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.
The tacit bond between teacher and student has now started to unravel. The covenant between the participants in the noble game of intellectual discourse must be predicated on the assumption of a possible mutual ideality, a striving to disengage the best self from the turmoil of appetitive claims and desires that obscure it. The teacher has to assume the role of committed intercessor, and the student needs to be willing to suspend an increasingly fashionable skepticism about the importance of humanistic scholarship and to struggle against the blandishments of a high-tech, instantaneous, digital milieu that will infallibly bankrupt him or her both materially and spiritually.
At the same time, many teachers have, by now, given up or become disablingly skeptical. Others teach not the curriculum but a politically correct travesty of what passes for genuine knowledge — Taqiyya for Kids, as Janet Tassel calls it in American Thinker, or Howard Zinn’s treasonably distorted history of the United States. A disturbing number of students have lapsed into a coma from which all too few seem likely to awaken. With a handful of redeeming exceptions, writers pander or traffic in technicalities. Like the students they once were, most readers wish to be stroked, not struck.
The decline of education, which means also the fading out of historical memory and the dimming of literate curiosity, has been the case for some considerable time now. The insistent question is: how does one go about trying to rescue a culture in the throes of custodial dissolution? Over the years I have regularly set my students (rather lenient) tests in general knowledge and particularly in Canadian history; I found myself unable in good conscience to award a single passing grade. And what is one to make, for example, of the fact that someone like Canada’s quondam minister of Defense, John McCallum, who holds degrees from several prestigious universities, had never heard of the disastrous raid on the beaches of Dieppe until the moment came to mark its 60th anniversary? In a letter sent by the Minister to the National Post claiming to have been misinterpreted, Mr. McCallum referred to the WW I victory at Vimy Ridge as having occurred at Vichy, capital of the Nazi puppet regime in occupied France during WW II. This is the same McCallum who also alluded to the threat of war between India and Afghanistan.
Then we have the fiasco of former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who delivered a speech to the military base in Gagetown, New Brunswick, on April 14, 2004, in which he twice praised the Canadian effort in the 1944 invasion of Norway. One is also reminded of President Obama’s notorious gaffes — the Austrian language, the 57 (or 58) states, the identification of a new state called Eau Claire, Hawaii as part of Asia, the Muslim history of Cordoba set in the period of the Inquisition, etc. Clearly, the failure of both memory and knowledge has become epidemic. One recalls, too, in this connection the British company Umbro, which outfits the English national soccer team, that marketed the Zyklon running shoe, unaware until controversy erupted of the Zyklon B poison gas the Nazis used in the concentration camps. “We are sure that the name was not meant to cause offense,” explained an Umbro spokesman, whose own name is Nick Crook. No less disturbing is a student paper I read in which the writer claimed that “man descended from the trees around two hundred years ago and experienced the Enlightenment.” These are only a few examples, among the myriad bristling in my personal files culled from every walk and profession of life, of the intellectual eclipse that has overtaken us. The level of ignorance is stupefying and, I have come to believe, barring a miracle, verging on the irreparable.
In an excellent article for PJ Media, Victor Davis Hanson laments the decay of serious reading in the contemporary West. “The mind is a muscle,” he writes, and “without exercise it reverts to mush.” The mental brownout he is analyzing afflicts not only our technoliterate youth, but even members of Congress whose speeches “almost require[ ] a translator.” Literature, he reminds us, “endows us not just with a model of expression and thought, but also with a body of ideas” — which is grievously lacking among our contemporaries. The technical devices on which we pride ourselves “speed up communication, but can slow down thought.” He concludes, and I quote in full: “Somehow we must convince this new wired generation that speaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization, but also the keys to self-mastery, a sort of code that one takes on — in addition to others, moral and legal — to uphold standards of culture itself, to keep the work and ideas alive of our long gone betters for one more generation — as if to say, ‘I did my part according to my time and station.’ Nothing more, nothing less.”
Nothing more, nothing less. Each of us committed to the regeneration of a mushy and degraded culture must find some way, hope against hope, to engage those who have surrendered to the zeitgeist. There are several ways of doing this: in diligent conversation with students and friends, in writing articles and books like Victor Davis Hanson and his peers, or in adhering to the principles of real, honest-to-goodness teaching. In my own practice as a teacher, I decided it might be fruitful to hold optional weekend seminars in my home, in which my students and I would discuss, among other things, the deterioration of reading in the current cultural climate. Some of these students agreed to allow me to check on their progress after they graduated, to keep longitudinal tabs on them. One of my subjects, now the manager of a rock band, called after a silence of some years from a bar in the backwater town of Trois Rivières in Quebec to discuss Hermann Hesse’s psychedelic novel, Journey to the East. The fact that my former student was under the influence of something other than Miller Lite seemed appropriate in the narrative circumstance. He may have been floating in a narcotic reverie; nonetheless, he was struggling with a book.
Maybe that’s the best we can hope for now. But at least it’s a start.
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