Thursday, January 27, 2011

Aspiring, Anxious, and Adrift: A Confluence of Worry About Higher Education

Let's turn, shall we, from the almost myopic concern with Mark Twain over the past months to a set of broader concerns.  This past week has brought a variety of responses to and reports about the state of American college and university life.  From Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift to William Pannapacker's (aka Thomas H. Benton) Chronicle of Higher Education essay "Getting Medieval on Higher Education" (January 23, 2011), to today's series of reports on the declining mental health of college and university freshman (January 28, 2011 in both the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education), it's clear that we are about to experience a confluence of perspectives.  Today's students, we are told, are full of aspirations, anxious, and adrift.  And the one way to ease their upset is to turn back to the Rule of St. Benedict.  Interesting.  And maybe even right.

Benedict, of course, was the founder of the Benedictine Order, a monastic community that adheres to strict communitarian rules and turns away from the seductions of the physical world.  To his credit, Pannapacker is not arguing for a turn to narrow religious training for 21st century students.  He does make a case that a substantial number of colleges and universities have lost their way, embracing a mission more appropriate for health or vacation resorts, with an emphasis on the latest gym equipment or entertainment and social activities rather than on education (at the least) or a life of the mind (at its most profound).  My own institution's interest in building a "club med" dorm is one example.  Students are pushed to participate in social events, organizational activities, and entertainments in an attempt to keep them happy and on campus.  Gone is the focus on intellectual growth or experimenting with learning.  It's more important that you join a club than read a book. 

The draw of the monastic life of the mind may be long dead, but I wonder if it's possible to resurrect some portion of its power if we think of it as a way to focus student (and faculty and administrator) attention on content and the possibilities for learning.  A simpler academic life may, in fact, help to mitigate the pressures now placed on students (by parents, by institutions, by society) to achieve honors and gain a set of accomplishments:  learning and the focus on the process and content of learning might be a way both to respond to our students' anxiety level and to increase the learning that takes place within our supposed institutions of higher learning.  It might even be less expensive by diminishing the competition to be ever more modern and ever more luxurious (a well-funded library would be prized about a well-appointed dorm or gymnasium).

It might be worth a try.  Of course, it would mean that an institution would have to do a good bit of soul searching and mission exploration.  And it would mean a radical adjustment to definitions of achievement and quality.  And not every college or university would make that change -- nor should they.  But some could.  And maybe for those few, the change would offer a renewed commitment to learning.  Perhaps.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When and If to Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The debate about Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has broadened and deepened.  Over the past days, commentators have tied the question of the sanitized edition of the book to the House of Representatives' idiosyncratic reading of an abridged copy of the US Constitution (on the opening day of Congress) and have opened the discussion not only to whether the original text of the book should followed but also to when (or if) the book should be read by students before they enter college.  It's been an energetic discussion that underscores the book's central place in American literary tradition, even if the book wasn't always thought to be the best and most distinguished of American novels (its prized place in the canon is more a result of the mid-20th century's critical agenda to create "the American novel" than any instant finding by critics or audiences that the book stands alone).  One writer on the Mark Twain Forum electronic list pointedly questioned whether academics involved in post-secondary teaching are even aware of the difficulties that primary and secondary school teachers face.  It was a very good question.  No one as yet has jumped in with an answer.

If you take the time to read the comments on line for news stories, blogs, or discussion groups, it's clear that this entire debate has struck a deep and resonant chord.  Comments on the EnglishCompanion.ning site demonstrate the breadth of reaction by teachers and a series of topic threads and comments on the NY Times Knowledge Network blog highlights comments by a broad cross-section of readers (as do comments on the Times' opinion pages).  Everyone is engaged and everyone has thoughtful contributions to the discussion.  It's really quite stunning to witness this cultural debate in real time, and it can be both reassuring and intimidating for those of us who teach the book.

I never read Hucklberry Finn until I was 27 years old and in graduate school.  For some reason, which from my reading of the reader comments doesn't really appear to be all that unique, I was never introduced to Twain's novel, not even during my undergraduate years as an English major.  Or, for that matter, during my work on my MA.  And I must say that, for me anyway, I was not diminished by that lack.  It may have helped me approach the novel when I finally got to it in a course devoted to Twain as I began by doctoral course work.  I was then presented with a fairly conventional interpretation of the novel (the idea of its being a statement of an exceptionally American individualism).  But I wasn't restricted to that meaning, and (eventually) I have been able to move on to a more complicated (and, of course, more accurate!) reading of the novel within the tradition of 19th century community and the tradition of realism (if not the realism practiced by William Dean Howells -- a whole other discussion).  It all makes me wonder about the notion that we need to introduce younger and younger readers to this particular novel -- as if Twain himself thought that children were his primary audience.  They weren't.  And why do we insist that they should be.

I think we would be wise to delay introducing the novel, at least in a formal educational setting that by definition seems to set any book into a pantheon of canonical -- that is socially sanctioned -- texts.  Young readers will of course be able to read the book under the guidance (or even ignorance) of parents or other guardians.  But teaching the novel should be addressed more carefully and in a more complicated way, and that means with older and experienced readers.  Only then are you able to introduce the deeper questions of prejudice, social abuse, religious hypocrisy, or moral depth vs. moral expedience.  It won't hurt Twain for us to wait.  There are a lot of other texts that we can use to introduce students to his writing -- for example, short fiction is his strength and would be useful with younger or even more mature students.

