Monday, February 28, 2005

Plucking the philosophers

Here are versions of some classics of early modern philosophy, prepared with a view to making them easier to read while leaving the main arguments, doctrines, and lines of thought intact.

Thus Jonathan Bennett who's been doing this for a decade. (Well, you don't come to this site for breaking news.) His proposition: students today can't read the original texts of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza - that old gang. What gets in their way: archaic words, unfamiliar syntax, references to their wrong-headed contemporaries. Bennett's versions remove what he considers inessential to the philosophical argument. He argues, plausibly, that since the arguments are what matter to his students, he doesn't want them distracted.

It's a while since I taught anything 18th century, but I'm chronically familiar with students who can't - or in some cases, won't - read Shakespeare. But Hume? Hume who practically defines clarity in English prose? And Bennett is moving on to J.S Mill.

What will he do, I wonder, when he gets to Austin?

Too depressed to pursue this right now. It's one thing for the cultural pundits to talk brightly about a 'post-literate age'. It's quite another, now that we begin to see its outlines more clearly, to confront the new order.

Update 15.12.2005: cut some boring stuff.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

LibLab wheedles

Politics again, but this time on the wordpatch.

John Holbo recommends a strategy for Democrats

. . . work constantly to expose [that] conservatives are deeply unserious about conservatism. Expose their inauthenticity. On every front. Don't point up contradictions. Socratic logic-chopping leaves the electorate unmoved. Show the voter that your Republican is a creature who'll talk the talk but won't walk the walk. . . . This is the sort of 'contradiction' that actually bothers people.

In Oz we have a government which describes itself as liberal and conservative. Last week, it signalled again that it wants to take over industrial relations from the states. Not conservative, because it proposes a massive change for no clear gain; not liberal, because the change would reduce diversity and variety. The government's motive is plain and undeniable: centralise control, so as to 'reform' the system.

Whether or not you think that reform desirable, there is only one fitting word for such a government: authoritarian. Wanna put that on your masthead, Mr Howard?

But remember what John Dawkins and Labor did to the universities in the late 1980s. Nobody's forcing you, they said, you don't have to join the national unified system, they said, you're free to go it alone, which is to say, die.

My wife, who works in health, is always attending 'seminars' in which state bureaucrats ask health providers to justify doing what's been imposed on them - by the bureaucrats. The angry subtext of course is: we're doing this because we have to, so let's go back and do some real work. But if that were voiced, the bureaucrats would be very sad: aren't they consulting the people at the coalface?

I think I'd rather be ordered about than wheedled into compliance. But wouldn't it be nice to have other options?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Sentence of the week

There’s a lot to be said for communication and so many problems we can’t talk about simply go away after a while, such as the problem of mortality, for example, but a writer’s duty is to keep trying, to wake up every afternoon and saddle up the mare and bear the sacred plume de literature over the next ridge, and here, to show I’ve been on the job and not just sunning myself in Denmark, is a book, collecting in one neat pile some stories, poems and letters mostly written at the time of Ronald Reagan, the President who never told bad news to the American people.

Garrison Keillor, We are Still Married, rev. ed. Faber, 1993, xiii.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Foggy, foggy politics

Mine, that is – but maybe a general point will emerge through the murk.

On a tip from Mark Bahnisch I took the moral politics test: highly recommended. Decades ago, I took Hans Eysenck’s similar test (no, no, settle down, this isn’t about race). Eysenck tested the correlation between personality types and political allegiance. He used three axes of personality: tender-mindedness/tough-mindedness[1]; introversion/extraversion; libertarian/authoritarian.

I came out just left of centre. And all these years later, I came out just right of centre. Wishy then, washy now.

People like me - you know who you are, or you will soon when you’ve gone over the arguments – people who thought of themselves as centrists now dither chronically about where we are on the map. Labor shifts right – whoops, we’re on the left of the party. But the Left doesn’t want us, because we abstain, and leave meetings early to pick up kids, and need time for our so-called selves. Meanwhile, the Libs also shift right, so that our beloved compromises now involve too big a stretch. (“OK we’ll lock up the asylum-seekers but we don’t want wire.”) Yah, ya Soaking Wet.

So what is this Centre that we’re told the parties both woo? Code for the marginals? Or is it time we admitted that the Left Right stuff just doesn’t work across the full range of political beliefs? Does that leave us with a particularist patchwork?

No more about politics: it makes me break out in alliteration.

[1] I typed ‘touch-mindedness’: uh huh. Maybe we could replace questionnaires with spelling errors?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Last words on Sawyer

Student who works part-time at the local bakery cafe murmured a few months back that she liked reading old books, and asked what I thought, in general, about old books? I said I thought, in general, that they were pretty interesting, and we took it from there. Yesterday she finished The Count of Monte Christo (which she went on to after The Three Musketeers). Read it in a week, after hours & between parties.

