At American universities, the brain is a lonely hunter

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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Recently contemplating a return to school, I’ve been appalled at course programming at universities across the United States which looks more like the Democratic Party platform, aimed at pleasing — at *including in the curriculum while at the same time segregating into their own separate courses* — various interest groups, than a coursus meant to endow young people with a solid, comprehensive understanding of their field, more at teaching them what they should be thinking about (and often how to think about it) than how to think.

It’s not so much the expanded idea of what should constitute valid histories, cultures, and oeuvres for the academy in itself that’s disturbing. My first choice among all the universities whose course offerings I’ve carefully, voir maniacally, scrutinized (albeit 40 years too late, the school having originally admitted me in 1979), and not just because it’s on the banks of Lake Michigan and on the border of a city (on the make) I’ve always wanted to get to know better, Chicago, would be Northwestern, precisely because of the apparently broad scopes of its English, Art History, and Comparative Literature departments. (And notwithstanding a list of distribution requirements which includes two courses in “Ethics and Values.” If those kids haven’t already started developing a system of ethics and values before entering college, it’s not the paternalistic force-feeding of an institution which is going to make them do so.) The first offers separate courses not just on “the Chicago Way” (with a reading list including Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make,” a book I discovered while cat-sitting in ‘my’ literary New York brownstone), but on the literature of Native Americans who lived in and around Chicago before and after the revolution. The second offers a freshman survey course on “Modernism” which promises to traverse national and chronological borders, in my mind a much more accurate approach than the “Modern” courses I’ve found just about everywhere else, whose professors variously and erroneously peg the beginning of the “Modern” period at 1850, 1880 or 1900 (Princeton’s Hal Foster notably commits this latter error, or at least suggests this by offering a scope for “Modernist” art that only starts that year), when in fact it begins at the latest in 1827, with Delacroix’s “Mort de Sardanapale.” Northwestern also proposes an art history course which takes a field trip to Carbondale, Illinois, to get involved with a community art project — while at the same time offering a late 19th century expert whose latest book looks at how modern lighting affected modern (as in Impressionist and immediately after) art in France. And the resumé of at least one other professor suggests an outside of the box, global, cross-disciplinary, and broad focus on aspects of abstract and contemporary art. (The professor in charge of this realm seems to have three appointments, in Comparative Literature, Art History, and North African or Middle Eastern Studies.) The Comparative Literature department, meanwhile, joins with other universities in integrating ecology into the curriculum, but not just in a lock-step follow-the-latest-mode fashion where the relevance of the field to the subject isn’t evident. Rather, “Ecology of the Book” strikes me as an umbrella theme which makes sense, encompassing issues of distribution, production, and promulgation.

I began with this mostly positive example to demonstrate that my quarrel is not with inclusion, expansion, or integration of what are considered valid histories of non-White or non-Western cultures or literatures, and above all not with curricular innovation per se (one of the reasons I’d not major in English were I to return to Princeton is that the department is too stodgy) but with what strikes me as more than a tendency towards segregation — a sort of ‘separate but equal’ philosophy and approach that completely ignores a fundamental pillar of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, that ‘separate but equal’ is actually not equal. Part of the basis for that determining principle was that keeping black children at (confining them to) separate schools, often with inferior resources, would make them grow up feeling inferior to white children. Here it’s almost as if, by creating numerous separate categories of courses to treat African-American, Latinx (don’t ask me what the ‘x’ is doing there), LGBQTWKWE (WKWE = Who Knows What Else) artists and writers, the intention is to make up for this inferiority complex by saying “See? We too deserve our own courses.” The problem with this argument is the same as that of expositions of art by exclusively female artists; the sous-entendu is that they’re not talented enough to be included in a general exhibition (or course) on their merits alone and need the extra-metier racial or gender cachet to get us to see or read them. As pertains to African-American artists and writers, one of the immediate results in academia seems to be that Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and occasionally Ralph Ellison are typically the only African-American authors who show up in general survey courses of American literature from the second half of the 20th century; Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are left to languish in the ghetto.

