Day two

Had two courses back to back this morning and things seemed to go well. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach a senior capstone course for the liberal arts core. I dispensed with the welcoming PowerPoint this morning and just sat and talked with the students as we waited to begin. I don't know why, but I feel more at ease in the capstone course than I do teaching my freshmen Humanities section.

Each semester I look out at the students and wonder if this will be a great class or one that frustrates all of my efforts. After all these years, I still fail from time to time. But when it's good, it's very good. I suppose I have my share of cynicism about the possibility for meaningful change in higher education, but I only feel this way when I step back from the whole thing and wonder about the larger implications. On a day-to-day basis, I am a lot more optimistic (some might even say sappy) about the prospects of education.

Do I rail about the brute indifference of 18 years-olds who won't make an effort to understand Shakespeare? You bet, but I have also worked my tail off to help them see that they can understand him and, more importantly, use his metaphors to construct new and personally-liberating understandings of their world. Maybe I am kidding myself, but quite often the students seem to get it. They actually use the text to reflect on their lives and articulate new understandings.

In class last spring, for example, we were discussing Edmund in King Lear. Early in the play he looks at the world and concludes that right and wrong are merely social conventions. The truth, he argues, is that the world is not structured so that things are just; rather, it is no different from the state of nature in which the most cunning and strong are rewarded. So power belongs to those bold and resourceful enough to take it. His half-brother Edgar, on the other hand, is reduced to the raw state of nature, hunted by the law and forced to live like an animal with little protection from the elements. Yet he reaches an entirely different conclusion. One brother acts like an animal; the other lives like one.

So the class discussion focused on how we are to respond to a world in which justice seems rare, arbitrary, and often irrelevant to how things turn out. I don't think many of the students had ever pondered that question in a discussion beyond some tossed off line like "life sucks and then you die.” But discuss it they did, and everyone in the room was paying attention. After a few years of doing this, I can--like a night club comedian--sense when I'm killing or bombing. This was a question that mattered, and the students were really invested in the answer.

One student said, "Well, I just don't worry about the larger world of politics or that stuff. I just want to focus on having a good life and loving the people I know." So then I plopped Shakespeare's other torpedo in the water and aimed it amidships: "Yeah, well, this play is pretty brutal in its depiction of family life as well as power politics. Indeed, nothing precludes people who love each other from wounding one another and causing a whole lot of misery. Lear loves Cordelia, but so what? Glouscestor loves Edgar, but so what? Maybe Shakespeare's trying to strip us of the illusion that the world is just and that love is a sufficient response to human misery. Then again, maybe he's suggesting that meager, inadequate love is all we've got."

Deep silence while they thought that one over.

Now was I merely feeding them into the meat grinder of 21rst century global capitalism? Was I an instrument of their intellectual oppression? Granted, there is much that we do in higher education that is truly oppressive. We demand that students do this, think that, and regurgitate something else. But even in its present attenuated form, higher education still gives some people the ability to think in new ways. Is that not a type of liberation?

Then again, maybe I am the one who needs to be subjected to brutal Shakespearean illusion stripping. Maybe I am "signifying nothing." But it doesn't seem that way. If I think about our institutions and their often industrial approaches to manufacturing people to sit in cubicles, I despair. But when I'm in that room, it sure seems like I'm doing something that still matters.

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