Thursday, August 21, 2008

A brief note on the generation gap

I spent this afternoon preparing a team-taught seminar with a friend who is an English teacher. Before getting down to the nitty gritty we had a bit of a moan about life, the universe and people in general. Some of her misery related to an apparently failed attempt at teaching the following well-known and characteristically straightforward poem by Philip Larkin:

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

It seems that her pupils - all A-level students of a certain intelligence and enough adolescent experience behind them to have been through a few good tiffs with their producers - couldn't see the point of this poem and found its depiction of family life "too negative."

Houston, I think we have a serious generational problem here. Some of these kids will eventually become university students; in fact, a few of them might end up in one of my classes, where they might be confronted with even "more negative" stuff (Hamlet - William Shakespeare's comforting portrayal of family life in feudal Denmark). How the hell am I going to relate to them if there is no common code between us, no shared store of experience on which we could base our communication?

I don't expect everyone to become a misanthropic cynic like me. But how can anyone read and understand literature without having at least a passive grasp of loneliness, conflict and pain?

But I guess I'm getting old ....


canada said...

I just had a similar converstaion with a friend who is extraordinarily intelligent but not particularly well-read. One of the issues that came up was the lack of interest in reading about despair, death, failed love, betrayal and so much else that literature, from the Greeks to today's banal pretenders, encompasses.

Also, while literature and acid rock (okay, AND acid) used to be the food of adolescent angst when I was a youth, my experience with the newest crop of college students indicates there has been something of a sea-change where the parent-child relationship is concerned. These
kids seem to actually LIKE their parents, never have hated them and even enjoy their company. I've seen the phenomena cross class lines with barely a hiccup.

It's even weirde...I mean cozier, here in Canada where the neighbor boy can't wait to get home from high school and hop in the jacuzzi with his parents for a chat!

Hell, I'm still not sure I like my parents.

The Wife said...

"These kids seem to actually LIKE their parents, never have hated them and even enjoy their company."

My friend and I used almost exactly the same words in our conversation.

I don't begrudge these students their friendship with their parents, but I a) think that kind of relationship is not healthy (and possibly a lie) and b) that it is a huge problem for anybody involved in the teaching of literature. Take the novel. Nancy Armstrong uses the apt image of the novel being about "an individual on a collision course with the world." How can you teach a genre to people who have never collided with anything in their lives, except for, maybe, a chair?

I should have known, though, that my academic career would be an extension of the kind of frustrations that accompanied my own education. In school, voluntary reading was deemed deeply uncool. Sadly, this attitude continued at university, where I, naively, expected to meet plenty of likeminded people. I was shocked by seminar discussions which went nowhere because my fellow students were completely baffled by my then hero Holden Caulfield - they just didn't get him - or bored by Jane Austen - because "nothing happens" in her novels.

Today, I teach people of the same mindset, who invariably misinterpret texts because their view of the world and human relations is completely different from what these texts suggest. They're not just a little off the mark, but really get texts wrong, fail to see the implications of characters' actions, or understand narrative irony or criticism.

Now my constructionist colleagues and friends would hit me over the head with their "but there is no meaning in the text, only in the reader" baton. Which is precisely the kind of attitude that has helped bring on the very problems that we are talking about.

canada said...

Just as the constructionst sensibility has altered meaning and disabled the teaching of literature, it has played a similar role in Western political thought making for strange - and potentially disastrous - bedfellows. There are real stakes involved here on many levels.

I don't quite know how to frame the issues or the dangers. It seems the prevailing idea of everything as subjective and open-ended is really a mere skimming of surfaces. The depths, however, remain real and dark as ever underneath. It's also inauthentic and a form of denial rendering our ability to speak to one another more and more problematic.

But perhaps I'm being as impenetrable as the thing I'm criticizing? Nevertheless, I'm convinced Shakespeare and Salinger were trying to convey something beyond mere "text".

The Wife said...

Your comment made me think of a 2004 NYTimes article by Ron Suskind, where he recalls an encounter with a Bush aide a few years previously which, he argues, "gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency":

"The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

This is Orwellian. And yet I know enough good, decent, liberal, people in my field who have used similar phrases in the firm belief that they are making radical, subversive and indeed political statements.

I think what is needed is a rediscovery of classical rhetoric and a notion of ideology as "false beliefs." Neither are particularly popular in certain parts of academia at the moment, as they jar with the predominant concept of anti-essentialism - which is rarely identified as the ideology that it is.