The Curriculum from Hell
EDWARD T. HOLLANDER is called the Chancellor of Higher Education in New Jersey. It is his job to see to it that the state mental institutions become, and remain, politically and ideologically correct. It's not easy, but he's amiable, he has the vocabulary down pat, and the times are on his side.
He now proposes the "affirmative action curriculum," against which, who can be? What else is there, after all, but the negative action curriculum? It's the same sort of elementary mind trick by which all ideologues sneak up to the high ground, favoring the really good stuff--life, maybe, or peace, or even more puzzling imponderables, like fitness. So Hollander, in this high cause, wants the various trainers and keepers in the state mental institutions to "rethink what they teach, and ... seek ways of bridging the gap between their areas of expertise and the diverse student populations in New Jersey colleges and universities."
Although we take no clear idea at all from the metaphor of a bridge over a gap between an area and a population, we are not unaccustomed to this style of discourse, and we think we know what he means--not, to be sure, because we can decipher his metaphor, but because we have heard it all a million times. And so have you. It's the same old "relevance" stuff, which has now become the "race, class, and gender" stuff.
By now, we all know the argument. Surely you can't suppose, can you, that a girl from the barrio can take any profit from studying the thought of a man from a villa, who happens also to be rotten in the earth for five hundred years? And so forth, mutatis mutandis. Since principles are few, and particulars beyond counting, such cases can be made without end, and the "argument," by force of numbers, easily persuades the shallow mind. Furthermore, in these days, everybody likes to feel like a victim, and by virtue of victimhood to claim not only the sympathy but some portion of the fortune of everybody else. You will have little trouble convincing the girl from the barrio that the man from the villa has done her some damage and injustice, and that he could not possibly know anything about her experience, and that he was a member of an oppressive and elitist clique of which we have already had quite enough, thank you. Then you can require her to study instead that exciting new "area of expertise," Literature as Revenge--the lyrics of pop singers, the sullen remonstrations of other victims, and the Look How Deeply I Feel And Have Suffered free verse of the wandering, poetry reading minstrels of the wretched of the earth, to all of which she can relate. She will like you, and that will be nice. And you, at least, if not your entire institution, will be politically correct.
Well, why not? It is, after all, the real and not unreasonable intent of the state mental institutions to bring their wards into what can in fact be called a version of mental health, and, even without irony, right thinking and adjustment, into harmony with the world as it is, and even with the world as it is just now, for it is just now, and only just now, that they can live. And with that in mind, we would like to take the good part of Hollander's advice, the part where he says that teachers should rethink what they teach. So they should. And more important, not only what they teach, which may find some justification in substance, but what they preach, which seldom will. And that goes for Hollander too. But he is a busy man.
So we rethink. The epigraph above is from Hell, the first book of Dante's long and elaborate poem, The Divine Comedy, in the old sense of "comedy." If it is read anywhere, it is probably in a school. It is neither easy nor popular, and its usefulness in such matters as the plight of the homeless and competing with the Japanese is hard to see.
(Unlike us, all Dante knew of homelessness was a term of exile; he found "eating another's bread" a "sorrow.")
Now, for the purposes of excluding him from an affirmative action curriculum, we can say many things about Dante. He was a Roman Catholic, and a serious one. Not even the Roman Catholics are Roman Catholic any more. He lived in an age that was not only pre-scientific, but pre-sociological as well. He thought the existence of social classes a good thing. He was a monarchist. He believed that there could be such a thing as a wise and virtuous ruler, who ought therefore to be accorded perfect and complete obedience, although he could clearly see that such were thin on the ground. He believed in nobles, that is, he believed that some people, by birth, were at least capable of being better and worthier people than others. He was not at all democratic. He was not a woman, but a man, and he thought to see in Beatrice not a good mind and the potential for effective achievement, but only the good, the true, and the beautiful. Only the light.
His book, also, is hard to commend to the affirmative action curriculum. It is long, not in word count, of course, but surely in reading time. Even the most modern translations require more vocabulary than our schools provide. His poem is dense; it never vamps or coasts. His images and metaphors seem often obscure, and sometimes, impenetrable. And his allusions are mostly, to say the least, provincial, so that, among them, his references to the Guelfs and the Ghibellines are likely to be the least arcane, since those folk do occasionally crop up in history books. In general, he refers to countless people and events of which no student has ever heard, either in the barrio or in Beverly Hills. And all those people are dead and gone, and all those issues of no moment at all. To read even Hell, which is the easiest of the books, requires as many footnotes as some imaginable definitive edition of the complete comedies of Aristophanes.
