Friday, December 5, 2008

Big Beautiful Awful Terrible Wonderful World

The semester ends today. I promised that I would blog each day this fall, and I have. It hasn't always been easy to squeeze something in, and often I've cannibalized older pieces of writing when it seemed pertinent or just to keep my promise. Still, this has proven an interesting exercise. So I will conclude this semester with the little spiel I give at the end of every senior capstone. I wrote it a few years back, memorized it, and have uttered it to hundreds of students over the years.

"Well, you finished another course, notched off another step in your journey toward a college diploma. The question now arises: what did you get out of the last few weeks? It's a fair question, one that every educated person should probably ask at a course's conclusion. As I have told you many times, my job here has not been to prescribe your answers or force you to master by rote reams of content. Rather, my job has been to raise compelling questions for you to consider and to provide you with a mind for your mind to butt against.

So, again, that question: have you gotten anything out of this? Chances are for some of you the answer is no or not much. You may even see this course as the "busywork" someone suggested it might be during the first session.

I'll admit that there has been a certain amount of "busywork." Much of what we have done is slog through books of varying interest, write reflection papers that reach the requisite page length, and sit through discussions with one eye on the clock. On the other hand, perhaps some of you have been stimulated just a little to think about this strange business of educating yourself. More than once people who have taken this course have told me that they had never previously considered what it means to be educated, what it involves, and, more importantly, what responsibilities come with it.

My hope is that this has been the case for you -- that you have from time to time been able to reflect on the meaning of what you have done and how it will affect the rest of your life. Socrates, of course, told us over two thousand years ago that the "unexamined life was not worth living for a human being,"and maybe by examining what it means to be educated you have become (dare I say it?) just a bit more human.

On a less fanciful note, I hope you more fully appreciate the education you have worked so hard and paid for so dearly. When you completed the first portfolio paper, I was surprised by how many of you said that it was the teacher who made the difference in the classroom. If the teacher were interesting, funny, enthusiastic, whatever, you said you were more apt to learn and learn well. This analysis of how good learning takes place has always bothered me.
For one thing, I teach the same classes over and over in the same way, with the same material, even the same jokes. But each course is not the same. Some are more successful than others, which leads me to believe that while the instructor's approach is important, it isn't the crucial factor in a course's success. Good, curious, eager and friendly students make a vital difference.

You may recall that this course is called Knowledge in Social Context, a rarely-used title that seems to contain a redundancy. After all, your education has been the result of tens of thousands of interactions with teachers, fellow students and the minds of thinkers long dead or far away. By definition, then, the knowledge you have gained has never existed without a social context. Human beings just don't learn very well in isolation. Thus the success of any class or seminar is the result of all its participants, not just the instructor. I hope you feel the same.

And lastly, if there's one thing that I know it's that the business of educating yourself and each other is ultimately about so much more than a diploma or a job offer. It's that too, of course, but really so much more. For years now you have been shaping and building the person you wish to be (for better or for worse). Say what you want about higher education, at its best it does offer you a chance to sit down with other people and for a brief but vital time consider the stuff of life at a safe, cool distance. And from these many afternoons and evenings you just may emerge with a keener sense of who you are and why.

So there is much to be said for this deliberate pause before getting on with it. I think it's one of the most valuable things you can do. It is -- to steal a line from Philip Larkin's marvelous poem Church Going -- the discovery of a hunger in oneself to be more serious. And, I hope, to be more seriously oneself. So good luck. I'm glad to have met you, and I feel better knowing that there are at least a few more educated, responsible, caring and thoughtful people in this big, beautiful, awful, terrible, wonderful world."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Final Exam

The other day the students were grousing about finals. So I unwisely offered to take any final exam they designed for my course. They opted to give me a take-home essay exam. There were eight questions that covered the course's major readings. The darned thing took me nearly six hours to write and edit. Phew! I haven't taken an exam in a while. Anyway, here's a question and my response. The class grades the exam tomorrow (using my own grading criteria).


In the Satyricon, a dinner guest named Ganymede complains about public officials and the lack of public piety over dinner. Summarize his complaints and compare his concerns to contemporary society. To what extent is Ganymede's view of ancient Rome particularly ancient?

And here's my response (hope I get an A):

In section 44 of the Satyricon, Ganymede, a dinner guest of the wealthy freed-slave Trimalchio, has a long speech in which he offers his views on the economic and moral climate of first-century Roman society. His general complaint concerns the prevalence of corruption and immorality. For example, he complains about the food supply and Roman officials who connive with the bakers to create artificial shortages (62). There is a direct parallel today. Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the largest food processing companies in the world, recently had to pay a $400 million fine for price-fixing. Interestingly, Ganymede’s complaint concerns the corn supply, and ADM conspired to fix the price of high fructose corn syrup, a widely used food sweetener (

