Posts Tagged ‘Mark Bauerlein’

Defending the humanities: “Show, don’t tell.”

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
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Take the “no-brainer option.” And hurry.

Earlier today, a friend brought my attention to Mark Bauerlein‘s defense of the humanities over at the New Criterion.  Like me, he is frustrated by the misguided arguments advanced to defend the humanities (I wrote about that recently, here and here and here).

His diagnosis of the disease:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Pericles” in Washington D.C., supported by NEA

What an odd angle, and an ineffectual one. Think of it from the perspective of two individuals whose decisions directly affect the humanities, one of them a twenty-year-old sophomore picking classes for spring term, the other a sixty-year-old state legislator on a committee setting the year’s higher education budget. If the sophomore avoids humanities courses, she hurts enrollment numbers for the fields, a factor in how a dean allocates resources across departments. If the politician discerns no palpable gain from humanities instruction, he will steer funds to technical colleges and vocational programs. What will change their minds? …

The advantages they promise are too vague and deferred (“to know something of other civilizations,” “opportunities for integrative thinking,” “act adroitly,” “we’re human”), especially in contrast to other options (“major in speech therapy and become a speech therapist—there’s a shortage!”). Besides, social science fields claim the same insights, such as the anthropologist who rejoins, “And we don’t study what it means to be human?!” Hard scientists, too, might add, “You want critical thinking? Learn the scientific method!”

Tepid and half-credible, these fuzzy encouragements sound ever more vain and dispirited the more they circulate. They exhort the public to appreciate the humanities, but, with the grounds so abstract and promissory, the appeal falls flat. The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. …

Then he brings up an interesting point.  Most of us were taught, somewhere in our zillion years of education, to “show, don’t tell” when writing. Have the folks in the humanities, of all places, forgotten that fundamental lesson? 

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Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “Othello,” supported by NEA

My former boss Dana Gioia understood it well. As Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–09), he was obligated to use the bully pulpit and summon local and national, public and private support for museums, orchestras, and after-school arts programs. It was a delicate task partly because of the suspicion conservatives retained for this agency at the center of the Culture Wars ten years earlier, and partly because saying the wrong thing could jeopardize the annual request for funding from Congress.

In the early 2000s, as No Child Left Behind pressed schools to cut arts, theater, dance, and music programs, organizations such as Americans for the Arts offered standard reasons for arts education including the commercial value of arts investments, better reading and math scores by kids in schools with music instruction, and behavioral improvements for kids in theater programs. Gioia recited them dutifully, but relied at critical times on another one: direct exposure. When he conceived a national initiative called Shakespeare in American Communities with a large in-school component, he might have presented it to Members of Congress in testimony backed by the usual moral and economic corollaries. But instead, he hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Members and invited 5th-graders from Rafe Esquith’s legendary Shakespeare program in Los Angeles to show up in Elizabethan garb and perform scenes and soliloquies for them.

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Shakespeare & Co.’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

The event proved the point. The kids acted splendidly, and a few Members themselves grabbed a costume and declaimed lines, reenacting their own school days and drama club. The politicians had heard every rationale for cultural programs before, but the call of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” they could not withstand. Gioia got the funding—and heaps of good will, too.

Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire. Why humanities defenders neglect this no-brainer option, why they lay down their strongest weapons, is a mystery only if we forget the turn from primary texts decades earlier.

Read the whole thing here.

The n-word controversy: Mark Bauerlein wraps it up in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011
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Earlier today, a friend mentioned that Mark Twain once said something like, “The easiest way to be recognized as a leader is to find a parade and get in front of it.”  I can’t find the quote anywhere — but as Ken Kesey said, I’m sure it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.

And it’s especially fitting in a day the Book Haven achieved a brief flicker of fame via Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blog here. He retraced our steps in the Huck Finn and the n-word kerfuffle — “as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here” — and then follows the twists and turns through Sam Gwynn‘s concerns and Alan Gribben‘s explanations to conclude masterfully:

Haven’s selections are illuminating, for in Gribben’s and Gwynn’s explanations the whole problem crystallizes. When Gwynn puts the n-word in CAPS, he registers its force, which explains why he feels justified in deleting it.  This is, however, to give the term a moral meaning that it does not deserve. Yes, the n-word has moral meaning, but in the classroom it should be circumscribed by its historical existence. To grant it so much power today, at this moment, is to be captive to the power it possessed in 1884 and in 1950.

