May 24, 2008
Roger Rosenblatt's Beet is the latest addition to the noble sub-genre of campus fiction, and its tone it as snarky and snide as one might expect of a niche novel trampling well-travelled ground and hunting for something new to say. I've noted before that campus fiction of the David Lodge sort is growing increasingly tough to write, because the more people know about campus culture, the harder it gets for novelists to come up with plots that rival--let alone trump--the truth. So they huff and they puff, and sometimes they really are hysterically funny (Richard Russo's Straight Man) and sometimes they are just hysterically strained.
I'm only a few pages into Beet, so I can't make any real judgments. But I will note the the hysterical strain is definitely present: the college is named Beet, the hero-English professor is named Peace, the bloviating chairman of the board is named Bollovate; students can major in Homeland Security Studies, Native American Crafts and Casino Studies, and Bondage Studies; the school maintains a Fur and Ivory Audiovisual Center, a Tarzan Institute (for the Robert Bly Man's Manliness Society), and has spawned a countercultural poetry movement called the Beets; the pig is the mascot, the motto is Deus Libri Porci, and the school is said to be the origin of the term capitalist pig. You can see how hard Rosenblatt is trying.
But within all of that, there is an interestingly topical plot centered on the fact that the school is failing, and that it will close if it cannot draw more students. The board decides that what is needed is a new curriculum--and the book decides to take us through the committee meetings that center on that new curriculum. Curricular questions and the behavior of committees are at once dry as dust subjects and areas ripe for sarcastic send-up--not least because, as dull as they are, they are really both quite vital to the credibility and viability of higher education.
Here's an excerpt from the first meeting, in which committee members propose their personal plans for a new, improved curriculum:
"Shall I proceed?" asked Kettelgorf [from Fine Arts]. All nodded. "You know, students love to perform. Sing. Act in plays. Dance. I used to do that as a girl. Dance and dance!" She sailed into a shrill rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night," whirling in her seat and heaving with jactitations, to which the others responded with dead stares. "Anyway, we could devise a curriculum in which all the disciplines are converted into performing arts. Instead of merely reading Paradise Lost, for instance, we could turn the poem into a mime show. Or an old Harlem tap-dance competition. Or a hippity-hop concert with El Al Cold Jay. Think of it! History as opera! Botany in folk songs! Why, I'm composing a country-and-western song about Gregor Mendel in my head right now!" She became a coliseum of explanations. "And then ... and then ... as a sort of final project for the entire college, we present a mixed-media melange performed on the lawn of the Old Pen, in which students dress up as disciplines and sing, and all the disciplines begin in a cacophony of assertions, as if competing for dominance, and then, merely by rearranging the clashing notes, suddenly explode in pure harmony. All of learning coming together in a better world! A brave new world! Parents in the audience, the trustees, the deans, our colleagues, on their feet and applauding a revolution of thought bursting into existence before their very eyes!" Her own were like a spooked horse's. "Why, it tires me out to think about it! I'm pooped!"
"Me too," said Smythe [an English professor]. Heilbrun [from the Theater department] smirked. Lipman [from journalism] looked around to see how to react.
"My plan involves the great battles of history," said the military historian Kramer, taking advantage of the silence. His eyes were fogged goggles. "It's simple, really. We give lectures on the major clashes of a war, then the students go to the gym, where they divide into armies and move toy soldiers around the gym floor to simulate actual battles. And they could dress up as soldiers, too! Fusiliers could carry real fusils! Once the students really got into playing with toy soldiers, they would understand history with hands-on excitement."
To demonstrate his idea, he'd brought along a shoe box full of toy doughboys and grenadiers, and was about to reenact the Battle of Verdun on the committee table when Heilbrun stayed his hand. "We get it," he said.
"That's quite interesting, Molton," said Booth [a chemist]. "But is it rigorous enough?"
At the mention of the word, everyone, save Peace, sat up straight.
"Rigor is so important," said Kettlegorf.
"We must have rigor," said Booth.
"You may be sure," said the offended Kramer. "I never would propose anything lacking rigor."
Smythe inhaled and looked at the ceiling. "I think I may have something of interest," he said, as if he were at a poker game and was about to disclose a royal flush. "My proposal is called 'Icons of Taste.' It would consist of a galaxy of courses affixed to several departments consisting of lectures on examples of music, art, architecture, literature, and other cultural areas a student needed to indicate that he or she was sophisticated."
"Why would a student want to do that?" asked Booth.
"Perhaps sophistication is not a problem for chemists," said Smythe. Lipman tittered.
"What's the subject matter?" asked Heilbrun. "Would it have rigor?"
"Of course it would have rigor. Yet it would also attract those additional students Bollovate is talking about." Smythe inhaled again. "The material would be carefully selected," he said. "One would need to pick out cultural icons the students were likely to bring up in conversation for the rest of their lives, so that when they spoke, others would recognize their taste as being exquisite yet eclectic and unpredictable."
"You mean Rembrandt?" said Kramer.
Smythe smiled with weary contempt. "No, I do not mean Rembrandt. I don't mean Beethoven or Shakespeare, either, unless something iconic has emerged about them to justify their more general appeal."
"You mean, if they appeared on posters," said Lipman.
"That's it, precisely."
Lipman blushed with pride.
"The subject matter would be fairly easy to amass," Smythe said. "We could all make up a list off the top of our heads. Einstein--who does have a poster." He nodded to the ecstatic Lipman. "Auden, for the same reason. Students would need to be able to quote 'September 1939[ or at least the last lines. And it would be good to teach 'Musee des Beaux Arts' as well, which is off the beaten path, but not garishly. Mahler certainly. But Cole Porter too. And Sondheim, I think. Goya. Warhol, it goes without saying, Stephen Hawking, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bette Davis. They'd have to come up with some lines from Dark Victory, or better still, Jezebel. La Dolce Vita. Casablanca. King of Hearts. And Orson, naturally. Citizen Kane, I suppose, though personally I prefer F for Fake."
"Judy!" cried Heilbrun.
"Yes, Judy too. But not 'Over the Rainbow.' It would be more impressive for them to do 'The Trolley Song,' don't you think?" Kettlegorf hummed the intro.
"Guernica," said Kramer. "Robert Capa."
"Edward R. Murrow," said Lipman.
"No! Don't be ridiculous!" said Smythe, ending Lipman's brief foray into the world of respectable thought.
"Marilyn Monroe!" said Kettlegorf.
"Absolutely!" said Smythe, clapping to indicate his approval.
"And the Brooklyn Bridge," said Booth, catching on. "And the Chrysler Building."
"Maybe," said Smythe. "But I wonder if the Chrysler Building isn't becoming something of a cliche."
Peace had had enough. "And you want students to nail this stuff so they'll do well at cocktail parties?"
Smythe sniffed criticism, always a tetchy moment for him. "You make it sound so superficial," he said.
Lest the general line of thought here seem too over the top, consider Stanley Fish's lengthy pair of January posts on the uselessness of the humanities. Arguing that the humanities serve no purpose whatsover, he entertains the idea that perhaps their utility lies in their ability to enhance cocktail party banter: "Count me as one of those who would welcome an increase in the number of those who can be relied on to enliven a dinner party rather than kill it."
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I've yet to read Beet, but Rosenblatt didn't have to stray too far for inspiration. Southampton College of Long Island University (where he worked) closed down in 2004 due to (among other things) not enough students. However a few years before the doors were shuttered, the administration proposed a "new curriculum" based on "interdisciplinarity" that was to be a panacea for the enrollment struggles. It never got implemented (due to the college being closed) but much faculty time and energy were spent coming up with a plan to implement the "solution" ordained from up high.