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What, Me Read? Part III

A literature professor concludes the tale of his struggle to understand students who exist in the fog of a post-literate world.

By Thomas Bertonneau


January 29, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of “What, Me Read?” a series of three essays by a literature professor who analyzes his students’ exam responses to learn how students think in a post-literate age. Here is Professor Bertonneau’s first article and the second.

Some writing specialists excuse bad writing on the hopeful supposition that a gap exists between cognition and expression—similar to the way a stroke victim can have a complex thought, but cannot properly verbalize it. That is, students who write badly nevertheless know what they want to say, or what they have read, as well as anyone else. I have concluded that no evidence supports this postulate. Having no other means to discern cognition than through its expression, one must take as a given that expression is cognition.

Defective writing, unlike the stroke victim’s aphasia, reveals more than mere awkwardness of expression; it reveals the confusions that becloud both the act of reading and the subsequent attempt at a mental sorting out of the narrative. The individual who cannot see things clearly cannot think about them clearly. Likewise those who cannot make sense of stories, which represent cause and effect in the human world, will have difficulty making sense of the actual human world, to which stories refer.

Consider Homer’s use of the flashback in The Odyssey. A flashback is a familiar gesture in film and television because it is a standard stocktaking gesture of the self-aware individual. In a crisis, everyone asks, “How did I end up here?” One would suppose that students, saturated in visual narrative, would “get” Homer’s flashbacks. But the difference between written narrative and cinematic narrative turns out to be absolute; or perhaps students’ grasp of cinematic flashback is, in itself, not so secure as one supposes.

In any case, students always get mixed up about Odysseus’ journeys even though I sort it all out for them in handouts of exceptional simplicity and clarity.

Consider also the widespread difficulty exhibited by students in keeping Virgil’s Aeneid distinct from The Odyssey.

Virgil took The Odyssey as his model and wrote with acute awareness of his debt to Homer, but he also wrote an independent story. In it, Homer’s heroes, the Greeks, become Virgil’s villains and vice versa, as Virgil presents the defeated Trojans as the heroic founders of a new, Roman race. And yet both poems present the Trojan War as epochal. Both tell of heroes who, forced out of their native context by that war, must endure tribulations before finding home again—an old home for Odysseus and a new home for Aeneas. A benevolent goddess who intervenes on behalf of her champion aids both heroes.

Reading these two stories, Virgil’s written almost a thousand years after Homer’s, creates a good opportunity for students to come to grips with my thesis that we of the present have a sense of identity, an idea of our own social and ethical character, only insofar as we deliberately study the ways in which the present is rooted in the past.

I supplement the lesson, as I have indicated, by showing students Les Troyens by Berlioz, a grand opera based on Virgil, the first part of which includes the nefarious Wooden Horse and the downfall of Priam’s city. This opera was beautifully produced on stage at the Theatre de Chatelet, Paris, for the 2003 Berlioz Centennial. My lecture hall comes equipped with all those media-wonders that higher education budgets now lavish on classrooms. The students have in view a big theater-sized image and hear the performance in stereophonic sound. They can see Cassandra warning the Trojans in vain about the great wooden horse and they can see the refugee Aeneas falling in love with Dido. One would think that the stage action of the opera would help students, who are so visually oriented, in understanding Virgil’s story. Then we encounter this exam response:

“A large wooden horse is brought by Aeneas from Troy, which Queen Dido thinks is a sign of appreciation. When the wooden horse is opened up and a number of Greek soldiers jump out, Dido is in shock. Thankfully, Aeneas and his men show up and promise to restore her disorder.”

The student, who has read several books of Aeneid (in his way) and seen the Berlioz opera (in his way), still confuses Cassandra with Dido and Aeneas with Odysseus, or perhaps Trojans with Greeks and Carthaginians with Romans generally. Keeping the characters straight is an elementary gesture, formerly expected even of sixth-graders, and second nature for any habitual reader.

