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November 30, 2004 [feather]
Liability 101

One thing working at a boarding school has made me think about a lot is liability--not because there is anything out of order with my present employer, or with the school's students, but because the caretaking function boarding schools necessarily undertake inevitably makes one highly aware of how vulnerable they are to things going suddenly, massively, scandalously wrong. When you are the one making sure other people's kids are safe and accounted for--that they are not only well taught, but well nurtured and well watched--you become aware of how much you cannot see and cannot know and cannot prevent; you become aware of how, even in a scrupulously run institution, there are always a number of lawsuits seemingly waiting to happen--not because of any institutional negligence, but simply because of the sheer vertiginous contingency of housing dozens, if not hundreds, of teenagers living away from home.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is currently charged with clarifying the precise nature of independent schools' liability in that state--ironically because, as nonprofit and therefore charitable institutions, these schools have access to legal loopholes that appear to absolve them from responsibilities they really should have, such as ensuring that students are not sexually abused by teachers or staff.

The case is a nasty one, the lawyer is a famous one, and the legal issue is a knotty one. Here's a summary of the case from the New York Times:


In a case brought by a man who says he was sexually abused as a pupil at a boarding school that tolerated pedophiles on its staff, the New Jersey Supreme Court was urged on Monday to revisit the legal protection of nonprofit organizations from negligence lawsuits.The case raises accusations against former staff members at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J., that date from the 1970's. Some former students came forward years later, after the sexual abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests in Boston, to report abuse at the Boychoir School.

The case is aimed at bringing New Jersey into line with about 40 other states that have abandoned the doctrine of charitable immunity, which protects institutions from most lawsuits by people who were their beneficiaries. It carries potentially damaging consequences not only for the nationally renowned Boychoir School but also for the Catholic Church in New Jersey.

The lawyer for John W. Hardwicke Jr., who was enrolled at the Boychoir School as a 12-year-old in 1969, told the justices the school had "pervasive, institutionalized sexual abuse."

The lawyer, Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor, noted scholar on intellectual property law, and a former Boychoir School student himself, said that for two years Mr. Hardwicke "was repeatedly raped and sodomized by the choir director, the headmaster, the proctor, even by the cook."

Mr. Lessig urged the court to affirm the decision of its appellate division that the state's charitable immunity law does not excuse a school's duty of care to its students. The main opinion in the appellate division's decision said that "a child's fundamental right to bodily integrity cannot be found secondary to a charity's well-being."

But the school's lawyer, Jay H. Greenblatt, argued that it could not be held liable for the staff members' acts because they were outside the scope of their employment.


Lessig has authored some of the most important recent books on intellectual property, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas, and Free Culture, and he blogs about intellectual property at lessig.org. His decision to take Hardwicke's case marks a departure from his regular line of work that is as interesting as it is important. Lessig, who attended the school during the 1970s, told Newsday that up to half the students in the school were molested while they were there.

Erin O'Connor, 9:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)




November 29, 2004 [feather]
If you care about the humanities

Then you must read Mark Bauerlein's absolutely smoking essay on bad academic writing. A review of Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb's belated collection of essays responding to Denis Dutton's infamous Bad Writing Contest, Bauerlein's article meticulously picks apart the academic defense of obscure and obfuscatory prose, and does so in clear, precise, scalpel-sure language.


We should apply the pragmatic test to today's theorists. What if in the end nobody abandons common sense and adopts the theory habit? Butler aims to "provoke new ways of looking" and Culler repeats Emerson's dictum, "Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul," but what if nobody is provoked? This is not quite the same verdict that Leftist critics of bad writing such as Katha Pollitt, draw, namely, that the theorists' recondite language cuts them off from real politics. Rather, it recalls the simple truth that, as a matter of historical record, only certain disruptions thwart common sense and alter the world. In a word, the "anti-styles" only work if they create as well as destroy. If ordinary language is a repository of naturalized values, then the artist/critic's counter-language must supply other values in infectious, admissible ways: one common sense world collapses only if another takes its place. If you propose to explode certain attitudes and beliefs, and to do so by disrupting their proper idiom, then you must compose a language compelling, powerful, memorable, witty, striking, or poignant enough to supplant it. Your language must be an attractive substitute, or else nobody will echo it.

Needless to say, the theorists haven't achieved that and never will. A genuine displacement comes about through an original and stunning expression containing arresting thoughts and feelings, not through the collective idiom of an academic clique smoothly imitated by a throng of aspiring theorists. The writings of Pound, MallarmÈ, Faulkner, and H.D. each form a unique signature and inspire theorists to daring interrogations, but few idioms are as conventionalized as 1990s critical theory. In her op-ed, Butler mentions slavery as a common-sense notion that had to go (Warner echoes the self-inflating comparison), but none of the abolitionists followed the "difficult writing" strategy. Frederick Douglass was a dazzling rhetorician, and Warner's example, Thoreau, composed epigrams honored for their pithy brilliance. By comparison, theory prose is a clunker. Its success in the academy lies not in surprising conversions of common-sense minds, but in quick and easy replication by AbDs. If critics assume a duty to undermine common sense, very well, but they need to devise a different counter-speech, not insist on the value of their current one.

