like
Penelope to weave the epics into script
from an oral tradition, translate them, proof them,
annotate them. How much else was lost? We know
of writers called, in their time, greater than Homer,
of whose work no scrap remains. Of others (like Sappho
or Euripides) we have tens of stanzas out of thousands,
a few plays out of dozens.

Literature is a collaboration of creators and scholars
and readers. Most readers miss the point. Most scholars
multiply trivia. And most poets (Penelope's
false suitors?) are fully worthy of their readers.
But here and there a poet says something;
a few critics (how we scorn them!)
spread the word; scholars salvage it; and some readers
get it.

This is hard for most poets to accept: We want our fire
to burn so bright that generations-to-come will be unable
to miss the conflagration. We don't want to have to depend
upon anything or anyone besides our own brilliance.
We don't want to know that the greatest works we know
are known to us because some dusty scholar loved them.

No need to envy their role. WE are the source of power.
But even as we spurn those who lurk on our lines
of power to intercept admiration and redirect it
to their own poor simulacra (poor sponges, dry and brittle
without what they sop up from us), all the more
must we respect those who flow power to power.

I enjoyed much of my time in college, though I found grad. school mainly disappointing. As an undergraduate, I was working out my own ideas about literature, and found few students and fewer teachers who seemed to me to go very deep. I figured in Grad. School I'd find that depth, but most of the teachers and fellow students I encountered at Grad School (Stanford, 1963-67) seemed to me more shallow (and in more excruciating detail) than what I'd encountered as an undergrad.

I think of the seminar papers on Chaucer, for example, the A given a paper that enumerated a whole lot of animal images in Chaucer, the point being (in far more complex and portentous words than these) that there's a lot of animal imagery in Chaucer. I think also of a sweet-tempered, dim professor who gave me a B on what I thought was a good paper. I took it to him and asked why. He said, well, because there were no footnotes. I said, what should I have footnoted? The ideas were mine. I found nothing like them in the critical literature I read. He said, "Well... yes, but I think there should be footnotes."

But, to be fair to academia, when the pre-PhD written test came up a couple years later, there was a question on the same authors, and I responded with the same ideas, and another, younger professor graded it as high as he could (like A++) and said it was brilliant. (There were two guys reading that part of the test, which dealt with 17th Century poetry. One, a bright young guy named, loved my answer. The other was the eminent and coldly forbidding poet and scholar, Yvor Winters (apt name!), who wrote on my answer something like the following: "As I can't decipher his hand-writing, I won't grade his answer." That was a relief, since I'd had some little run-ins with Prof. Winters.)

The topic is very broad. Many of the best-known creative types of the 20th century either didn't go to college or (like F. Scott Fitzgerald) dropped out early. I don't know how to quantify this, but my impression is that the proportion of artists and creative types (writers, painters, inventors, etc.) who have avoided college is greater than the percentage for most other fields and that colleges have not particularly fostered creativity.

Then there's the issue of creative writing in the colleges and whether it fosters creativity or mass produces sameness (the Dana Gioia argument in "Can Poetry Matter"). I don't take sides on that one -- insufficient data, hard to form criteria. Poetry activities often foster sameness wherever poets travel in schools or flocks, whether academic or underground or in cozy poetry clubs.

Then there's the current moral bankruptcy alleged (with some justice) about many disciplines -- sciences, especially social and psych. and medical -- that seem to be operating, within academia, as shills for industry marketing (for example, the pharmaceutical industry). And earlier whole disciplines were created by endowments from CIA front foundations -- allegedly the source of college "Communications" departments and with heavy influence on language majors as well. The CIA endowed disciplines it felt would turn out graduates with the skills needed to man the ramparts in the Cold War (also, largely a CIA invention).

I think the withering away of the apprenticeship system is also relevant. In too many college subjects and in too many colleges, there's an imbalance in the direction of theorizing and away from application. I know this varies from discipline to discipline and from subject to subject, but I think (apart from credentials), in many fields the guy who finds a job in his area and spends his first four years out of high school learning on the job has advantages over the college guy in the same field. Some colleges do include apprenticeships. I know Antioch has always been big on that.

The most basic point about education is one you may find unreal. I've seen this phenomenon in action and seen the remedies work and produce quick, dramatic results: People get stupid when they go past words they don't understand and don't look those words up, get the various definitions and the derivation, see which definition applies, use the word in sentences, etc. Usually a "misunderstood idea" clears up (no matter how eloquently someone has been insisting it makes no sense) when you find out what word, just before that idea entered the text, was misunderstood. This is a tricky area, because the misunderstood word (or partially understood, etc.) is often NOT in the area where the student is having trouble. It's usually just before, right at the end of what the student understands.

