The Decline of Literate Thought

Once upon a time, when I was visiting Casablanca and strolling about the streets at all hours, I came upon a company of six or seven students in a public souk cramming for their end-of-term examinations. It was two o’clock in the morning. These kids were so poor they had to avail themselves of the electric lighting in the city squares to do their late-night studying. They were the joint owners of one used and battered book, a copy of André Gide’s L’Immoraliste, which they passed between them from hand to hand like the Gray Sisters’ single eye in the Greek myth; it was their window on the world of literary scholarship.

As I happened to be familiar with the text, having taught it several times in the past, I was invited to deliver an impromptu lecture-and-seminar on Gide and his complex relationship to North Africa. Feeling a little like Robert McCrum, as he recounts in Globish, lecturing extemporaneously before an informal klatch of Chinese students, I took what seemed at first like a rather precarious plunge. But as McCrum writes, “the mood [was] unquenchably relaxed, friendly and inspired by a common purpose.” An unprepared teaching session transacted in a second language — French — with an improvisational class in the middle of the night in a strange and remote country, it proved to be a decisive pedagogical moment, almost a conversion experience, which I have never forgotten. The colloquy lasted until sunrise after which we adjourned to a small café to continue the discussion over coffee. Finally, I was escorted back to my hotel where we exchanged well wishes and good byes, both teacher and students conscious of the fact that something extraordinary — and yet entirely natural — had just occurred.

I have rarely encountered a group of more committed students, struggling under crushing disadvantages, yet diligent in their outlook, applying themselves to mastering the same text that my own students tended to write off as just another irrelevant book, better managed under the auspices of Monarch Notes. These young people, for whom a park bench did duty as a library carrel, were, obviously, studying to pass a test. But what affected me most was the sense of conviction and desire, the disinterested (not uninterested) passion they brought to bear upon the text.

They were in love with learning, grateful for the privilege of staying up all night to listen to a teacher, trade ideas, ask questions, range far beyond the designated field of practical inquiry governed by the impending test, track connections with other books and writers (including St. Augustine, who was North African) — that is, to begin to fill up the lack they had divined in themselves. In order to pursue their education, they considered it normal to work double time and more: none had fewer than two jobs, and two had become male prostitutes to finance their studies. Several were providing for their sisters. (An Islamic culture, it is true, whose gender arrangements I can’t help but deplore, but whose people impressed me with their pluck and sophistication.) And they could believe only with difficulty my account of the indifference and torpor that vitiated perhaps a majority of my middle-class students’ academic “careers.” The contrast was, to put it mildly, instructive.

My own students enjoyed heat in the winter and plentiful electric lighting at all times, owned their own books (often sold back to the bookstore at term end, as they saw no point in keeping them), had unlimited access to libraries, and benefitted where necessary from plentiful loans and scholarships to assist them in pursuing their studies. Yet their enthusiasm for learning could not even remotely compare with what I was observing in an unfurnished, late-night public square. What I intuited then and fully apprehend now is that without a more or less equivalent degree of responsibility and determination on our part, an awareness of the value of literary studies and an ethical commitment to mastering our intellectual history and incorporating the wisdom and intelligence of the larger culture that ultimately sustains us, the world in which we live and which we take for granted will surely founder.

This caveat applies equally to that portion of the teaching profession that has eagerly surrendered to the romantic notion of student “empowerment” — another way of victualing the depressing status quo by refusing to teach ways of learning — and that is busy promoting the subversion of authority, precedence, personal independence, intellectual rigor, and the quest for determinate truth. These teachers’ pedagogical rationale operates under the general rubrics of “social justice” and “postmodern indeterminacy.” They tend to be regarded as “experts in the field,” but as Primo Levi said in The Monkey’s Wrench, “I never saw an expert who was any good.” Regrettably, we cannot rely on a scattering of Moroccan students to march to our salvation.