What purpose could there be in the study of Hell? If it is intended as a social adornment or a refresher for the quizzes of the cultural literacy mavens, then it should be expelled not only from the affirmative action curriculum but from all others as well. And so too, if it is to be read as an illustrated guide to the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, which, if it still exists, can be left to use it as it will. As an adjunct to the study of the history of the Renaissance (which is itself a poor candidate for the AAC,) it is of little use. It isn't even very useful for the student of Italian (another course of study that lies ill in the AAC); its Italian is antiquated and, especially for the student in school, inordinately difficult. Although it has its share of nastiness and violence and even obscenity, very few readers will find it entertaining. Nor do many find it heart-warming or conducive to self-esteem. Its only commendation is, in these times, a condemnation: it is included in the canon of classics as devised by the once dominant class of white, upper class men. That alone is enough to prove it irrelevant to the life of the girl from the barrio and thousands and thousands of others.
In short, as a candidate for exclusion from the list of socially desirable and with-it readings, it's a sure winner, and will probably soon be gone from state mental institutions in New Jersey. And it will, of course, not travel alone, for all of the same things, with changes only in detail, could be said of books without number from the Iliad to Moby Dick and well beyond.
Nevertheless, those who have read Hell will see that in all of these objections--and they are not faked--there is an amazing inappropriateness, and will be brought to wonder how anybody could possibly imagine that such considerations were, well, relevant to the book, even if true. And among those that stand amazed at such irrelevance will be the girl from the barrio who has read Hell. It never fails. And with her there will stand atheists and suburbanites and vegetarians, and even those who think of themselves as Roman Catholics.
How can this be?
Go back now and read again the epigraph. Carefully. Notice, for instance, that we are among those who have lost not intellect, which readily lends itself to anything we want to do, but the good of intellect, which must be something else. Wonder what that something else might be. Ask: is there some special Roman Catholic notion hidden here, some at least religious notion, some notion that would be foreign and abhorrent to the Chinese perhaps, or the Martians, or some notion suitable to men only?
Ask yourself this: where could you go, today, to find yourself surrounded by strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, and accents of anger, all making an endless, gritty tumult, like whirling sand in the turbid air? If you are at a loss to answer, watch the news tonight.
Herein lies the power of Dante's Hell, where also lies the power of any number of works against which charges of irrelevance are so easily brought. It just happens to be true, and accurate as well. But its truth is in principle, not in particulars, which change so universally and rapidly as to seem, in any serious consideration of the business of human life, the truly irrelevant details.
There is a wonderful clue to the reading of Hell in a little essay by Borges. It can be found in Seven Nights, a book that you should read. Borges quotes from a supposed letter of Dante's son, who is explaining, in effect, that his father was not, as some still imagine, a mystic or a religious nut. (Yes, they had them then too.) He did not pretend to portray the Afterworld, but rather to show how we do live here and now. All of us. Hell is a picture of how the sinful live. Purgatory and Paradise show, respectively, how the repentant and the saved do live, here and now. The concepts may be foreign to us, but we don't need them. We do not have to think greed a sin in order to see a truthful picture of how greedy people do in fact live. We know people whose lives are given always to pushing around and around a great stone that they love. When Thoreau shows us a similar truth in the form of a young man pushing before him, down the road of life, house and barn and land and wife and child and beasts, we would be fools to discount what he says because hardly anybody has a barn these days. But when Dante, in the passage above, shows us the plight of Jews and Arabs, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, and indeed of all factionalists of any persuasion, we would like to dismiss him because he is male, and religious, and white, and dead.
But those who would dismiss him have even more serious deficits than those in mind. Dante is indeed a member of an elite company, but it is a company neither usefully nor sufficiently defined by the discriminatory epithets now happily adopted by the opponents of discrimination. It is the company of those writers whose work is given to the exploration of the inner life, rather than to the exposition of the outer life. Imagine some list of works to be prized in the affirmative action curriculum, and, in another column, works like Hell, which are not "correct." In the correct works there is an implicit message: Look away! Look at the world out there. Account for yourself, if you must, by all that is not in you. For your miseries and your misdeeds, hold the world to blame. In the incorrect works, the message is this: Look within. See what you are. And, in Hell specifically but not uniquely: See how your miseries and your misdeeds fondle and kiss each other.
Be practical. Consider what is called "sex education." It is, like all the pretend educations, moved by the spirit of column A. It is a how to do in the world workshop. Now consider another study, a thorough reading of the fifth canto of Hell, where the weightless lustful, in perpetual free fall, are blown about by hellish winds. They have no rest; they go where the wind goes. They remind us that levity is the loss of gravity. And the endless flight of the flighty is not some punishment visited upon them by dour and puritanical authority; it is what they chose. Now they have it. To share their fate, you do not have to be dead. And, excepting only the very young, there is no living human being who will not understand what Dante is talking about, understand and nod. And sigh.