Likewise, when Gribben terms the n-word ”now-indefensible,” he assumes a moral stance toward it that is misdirected. No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis.  Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores. Simply deploring it is not enough, we should tell our students. The deletion of the n-word in the novel does the opposite, teaching students to consult their sensitivities more than their intellects.  Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing the action into the light.

And thank you, Mark, for framing the history so succinctly and the issues so thoughtfully.  We now return to our accustomed obscurity.

Mark Athitakis, Mark Bauerlein, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Francine Prose, et al. on Huck Finn and the n-word — where to begin?

Friday, January 7th, 2011
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So much new news on the n-word firestorm, it’s hard to know where to begin.

First of all, NewSouth has published excerpts of Alan Gribbens‘s introduction to the new “n-less” edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry FinnMark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes attacks the new introduction as gutless here.

Over at Books Inq., Chris Matarazzo of the Hats and Rabbits blog comments:  “The ‘visible sense of relief” the editor ‘sensed’ during lectures as a result of his having substituted in the word ‘slave’ is seen by him as an indication that the substitution was a good idea. I would argue that it better indicates that it was a bad idea.”

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a spread on the controversy, with 11 opinions.

Douglass: Not a wimp by a longshot

Among them, Mark Bauerlein began with a classroom anecdote while he was teaching Frederick Douglass‘s autobiographical works.  One student was offended, and dropped the class.

What would Douglass think of a man who closed his book because of that word? “I’ve been torn from my mother, beaten regularly, and I’ve witnessed rape and murder,” he might say. “You can’t take the ordinary label of the day?”

Most of all, Douglass understood that dignity can endure even at the bottom of a slave society no matter the abuse. Twain did, too, showing that in spite of all the cruelty and the racial epithets, Jim remains the noble figure in the novel. Take away the insult and we lose the full measure of his character.

Worse, Alan Gribben’s hesitation over the the epithet has a terrible effect, producing the anti-intellectual attitude of many students. “I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’” Gribben has said.

Stop being so fussy. Political correctness is bad tutelage, validating thin skins and selective inquiries. The more students read sanitized materials in high school, the more they enter college inclined to dispel things they don’t want to hear.

Facebook keeps urging me to “friend” Francine Prose but when I try, I get standardized rejections that she has too many friend requests already — so I’m glad to see with all that socializing that she has time to think about Huck. She  has a different concern:  “… what puzzles me most about the debate — I’m not trying to sound willfully naïve — is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase the edition’s introduction) ‘resentment’ than the word ‘slave.’ Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. ‘Nigger’ and ‘slave’ are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination. Jim’s problem is not that he is called a ‘nigger’ but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master.”  She concludes:

Knowing the history of censorship in our libraries, knowing how often Huck Finn has been removed from a school’s curriculum because of the word “nigger,” I’m almost inclined to say that if it takes censorship to insure that the book is still widely read, it might not be the worst thing. Let students experience Huck’s consciousness and discover the cruel realities that his culture took for granted. After that they may be inspired to read what Mark Twain actually wrote.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin is inevitably included in the roundup, and uses “Papp Finn’s rant,” which she quotes in full, n-word and all, to make her point:

Racism is ugly. The history and legacies of American racism are our nation’s own peculiar brand of ugly — and the n-word embodies it.

To understand how racism works in America it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements. Leading black writers in America from Frederick Douglass to Ralph Ellison have understood this: to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness. …

It is the persistence of racism in America that makes the n-word in Huck Finn a problem in the classroom. We need to give teachers the tools they need to teach Twain’s book in the context of the history of racism in this country that is its central concern.

Over at Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes, Mark concludes:

Unquestionably, Twain’s text presents a serious problem for teachers: Cynthia Haven, who first brought word of the NewSouth book, has heard from professors sharing their reservations about discussing the book. But the book doesn’t fix the problem so much as it identifies a market niche: People who think that this book will fix the problem. Twain might have appreciated this kind of ruckus: When he learned that the Concord Public Library had banned Huckleberry Finn from its shelves shortly after the novel was published in 1885, he wrote, “That will sell 25,000 copies, sure.” But would he have any patience for the sanctimony surrounding this version of book—the very sanctimony Huckleberry Finn skewers?

“New Huckleberry Finn Edited for Language” at The Onion here.

And Sharon Heinz sent us this: