Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Can Literature Be Taught?

This morning I read "The Secret Sharer" by Joseph Conrad.

I'd read it once before, in my early 20's when taking a college English course, but I hadn't gotten anything out of the tale then but the hammered obvious point about the "double" or "doppleganger."

Reading it then was for me a waste. I was too young, too inexperienced in reading and life, to understand it. The story is very subtle. I didn't appreciate or see its subtleties, its depths, its hard-won experiences.

It's the worst kind of story to teach and discuss. Far better to discuss Jack London, who paints his tales with broader sweeps of noisy color. Better to discuss other of Conrad's tales. "Typhoon," which acts on a more concrete level, with a simpler, yet admirable, lead character, would be more apt a story for young readers, who need that captain's model, to talk about.

"The Secret Sharer" is taught because it allows windbag profs to pontificate about the mysterious "doppleganger," turning young students away from literature in the process; many, forever.

Reading has to be a joy, not a duty. The reader can't be told the meaning of the story-- he has to find the meaning himself.
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The present educational system for higher education works fine for fields requiring intense and rigid discipline where answers are wrong or right-- mathematics for instance. Set up the classroom boot camp and have your charges jump over hurdles of quadratic equations, weeding out those not able to stay in line and keep up with the pack.

For a field like literature this style of learning is a disaster.

When you make the student dependent upon the professor for a grade in order to progress, a superior overlooking inferiors, you've brought into play all the intangibles of a dependency relationship, whose key action quickly becomes manipulation of the superior. Like workers manipulating a boss or slaves manipulating a master, the career-ambitious students learn not about the meaning of literature-- how to connect the words of Joseph Conrad with the currents of their own souls. Instead, the students read the professor!, studying his unconscious expressions and tics, his giveaway poker tells, to know what he believes and what he wants. They then give him what he wants.

The Achievers progress by recycling the expected concepts. In this case, "the double" or "the doppleganger." Aha! The student "gets" it. He's learned the story-- but what has he learned about it? He's learned what his professor learned, what his professor's professor learned. The liquid depths of the story remain untouched.

The imaginative student who comes up with a novel, off-the-wall view of what he's read will be treated like a moron. "You didn't get it," the pony-tailed preppy student next to him will say with disgust, while the phlegmatic professor pouring coffee into his system to recuperate from last night's drunken binge tavern meeting with a coed will grunt phlegmatically in the affirmative. The student didn't "get" it. He must be a dunce. No wonder he enjoys Jack London and comic books.

The truly independent student will silently observe these proceedings with scorn from the back row.
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One thing I'm happy about with the ULA is that we "elders" of the group have connected with some of the best new writers out there. Here in Philly, I would take Eric Broomfield as a bet for future artistic greatness a thousand times over the local young Achievers obtaining conformist jobs in the local machine. Not only is "Jelly Boy the Clown" open to experience and the world-- has plunged himself into it in no less a fashion than did a young Joseph Conrad-- he comes to writing with no rules or inputted concepts. No barriers operate around his head. The Achievers in town, by contrast, are intellectually stunted. They've never discovered their own meaning of poems and stories. They've been taught what to think instead.
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On this reading of "The Secret Sharer" I quickly saw that the key relationship the new captain has isn't with the fugitive hiding in his cabin, but with his first and second mates, who are watching his every move. His takeover of the ship is the story. The device of the "double" merely helps offset this. More, there are aspects to the story, of language and form, which connect with the reader in ways which can't be expressed. Conrad touches notes which approach the true meaning of art.

Literature can't be taught. All the instructor can do, at most, is leave the student an open path. Then, through reading, the student finds the meaning, his own meaning, for himself.

Rather than classrooms I would have silent reading rooms with widely spaced armchairs, so the student can read-- whatever he wants, but read. Reading is the only way to learn what literature is about.


Jeff Potter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Potter said...

[Man, I wish this allowed post edits. Well, I caught a few more typos, so here goes again...]

I think the whole nation has a wretched relationship with creativity and freedom. This might well go back to some central Western mishandling of the ideas in Evangelical Protestantism.

