1.5.10

BACKWATER

From Margaret Wente's interview with Camille Paglia, in yesterday's Globe and Mail:
Do you have any impression of the landscape in Canada right now?
I'm not that familiar with Canada. But when I was at York University a few years ago, I thought, “Oh my god, they are so shallow. Such a backwater.”
Thanks, Camille! Way to make me sorry that I assigned Break, Blow, Burn to my first-year writing students last year.

See, I'm on board with a lot of Paglia's arguments -- if not, precisely, with the ideology that underlies them. Take for example her ideas about education: she says in this article, as she has elsewhere, that teachers need to take a long view of history, and that we need to be pass on basic factual knowledge. That's absolutely true. This is, in fact, why I assigned Break, Blow, Burn: most of its essays are real gems that show careful attention to poetic form, poetic content, and cultural-historical context. That's exactly the kind of analysis that I wanted my students to see, and exactly the kind of analysis of which I hope they'll be capable.

But when she says derisively that "teachers have no sense that they are supposed to inculcate a sense of appreciation and respect and awe at the greatness of what these artists have done in the past" -- that's where she loses me.

I've taught a lot of Beethoven this year. I fucking love Beethoven. I have two Beethoven busts, people; I frequently hop around a little when I listen to the Eroica; and seriously, I think an awesome first date would involve hand-holding at a performance of the seventh symphony. And, as you'd hope, I have a solid understanding of his works -- of their form, their musical rhetoric, all of that. But it is not my job to make people feel "awe at [his] greatness". I will demand that they can track key changes and motivic development, I will demand that they can find the secondary theme, and I will ask them about the dramatic function of the coda. I will wear my awe on my sleeve, but I will not demand that my students feel what I do. Neither do I want my scholarship to be about "greatness".

In her interview with Wente, Paglia says, 
“Critical thinking” sounds great. But it’s a Marxist approach to culture. It's just slapping a liberal leftist ideology on everything you do. You just find all the ways that power has defrauded or defamed or destroyed. It's a pat formula that's very thin.
The question I pose back to her is this: what's the ideology involved in lamenting the lost prestige of the humanities, and in declaring that teachers need to teach "awe and respect"? That's a line of thinking that reifies cultural hierarchies, and that leaves us unable to consider the ways in which these hierarchies reinforce particular forms of power.

And it's the kind of thinking that leads people to declare Canada to be a "backwater". Always has been. I know that, with very few exceptions, we fail on those kinds of hierarchical terms -- the terms of progress, innovation, 'universal expression'. But -- that's a problem with the hierarchy, not with the nation.

Of course, I could be wrong. I may have spent the last ten years working up to a "long view" of Canadian culture, but I suppose that a weekend in Toronto and a lifetime immersed in High Art might have saved me the trouble of thinking all of this through. Dr. Paglia, is that the kind of informed assessment you want to make? I hope you see that when you argue on the one hand for close reading and historical knowledge and thick criticism, and on the other are willing to denigrate a national culture you haven't studied at all, it's doubly insulting.

2 comments:

Katie said...

Great post! I am in awe of your critical thinking abilities. Sounds like you have definitely chosen the academic route, although it always seemed like a good fit.

I think you make a really good point about not inculcating any feelings towards the material in your students. It makes far more sense for you to do what you do in the classroom and "wear your awe on your sleeve." Anyone who is even minimally reactive to bullshit in the classroom would probably start bristling at an instructor who tries to tell them how to think and feel. A far stronger message is showing students why you feel the way you do by demonstrating Beethoven's awesomeness.

I also am a fan of Beethoven, and so lack objectivity. I can't decide which symphony is his best; the seventh and eighth are wonderful, but the fifth and sixth are classic...and then there are all the brilliant piano sonatas!

Queen of Thoughts said...

I love teachers who wear their awe on their sleeves! It's the most inspiring quality of a good teacher.