The Carapace of Cool

In Why Read?, the University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson describes a dynamic that he dubs "The Tyranny of Cool." This is a default attitude of emotional distance from confrontation or any sign of excessive passion in a college classroom. Today's 18 year-olds, he notes, have grown up in a society devoted to a habit of coolly remote spectatorship. Indeed, much of their life has been spent gazing into screens watching other people do things, which means a lot what they know of life has come to them secondhand while they remained safely untouched. Consequently, students tend to prefer a relaxed, laid back and emotionally detached classroom atmosphere. Edmundson writes,

The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at all cost.
He's right, of course. I see this every day: students who won't speak out of fear of embarrassment, students who hedge their most passionate beliefs lest they cause someone unease. I was really surprised last week when a student challenged her classmate who had just stated a very strong opinion. It was an interesting moment. Rarely do I see students confront one another on fundamental beliefs. They just avoid it. I didn't intervene in the dispute (actually I couldn't because I was faking a case of laryngitis to get the students to talk more).

And though I hate to admit it, buffoonery is pretty much my modus operandi in a classroom. I am so uncool some days that the students laugh out loud, and not because I've said anything funny. There are two young women in the first-year honors seminar who instinctively glance at each other, roll their eyes and giggle at me on a daily basis. Mostly they laugh from the discomfort of seeing a grown man act like a sap when he ought to be playing it cool.

Yesterday, for example, I was trying to get my class to take King Lear seriously. For them the play is simply words on a page, something to watch, a rather painful academic exercise that must be endured. So I had them do some reflection on the idea that King Lear is a play about losing things. Lear loses his power, his status, his possessions, his family and even his belief that the universe is underpinned by any sense of right or wrong. Ultimately he even loses his sanity.

The students dutifully found the passages and strung together a summary of his losses, but I wanted something more. I wanted them to really ask themselves what kind of loss would threaten their sense of self and maybe even shatter their trust in life's goodness. One young woman very quietly said, "Well, if I lost a child." The room became very still and I waited a beat or two before going on.

Then I asked a few other students what loss would shatter them, and I shared how deeply I fear such a loss. I mentioned that only the night before I had been sitting in our living room watching my son read a book. Something in it had made him laugh, which had caused me to look up at him. He was just sitting there reading with a big broad grin on his face, but I could not take my eyes off of him. I was terrified by how fiercely I loved him. Love and fear and helpless vulnerability were suddenly indistinguishable. There's a scene in Lear, I told the class, where Gloucester and Lear are weeping in each other's arms. They are fathers who have come to realize that their short-sightedness and errors of judgment have harmed the children they loved.

I confessed to them that this play nearly shatters me every time I read it because it raises the possibility that love is a fairly insignificant answer to the pain of human life. Even in our personal relationships it cannot prevent us from wounding and disappointing one another. Lear loves Cordelia, but so what? Cordelia loves Lear, but so what? The same is true for Edgar and Gloucester. That parents and children love each other might just be irrelevant to the pain that may have to be endured by both. On the other hand, maybe poor, inadequate and vulnerable love is all we have to offer in the face of suffering.

It was one of the more buffoonish of my many buffoonish moments. It completely violated all of the secret protocols of classroom coolness to share these fears, but it was also the first time since we started Lear that I managed to punch through their thin shells of detachment. They were finally--at long last--starting to take this play seriously.


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