Math also shouldn't be taught in a wright/rong way. There are practices to learn, like a piano player learning scales, but math should be first about learning how to SEE problems so that techniques for solving them can then be applied. But it takes a relaxed, creative vibe to SEE things with the mathematical eye. Math is essentially about elegance, beauty, harmony. Music, in a way, boils down to math. Likewise all math has a music to it. It's supposed to be our friend. It's for us, not against us.

...But that's not the kind of math we've been taught.

Alienation doesn't belong in ANY field!

There's a cool Sufi book by Idries Shah called "Learning How to Learn." Those Sufis are smart ones for knowing things about what we think we know.

King, you mention that all the teacher has to do is leave an open path, then let the student learn. Well, teaching is all about helping students create those openings in themselves. There's a lot of hard, repetitious work in this preparation. Getting rid of old habits and ideas. The dialectical method helps---if someone thinks they get it, question them until they see they don't get it. There's always something new to learn so someone's idea can always be brought to its contradiction and be shown that for it to live it has to be pushed further, higher. The teacher needs the student even more than vice-versa. Huh, what's that?

Learning how to read is quite a trick! Reading isn't about decoding letters--it's more like your description of how savvy students learn to "read" their profs and their expectations. It's about discovering then sifting, testing and trying out meanings for oneself. Then sharing your experience with others. How it looks to you may resonate with how it looks to them. Also, share how it WORKED for you. Meanings really need to be lived out. I mean, we're not just reading to kill time, are we?


I met a big yuppy bastard last weekend. He was loudly proud of it. He had cultivated that dark side. He loved to rip and tear and to heap scorn and to mock. Think of the party points such a bastard gets! What a winner! He just mows thru the lower ranks---no time for regular people. He was smart, dynamic, funny---so he put his effort into cleverness. It yields the best return these days, no? He was an ex-pat, now living in DC, a fat-cat, a big player in our national media. Each night he quickly drank himself into drooling, babbling oblivion (not so pretty then but whatever). Whew---what a way to go. And what leadership! Folks like him are running the show in every field---math, too! Literature is just the canary in the mine, gasping. There's a lesson here somewhere! How to read it?

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I think what you said about math is true--same thing for science. While both fields may involve more supposedly "concrete" and sometimes "proven" ideas, theories and processes, and like in medicine when treatments and operations are being performed, ignoring basic biological constraints would be dangerous, there's still a great need for outside-the-box creative thinking in both math (often a language of science) and science. So much dogmatic absolutist ideology permeates both fields in school and out, to the detriment of both, but especially to science's detriment, which normally requires continual observational reassessments, testing, and doubt for (hopefully) higher accuracy when drawing conclusions. And that absolutism is a big reason why many science people are mediocrely competent at best, at least in my opinion.

To me it seems society has become increasingly rigid, closed-minded and conformist overall, just maybe some areas are more conformist than others. The arts seem particularly bad lately, but maybe it's more in a relative sense: because the arts are supposed to be a creative field by definition, people notice any rigidity inside it more.

I don't know what can be done about all this, I agonize over that a lot, over that society is this way and that nothing so far seems to have changed the path it's been going down--"down" being the operative word....

Jeff Potter said...

I think that even the most "hard" science---say medical diagnostics, as you mention---STILL need the open eyes of someone who is to all practical purposes functioning as an artist. A patient needs a doctor who can SEE what's wrong with them, who can put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Then, of course, they have to know the details of what med goes with what disease, etc. That's the easy part.

The facts are the nuts'n'bolts, the building blocks, the musical scales, the muscles that are fit and ready.

The WHAT to do with them and HOW takes wisdom, genius, sensitivity...

Many of us are lucky enough to know car mechanics who are maestros at their art... Thankfully!

As you say, narrowness wrecks competence even in the "hard" sciences.

And, yes, we would tend to notice the train derailing first in the arts.

Jeff Potter said...

Here's a link to the profile of an author who I publish. It's interesting to me that he chose to write about reading as a way to describe himself to the public. Also, that he was a professor yet check out how he refers to the typical approach to college education...sound familiar?