With this collection, theorists stay with the prevailing manner, and they'll probably continue to do so. Stuck in an attitude that combines the adversarial with the self-congratulatory, they mingle avant-garde visions with a protest conception of the university, turning crisis, notoriety, and alienation into a triumph and ignoring the diminishing status of the humanities. Here is Cathy Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, musing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (24 October 2003) on current conditions:


Even today, some of the best sellers at university presses are the ones that many (not I, by the way) would call "jargon-laden" and "narrow." . . . I find this to be one of the most interesting and vital times in scholarship in my career. I appreciate the melding of the theoretical with the historical, the turn to the genuinely interdisciplinary, the opening up of history to cultural studies and mass culture, and the very lively writing I am finding in so many first books, in particular.

So much for Leslie Fiedler, George Orwell, Raymond Aron, and dozens of other cultural theorists who preceded the theory revolution; so much for the hundreds of manuscripts that press readers return every year for developmental editing; and so much for the fact that, as a Yale Press editor admitted recently in a public lecture, twelve years ago university presses could count on 1000 guaranteed salesónow it's 200.

Until humanities professors acknowledge just how much the enterprise has dwindled, they won't regain outside respect. The Bad Writing Contest ran its course, but other undignifying stories will arrive in turn. This is the worst consequence of efforts like Just Being Difficult? They defend an endeavor that profits only theorists and that only theorists esteem. In crude terms, if these theorists win, the humanities lose. The more their practices spread among graduate students and junior faculty, the more irreverence creeps in among science faculty, university administrators, the media, and the interested public. Theorists may preserve their own standing among their colleagues, but what about tomorrow's needs? Every spring and fall, practitioners must justify humanities inquiry to people who haven't been acculturated to the theory outlook. When future professors present to deans their hiring plans, recruit undergraduates to the major, answer questions from journalists, and submit research proposals to foundations and government agencies, will today's theorists have supplied an effective, noble agenda?


An Emory English professor and NEA officer, Bauerlein knows whereof he speaks. He may know, too, that the "theorists" who most need to hear him are precisely those most likely to dismiss him. But so be it: When the academic humanities are finally, definitively destroyed by the studied, self-important irrelevance of theorists' dogmatically inaccessible progressivist stance, no one will be able to complain that there were not cogent warnings of what was to come.

Erin O'Connor, 8:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (13)




November 24, 2004 [feather]
Hide your pride--or else

You are sixteen, and you attend public school. Can you wear a t-shirt to school that bears a pink triangle logo and the phrase, "Make a difference?" Can you wear a t-shirt to school that has a rainbow printed on it and says "I'm gay and I'm proud"?

Webb City High School in Missouri says no; the ACLU says yes. It is suing the school on behalf of Brad Mathewson, a junior who was ordered not to come to school wearing gay rights messages on his clothing--even though, at the time of the order, the school permitted students to come to school wearing clothing with anti-gay messages (the school has since censored those messages, too).

The ACLU argues that the school is violating Mathewson's First Amendment rights, citing a 1969 Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing students free speech except in situations when administrators can prove that such speech would "materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school." No such interference occurred with Mathewson's clothing, which, ironically, he acquired from the Gay-Straight Alliance at his previous school.

Erin O'Connor, 7:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)




November 23, 2004 [feather]
Whither American literature

An excellent post at Maud Newton's site about forgotten American authors has led me belatedly to Jonathan Yardley's 2002 survey of American literature for The Washington Post. Yardley is particularly good on the much-disputed subject of whether the rise of academic writing programs has had a negative effect on the course of American literature. Noting that William Faulkner--a staunch non-academic--was the best thing that ever happened to twentieth-century American literature, and arguing that Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953, was the last truly great American novel, Yardley goes on to characterize the fate of a genre that has become the prized homogenized property of English departments. The rise of creative writing programs, Yardley writes,


began slowly during the 1950s but accelerated rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s as money flooded onto the campuses during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. At first nobody much noticed, indeed some (yours truly included) assumed it was good for writers to have the financial support and security that college appointments provided. By the 1980s, though, a number of unanticipated repercussions had become apparent. One was that some writers became so caught up in departmental responsibilities and other distractions that they stopped writing. In many cases that was no great loss. Of far more serious import was the isolation of writing-school students (and teachers) from real-world America. The campus, for all its attractions, is a poor place to get any feel for life as most Americans live it, yet the campus had become not merely the training ground for ostensibly literary American writers but the only place they knew anything about.

Apart, of course, from their own psyches. A cartoon in the New Yorker several weeks ago said it all. Two people are in a bookstore. One stands in front of a section called "Self-Improvement," while the other is browsing "Self-Involvement." That, exactly, summarizes the state of the art of literary fiction in these United States in the year 2002. Much of it is written and constructed with technical facility, for technique is one thing the schools can teach. But it rarely is interested in anything except the inner lives and private experiences of the author-surrogates who are its central characters. It connects with itself but has little to say to the world outside, indeed makes surprisingly feeble effort to connect with that world. It is flat and lifeless--by way of example, consider all those who have followed in the train of that echt minimalist, Raymond Carver, the Jehovah of the writing schools--and just about the only people who appear to read it are other riders on the writing-school circuit.