The wind is like the rain; it blows on all alike. When it blows, who will stand, and who will fly away? What makes the difference? Where does the power to stand come from; can it be cultivated? Should it be cultivated? Are there other winds that blow? Which is freedom, the power to stand, or the intoxication of flying with the wind?
These are interesting questions, and parents not depraved or moronic would, given the choice, want their children to consider them rather than to live in ignorance of them. The lifelong consideration of such questions is the substance of true education, as opposed to all the other stuff. But the socializing educationists, for some surely fascinating but unknown reason, hate such questions, and would, without reading the book, expel Dante from the sex education program not only for all the reasons that we have already given, but also because he is obviously ignorant of the moral revolution, and never even mentions the threat of AIDS and the importance of clean condoms. To that sort of thing, which can be sufficiently disposed of in ten minutes in a pamphlet, they will allot long and costly seasons of "study." To the other study, which fosters meditation rather than rapping, and consulting with the self rather than with a peer group, they dare not give ten minutes?
Why? Hollander, although he surely didn't mean to, provides an answer. "We must do," he says, "what is both morally right and educationally sound to ensure that our students are intellectually and culturally equipped to function and live in a global and highly diverse society." Diversity is big these days. There is money to be made in it, grants to be granted, programs to be funded, facilitators to be hired. And there is merit to be earned. The praise of diversity brings out the vote; it pays off a supposed debt to the diverse, who, it must be presumed, have always been slighted and offended by the undiverse. And a Hollander, who is decidedly undiverse, can make big points by spreading a table before the diverse in the presence of their enemies, and generously bidding them, well, not exactly to his banqueting table, but to their own barbecue, where he will let them eat whatever they like. And if on that menu they should find, and why not, their Dante, will he not, by the very powers that make him their Dante, will he not suddenly come to be numbered among the undiverse, and stricken from the menu?
For, by clear and simple logic, if there is a Dante, and there either is or will be a Dante, in the literature of the third world or among the women, that Dante will provoke similar questions, and raise, among the educationists, the same objections. Suddenly, the color or culture or gender of that Dante will not be a ticket of admission to a new canon, and that Dante, too, will have to go.
The reason is clear. That Dante will be that Dante because, like this Dante, he or she will be no respecter of diversity. The diversities among people are, in fact, superficial and trivial. To imagine that they are important, and that they go to mold nature and character, is exactly the root of the mental disorders that we call the -isms. To imagine, for instance, that black people are so constituted that they are more easily blown away than white people, and that that's OK, and that the meaning of the Second Circle has nothing to do with them, a Dante will not allow. Will a Hollander? For a Dante, the person is the vessel of meaning; it is for the racist that the black person is the vessel of meaning, or the white. It is not to white people, or to religious people, or to Italian people, or to left-handed people, but to people that Dante can reveal the mysteries of self-searching and self-knowing, which is why a Dante has little interest in diversity. His interest is rather in what, how strange to notice, must be the true opposite of diversity. University.
And that's what a university is, if it is a university, and not a jumped-up trade school, or a conditioning station for docile citizens, or a pulpit of ideology. It is a place devoted to the study and preservation and nurture of whatever human wisdom can be found that pertains to everybody who lives, or has lived, or ever will live, on Earth.
And it is a place for the testing of wisdom too. Schools should follow the example of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN and present their students with readings that make no use of the names of the writers, as we do in our Great Booklets. We do not want our readers to say, Oh, this was written by that Jew, or by that communist. We want them to attend only to what is said, and to weigh that rather than some diversity of the author. We wonder what Hollander would say to this. Does he want the students to read Baldwin or Beauvoir that they may weigh and consider what is said, and perhaps even find fault with it, or does he, like the man who is willing to be virtuous so long as he is known to be virtuous, want the curriculum to show the names of Baldwin and Beauvoir, so that the diverse will be appeased? If the former, then let Beauvoir and Baldwin, who should be read in any case, stand anonymously on the same corner with Sophocles and Tolstoi, casting what light, and winning what approval they can. If the latter, which seems to be the case, then Sophocles and Tolstoi will have to retire, and Beauvoir and Baldwin will have to wear their name cards. Which will not please them.
Be of good cheer. The University is long, and the Hollanders are very short. There is quite enough contention, and ambition, in the University to provide a testing and weighing of them all. Some will flare for a space and sputter out, and some will get the Mene, mene right away. Some will fall, only to rise again in another age. And some will move at once, and have already moved, into that canon, which really is exclusive, as it should be, but whose rules are not what our Hollanders think them.
