Monday, June 11, 2007

LOVE AND TEACHING

William Deresiewicz has an interesting article in the “American Scholar”, entitled “Love on Campus”. He takes up the matter of professors and erotic energy exchanged with students, especially as seen through the lens of recent literature and film.

For the most part, recent films give us the impression of immature middle-aged male professors of literature or communications, either passively self-pitying or actively seductive (almost always toward their female students).

Deresiewicz raises the interesting possibility that professors are popularly seen as immature and “effete” because such a view feeds the abiding American suspicion and resentment of intelligence and intellect. When the universities – especially those ‘abstract’ literature departments – became the enthusiastic new home of discredited Theory, expelled from France like an intellectual plague, who can doubt that such suspicion intensified a thousand-fold?

This country has never successfully managed one of its crucial conceptual problems: how do you ensure political equality for all while respecting (and constructively nurturing and making use of) those gifted with more intellectual ability than their peers? Jefferson had spoken of a “natural aristocracy”, a group of individuals defined by an intellectual ability, a managerial competence, and a maturity moral and characterological. But how to enable American society to identify such persons and then provide them with the opportunities to develop and contribute their natural gifts?

Even more difficult: it appears that the Jeffersonian panoplium of ‘gifts’ almost never occurs in individuals in its entirety. Rockefeller and Carnegie and Ford were naturally gifted managers, but their moral and characterological abilities were hardly impressive. Indeed, it can be proposed that American business solved the problem of its own ‘moral’ authority by simply presuming that ‘business’ allowed its practitioners to do things that in the ordinary individual would be considered immoral and even – later on – sociopathic. In that regard American elite culture – even its popular culture – needed no large indoctrination by the Holocaust-deranged Israeli state and its ‘anything is allowed’ morality.

I don’t fully agree with his analysis that “the famously overprotective parenting of the baby-boom generation has put pressure on universities to revert to acting ‘in loco parentis’”. It may indeed be true, especially as the 1990s progressed. But two decades before that Political Correctness had been hugely enforced in the universities not to ‘parent’ the students but rather – in best revolutionary praxis – to take ‘children’ from the (presumptively outmoded and regressive) formation they had ostensibly received from their parents and re-educate them into the iron platitudes of Theory and the programmes of the various Identities.

But he shines as he reviews the wisdom of education in the Western tradition, to the effect that there is indeed an Eros (an Erotic element – not primarily sexually defined) involved in the best teaching. He uses the example of Socrates, an ugly, goggle-eyed lump of a man physically, who famously surfed the erotic attractions of the young Alcibiades to get the young man alone – at the young man’s invitation – in order to speak enthusiastically and energetically (the basic sense of ‘erotic’) about ideas with this hugely talented – if also drop-dead handsome – student. Socrates seduces the young man into “brain sex”, as Deresiewicz aptly quotes Alan Bloom’s pithy phrase. This is a scenario utterly beyond the comprehension of the current, sex-reductive, sex-obsessed mind.

American culture has no skill in grasping, let alone properly deploying, this sense of the Erotic. One thinks of the intelligent German, a young adult in the time of Hitler, who described Hitler’s entrancing speaking to the crowds as “er massiertete uns” – he massaged us. One thinks of two film-character teachers (not mentioned by Deresiewicz): Robin Williams’ teacher in “Dead Poets’ Society” and Maggie Smith’s teacher in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. Smith entrances her “girls” with romantic and ideal visions of changing the world, such that one of them runs off to fight the Fascists in Spain (in 1936) and dies. Williams’s teacher, more of a performer in front of his students than a teacher of his students, ignites ideals that one sensitive student cannot reconcile with his parents’ prosaic desires for his future success, and winds up killing himself.

The Williams film, made in the already sex-offense addled later 1980s, carefully avoided any physically erotic attraction between teacher and students. And Smith’s film was made in the mid-1960s, and in any case she was a woman – who in the American demonology do not commit sex-offenses.

Deresiewicz does not take up the most recent film dealing with this, Britain’s world-renowned “The History Boys”. Here a widely-educated older prep-school teacher, intensely dedicated to the knowledge that he wishes to pass on to his class of gifted students, has the unhappy habit of giving this and that one (except the admittedly gay one) a ride home after school on his motorbike, during which journey he would inevitably contrive to momentarily grasp the student’s genitalia.

A habit taken very much in stride by the sexually-aware male students who also have the wit to recognize a good education and a devoted and unique teacher when they have one and absorb this groping into their daily round, firmly establishing it among their concerns as a much lesser priority than sharing in the passion for knowledge. This is not a reality with which contemporary American society is prepared to deal. Such value as it may contain is lost.

The passion for life and living – Eros – exists among Us in a very Flattened state. We shop, we cheer on sports teams and we track celebrities, measuring out our lives no longer in teaspoons but in text-messages. That We might pursue the Stoic ‘prosoche’ – the unceasing attention to our own maturation and development and right action – is an opportunity lost to Us, tossed out with all the other outmoded furniture crafted by Dead White European Males. That We might cultivate Our desires so that they are usefully keyed to worthwhile objects yet still capable of providing a life-enhancing pleasure – in the Epicurean vision – is equally lost to Us now. Americans are a weird mixture of Garbo’s dour revolutionary apparatchik Ninotchka and the ditzy Valley Kid besotted by appearances and the teapot-tempests that can only entrance an unripened mind.

Our concept of 'the good life' is purely a matter of surfaces, appearances, materiality. That the most valuable and essential 'good' is a well-mastered and well-matured Self (vitally connected to God and other human beings, as them Kathliks would remind Us) is utterly beyond the memory or the imagination or the desire or the will of far far too many of Us.

We are desperately in need of better education. And We are very much in need of more carefully thinking-through Our approach to the nation’s young. Is a youngster protected from passion in any form going to be any better off in adult life? Is a youngster raised in ‘total security’ going to be any better off if sent immediately thereafter to wage “the Long War”? Or will We import other nation’s youngsters to do that suffering?

Worse, will a youngster taught not to think but to memorize slogans and platitudes (and perhaps the tell-tale signs of ‘sex-offenders’ the way an earlier generation was taught to identify the silhouettes of Nazi and Japanese aircraft) be able to grow up as a Citizen who can join others to People this Republic?

The director John Ford missed a great opportunity in 1962. He completed “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” that year. In that film, a reporter says knowingly to Jimmy Stewart’s U.S. Senator: When you’ve got the facts and you’ve got the legend, and the legend is better, then you print the legend. Ford, at almost the end of his career and feeling that his earlier feel-good patrioteering pictures had left out consideration of the darker side of American culture, left it at that and figured he’d balanced his books.

I’ve always felt he could have done better with that scene. He could have given Stewart’s Senator the last word, something like: And how can you keep a Republic by doing that?

We sure as hell know now. You can’t.

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