There is more life in some of the fiction being written by (mostly) younger writers who speak from experience not previously reflected in American literature: people who have come here from Latin America, Asia, the Subcontinent, and all the other parts of the world that have contributed to the incredible heterogeneity from which the country now profits and with which it wrestles. In some of this fiction the energy of cultural clash is vividly reflected, and the addition of these voices--Amy Tan, Dagoberto Gilb, Chitra Divakaruni, Gish Jen, Sandra Cisneros, Han Ong, Julia Alvarez and so on--to the literary conversation is as welcome as it is overdue. But because most of these writers are being trained in the writing schools, too often their work is characterized by the same obsession with self we find in that of writers from more conventionally American backgrounds. The accent is different, but self is still the subject.

[...]

One can always hope for a surprise, a novel with as much ambition and sinew and breadth and depth as [Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Wharton's The House of Mirth, Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, Ellison's Invisible Man and Nabokov's Lolita], and as one who makes his living passing public judgment on new books I pray that such a book comes along.

But present conditions do not favor it. Not merely do the writing departments quarantine their students from American life, but many gifted young Americans who might have written fiction in earlier times now enter other fields--movies and television most particularly--where they anticipate greater creative and financial opportunities. Many of those who do write books in what can be called a creative way now write nonfiction: history, biography, the higher journalism, and the memoir--this last having replaced the coming-of-age novel as the wellspring of literary self-absorption. With the possible exception of Toni Morrison, there is not a single American writer of literary fiction who could be called famous in the larger world of mass culture and celebrity--the way Fitzgerald was famous in the 1920s, Hemingway in the 1940s and 1950s--and her fame rests less on her work than on her Nobel Prize and the promotion she has been given by Oprah Winfrey.


Yardley goes on to suggest that genre fiction is where it's at in contemporary American letters, noting that storytelling proper has become the provenance of Raymond Chandler's descendants, spy novelists and mystery writers. Writers of what Yardley calls "literate popular fiction" such as Tom Wolfe and Michael Chabon also receive respectful mention as people who still put a premium on that increasingly rare commodity, plot.

A worthy supplement to Yardley's meditation is Maud's annotated bibliography of great but forgotten American writers--for if academia is to blame for imposing a numbing conformity on the writers it trains and houses, the publishing industry bears responsibility for letting innovators who don't sell well go out of print.

Erin O'Connor, 9:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)




Finally

There's a comprehensive e. e. cummings biography.

Cummings was the poet that got me interested in poetry. I owned a volume of his complete works as a high school student, and it was one of the few books that I brought with me to college.

Here's the cummings poem I have always most unreasonably loved:


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

Erin O'Connor, 8:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)




November 22, 2004 [feather]
Demonstrating potential

We talk so much about this intangible quality called "potential"; we spend so much time designing tests that will measure it, writing letters of recommendation that will testify to it, glorifying it in our pedagogical theories, and so on. All of this activity suggests that we know what we are talking about when we talk about potential. It also suggests that we believe absolutely that school is and ought to be the proving ground for it, that conformity to the norms of the school is not only an achievement in itself, but is also an indicator of whether one is likely to succeed in the world beyond school. These aren't entirely hollow propositions, but they are terrifically limited ones.

Consider the following profile of a profoundly undistinguished college student:


Without enthusiasm, he enrolled in the fall semester of 1919 as a "special student," a category that allowed returning veterans to enter the university without the usual qualifications, such as a high-school diploma. [He] would hang around for the next two years, taking courses, rarely turning in a paper or showing up for an examination. In one English class on Shakespeare, he was asked by his professor what Othello meant by a certain speech and replied: "How should I know? That was nearly 400 years ago, and I wasn't there." All teachers have encountered students like that, and we are usually quite happy when the semester ends and that wiseacre disappears into the mist.

Paying little or no attention to his formal course work, [he] nevertheless wrote a good deal of poetry and fiction, and he became a regular contributor to the student literary magazine. He also spent a lot of his time on the local golf course, and was a fixture at fraternity parties. His main academic influence was an English professor named Calvin Brown, who lived nearby. Brown read [his] work and offered advice; he also suggested directions for [his] reading. But the formal strictures of academic life had no appeal for the budding writer.

After kicking around for a couple of years without purpose, [he] got a job in the winter of 1921 at the university post office at Ole Miss. For the next three years, he lived with his parents and served as the man behind the grate who sold stamps and sorted the mail.


That's not just any dropout; that's William Faulkner, who remained phobic about the academic culture that loved him for the rest of his life (at the one academic conference he ever attended, he threw up in an alcoholic display of discomfort). The profile is Jay Parini's, and is well worth reading.