The last line of the passage constitutes an unwitting self-attestation, turning as it does on the utterly desperate misprision, “to restore her disorder.” It is ironically the hapless student whom real disorder in this case afflicts. I wonder, by the way, who exactly is supposed to be thankful to whom, in the attempt at analysis. Is it Dido, Virgil, or the student? Many college-age writers, confronted by models of order, seem to yearn to be delivered from them back into the concealment and irresponsibility of their mental fog. They flinch from the burden of intellectual responsibility as though it were too much to bear.

Beyond Factual Misunderstanding

The examples of defective prose that have paraded past in the previous installment of this series have exhibited pure epistemological confusion. They represent fundamental errors of basic cognition, such as confusing simple categories like those of “Greeks” and “Trojans,” as they appear in Homer or Virgil. They involve an unwillingness or inability to keep the good guys and bad guys straight in relation to two contending perspectives: for Homer, the Trojans are enemies, while for Virgil they are the heroes, and for him Greeks are enemies. This should be no more difficult than keeping it straight that John likes purple but hates green while Jane likes green but hates purple.

What happens when the reading takes students beyond those problems of mere alternate ascriptions or the heroic behavior codes of the epic poets? In a response to the depiction of individual moral crisis in Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a different type of failure comes into view.

The test posed for the student by Augustine speaks more poignantly than the ones posed by Homer or Virgil. The Confessions demand that readers participate with the author in judging actions morally rather than pragmatically and insist that they turn the faculty of moral criticism on themselves.

Augustine stands at the end of antiquity and at the beginning of the medieval world, of which our own is a direct outgrowth. In commenting on the grossness of Roman decadence in the late Fourth Century, Augustine also describes his own growing disgust with his base appetites. He then tells the story of his resolve to make a new life by adopting the Christian regimen of moral self-control.

This phenomenon of conversion—the rejection of an old and unsatisfactory life and the espousal of a new self—baffles students. Their bafflement is consistent with characterizations of people who rely on oral, not written, words as found in the studies of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and Alexander Luria. Oral people, as those scholars have noted, recognize prohibitions, to be sure, but they never perform moral analysis. Indeed, they see analysis as obfuscation and can show hostility to it.

Now when asked to say how Augustine differs from earlier protagonists, one representative student writes this:

“Much like Odyssus Augustine, who at one time was reared as a saint in Hippo, is tempted by pretty women as well as by a pear tree. But later he loses his self-control problem and converts into a Christian.”

Although the construction is linguistically inadequate, we should observe that the student-writer has, in fact, hazarded a comparison—and indeed a valid one—which I strove to help students discover as they thought about the separate items of the syllabus as forming a unity. To be candid, the student-writer is only giving me back a remark that I made in a lecture, rather than forming an original judgment. The encounter with Augustine is not, for him, an occasion for thought, but rather for something like mere information retrieval.

Nevertheless, in his or her garbled manner, this writer has gleaned a parallelism assimilating Augustine in the period of late antiquity with Odysseus, protagonist of a poem written in the archaic period of Attic civilization. Sirens, demigoddesses, and husband-hunting princesses all in a sense tempt Odysseus, who, however, mainly contrives to avoid temptation. Homer says that the ability to control his appetites is why Odysseus survived where his crewmates did not. Odysseus sleeps with Circe and then with Calypso under necessity because they are demigoddesses, whom he cannot directly refuse. One may nevertheless suppose that he enjoys his pleasures.

Augustine was also, as the Confessions tell us, susceptible to female attractiveness, and spent a period of inveterate brothel crawling and inexhaustible fornication. But Odysseus seeks to win back the material wealth and chattels that the squatters in his palace would steal from him. In contrast, Augustine, in spiritual revolt against worldliness, rejects power and riches for the sake of his intangible soul. This essential difference the student entirely misses. It is as though the student cannot hold the resemblance and the difference in mind simultaneously.

The phrase, “at one time was reared as a saint in Hippo,” probably stems from my assertion during a lecture that Augustine was revered as a saint within a few short years after his death during the Vandal siege of Hippo. Revered has lapsed into reared. The former is probably an unfamiliar—to the student, an exotic—term whereas the latter still has some currency. The student probably took a high-school course called “Child Rearing.” The sequel is comical, for the student has Augustine being tempted not only by “pretty women” but, casually, also by “a pear tree,” as though one temptation (he has them out of sequence, by the way) was exactly like another.