Going past misunderstood words makes a student accumulate a sense of not knowing, a kind of hovering anxiety and not-thereness. If he does a lot of this (guessing at meanings from context, never learning to use a dictionary or just being too lazy to look up words), he either gets very stupid, dull, gets angry at the material, stops studying it, leaves school -- or he gets glib, able to say all the words, but not apply them.

[This datum comes from the literacy program promoted by Applied Scholastics. If you'd like information on their educational technology, which is close to miraculous, check out http://www.studytechnology.org/.]

Since most students are NOT taught this in school at any level, those who don't, on their own (or through some wise teacher or parent) learn to look up words do get stupider with study, drop out or become glib. This happens to anyone who reads a lot and doesn't know how to spot misunderstood words and symbols and get them cleared up. Most of the "I hate math" syndrome stems from words and symbols never cleared up in early education -- that and never having been given a clear idea of why they were studying math, what it's for. Sometimes a student can't begin to handle a subject because of misunderstood words in some earlier similar subject, and when that earlier subject is cleared up, the new one becomes easy.

Sometimes behind glibness is an inability to define the little words (like "to" and "in" and "as"). People simply go blank mid-page, find themselves reading the same lines over and over, with whole sections seeming to vanish from the page.

Since students are made to read a lot of text, often text that holds little personal interest for them, is just an assignment to be gotten through, students are likely to get stupider in the course of an education. I observed this myself in grad school and when teaching at Cornell: The freshmen, were brighter than the seniors and the undergrads were brighter than the grad students, this despite the fact that the grad students were, theoretically, a more elite group. I taught a seminar at Cornell (in what I called "The Involuted Novel" -- Nabokov, Kafka, Robbe-Grillet, Sterne, Melville's "The Confidence Man", stories from Borges) in which, both times I taught it, the students included undergrads and grads. Several of the undergrads got it right away and came up with some great ideas. (One wrote me an involuted final.) The grad students could only try to fit these books into pre-existing labels that missed the point. None of my fellow professors had a clue (the ones who got interested), though some of them who didn't get it, still said it was brilliant. (There was one prof. at Stanford who really got it -- and another who got it well enough to borrow from it, without acknowledgement, using my words as his own in at least one published article. Flattering!)

I know the stereotypes -- undergrad girls taking English for their MRS degrees, dumb jocks, etc. But my own experience was that the undergraduates, though they didn't always have the terminology, were brighter than the grad. students. And though most of the freshmen couldn't write a sentence in their first paper, they progressed a lot faster than the seniors.

On the other hand, where someone really could read and understand and think and apply, he'd be a powerhouse by the time he finished grad. school.

As for your statement that much of later college education deals with critical thinking, etc. -- I was told that in my day, but didn't find it so. Or rather, I didn't feel that the critical thinking promulgated went very deep. I don't know what it's like currently. One thing I do know: We didn't then have a huge number of college kids who'd been put on drugs in grade school. I imagine that in some ways college kids are in much worse shape now than even in the fabled druggie '60s. I do NOT believe that Ritalin is good for people or makes a student brighter or more alive. Ditto anti-depressants. Etc.

But this affects all areas of life (work place as much as academia). I mention it because I suspect that academia is not a better place now than it was in the 1960s, when I got my closest look at it.

I had several professors whose courses I enjoyed, one I greatly admired, but mostly I found the professors boring (in at least one case, this was my blindness, my preoccupation with going my own way, my assumption that no one had anything of value to say with me, but in most cases, I think they were simply boring). What made college interesting was the opportunity to seek out authors I cared for and to formulate my own ideas in papers. I wasn't with my fellow students and professors most of the time. I was "with" the authors I was reading and relating directly to them. The professors loomed dimly on the room's horizon, crass interlopers.

I felt the courses I taught were of some value to my students, but I didn't think they were valuable enough. I wanted to do more than that. But I stayed with academia until I felt maybe I could do better work elsewhere.