But much more damaging than the racially or gender-encadred courses is a generalized social categorization — the need to meet a social category to qualify as a course subject — of the offerings, particularly in American Literature. If you don’t fall into a social or thematic category — *A BOX* — you’re simply dropped into the dustbin of history. Thus, and incredibly, Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) — whose only qualifications for the canon are her mastery of craft, style, character, dialogue (particularly vernacular dialogue) and ability to poetically convey a sense of place — is simply not taught anywhere (not even at Columbus State College in Columbus, Georgia, which may well offer a Carson McCullers fellowship at the Carson McCullers Center in the home where she was born, but doesn’t appear to actually teach her work). She might have made it into a course on “Southern” literature, but apparently Flannery O’Connor — here the national conformity is appalling — has been designated across the university spectrum as the token Southern white female mid-20th-century novelist, never mind that she’s by far the inferior writer and that her Catholicism makes her appeal less universal than McCullers’s. And heaven forefend that one might include *two* Southern female writers (not that I’m acquiescing to McCullers’s circumscription to this narrow category) to accompany the overwhelmingly male majority in these survey courses.

White male authors from the latter part of the 20th century — the generation I grew up with — who aren’t Jewish (which would earn them consideration for — *restriction* to? — the category of and thus their own course in “Jewish-American writers,” which is what one of McCullers’s peers, Grace Paley, is usually reduced to when she does appear) have simply disappeared, or just about. Thus Kurt Vonnegut Jr — the 20th-century dauphin of Mark Twain — only sneaks in once, at one university, “Slaughter-house Five, or the Children’s Crusade” making the syllabus in a course on the literature of war. Never mind that Vonnegut was the century’s most eloquent and mordant socio-political satirist (making even Mencken pale by comparison)– or perhaps this is what these universities are afraid of, conformism being a frequent target of Vonnegut’s rapier pen — and a master of the art of the short story (as demonstrated in “Welcome to the Monkey-House and other stories”). And speaking of masters of the short story, even F. Scott Fitzgerald only gets in grace of “The Great Gatsby,” sometimes, as at Tulane University, in an examination of craft, but more typically as an example of literature on Capitalism; “The Last Tycoon” makes it once in a course on the Hollywood myth. And yet Fitzgerald, far less monotonous in his essays with the form than his contemporary Hemingway, made his living by the short story, and this vitality is evident in the stories, always delivering a full self-contained world in its little snow-ball glass, a universal truth in a grain of sand.

And yet the coursus — and thus the faculty resources — have been so taken over by the politically correct (I’m loathe to use this term, typically employed by the intellectually lazy to condescendingly dismiss points of views which aren’t just politically correct but correct, instead of taking them on on the factual merits of the arguments, but here it’s unavoidable) that there’s no room for Fitzgerald’s stories, for Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and stories that don’t fit into a social, historic, or other topical category, for writers like Carson McCullers whose only entry card is their talent, from whom the only lessons are in craft, style, memory, and power of observation. The irony is that to make up for their own having been left out during earlier ages, these sub-groups (or rather the faculty and university advancing this approach to making up and compensating for their previous exclusion from the canon as well as life) are now excluding another group — of their peers — and whose only default is to not fit into any social category. Carson’s only hope being that perhaps someone will decide to write a thesis on “Queering Carson McCullers.”

I’ve compiled enough course listings of this politically correct genre from around the country to write my own thesis, but because it seems more valuable here to restore to McCullers a little bit of the exposure of which the politically correct English professors who should be teaching her are depriving her– not out of fairness to the author, but fairness to these teachers’ students (a couple of years back I edited a doctoral thesis in which I found myself correcting basic language, style, and syntax problems that should have been caught by my client’s junior high, high school, university, and graduate professors; when I pointed this out to her, she accused me of ‘insulting’ her; I guess should have been more sensitive) — I’ll just cite a couple of the worse instances before turning the floor over to McCullers and sharing the conclusion of “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” (Which I scored in a crumbling “Bantam GIANT” paperback compendium, “Seven by Carson McCullers,”  marked .35 cents which was waiting for me in a book exchange box high above Belleville.)

Unfortunately, both examples come from my (and Fitzgerald’s) alma mater.

First, and as an example of where topicality seems to have triumphed over staying power, there’s the English department’s offering of a whole course on “Brexit.” To understand how stupid and irrelevant this course is — for an English department, I mean, which should be teaching subjects that will be relevant after tomorrow — just imagine if in the ’70s the same English department had offered a course on, I dunno know, WIN. Most of you don’t know what that represents and there’s no reason you should because it’s no longer relevant (at least in the context of an English department): Whip Inflation Now.