She said: that the resolution of The Count of Monte Christo is both painful and rigorous and dead right (the emptiness of revenge). And yet, she said, you can't wait for our hero to knock off his enemies, one by one, and there's a deep pleasure each time he does . . . Which means we get the shock that Dantés does when it leads him to nothingness. She wasn't convinced by Haidée, the exotic lady Dantés gets as consolation prize; the whole narrative strand which concerns her felt wrong.

At university she’s doing psychology. I wonder if the formal teaching of literature ever had a simple (let alone a causal) relationship with what people actually read or how they actually respond? Here’s a ‘natural’ reader of literature, if ever there was, reading simply, personally, perceptively. The sad part is that she would be actively damaged by taking English at a university today. She has nothing to gain by learning that Haidée is a typical male fantasy in the mode of orientalism. She already knows it’s phony stuff, & if she keeps coming across such creations – she will, she will – think of Conrad’s women, Dickens’ younger ones – she will make her own generalisations. Then and then only is the time for Edward Said.

The groves of academe are full of students who have never studied poetry at all taking subjects with titles like ‘Rethinking Romanticism’ . Who has power in that tutorial room? More broadly, why are English Departments always, always illiberal?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sentence of the week

Unfortunately, the reference has been lost, but this week's sentence is the opening of a 'Talk of the Town' piece in a New Yorker from the 90s.

The rise of the women's goat cheese movement comes at a time of general crisis in American cheese.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

How to read a text for matriculation

Over at troppo armadillo, Sophie Masson describes the latest demand on her son to produce an essay on Cloudstreet. His English teacher supplied instructions, which included an introduction to critical theory. Xavier Masson was asked to apply various theories to the text. Apparently he resents this because he liked the book - whatever that means. To help Masson fils and his friends do it properly, here is a text with sample analyses.

Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on,
We'll all have tea.

Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again,
They've all gone away

Gender-based: you can't tell what gender the speaker is, which is good, and the other two persons in the text are both female which is also good. (Until the total number of females and males in all texts everywhere are equal it's OK to play catch-up.) But it is probable that the speaker is male because of the objective power-balance of patriarchy. So there he is ordering them about (no 'please' even) and they don't speak. So there are Silences, even after the third line in each section where the comma signifies a chance to break in. The kettle could be male or female, depending on whether you consider the container part or the spout. According to queer theory however (which is my chosen ideology for this paragraph) everything I've said so far is a crock.

Socio-political: the society implied by this poem is incredibly privileged. One person has two servants to put on and take off the kettle (respectively) and the reference to 'all' shows that a lot of people are coming so the servants will have to wait on them hand and foot. Nothing is said about the event itself. This shows that the event is actually seen through the eyes of the servants. For them the 'party' or whatever is just more lifting and carrying. This shows that the writer is on the side of the servants. I'm not, because in this paragraph my ideology is fascist.

Post-colonial: This is a blatant example of Western appropriation. The stolen text is an ancient legend from China. 'Polly' is of course 'Po Li' and Sukey 'Soo Chi', a guest-worker from 'Burma'. The mandarin's wife who gives the orders has been effaced (rubbed out) by the '(era)-sure of difference' (Spivack) and her place is taken by a figure we can't identify. That is how power is perceived by the colonised, as a free-floating set of orders which must be obeyed. The hopeful side of this text is that the 'ordering' person has to say things three times before anyone does anything. Powerless people resist indirectly by behaving 'lazily'. In this text, they have also failed to send out the invitations, so nobody comes to tea which is why the story lacks a middle part. I am between ideologies this afternoon so all I can say is I might have believed what I just wrote, or might believe it tonight, but just now I haven't a clue.

Psychoanalytical: Notice here first the repeated lines, fixed, rigid behaviour which betrays the anxiety of the speaker. (We shall see that the anxiety is fully justified.) Will Polly and Sukey do as they are told? (issues of control). Evidently someone has 'put the kettle on' but it could just as well have been the speaker, desparing of being obeyed. Are Polly and Sukey really there? Perhaps we have here a game in which the young, anxious speaker consoles herself (in my experience, most people are female) by murmuring the rituals she heard in her bourgeois childhood. The tragic depths of the case come out in the silence between the two parts of the text. It is tempting to imagine people arriving, tea being consumed, cheerful conversation, but this reading would make the text 'normal' which is not theoretical. I reckon the speaker will not tell us about the incident (if there was an incident - see above). It will have to be got out of her. She could be someone recalling a trauma: no-one came to the tea-party. The kettle boiled dry many times, so many times that Polly is too exhausted to go, and another servant has to replace her. The cakes withered on the plate. Hope dried in the young woman's heart. Everybody hated her, it was all true what her mother had said. It's really, really sad.