One way to put it is that certain works of literature gave me tremendous joy, and I wanted to make that joy or that source of joy accessible to others. Ditto the joys of creating literature. The difficulties I encountered, I'd say, were threefold:

1. Much expected of a professor seemed to me contra-productive. (Academic small talk, Staff meetings...yikes!)

2. Difficulties in conveying to students what I'd hoped to convey (but some victories along the way, large and small).

3. Difficulties in my own life that distanced me from my own capabilities to feel that joy, to create, to enjoy literature, and my having such difficulties lessened my confidence in the value of my work: If my own life stumbled about so much, what had I to give others? (And actually, I DID have some things to give, KNEW I did, but couldn't understand why, knowing the things I knew, I could still be so unhappy much of the time.) It seemed to me that it was necessary to resolve life itself (what makes joy accessible and makes wisdom stable enough to live with? What enables creation?).

(It didn't help that my first marriage had broken up my last year of grad. school, and that I'd come to Cornell because, of my acceptances, it was the one place that had appealed to my then wife. Then we broke up, she stayed at Stanford, and I was in "centrally isolated" Ithaca. Came to love the place, its gorges, fine autumns, etc., but that first year, 67-8, was rough.)

In retrospect, I learned some things worth learning -- with the help of professors or in spite of professors -- and found much to enjoy in college.

But whether academia overall has value is another matter. There are pluses and minuses, teachers who stimulate and teachers who dull, subjects that are mostly lies and opinions and arbitraries, subjects that produce useful results, etc. I think it possible that academia harms more than it helps. I also think that's a hard thing to measure. Whether or not YOU are doing something useful is not the point. You could be a paragon among educators. That wouldn't mean that the educational system is doing more good than harm.

These things are not so easy to sort out. Before Germany became NAZI Germany, its university system was supposed to be the finest in the world, admired and emulated by American colleges, for example. When Germany became book-burning, Jew-killing Germany, the unversities mostly went along with this or led the way. And German academics in the field of eugenics (like Ruden) anticipated Hitler and laid the groundwork for the Holocaust. (Note: Modern psychiatry descends in both theory and in avatars -- early leaders -- from that same eugenics movement, as does psychology -- well documented in several books, most notably "The Men Behind Hitler".)

How sane is our society? It can be and has been argued that the humanities lag behind the sciences, so that we have people who are spiritually and ethically deficient controlling way too much physical force (e.g., nuclear energy, genetic modification...), and that this air-conditioned, high-horse-power, connected-up nation is going to hell fast in many ways -- for example, the number of people medicated, the genetically altered food, the loss of environment and species (etc., etc.). The reverse can be argued, that things are better than ever before, that global warming is a figment of liberal imaginations, etc. cubed.

If, indeed, we're lopsidedly materialist (humanities underdeveloped), it's futile to blame science for this. We (literary types, for example) need to look to our own work -- what have we not done that we should have done? Have we, for example, failed to communicate broadly enough beyond narrow poetry circles? Or have we failed to find the wisdom that we should have been communicating?

If you happen to think that the planet isn't in great shape and that this society isn't in great shape, you need to ask what part of the responsibility for that must be borne by academia? I don't see us becoming NAZI America, but whatever we're becoming may turn out to be monstrous. So it is not terribly counter-intuitive to doubt whether our colleges are assets to long-term survival of individuals or the nation or the world. Are universities Horatio at the Bridge, stemming the forces of chaos and defending and creating civilization? Certainly the Pre-World-War-II German university staffs looked upon themselves that way, and were viewed that way by most university professors all over the world.

One answer is to say all this has nothing to do with higher academia. The world's problems are caused by stupid politicians, bad science, illiterate populace, bad elementary schools, churches, etc. Then one must ask, why haven't colleges turned out wise statesmen, responsible scientists, teachers who can teach, etc.?

I personally think that this planet has been on a downward spiral for a long time. I don't blame academia for this, but do think it more a part of the problem than part of the solution. But I tend to think of poets (academic or not) that way too. Not individual poets, just the general ruck of us.

I also think something can be done about it and that a lot of people (in and out of academia) are doing good things.

If you're doing good where you are, that's fine. Love the one you're with.

I have no way to prove to myself or others that I've done better for myself and others by leaving academia in 1969. But I don't regret having left. And I have my satiric moments, when, for example, I create verbal droodles like the following:

Hackademic poetry
Hackendemic poetry
Acanemic poetry
AKA demi-monde

Dean, but no longer an academic dean.

1 comment:

chuck said...

Something About Heart.
To 'academe' or not to...
Is not a vital question.

But to write from the heart,
with sense and sensibility...
Therein, the wellspring of a poet's art...