One of Parini's most interesting points concerns the degree to which academe's love affair with Faulkner--which eventually resulted in his becoming a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia--may have contributed to the marked academic flattening of "literary" fiction that we see today:


It was quite rare, before the 1960s, for colleges or universities to provide a home for writers, and many of the well-known literary figures of the 20th century --ÝEliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stevens, and others --Ýhad little or nothing to do with academic settings. They often went out of their way to avoid them, as if fearing that somehow their time or creative talent would be sapped by the academy. Among writers of that period, Robert Frost was a notable exception. He was a familiar figure at Amherst, the University of Michigan, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Middlebury from 1917, when he first stepped onto the campus at Amherst, until his death in 1963. Interestingly enough, Frost also shared with Faulkner a sense of having been self-educated. He attended Dartmouth briefly, then Harvard for almost two years, but he never graduated, and it was not until middle age that he made his peace with the academy.
In some ways, the success of Faulkner at the University of Virginia may well have encouraged other institutions to invite writers into their midst.

Beginning in the '60s, writers have become familiar on campuses, and many creative-writing courses are taught by professors who have some experience themselves as writers. Given the broad access to higher education in the United States in the past four or five decades, it seems unlikely that writers will emerge --Ýor teach --Ýin the academy who have not been formally educated. That means, of course, that the rough-hewn idiosyncrasy that marks Faulkner's novels and stories may be a thing of the past, as readers now expect a certain conformity to the norms of "educated" writing. The obvious downside, perhaps, is that originality of a kind suffers, and contemporary fiction certainly does seem beset by an element of homogeneity, even a certain blandness. (Some of the exceptions, like Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, owe something of their own freshness to their reading of Faulkner.)


A thorough history of American literature's co-optation by the university remains to be written, not least because that history is still very much unfolding. It's clear, though, that Faulkner's career and ongoing influence is an important chapter in that history.

Parini has just published a new biography of Faulkner, One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner.

Erin O'Connor, 10:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)




Et tu, Brutus.1?

Here's the opening paragraph of a new work of campus fiction:


Dave Striver loved the university - its ivy-covered clocktowers, its ancient and sturdy brick, and its sun-splashed verdant greens and eager youth. The university, contrary to popular opinion, is far from free of the stark unforgiving trials of the business world: academia has its own tests, and some are as merciless as any in the marketplace. A prime example is the dissertation defense: to earn the Ph.D., to become a doctor, one must pass an oral examination on one's dissertation. This was a test Professor Edward Hart enjoyed giving.

The author? A computer.

Erin O'Connor, 7:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)




November 19, 2004 [feather]
Dubious about In Dubious Battle

I've just finished reading John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, his 1936 warmup for The Grapes of Wrath. In Dubious Battle tells the story of Jim Nolan, who joins the Communist Party in the opening scene and who spends the body of the book helping organize and execute a strike among California apple pickers. As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself that this book walks a fine line between storytelling and pamphleteering; it calls itself a novel, but it reads like a political treatise; it's hard to think of it as narrative, not hard at all to think of it as propaganda.

Interestingly, when the book was published, The New Republic registered the tension I describe by trying to efface it. Here's a snippet of the review:


In Dubious Battle cannot be dismissed as a 'propaganda' novelóit is another version of the eternal human fight against injustice. It is an especially good version, dramatically intense, beautifully written. It is the real thing; it has a vigor of sheer storytelling that may sweep away many prejudices.

Other reviewers were less willing to treat Steinbeck's historically specific, often heavyhanded critique of American capitalism as some sort of subtle, transcendental statement. Some saw him as a politician, and dubbed him the "proletarian novelist." Others saw him as simply absurd: Mary McCarthy wrote in The Nation that Steinbeck's novel was "infantile" and "childish." More recently, Terry Teachout has called Steinbeck a "second-rate propaganda pusher."

To complicate matters, the propaganda that Steinbeck was said to push conflicted with his own politics: though his sympathy with the plight of migrant laborers earned him a place among leftist intellectuals, Steinbeck was a patriot who despised communism; he alienated the left with his support for the Cold War and his defense of the war in Vietnam; the U.S. government, angered that his works were being used as anti-American propaganda in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, investigated him as a possible communist.

I don't always love Steinbeck's fiction (though I adore East of Eden), but I do like thinking about it. I especially like Steinbeck's political unplaceability, the way that his politics could not be pigeonholed; he was neither a man of the right nor the left; he was a libertarian who could criticize the runaway greed of the California growers. And I like how Steinbeck's unplaceability resulted in fiction whose philosophical origins thoroughly complicate and confound it--you think one thing about Steinbeck's mission when you just read the novels, but you think something else when you find out about his beliefs. That may mean that the fiction is a failure. But, then, it may also mean that Steinbeck has been failed by his readers.

Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Here's an excerpt from his speech:


Humanity has been passing through a gray and desolate time of confusion. My great predecessor, William Faulkner, speaking here, referred to it as a tragedy of universal fear so long sustained that there were no longer problems of the spirit, so that only the human heart in conflict with itself seemed worth writing about.

Faulkner, more than most men, was aware of human strength as well as of human weakness. He knew that the understanding and the resolution of fear are a large part of the writer's reason for being.

This is not new. The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.

Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat - for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

Erin O'Connor, 2:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)




November 18, 2004 [feather]
More game

Quote for the day:


It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.

Who said that, and what was the context for the statement?