My ideology with ten minutes to go is a bit of all these theories (including all the ones I did not mention) because they all contain important insights and tools which can be applied to texts to get anything you want out of them, so I agree with everything I've just written and so must you. Pretty good handwriting, huh?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Grindings from the Sawyer-mill

The row over Sawyer has stirred up passionate, intelligent discussion about the present and future of English in schools. There's a series of threads at troppo armadillo.
At barista, I've had a lengthy and pleasant exchange with David Tiley, who thinks Sawyer has been hard done by, and offers a generous interpretation of the offending article.

Sophie Masson at troppo takes the conversation in a new direction. From her experience in schools, she reports that many English teachers writhe in the toils of the new curricula. What they're supposed to do is teach 'subversive' readings: the tilt is unmistakably Utopian Left. Sceptical, readers? Have a look at the Education Department in Tasmania's account of 'critical literacy'.

Sophie Masson and others compare this doctrinal dryness with how kids they know actually read. For teenagers, plot & character & theme are the 'natural' way in, and what they discover using those traditional methods are sufficient cause for delight. But when this approach is stomped on in English at school, potentially good students avoid it at university.

How did we get here? The answer, folks, is long and complicated and scholarly and as yet incompletely researched (especially for Australia) but here's the nutshell version.

First, we divided English into a subject focussed (allegedly) on language and another focussed on literature. The language subject then became a combination of how to analyse texts for their content, how to conduct an argument, elementary ethics . . . you name it, anything but language. As one teacher said to me: "I love English - you can do whatever you like." In literature, we stopped teaching appreciation as the basis for criticism and began to teach Theory which builds a wall between the rhetoric of writers itself and their readers . (But even before that happened, the number of students taking literature at matric level had dropped by about 75% over about ten years.)

A bit of wider history. Literary education before the 19th century was continuous with the tradition of rhetoric that began (in the West) in ancient Greece. It combined the study of language with logic and history. 'Rhetoric' was the system used to analyse writing, as well as to teach it, so that someone who learnt in this way could feel that their efforts and the writer's were part of the same general enterprise. Already by the 18th century, logic had migrated across to philosophy, but the agenda remained broad and integrated. Typical of the 18th century, Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres combine literary history and criticism with the history of language. The lectures also include formal instruction in both the basics and the more advanced techniques of writing good prose. Blair's program may look not too unlike ours - until you start looking more closely.

Students today- those who go on to university - know very little history of any kind and virtually no literary history. They are unaware that language itself has a history. They completely lack a vocabulary for describing prose. If it has big words, it's 'academic', if it comes from before (say) 1950, it's 'old' - or in extreme cases 'olde'. Their repertoire of stylistic descriptions runs from 'flowery' to 'staccato' and back again. They may (sometimes do) genuinely love language, but as yet it's an inarticulate love.

So what do they know? They know that English is about having opinions and that (in whatever) fashion these opinions must be backed up. An opinion sincerely held, along with a wave at a patch of the text, amounts to an impregnable position, since everyone has a 'right' to an opinion. Those who have suffered under reach-me-down theorists have entirely predictable opinions. If there is a woman in the text, she will be examined for signs of oppression. If the writer appears to discriminate (at all, between any class of phenomena) s/he will be 'elitist' - and so on. Tellingly, it is only an exceptional student who can accurately paraphrase a short passage of prose. Most dig into the body of the text in search of 'issues', and drag them bleeding into the light. It's about 'issues of sexuality' they say. Which? one asks. And so their education begins.

Do I exaggerate? Here's Dr Tim van Gelder, talking about students at the University of Melbourne.

A couple of years ago I set a mundane homework assignment for my class of about 50 mid-level Arts students. They were to take one of the course readings - a chapter from How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker - and return in a week with a one page essay, in which they had identified and evaluated the author's main argument.
Students in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne are among the most
talented and privileged in Australia. They ought to have found this basic exercise in critical reading to be quite straightforward. Yet, when I graded their essays, I found that almost none had even done the task, let alone done it well.
Most had just produced a kind of haphazard summary, little more than a random
selection of interesting ideas from the text. There were very few attempts to engage critically with the author's argument. Indeed, most students were not even aware that were not doing the assignment as specified. This was a multi-level failure of critical thinking!
(Sorry Dr Tim: I've tried and tried to fix the lineation.)

As a university teacher, my problem with the matric syllabus has been not so much its politics as its signal failure to do what I believe the community rightly expects it to do: for English, teach students to write, read and analyse at reasonably advanced levels.; for Literature, teach the reading of literature. Before I'm mown down by anecdotal exceptions, - yes, of course, there are excellent students and excellent teachers but I believe the general standard is deplorable, and that efforts to deliver social justice through the English teacher are both futile and destructive. It would not matter (for my purposes) if the prescribed authors were Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. I am certainly not in favour of "back to" thinking: the Blair stuff is offered as illustration, not as example.