In all, these past weeks have been an interesting bit of cultural chaos.  We should now try to use the experience to sharpen (but not solidify) our own thinking.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huckleberry Finn, the Lost Cause Mythology, and "Nigger Jim"

After my earlier post, I went home.  The evening, though, has been a continuation of the day, with multiple  notices of additional comments on the expurgated Huck Finn, and an unsettling realization that the tempest has been unleashed.  Once the nightly news, FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and Stephen Colbert have taken aim, there's not a whole lot left to do but ride the wave.

But among the various comments, there was one rather disquieting observation.  I am not sure what to make of this, but there is an idea floating along that the new edition of Huck is part of the movement to rewrite American history -- to sanitize the record of slavery and to make antebellum institutions less onerous and more friendly.  Really.  I am still rolling with this.  It seems to me a full and paranoid approach to a relatively idiosyncratic editorial decision.  I think of the late 19th century attempts to rewrite the history of the Civil War and the battles over abolition and a series of tales (perhaps most often represented by the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris) meant to re-imagine the character of the "happy darkey" in Southern fields, and I think of the connection to the more virulent use of the minstrel image that led into the fiction of Thomas Dixon.  The myth of the lost cause seems ubiquitous these days.  I do not want to think that the new Huck ties to these.  It says something about us that we slide into this thinking.

This morning I talked to a newspaper reporter about the new edition.  I turned down two on-camera interviews for local and regional news channels.  At various stages the question of Twain's "nigger Jim" came up.  Here is still another problem.  Mark Twain NEVER names the character "nigger Jim":  it's a false read of Twain's description of "Miss Watson's nigger, Jim."  So we defend Twain by attributing to him a deeper racist comment.  That is wrong.

So this upset, even if it last a while longer, should be cautionary.  We need to be careful in our own thinking -- before we step further through the looking glass.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Church of Mark Twain

It's been a slow news week.  At least that's one explanation for the blizzard of media coverage devoted to a forthcoming new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The shouting started pretty quickly after New South publishers announced a new edition that ties The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn and replaces Twain's original language "nigger" with "slave" (and to a lesser aim, replaces "injun" with "indian").  The edition is edited by Alan Gribben, a scholar of Mark Twain.  The electronic response has been overwhelmingly against Gribben's editorial choice.  I have to think that he knew that he was going to ignite this firestorm and had done it with some intention.  If he didn't know it...well, I just don't know.

The jaded response is that this is a highly effective sales strategy.  You get people to throw a fit and then step back to see how sales go.  Twain would have appreciated that kind of economic honesty.  After all, Twain himself celebrated when the directors of the Concord, MA library banned Huck in 1885.  It would, he thought, increase sales.  People want to buy what is deemed contraband.  But I don't think that's really the case here.

I won't return to the arguments against this editing.  They are easily found and just as easily anticipated.  And, to be honest, I find the whole sense of outrage a little too practiced and theatrical.  Let me just say that I disagree with the thinking that led to the decision and find the whole idea of replacing Twain's language crazy.  Twain knew well what language he was using and had good reasons for using it.  He wanted his readers to feel uncomfortable; he also wanted readers to see how a society can be corrupted by an ideology that teaches the inferiority of a group based on race or race-characteristics.  And he wanted a book that would drive readers to contemplate the extent of their own culpability for social and economic and racial inequality.  And, of course, that's just the start of an argument.

What I find most interesting about the string of responses and attacks and commentaries is the way an established scholar is now deemed apostate from the church of Mark Twain.  Last month the Twain community was fuming against criticism of Twain's autobiography by Adam Gopnick (of The New Yorker) and Garrison Keillor (of lots of places).  Though these two writers spoke fondly of Twain, they were both shuffled out of the congregation of Twain supporters because they approached him with clear literary judgment.  Now Gribben is criticized with the abandon of the righteous.  And all because he felt it wise to soften Twain's language.  It may be a terrible editorial lapse.  But it's not a capital offense.  It may raise hell with the meaning of Twain's writing, but it's not the devil's work.  And this too shall pass.

Two points.  First, Gribben argues that a softer version will allow more and younger readers access to the novel.  I wonder why this is even a good idea:  by what reasonable thought is Huck Finn a book for young readers?  Even Twain was uncertain, I think.  Sure, he casts Tom Sawyer as a book for those adults who remember what it was to be a child (which is different from a book for children).  When he started Huck I think he wanted to write a book for adults about the dangers in a childhood lacking honest moral instruction and constrained by an adult world bent on its own agenda of inequality and reinforced with violence both domestic and social.  Later generations turned the book into a childhood classic.  And I think that false reading (a kind of sanitizing of its own) is the start of all our troubles. 

Second, the real challenge is finding teachers who are able to approach the book with a strong background in the reality of the 19th century in America.  For years I have worked with teachers who have sought a stronger foundation for teaching Twain's books.  A good teacher in a safe classroom can do wonders with Twain's book and Twain's language.  But, in the end, we also need to stop thinking that this one book is the way to understand American race relations.  It's one tool.  It's not the only one.  And it may not even be the best one.  Mostly, we have to admit that books and the ideas that form them can still be dangerous.  We have to confront that danger with honesty and not hide from that danger or hope to delay its arrival by offering a shallow substitute for harsh reality.