Erin O'Connor, 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)




November 17, 2004 [feather]
Game

Here's a hell of a paragraph:


Yesterday afternoon the six-o'clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit. I'm not sure what there is to be said about it; after all, she was only ten years old, still I know no one of us in this town will forget her. For one thing, nothing she ever did was ordinary, not from the first time that we saw her, and that was a year ago. Miss Bobbit and her mother, they arrived on the same six-o'clock bus, the one that comes through from Mobile. It happened to be my cousin Billy Bob's birthday, and so most of the children in town were here at our house. We were sprawled on the front porch having tutti-frutti and devil cake when the bus stormed around Deadman's Curve. It was the summer that never rained; rusted dryness coated everything; sometimes when a car passed on the road, raised dust would stand in the air an hour or more. Aunt El said if they didn't pave the highway soon she was going to move down to the seacoast; but she'd said that for such a long time. Anyway, we were sitting on the porch, tutti-frutti melting on our plates, when suddenly, just as we were wishing that something would happen, something did; for out of the red road dust appeared Miss Bobbit. A wiry little girl in a starched, lemon-colored party dress, she sassed along with a grownup mince, one hand on her hip, the other supporting a spinsterish umbrella. Her mother, lugging two cardboard valises and a wind-up victrola, trailed in the background. She was a gaunt shaggy woman with silent eyes and a hungry smile.

Name the author, name the work.

Erin O'Connor, 5:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)




November 16, 2004 [feather]
The sociology of amorals

Tom Wolfe's latest, a campus novel entitled I am Charlotte Simmons, has received some witheringly dismissive reviews, perhaps most notably by Princeton English professor and former MLA president Elaine Showalter, who sniffs and grimaces her way through a catalogue of the novel's inadequacies in a review whose title says it all: "Peeping Tom's Juvenile Jaunt." Showalter has some points--it's hardly news that college students today drink, do drugs, and have sex, and a novelist who wants to do something new with the worn material of campus life is going to have to find more to talk about than frat parties and the sociology of hooking up. At the same time, the sheer venom of Showalter's review ("Wolfe's latest novel is bitchy, status-seeking, and dissecting --Ýand this time, unfortunately, numbingly juvenile") leaves one to wonder whether she is not defensively obfuscating some of the novel's deeper, perhaps more threatening points.

So it's nice to see that David Brooks has written what appears to be a necessary corrective to blanket dismissals such as Showalter's, acknowledging the novel's shortcomings while insisting on the essential importance of its message:


I don't agree with all of Wolfe's depiction of campus life. He overestimates the lingering self-confidence and prestige of the prep school elite. He undervalues the independence of collegiate women, and underplays the great yearning to do good that surges out of most college students. Life on campus isn't really as nasty as Wolfe describes it. Most students are responsible and prudential and thus not as ribald as Wolfe makes them out to be.

But he's located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, where it's not clear if you're going out with the person you're having sex with, where it's not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.

In other words, we have constructed this great apparatus to fill their minds - with thousands of Ph.D.'s ready to serve. But when it comes to courage, which is the pre-eminent virtue since without it nothing else lasts, we often leave them with the gnawing sense that they really should develop it, though God knows how.


I have not read Wolfe's new novel, but I am heartened to see Brooks arguing that the point of I am Charlotte Simmons is not to perform a self-importantly farcical takeoff on campus manners, or the lack thereof (we have enough of those sorts of novels already), but rather to consider the personal consequences for young adults of a morally unmoored, profoundly unprincipled educational climate. That's something that has occupied me, as readers well know, for some time.

Ironically, one of the ways universities work to ensure that students' capacities for moral reasoning are stunted is by trying to regulate them in all the wrong places--through, for instance, ideologically loaded, personally invasive sensitivity training; or through speech codes that forbid students to say anything that might offend anyone who belongs to a historically oppressed group; or through a tenure system that has become a means of political gatekeeping that in turn ensures that some ideas get a lot more credence than others among faculty and students and that therefore the intellectual life of the campus--at least in the humanities and social sciences--tends to be constrained, even strangulated, by the demands of a devastatingly anti-intellectual conformity.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers who have read, or are reading, I am Charlotte Simmons. What is the nature of Wolfe's critique of campus culture? Does he have anything new to say? If so, what is it? Do reviews like Showalter's ring more true to you than Brooks'? Or is it the other way around?

Erin O'Connor, 8:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)




November 14, 2004 [feather]
From Faulkner's Wild Palms

The main character, Wilbourne, has quit his job as a hack writer in Chicago to run off with his lover Charlotte, a failed artist and sometime window-dresser, to freezing weather and no prospects in a Utah mining camp. He explains why to his friend and drinking buddy McCord (who is said to be modeled after Hemingway):


"Respectability. That's what did it. I found out some time ago that it's idleness breeds all our virtues, our most bearable qualities--contemplation, equableness, laziness, letting other people alone; good digestion mental and physical: the wisdom to concentrate on fleshly pleasures--eating and evacuating and fornication and sitting in the sun--than which there is nothing better, nothing to match, nothing else in all this world but to live for the short time you are loaned breath, to be alive and know it--oh, yes, she taught me that; she has marked me too forever--nothing, nothing. But it was only recently I have clearly seen, followed out the logical conclusion, that it is one of what we call the prime virtues--thrift, industry, independence--that breeds all the vices--fanaticism, smugness, meddling, fear, and worst of all, respectability. Us, for instance. Because of the fact that for the first time we were solvent, knew for certain where tomorrow's food was coming from (the damned money, too much of it; at night we would lie awake and plan how to get it spent; by spring we would have been carrying steamer folders in our pockets) I had become as completely thrall and slave to respectability as any--"

"But not her," McCord said.

