Five Random Moments
Moment 1: I'm reading Mark Edmundson's Poetry Slam, a 6,000 word Harper's essay, which--depending on your point of view--was either a lament or a slap down of contemporary poetry. I tended to read it as a cri de coeur for poets to think big. Edmundson's central complaint concerns timidity and work that hedges, undercuts, pulls back and tries to have things both ways. It is a poetry forever reluctant to make a bold, universal claim. In a comparison between Yeats and Heaney, for example, Edmundson notes that you may have agreed with Yeats, you may not. But Yeats never hedged.
At the essay's conclusion, Edmundson writes,
I often think that our poets now write as though history were over and they were living in a world outside collective time. They write as though the great public crises were over and the most pressing business we had were self-cultivation and the fending off of boredom. Many of our poets are capable of work that matters. There's a lot of talent in the room. But we need them to use it and take some chances. We need their help. Against what's offered by the bankers and the ad men, the journalists and the professors and the politicians (especially them), we need the poets to create some sense of the present and our hopes for the time to come.Moment 2: I'm reading David Brooks' column which notes that only seven percent of grads have Humanities degrees (compared to 14 percent 10 years ago). Brooks, a writer I am seldom in agreement with, mentions in passing the economic pressures on today's undergrads, but the real culprits (the ones that don't create any cognitive dissonance for his laissez faire economics) are Humanities professors who have abandoned "educating the emotions with art in order to refine them,"or "offering inspiring exemplars to get [them] properly oriented." Here's Brook's diagnosis of where we went wrong:
Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.Moment 3: I'm teaching a unit on aesthetic awareness in INTS 470, the core capstone, and the students are debating the value of an arts requirement in the undergraduate core curriculum. Should it be there? Is it useful in any sense? When the debate comes to a vote, 80 percent of the room opts to eliminate the arts from the university's core curriculum.
Moment 4: I'm sitting across the table from an 18-year old kid and her mother at registration for fall semester at my university. The young woman looks unsure and a bit overwhelmed. I ask mom if this is the first child she's sent off to college and she nods it is. I try to sound reassuring and say something anodyne about how I'll be there to assist her daughter make a successful transition from high school to college. I don't bother to mention that my ideas of academic success may differ from most people's.
Moment 5: I'm writing the following response to a student paper (name changed):
You may be surprised that I actually agree with you about poetry. It is useless and probably not for everyone. It doesn't feed the hungry, make the world more just, cure cancer or assist you in earning your accounting degree. Heck, you can always find better things to count than syllables in a line of verse. So you're right. Poetry doesn't really affect the world. But we can generally rely on lawyers, guns and money for that.I'm not sure if there's an unambiguous or non-contradictory thread connecting these five moments. I'm not even sure if they are all that random. It just strikes me as odd that they each occured during the past week.