The second, more egregious example — in its stark priming of a politically correct prerogative over aesthetic and creative criteria — comes from a Princeton course cross-listed in the Theater, American Studies (a program which, judging from its course offerings, should be re-baptized “Sectarian American Studies”), and two other departments whose acronyms I can’t decipher, “Movements for Diversity in American Theater,” taught by Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, who begins her description with this harrowing premise (in the second sentence):

“Theater artists routinely bend, twist and break all kinds of rules to create the imaginary worlds they bring to life on stage. Why, then, has the American theater so struggled to meaningfully address questions of equity, diversity and inclusion?”

Leaving aside the syntactical problems with that second sentence (oh, all right, because you asked: ‘…struggled so much,’ ‘so often struggled,’ or even ‘struggled so’ would be more correct), maybe it’s because artistic creation should be driven not by political correctness but by the muse? Or, to channel the correctly revisionisized comment of a not so politically correct American Indian personage (Tonto) and put it another way: What you mean ‘we,’ white man? The writers, and particularly the playwrights, I know (including myself) are more apt to be struggling with questions of expression and language and structure and editing and content and voice and character than with meeting your social-political-racial agenda, Professor Beliso-De Jesus. And rightly so.

Carson McCullers would no doubt not fit into any of your socially in need of legitimization groups, professor (unless you’ve seen Ethel Waters opposite Julie Harris in the film adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” and even then I suppose your opinion could go either way, although your objections to Waters’s relegation to the role of nounou — your own apparent politically correct blindness — would probably prevent you from seeing that she’s the only stable force in the play). And yet besides its primary values as a paragon of fine craftsmanship, style, capturing of dialogue and vernacular, and evocation of place, as well as compassion (seeming at first to be almost a detached afterward, the passage in fact explains the drastic actions of one of the novella’s villains, who’d just gotten out of prison before he returend to town to wreak havoc) the following coda to “The Ballad of the Sad Café” also delivers an observation about racial leveling that might have inspired Martin Luther King Jr..

The Twelve Mortal Men

“The Forks Falls highway is three miles from the town, and it is here the chain gang has been working. The road is full of macadam, and the county decided to patch up the rough places and widen it at a certain dangerous place. The gang is made up of twelve men, all wearing black and white striped prison suits, and chained at the ankles. There is a guard, with a gun, his eyes drawn to red slits by the glare. The gang works all the day long*, arriving huddled in the prison cart soon after daybreak, and being driven off again in the gray August twilight. All day there is the sound of the picks striking into the clay earth, hard sunlight, the smell of sweat. And every day there is music. One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great horse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.

“And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together.”

In 1947 – 48, a white man, Alan Lomax, recorded some of this music being sung by a prison gang on Patchman Farm.

In 1951, a white woman wrote about it — in prose that, without any social agenda behind it but because her muse dictated it so and her craft made it such, *causes the heart to broaden.*

In 1959, a black man who’d danced with companies lead by black and white men and women (notably Martha Graham, with whose troupe he toured the world on a State Department-sponsored tour in the 1950s), Donald McKayle, created a dance to the Lomax Brothers’ recordings and about the men on a prison gang, “Rainbow ’round my Shoulder,” since performed to audiences of all colors all around the world.

*Even McCullers’s cadence here — “all the day long” — has a social, historical, cultural, and folk resonance which transcends race and owes nothing to a social dictum and everything to McCullers’s cultural memory and ability to invoke it without seeming to do so intentionally. The rhythmic and thematic reference is of course to the lyric from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the refrain followed by “all the live-long day,” thus linking McCullers’s mixed-race group of outcasts to a founding element of the Western myth, the construction of the railroad, by prison gangs, by Chinese immigrants, by poor whites…. (Gregory Peck also blithely whistles the refrain after bombing a railroad line in King Vidor’s 1946 “Duel in the Sun.”) And where was this particular song invented, or at least first recorded in print? A quick Wikipedia search reveals that “The first published version appeared as “Levee Song” in Carmina Princetoniana, a book of Princeton University songs published in 1894.” (Most likely originating in the Princeton Triangle Show, on which Fitzgerald would later work. We both spent too much time on extra-curricular activities and not enough time in class.) Thus if Professor Beliso-De Jesus wants to find creative expression that is naturally diverse in its references, she has but to step out of 185 Nassau Street and cross University Avenue to Firestone Library.