"No. But she's a better man than I am. .... And mind, I liked it. I never denied that. I even liked the way I made it, the thing I did, as I told you. It wasn't because of that that one day I caught myself back from thinking, 'My wife must have the best.' It was because I found out one day that I was afraid. And I found out at the same time that I will still be afraid, no matter what I do, that I will still be afraid as long as she lives or I live."

"You are still afraid now?"

"Yes. And not about money. Damn money. I can make all the money we will need; certainly there seems to be no limit to what I can invent on the theme of female sex troubles. I don't mean that, nor Utah either. I mean us. Love, if you will. Because it can't last. There is no place for it in the world today, not even in Utah. We have eliminated it. It took us a long time, but man is resourceful and limitless in inventing too, and so we have got rid of love as last just as we have got rid of Christ. We have radio in the place of God's voice and instead of having to save emotional currency for months and years to deserve one chance to spend it all for love we can spread it thin into coppers and titillate ourselves at any newsstand, two to the block like sticks of chewing gum or chocolate from the automatic machines. If Jesus returned today we would have to crucify him quick in our own defense, to justify and preserve the civilization we have worked and suffered and died shrieking and cursing in rage and impotence and terror for two thousand years to create and perfect in man's own image; if Venus returned she would be a soiled man in a subway lavatory with a palm full of French post-cards--" McCord turned in his chair and beckoned, a single repressed violent gesture. The waiter appeared, McCord pointed to his glass. Presently the waiter's hand set the refilled glass on the table and withdrew.

"All right," McCord said. "So what?"

Erin O'Connor, 1:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)




November 13, 2004 [feather]
Faulkner on the work of the writer

I just finished William Faulkner's remarkable Wild Palms. It led me to look up Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in Stockholm in December, 1950. Here's the meat of it:


Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.


Nobelprize.org lets you listen to a sound recording of Faulkner delivering the speech.

Erin O'Connor, 6:13 PM | Permalink




November 12, 2004 [feather]
UNH backpedals

Last month, FIRE took on the case of Tim Garneau, a University of New Hampshire undergraduate who was evicted from the campus dorms after posting a flyer advising women dorm residents to take the stairs rather than the elevator, thus freeing up the elevator for students living on upper floors while at the same time warding off the weight gain notoriously associated with campus dining halls.

Now FIRE reports that UNH has seen the embarrassing error of its ways. Garneau is moving back into the dorms today, and he no longer has to live out of his car. But he doesn't get his old room back--he has instead been "relocated" to another dorm. And he still has to undergo extended disciplinary probation and he still must meet with a campus judicial officer to discuss ethics--neither of which punishments makes much sense, given the innocuous nature of Garneau's "offense" and the patently illegal nature of UNH's response to it.

FIRE is calling this case a "victory," but the victory is clearly a partial one.

UPDATE: Penraker says Garneau should sue.

Erin O'Connor, 2:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)




November 11, 2004 [feather]
Slippery slope at Alabama

FIRE's latest press release:


TUSCALOOSA, Ala., November 11, 2004óFreedom of expression is once again under assault at the University of Alabama (UA). In September, the UA Faculty Senate responded to public controversy about a UA comedy event by passing a resolution that threatens to severely restrict free expression on this public campus. The Senateís proposed policy would regulate speech in approved university activities and contractually restrict outside speakers whose speech might be deemed to be ìdemeaning.î ÝYesterday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) submitted an open letter protesting this policy to hundreds of members of the UA community.

ìUA students and faculty members need to be aware of how these recommended restrictions on free speech will affect them,î stated David French, president of FIRE. ìIt is particularly distressing that these free speech restrictions are endorsed by the Faculty Senateóa group that should defend academic freedom and free inquiry.î

The Faculty Senate resolutionÝwas prompted by a September 3, 2004, incident between an outside comedian and a UA student at an event sponsored by University Programs. On September 21, UAís Faculty Senate passed the resolution, which recommended that UA officials ìdevelop clear policies restricting any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics, or which promotes hate or discrimination, in any approved University program or activity, and that these policies be incorporated into any contract entered into by the University regarding participation in formal University programs.î

ìIt is essential that students and faculty members approach with skepticism any proposal to control speech on the basis of its content,î said Greg Lukianoff, FIREís director of legal and public advocacy. ìThe overbroad policy proposed in this resolution would put an arbitrary and nearly unfettered power to censor in the hands of UA administrators, who would be the final judges of what speech might ëpromote hate or discrimination.íî

UA has a dismal record of supporting free speech. Earlier this year, UA ordered the Alabama Scholars Association (ASA), which is often critical of the administration, to pay a rate eight times higher than that paid by other faculty organizations for use of the universityís mail system. In 2003, UA attempted to ban all window displaysóeven American flagsófrom dorm windows, but ìindefinitely tabledî the ban following pressure from FIRE, as well as from UA students who defiantly hung American flags in their windows to protest the ban. UA also attacked free expression in 2002, when its Faculty Senate launched an investigation after the ASA wrote to members of the Alabama Legislature to protest a mandatory diversity training program for faculty that the ASA saw as Orwellian ìthought reform.î The Faculty Senate dropped that investigation after FIRE brought UAís actions into the light of public scrutiny.