And now we must leave off, to go back and ponder what Dante might have meant by the good of intellect. We have, at least, a clue. We know lots of Hollanders, and they are not short of intellect. And right there we must begin.
The Articles of War
CONGRESS is in a flap over the flag. While this is in itself not an edifying spectacle, thoughtful folk may nevertheless take from it something of worth. In this case, we have at least been given a rare opportunity to make a point or two for Plato, who is way behind just now.
Try this. Go out into the highways and byways and find some citizen with whom you can hold high converse for a spell. Try to explain to him how it was that one of his fellow human beings could come to conclude that all of this hard and solid stuff around us is, to put it plainly, not real. Try to tell him that his furniture isn't what he thinks it is, but only a shadow of some permanent but utterly inaccessible Idea, which existed before there was any furniture, and will still be around when there is no furniture. See what happens.
Surely nothing seems more preposterous and contrary to common sense, the faculty that tells us that Earth is flat, than the Platonic idea of the Idea. And it would not be surprising should your auditor laugh you to scorn for suggesting it. At the same time, however, your auditor believes it. Unshakably.
We can know that by logic. After all, this is a democracy, in which congress stands representative of all the people. Congress believes in the Platonic Idea. And ergo, ergo from that.
Congress is worrying about the flag. It seems to have concluded that all the thousands and thousands of Americans who have yearned to burn the flag have now been turned loose on a helpless republic by some judges. So what to do? Should there be a new law? Should there be a constitutional amendment? How can we go on this way, knowing that some scruffy creep has burned the flag and gotten away with it? What will the voters think if we do nothing?
Well, a congress in a quandary is one of the prerequisites of a free society, so we wouldn't want to do anything to help those patriots out, but we have been told by the people who claim to know such things that the level of the writing in this sheet is just too high for the Good of Society as a Whole, so this is not likely to fall into the wrong hands. So think about all of this. But keep it to yourself.
If you truly wanted to burn the flag, where would you go to find it? Be slow to answer. The hall closet will not do. In the hall closet you may well have a flag, as we do, in fact. Ours has a rattlesnake on it, and we show it on all festive days, Ground Hog Day included. But it is not the flag; it is a flag. Yours, too, is a flag. You can burn your flag, and you are even supposed to, by the way, when it gets too tattered and dirty, but you can't burn the flag. Although it is not, like Plato's, a universal and permanent idea, the flag is just that--an idea.
A flag is usually a piece of cloth with shapes and colors arranged upon it. But it can be other things as well. On this page, there is a flag. How big a crime do you feel you would be committing if you burned this page? How angry would you be if some exhibitionist scuzzbag were to burn this page because he noticed on it a flag?
A tree is something. Another tree is also something, and a lot of trees are a lot of trees. But the forest is an idea. True, we sometimes can not see the forest for the trees, but it is more often the other way around, and all we can see is the forest. This is what has happened when we think that Italians, by which we mean the Italians, are criminals, or when we think that the black people are not as devoted to family life as the white people. This is the root of a particularly dangerous confusion.
Unfortunately, there is great convenience of expression in the undisciplined use of "a" and "the." All of our readers should be thinking, just now, of the fact that this sheet often refers to the educationists. We are certainly thinking of it. And we are wondering what to do about it. That is, at least, the first step in the direction of mental clarity. We hope to take another step or two. One thing we already know to do, and do whenever we can, is to give names.
Those are tiny words, the articles "a" and "the," and exceedingly common. It is not likely that their use causes many "mistakes" of the sort that composition teachers have to correct. But consider this: If you ask a man to go forth and die in defense of a flag, he either will, or most certainly should, laugh in your face. But if you ask the same in defense of the flag, he will usually go. And therein lies the worth, to someone, of the belief that the forest is more "real" than the trees.
WE have had several great letters about pi. Two of them pointed out that we were surely wrong in suggesting that you could prove for yourself that the diameter and the circumference were incommensurable. How right they were.
It has, of course, been proven, but the task took centuries and great minds. Our own "proof"--we really thought we had done it, we reexamined. That in itself was one hell of a job. It turned out to be bogus, since it depended on yet another incommensurable which we had unknowingly assumed--the diagonal of a square that might be drawn upon a bisection of the radius
One reader has suggested that we display in every issue our motto, the words of Ben Jonson printed below. He says this partly because he keeps forgetting it, and prefers not to, but also because it seems to express the theme of this journal. Well, maybe it does. It certainly comes closer than anything we can come up with. We'll do it, starting right now.
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Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;