The real mind-twister follows: “But later he loses his self-control problem and converts into a Christian.” It is worthwhile sorting out what the student, by a generous estimation, wants to say from what he or she actually does say. He or she wants to say, I guess, that, after succumbing to the anomie of many years of indulgence and feeling in consequence radically alienated from himself, Augustine at last found self-control, and found it in the moral dispensation of the Gospel.

Instead we get: “He loses his self-control problem,” an assertion that makes self-control the problem rather than the lack of it and implies that that movement from self-indulgence to self-discipline is somehow accidental and passive rather than deliberative and active. Augustine, in the student’s version of things, doesn’t gain self-control, as one would normally say, but rather he finds himself suddenly free of a burdensome condition (restraint), as if by magic.

The inability to make a straightforward statement along such lines as Augustine rejects self-indulgence and adopts self-control as a mandate of his conversion is much more than a funny instance of incompetence. It is a crippling intellectual deformity that will prevent a student who distantly glimpses a moral problem from adequately seeing or articulating it. The problem will vex and hobble the student whether it is his own or someone else’s. He will lack the very notion of a deliberative resolution. Agonies of error and indecision lie ahead in such a life, but where there is a mass of such lives, the misery of vexation and indecision will afflict everyone, not just the victim of deficient education and default of analysis.

It is not too farfetched to suggest that there is more to the student’s problem than an absence of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax or a life without reading. The hostility to religion that pervades the academic environment and popular culture also hampers him. For to say that self-indulgence is the problem and that Christianity was Augustine’s solution is to go against many years of—undoubtedly half-understood but sufficiently threatening—propaganda from the same crusading people who refuse to let student stores sell Christmas cards or Easter candy, but say nothing about promiscuity in the dorms.

Reverting to Spiritual Savagery

The disaster lies beyond the control of any individual (although one nevertheless does what he can) and it accelerates asymptotically. Perhaps the only thing we can do is laugh, laugh at the irony of a society that was once the most literate that ever existed now reverting to the spiritual savagery of tribal existence. The fateful joke is that the technical gewgaws that fascinate children and prevent them from maturing intellectually—from becoming readers, for example—could only have been invented in a science-saturated, massively literate society.

I see in the resentful incapacity of so many students a not-so-dim “Shape of Things to Come” whose characteristics will be theirs: perceptive obtuseness, expressive coarseness, extreme limitation of language and therefore also of concept, radical unfitness to judge complicated technical or moral problems, complete disconnection from any meaningful past and, to borrow a term from Oswald Spengler, in a condition utterly “historyless.”

The world soon to be dominated by such people (their world is already rapidly consolidating itself around us) will be awkward and ham-fisted; it will respond slowly and in all likelihood badly to the complicated problems that will impose their contingency on it. Petulance will characterize it universally: people who find it hard to think straight or to sort out complexities will balk at doing so and become adept at finding reasons for ignoring urgent social, moral, and political challenges. They will be even more amenable than many people already are to pandering, “magical” solutions to emergencies offered by cynical politicians who are interested solely in re-election.

Secretly aware of their limitations, they will also be susceptible to flattery designed to boost their all-important self-esteem. The level of commercial culture will descend even further than it already has to placate the taste of people who have rejected humane education and who do not really understand adult issues. As a student wrote in response to Iphigenia by Euripides, getting the tragedian’s message exactly backwards, people “must trust their leaders and things will be fine in the end.” Many older, genuinely educated people surviving into this not-too-distant future will find the new world infantile and exasperating.

William James wrote that the role of the intellect is to resolve into a comprehensible image the raw perceptual blur of reality. When the educational system rejects cultivating intellect as its primary goal and dedicates itself instead to fostering feelings, opinions, and baseless pride, it will discharge at the end of twelve years young people for whom the Jamesian “buzz” of phenomena cannot resolve into a comprehensible image. I mean to argue, in citing the student passages given above, much more than that contemporary undergraduates are poorly educated and lazy, even though they are those things in spades. I mean to argue that a deficient but entrenched pedagogy based on “progressive” theories of education has betrayed students by refusing to grant them the dignified status of real mentality, of adult awareness, and of literate sensibility.


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