FIREís open letter to hundreds of faculty members, administrators, and student leaders urges them to reject censorship, pointing out that ì[c]ensorship of speech that advocates bigotry, hatred, or intolerance profoundly insults the intelligence of students by assuming that upon hearing such ideas, students will flock to support them. A university with such a low opinion of its studentsówho are, after all, adultsócannot hope to offer them a true liberal arts education.î

ìWe are confident that once the members of the UA community realize the ramifications of this policy, they will reject it,î said FIREís French. ìStudents and faculty members who donít wish to see their freedoms curtailed should write or call UA President Robert Witt and urge him to reject the Faculty Senateís recommendation for more censorship,î he concluded.


How many times does it have to be said? The proper response to bad speech is more and better speech. Censorship of the sort contemplated by Alabama's faculty senate can only, inevitably make things worse.

Watch FIRE's new, improved site for updates.

Erin O'Connor, 5:41 PM | Permalink




November 10, 2004 [feather]
Rinse, reason, repeat

One analytical phenomenon I have learned a lot about during the two and a half years that I have been writing this website is that of the tactical, well-timed repetition. There are some arguments that have been made, and made, and made again, and that seem to have as their future endless additional remakings--not because they are flawed arguments, or even because they are particularly fascinating ones, but because they are necessary ones, and because the nature of contemporary debate demands it, because in the logorrheic world of mass media and mass marketing, gravitas is often acquired less through the compelling quality of an argument than through its seemingly infinite reiteration. Political commentators are especially attuned to this, as are academics, many of whom make their careers not by advancing original ideas, but by rehearsing, in slight variations, the accepted ideas of others. Political commentary about academe is thus particularly marked by the repetition effect--it can seem, at times, that analysis has been thoroughly displaced by emphasis, and that credibility is achieved less through careful argumentation than through (increasingly hysterical) assertion. It's also true that in the polarized zone of debates about the ideological climate of academe, one person's careful argumentation is another's hysterical assertion. That's just how things are--the terrain of academic disputation is ugly and uncivilized, the mudslinging rampant and smelly.

So it's nice to see someone as prominent as Mark Bauerlein, Emory English professor and NEA officer, thinking temperately and publicly about the suicidally anti-intellectual political climate of contemporary academe. If his argument is not wholly new, it is exceptionally well-stated, and what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in clarity of presentation and, of course, accrued power of repetition.

An excerpt from Bauerlein's current Chronicle of Higher Education piece:


... while the lack of conservative minds on college campuses is increasingly indisputable, the question remains: Why?

The obvious answer, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is that academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. What allows them to do that, while at the same time they deny it, is that the bias takes a subtle form. Although I've met several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying, outright blackballing is rare. The disparate outcome emerges through an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond.

Some fields' very constitutions rest on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative outlooks will not do. Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women's studies.

Other fields allow the possibility of studying conservative authors and ideas, but narrow the avenues of advancement. Mentors are disinclined to support your topic, conference announcements rarely appeal to your work, and few job descriptions match your profile. A fledgling literary scholar who studies anti-communist writing and concludes that its worth surpasses that of counterculture discourse in terms of the cogency of its ideas and morality of its implications won't go far in the application process.

No active or noisy elimination need occur, and no explicit queries about political orientation need be posed. Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms. As an Americanist said in a committee meeting that I attended, "We can't hire anyone who doesn't do race," an assertion that had all the force of a scholastic dictum. Stanley Fish, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advises, "The question you should ask professors is whether your work has influence or relevance" --Ýand while he raised it to argue that no liberal conspiracy in higher education exists, the question is bound to keep conservatives off the short list. For while studies of scholars like Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri seem central in the graduate seminar, studies of Friedrich A. von Hayek and Francis Fukuyama, whose names rarely appear on cultural-studies syllabi despite their influence on world affairs, seem irrelevant.

Academics may quibble over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry. You won't often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas and writings on the right.

One can see that phenomenon in how insiders, reacting to Horowitz's polls, displayed little evidence that they had ever read conservative texts or met a conservative thinker. Weblogs had entries conjecturing why conservatives avoid academe --Ýwhile never actually bothering to find one and ask --Ýas if they were some exotic breed whose absence lay rooted in an inscrutable mind-set. Professors offered caricatures of the conservative intelligentsia, selecting Ann H. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as representatives, not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of them wrote that "conservatives of Horowitz's ilk want to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding liberal academics to death."

Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and collegial mores. Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it's a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed.

