Matthew Arnold vs. Thomas Friedman

Whenever I participate in interviews for prospective administrators or humanities teacher candidates at my school, my first question goes something like this:

Matthew Arnold once wrote that education’s primary purpose was “getting to know [. . .] the best that has been thought and said in the world.” I’ve recently attended a couple of conferences devoted to the brave new world of “21st Century education.” The lecturers at these conferences argue we should be preparing students for global capitalism, making sure they can command computers, work together in groups, plan and implement projects, etc.[1]  A survey of British literature, for example, comes off as impractical in this context.  After all, understanding how WWI’s shattering of Western Civilization’s stained glass window relates to the fragmentary nature of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” isn’t going to have much practical value in negotiating an international real estate transaction.

What’s your take on this dichotomy?  Should we jettison the great books and literature survey courses in exchange for a more practical, hands-on approach to dealing with data?  Does understanding the sequence of the history of thought have any practical value?

Of course, it’s not an easy question, but that’s the point.  And, of course, an astute listener will detect my bias in framing the question.

The truth of the matter is that British literature surveys in high schools are hobbling towards extinction.  Only my school’s sophomore honors classes encounter the historical sequence that features, among other riches,  Romanticism’s rejection of Augustan rationality (cf. the 60’s vis-à-visthe 50’s); the non-honor classes explore the British canon thematically, e.g., Beowulf and Frankenstein headlining a unit on “monsters.”

Instead of a tapestry, they get a quilt.

The counterargument, which I concede has merit, is that students need to understand non-Western cultures in our rapidly shrinking world.  On the other hand, reading a Chinese poem in translation means forsaking sound, which is what poetry is all about.  I would argue that understanding how Keats employs caesura to slow down the lines of “An Ode to a Nightingale” to convey exhaustion might have more analytical merit that engaging with naked poetic ideas from afar stripped of the original interconnections of sound and sense that enhanced their meanings.

* * *

What has sparked this post is a happy coincidence that has occurred in the 9th grade genre course I teach.  This year in the 9th grade we replaced 1984 with The Picture of Dorian Gray as our second semester novel.  As my fortitudinous non-plan planning has had it, I find myself simultaneously teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to freshmen and Heart of Darkness (1899), to sophomores.

Although I concede you could teach both in the monster unit — Gray versus Kurtz – students would be ignorant of the Victorian background that makes the contrasts of these two works and their characters so meaningful.  They would miss out the connection between this:

[Dorian] was seated at the piano, with his back to them, turning over the pages of Schumann’s “Forest Scenes.”

And this, Marlow in “Heart of Darkness” talking about his European colleagues in the Belgium Congo:

“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.”

“21st Century” educational question:  “Are Dorian/Lord Henry/Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ complicit in the slaughter of African elephants?”

 

Dig this; here’s our first peek at Lord Henry, the villain of TPoDG:

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum . . .  [my italics]

Here’s our first peek at Conrad’s alter ego:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.  [my italics]

Indulge me on last contrast, a contrast in how one feels about lying, which is of particular political import right now in the USA.

“Let’s go to the theater tonight,” said Lord Henry.  “There is sure to be something on, somewhere. I have promised to dine at White’s, but it is only with an old friend, so I can send him a wire to say I am ill, or that I’m prevented from coming in consequence of a subsequent engagement.”

Marlow, on the other hand:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

I’ve been highlighting snippets from the other novel to both ninth and tenth grade classes.  I pretend that the two events, Marlow’s telling his horrific story of what he saw in Africa on the Nellie in the Thames and Lord Henry lounging on the divan in Mayfield, are taking place simultaneously.

And, of course, they were.

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[1]Not surprisingly, this information is provided via lecture, rather than having the attendees discover it in group work,

Dialectics

Let’s face it, nuance went out with the rise of cable news.  Not only do politicians not reach across the aisle to seek compromises, but they essentially don’t associate with members of the other parties.  Gone are the days when polar politicians like Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy could become bosom friends, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could “after six o’clock” be friends.

 

No, nowadays, middle ground is no man’s land.

Yesterday, as I was showing my tenth graders a clip from Apocalypse Now in conjunction with teaching Heart of Darkness, it occurred to me that the photojournalist’s speech to Willard as Kurtz reads from TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” is a superb commentary on contemporary American politics.  I offer it without comment except for the tidbit that one of the epigraphs for “The Hollow Men” is “Mistuh Kurtz – he dead,” so essentially Kurtz is reading a poem in which he appears.

 

The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

art by Claire Lambe

art by Claire Lambe

 

Andrew Sullivan’s Take on “This Dystopian Campaign”

facists

[. . .] individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Last night as I watched the Indiana Primary returns on MSNBC, Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, splashed some very frigid water on the prevalent view that Hillary Clinton is a shoo come November. Schmidt pointed out that the conventional wisdom of a Clinton victory doesn’t factor in unexpected events that could alter the electoral landscape.

I had encountered a very similar but more cogent argument earlier in the day via Andrew Sullivan:

Those who believe that Trump’s ugly, thuggish populism has no chance of ever making it to the White House seem to me to be missing this dynamic. Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events. And so current poll numbers are only reassuring if you ignore the potential impact of sudden, external events — an economic downturn or a terror attack in a major city in the months before November. I have no doubt, for example, that Trump is sincere in his desire to “cut the head off” ISIS, whatever that can possibly mean. But it remains a fact that the interests of ISIS and the Trump campaign are now perfectly aligned. Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally.

Sullivan offers this warning in an impressively constructed and detailed argument that commences with Plato’s theory on why democracies ultimately give way to tyranny. Sullivan’s reading of Plato is that “the views and identities” of the populations of what he calls late democracies “become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending.” As religious orthodoxy wanes, so does certainty. Much of the citizenry loses respect for authority. No one has the authority to tell anyone what to do or think:

The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled: “We almost forgot to mention the extent of the law of equality and of freedom in the relations of women with men and men with women.” Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents.”[1] In classrooms, “as the teacher … is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in.[2] The foreigner is equal to the citizen.

With the proliferation of blogging, social media, etc., “there are dramatically fewer elite arbiters to establish [what] is actually true.” The result is that “without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.”

I’m not quite sure Sullivan is right on this point. Certainly, Bernard Sanders is more “emotive” than Hillary Clinton (or at least his emotions seem more genuine), but she has approximately 2 million more votes. However, I do believe that the more emotive the candidate, the more passionate his or her supporters — something we see in the ardor of both Bernard Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s bandwagons.

Interestingly, enough, although he’s writing about Trump’s followers, Sullivan’s words could just as easily describe Sanders’ most ardent supporters:

And what’s notable about Trump’s Sanders’ supporters is precisely what one would expect from members of a mass movement: their intense loyalty. Trump Sanders is their man, however inarticulate they are when explaining why. He’s tough, he’s real, and they’ve got his back, especially when he is attacked by all the people they have come to despise: liberal Democrats and traditional Republicans moderate Democrats.

The bottom line is that Sullivan argues Donald Trump is very, very dangerous, and that we cannot afford to be sanguine:

And so those Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

[1] On many more than one occasion, I have seen and heard students openly mock their parents.

[2] Pre-ripped jeans are all the rage with the moms at my school.

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