We need to start thinking about a 21st century curriculum which will neither efface the past nor turn away from the present. No way this government will do that, and it wouldn't be any better under the other lot. Those of us who deal in words need to figure it out - I'm thinking about alternatives to the way things are done at university, and I'd happily work with others interested. I have taught school, designed and accredited subjects, examined, sat on Boards etc.

More - and more relaxed - later.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Trouble at the dark satanic mill

In The Australian this week, Kevin Donnelly attacked Professor Wayne Sawyer's editorial in English in Australia 141, Spring 2004. This morning's edition brings a batch of letters. Here's a bit of what Sawyer wrote (the rest is here). The letters can be found at the paper's website.
English for the last ten years – not least in the pages of this journal – has trumpeted the cause of critical literacy. Critical literacy holds as its central premise the education of the student to be able to ‘suss’ out how they are being worked over – by advertisers, by politicians, by the media. We’re told that the government was re-elected by the young. If so, a fair proportion of that group by now must have graduated from a ‘critical’ education. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that those who brought us balaclava’d security guards, Alsatians and Patrick’s Stevedoring could declare themselves the representatives of the workers and be supported by the electorate? Two days after the election, Howard declared that ‘We do not treat blue collar workers with contempt’ while highlighting the ratcheting up of his workplace ‘reforms’ in the same speech. What does it mean for us and our ability to create a questioning, critical generation that that kind of language gets itself re-elected?
Amongst the attacking letters (in The Australian, 11.2.2005) - on the whole, moderate in tone - are some in his defence. These are worth inspection.

Right on, brother, says Daniel Hulme of Summerhill, Tas.

Like Sawyer, I find it impossible to believe that truly critical and inquiring minds could fail to see through the multitude of lies that have overwhelmingly laid the foundation for this Government's four election wins.

Hulme has been suckered, implies Mark Howie, assistant editor of English in Australia, who offers the Irony Defence.

Sawyer's piece questioned the social purpose of English and, in particular, took up the challenge to the social-critical notion of literacy that Donnelly erroneously claims Sawyer champions.

Note to Howie: good try, but irony needs to mark itself off (rhetorically) from straight talking: see Swift, 'A Modest Proposal' in which there is some disparity between 'modest' and the substantive proposal: to solve starvation, eat babies. No trace of such finesse in Sawyer: either he meant what he said or he can't write.

Paul Sommer, from the Australian Association for Teachers of English, wants to skip out from under, sort of.
We encourage students to think and develop opinions on matters of importance to the community. In this spirit, we support Professor Sawyer, especially when he expresses what he clearly says are his own views not those of the association. Isn't this the point of democracy? Kevin Donnelly's representation of us as seeking to control our schools and preferring indoctrination to education seems more than a little paranoid.
Yes but hang on, Professor Sawyer is the editor of the journal, what he wrote was an editorial, and he associates his views with the journal itself in his first paragraph. Those aspects of the presentation rather outweigh disclaimers.

In the profession, it is common knowledge that some teachers treat English as a branch of political education. The questions now become: how many, and which politics do they favour? Kevin Donnelly is a longstanding critic of the educational left, and after some of the abuse he's copped in the past, it wouldn't be surprising if he were to overstate his case. But consider. At tertiary level, the study of English has rapidly changed into something that in some places dare not speak its name, but would plausibly be called Cultural Studies. Cultural Studies is overwhelmingly academic-Left. Much the same can be said for schools of education where the doctrine of social-constructivism holds sway. These are the institutions that teach the teachers. All these terms of course slide about, and what I've said here doesn't constitute an argument, let alone a judgment. But there is scope for enquiry.

Since the 1960s, the ideal of what has variously been called detached, impartial, objective, or disinterested scholarship and teaching has been under attack and in many places in the universities has been routed. It has become routine to read this kind of thing.
Our current students face a relentless barrage of shockjocks, media barons, advertising and corporate greed masquerading as common sense. Of course the overtly critical-ethical from teachers will be called ‘ideological’, while the overtly political from the media barons, the corporates and the Liberals is ‘neutral’.
This - also from Sawyer's editorial - ought to be astonishing. Hello out there in Western Sydney, Professor Sawyer: corporations and politicians are political players and no-one expects them to be neutral, nor nowadays do they pretend to be. Many parents and students - and academics - believe that teachers ought always to represent a variety of points-of-view about controversial subjects, and should play down their own opinions, both to avoid undue influence and to clear the air for free speech. If that is 'neutrality' then yes, we want you to be neutral. If that's too much for you to bear, get yourself another job.