In general, Ganymede’s view is that things are worse than they once were. He believes that there is widespread governmental corruption among public officials, which also parallels certain events today. Two former U.S. governors (Edwin Edwards and George Ryan) are currently in prison for corruption as well as former California Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned from the House in 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes. Lastly, the senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, was convicted just last month on seven corruption-related felonies (

Ganymede also fondly recalls a businessman named Safina who wouldn’t have stood for the swindles that have become commonplace (63). He says, “Ah, me! It’s getting worse every day. This place is going down like a calf’s tail,” and he frets that the economic shortages may force him to sell his house (63). This fear is also common today. In 2007 the number of U.S. homes that went into foreclosure was 79 percent higher than the previous year and we are in an economic recession that will undoubtedly increase economic anxieties and mortgage foreclosures (

Lastly, Ganymede speaks of the lack of piety in Roman society. He laments that Romans no longer believe in heaven or honor religious rites and traditions, which he thinks has led the gods to punish Rome with a drought (63). Such sentiments are not unknown today. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, and Charles Colson speculated that the hurricane was sent by God as a punishment for America's sins ( There is perhaps a satirical irony at work here. Petronius puts complaints about a lack of piety into the mouth of a character whose name references a mythological figure that had a same-sex and pedophilic relationship with Zeus.

Ganymede's complaints afford us a good view of how everyday Romans saw their own society. They also allows us to draw interesting comparisons to our own time. Indeed, knowledge of ancient Rome is useful if we hope to grasp the order and structure of the Western world today. The very boundaries of present nation states, the languages people speak and the beliefs they profess are all the result of Roman history. The empire's legacies in art, literature, architecture, philosophy, law, and politics--to say nothing of the impact of Christianity, which it adopted and spread--are all around us. Every age and every empire since has looked to Rome in order to compare and understand itself. Rome is and will remain that great and distant mirror into which we gaze with a mixture of amazement, horror, disgust, admiration, pity, and, inevitably, self-recognition.

Works cited:

Associated Press. "Number of foreclosures soared in 2007." 29 Jan. 2008. MSNBC. 4 Dec. 2008

Mathis, Gavin. "Say good-bye to Uncle Ted." The Daily Evergreen. 1 Dec. 2008. The Daily Evergreen. 4 Dec. 2008.

Media Matters. "Religious conservatives claim Katrina was God's omen, punishment for the United States." 13 Sept. 2005. Media Matters. 4 Dec. 2008

Petronius. The Satyricon and Apocolocyntosis Divine Claudius. Trans. J. P. Sullivan. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Three Poems About Snow

It's snowing. So how about some snow poetry? Here are three of my favorites: Louis MacNiece's Snow, Derek Mahon's The Snow Party, and Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

A few things I admire about this poem: it really catches what I think is the central essence of poetic inspiration. Poets are in love with the perception of the world and all its manifold and wondrous juxtapositions. A vase of pink roses sits in the embrasure of a window with an outlook on snow. So there, inexplicably, is summer, winter, life, death, beauty, and blankness coming together in the poet's mind. The world is forever feeding itself to us in a thousand intoxicating sensations. In this sense, a good poet is really just a cheap drunk.

I also like the way the poem's sound sense undergirds its imagery and meaning. MacNiece is writing of how glorious it is to simply notice this world of ten thousands things around us, how utterly sensuous the on-going assault on our senses is (on the tongue on the eye on the ears), and this gets reinforced by the craziness of sound and meaning. Like the snow and pink roses, the meaning of the words is ironically athwart its uttered sound. Thus the line "soundlessly collateral and incompatible" is beautifully undercut. Despite the literal meaning, these words are collateral and compatible the moment they are no longer soundless. The drunkenness of things being various indeed.

Anyway, here's another poem. It's called "Snow Party" and it's by Derek Mahon. Both Mahon and MacNiece were born in Northern Ireland. And Basho, of course, was writing his hauntingly beautiful poetry in Japan while the sad fate of Northern Ireland was being forged at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The Snow Party
Basho, coming To the city of Nagoya
Is asked to a snow party.
There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.

Then everyone Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.
Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto.

Eastward, beyond Irago
It is falling Like leaves on a cold sea.
Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares.
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

I can never read this poem without thinking of the snow falling at the end of Joyce's Dubliners. Also, this poem came to mind for me the day the Iraq War began. A civilized snow fell quietly all that day as I listened to the news. I guess this poem is also about juxtapositions. Mahon's counterposing art and history. He's asking how can something so beautiful exist in a world beset with the horrors.

Lastly, here's Thomas Hardy's wonderful little poem on snow:

Snow in the Suburbs
Every branch big with it,
Bent every twig with it;
Every fork like a white web-foot;
Every street and pavement mute:
Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when
Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.
The palings are glued together like a wall,
And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.
A sparrow enters the tree,
Whereon immediately
A snow-lump thrice his own slight size
Descends on him and showers his head and eye
And overturns him,
And near inurns him,
And lights on a nether twig, when its brush
Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.
The steps are a blanched slope,
Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
And we take him in.