The ordinary evolution of opinion --Ýexpounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them --Ýis lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It's social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.


Bauerlein goes on to describe three defining features of politicized academic life: the Common Assumption, the False Consensus Effect, and the Law of Group Polarization. He's right on, and well worth reading, despite the fact that his is essentially an argument that has been made, and made again, by others and even by himself (see his Literary Criticism: An Autopsy for an excellent primer on how humanist groupthink works). But as I suggested above, Bauerlein's is also an argument that cannot be made too many times, by too many people. You can't overstate or overwork the truth.

Erin O'Connor, 9:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)




November 8, 2004 [feather]
New face of boarding schools

People tend to assume that private schools--and boarding schools in particular--are all about rich kids, and that as such they are cushy little bastions of white privilege bent on perpetuating the sorts of social and economic elitism that presumably underwrites their existence. I won't deny that such schools and such attitudes exist--but I will say that it's wrong to stereotype independent schools and the kids who attend them in such narrowly rigid ways. Today's Los Angeles Times explains:


At first, Dedra Waggener couldn't imagine sending her only child away to learn. She believed boarding schools were for kids who were rich or bad. "My son," she said firmly, "is neither."

Waggener's opinion of boarding schools changed when she visited the Thacher School, a 350-acre campus in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. Here, every freshman receives a horse, and students learn Chinese and political philosophy in classes of no more than 11.

School directors offered a full scholarship to her son, Christopher Thomas, 13, who grew up in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Waggener accepted the deal: Thomas would receive a top education ó which typically costs $32,750 annually ó free, and Thacher would add a smart, determined minority student from a low-income family to its increasingly diverse enrollment.


The article reports that American students received over $694 million in financial aid to attend more than 900 independent schools last year, and notes that according to the Association of Boarding Schools, financial aid now goes to three times more students than it did twenty years ago. At the Thacher School, minority students make up 29% of the student body, and about a third of the school's students are eligible for financial aid. That tallies roughly with the boarding school where I am presently working: This year, 45% of the school's 80 students are receiving financial aid, and the average award comes to about 80% of the school's tuition. The amount of aid corresponds absolutely to the school's commitment to making it possible for underprivileged, often minority kids to get an education that would not be open to them at home.

Erin O'Connor, 9:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)




One nation, under Darwin

A graphic example of the profound divisions that mark American culture:


Cobb County, Ga., schools needed new biology books. The textbook-selection committee chose books recommended by the state. The books included concepts about evolution, a widely accepted scientific theory. The committee, working in March 2002, told the school board to buy nearly $8 million worth.

Enter Marjorie Rogers, a parent for whom evolution is a theory that doesn't fly. Her 2,300-signature petition decrying "Darwinism, unchallenged" prompted the school system to put evolution disclaimers on the inside front cover of the science books used in middle and high schools.

And that, in turn, prompted another group of parents to file a federal lawsuit with potentially national implications.

Arguments start today before U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper in Atlanta in a case that could stir comparisons to the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tenn., when John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution.

The trial is expected to raise these questions:

Is intelligent design, a leading alternate theory espoused by many opponents of evolution, religious? Intelligent design holds that the variety of life on Earth results from a purposeful design rather than random mutation and that a higher intelligence guides the process.

If the theory is found to be religious, do Cobb's disclaimers, which don't mention religion or intelligent design by name, violate the separation of church and state?

Six parents have sued the Cobb school system over the disclaimers, which read, "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."


In a post-election New York Times op-ed, David Brooks opined that "It's ridiculous to say, as some liberals have this week, that we are perpetually refighting the Scopes trial, with the metro forces of enlightenment and reason arrayed against the retro forces of dogma and reaction." His point is well taken--but it should not obscure the fact that, in a very real way, we are still fighting that fight.

For some interesting background on the Scopes trial, see Jim Lindgren's recent post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Erin O'Connor, 8:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)




November 2, 2004 [feather]
Poll

If you could recommend one literary work to George Bush, what would it be and why?

If you could recommend one literary work to John Kerry, what would it be and why?

Erin O'Connor, 10:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (20)




November 1, 2004 [feather]
Iconoclast in full

Tom Wolfe, in an interview with The Guardian, notes the tendency of the American left to label its critics reactionary, regardless of their actual beliefs:


"If I have been judged to be right wing," he says, "I think this is because of the things I have mocked. It started with Radical Chic [published in 1970, about a fundraising party for the Black Panthers organised by Leonard Bernstein]. I was denounced because people thought I had jeopardised all progressive causes. But my impulse was not political, it was simply the absurdity of the occasion. Then I wrote The Painted Word, about modern art, and was denounced as reactionary. In fact, it is just a history, although a rather loaded one. Then came The Right Stuff [his account of America's first astronauts], after which my relative enthusiasm for Nasa was another sign of perfidy."

He is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty, or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher than being a good writer."


Wolfe, who seems almost uniquely suited to writing campus novels, has finally gotten around to writing one. I am Charlotte Simmons will be published next week.

There's another good piece on Wolfe in yesterday's New York Times.

Thanks to Maurice Black for the Guardian link.

Erin O'Connor, 9:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)