Feeble hope? I love that. Read those last four lines (with their spondees and well-placed commas) and you can almost hear the bedraggled plump, plump, plump of that dazed cat climbing the stoop.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Impolitic Worms

In Book II of Paradise Lost the fallen angels, now horribly transformed, hold a debate over the course of action they should take now that they are damned. The first to speak is Moloch, a fierce and bloodthirsty advocate for eternal war. In effect, Moloch says that they have nothing to lose, for annihilation is surely preferable to an eternity in Hell. As he puts it, “At worst, we stand on this side nothingness.” In response Belial, a wily and silver-tongued devil, says that nothingness is not preferable to him. At least in Hell one has one’s thoughts. He says something like this:

To be no more; sad cure; For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night
Devoid of sense and motion?

These lines have always affected me. Is it life we treasure? The mere act of breath and metabolation? Or is it the intimacy of our own thoughts and memories, the onrush of moments so peculiarly our own that have been spewing forth like an endless billow of octopus ink for as long as we can recall? Life is a few chemicals twitching in a moist sinkhole. It’s that breed of impolitic worms that Hamlet mentions. But all of one’s afternoons, sensations, the odd memories and synaptic firings... To annihilate these forever, to make them as if they never were? That gives one pause. Always has.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pagan Ping-Pong

Some things you can only discover by teaching in a certain format. For years I taught four separate preps every semester, but it was only when I began to teach multiple sections of the same prep that I realized what a wild card a given set of students could be. An approach that worked well in a 10 a.m. section might fall flat in the following section. More interesting, however, is what happens when you cram several different courses back-to-back.

Last spring, for instance, I taught three different courses in a row: Humanities II, Senior Capstone, and a freshmen honors seminar on human nature. I would begin the day at 8:00 teaching Luther, Montaigne or Bacon, but switch at 9:30 to Plato or Frederick Douglass. Then I would round out the day from at 11:30 to 1:00 with King Lear or Mary Shelley. In many cases, ideas discussed in one section would reappear in another in weirdly applicable ways. I recall at one point in the semester thinking that Aristotle and Dostoevsky were playing ping-pong in my brain.

This fall has produced something similar. During the day I have been teaching Humanities in its semester-length version. Since the end of October, however, I have also been teaching the same course in its eight-week accelerated night format. This means that for the last few weeks I've been simultaneously teaching the front and back halves of the same course. This juxtaposition forces me to intellectually inhabit the very dichotomy around which I organized the material.

Indeed, I had one large goal in mind when I first designed the course: I wanted students to grasp the fertile tension in Western culture between its Hellenistic and Hebraic traditions. In a nutshell I wanted them to understand the weirdness of having a pagan Greek love for the physical body fused into Michelangelo’s Christian statuary. But teaching the front and back of the course at the same time has revealed something else to me.

I play favorites.

I can’t help it. Try as I might I just can’t bring the same passion to Dante's medieval Christianity as I do to the pagan Greeks and Romans. I have discovered why too. It occurred to me over the weekend that the Greco-Roman writers tend to think inductively. They study the world in all of its worldly messiness. Thus Greek mythology is psychologically realistic and Homer wants us to get real about war and human life. Similarly, Socrates wants his fellow Athenians to clear false-thinking from the human mind, and Sophocles wants his audience to see through their blindness. Even Seneca urges us to set more realistic expectations. All of these poets, playwrights and philosophers attempt to see human life as it is, to diagnose it, and--sometimes--they prescribe a response about the best way to live.

After Augustine inductive thinking like this begins to disappear. The TRUTH has arrived; it has been proclaimed to the world, and now humanity has to think deductively within the officially prescribed box. The question is no longer “What is the best kind of life for a human being?” It is “Am I living the one and only official best kind of life?” The intellectual action switches from induction from particulars to deduction of particulars to the single, all-encompassing idea. And this is why I can't bring the same passion to teaching the Inferno. I can certainly admire Dante for his schematic brilliance. He constructed an elaborate cross-section of the medieval universe with every piece fitting wonderfully into the grand design. It was an impressive achievement, but my admiration begins to dissipate when I remember that Dante’s universe is static and does not value open debate or critical questioning. The Greeks were restless, quarrelsome, and self-doubting. You only have to look at Aquinas to see what happens when this kind of creative restlessness is made to deduce itself into a prescribed box.

You can find deductively-arrived at boxes in contemporary higher education as well. We have created all sorts of new academic subjects to study: peace studies, ethnic studies, gender studies. In many cases programs like these reclaim unjustly neglected ideas, traditions and histories, which is valuable work. At the same time, though, some of these programs tend to operate within an over-arching TRUTH. They think deductively, analyzing questions not in an open search for answers, but to fit all of the evidence into some grand, confirmatory design. There’s a medieval stultification to such enterprises and--just as with Dante--they arouse no passion in me.

Good heavens, I never would have suspected years ago that I would become such a fuddy-duddy, yet here I am.

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...