Sunday, May 25, 2014

Academic Matters

Students have become arrogant of late. I noticed that during my last years of professorship, and I find it confirmed by what I hear and read these days. When I say that in my days we were not like that, I am not being a laudator temporis acti—a bit of Latin that shouldn’t stump anyone, except perhaps some of today’s students.

The problem has nothing to do with human nature, only with the temper of the times. My student days were before political correctness, before affirmative action, before not being allowed to call someone stupid, least of all if he or she actually was. It was certainly before a teacher was not supposed (allowed?) to flunk anyone. The whole purpose of education has changed: then it was about learning; now it is about getting a degree as a means to a better job and more money.

To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, whereas I was a teacher at much less distinguished schools, although for all I know, even Harvard may no longer be Harvard. Still, the country was respectful of the kind of knowledge a decent liberal arts program bestowed on you. This is no longer the case. On the day I write this (May 19), I was watching Jeopardy! with one young woman a multiple six-figure winner, and two other contestants who too were on the ball.                                                                    

As usual, they did well enough in various areas, but were unimpressive in literature. They did not know what Conrad novel featured a Jim whom respectful natives deemed a lord. Nor did they know the name of the evil hypnotist who enslaved a lovely, innocent young woman. In my day, even people who had not read Trilby knew what was meant by a Svengali.

But back to current students. In today’s Times, an article appears under the headline “Warning: The Literary Canon Could make Students Squirm.” (This, by the way, was not the case of a subliterate headline, such as we got from the Times of May 10, which began: “Obama, Aggravated by Gridlock” etc.) Now we got responsible reportage about what was happening on a good many campuses, concentrating on the University of California, Santa Barbara and Oberlin College, but with references also to Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools where there were student requests for what are known as trigger warnings.

The term, like other unfortunate things, originated on the Internet, specifically on feminist blogs and subsequent forums. But I am concerned with its academic life and what it tells us about student demands and certain professors’ and administrators’ taking them seriously, in some cases even deferring to them.

What it comes down to is the idea that students in certain literature and film courses should be forewarned  about disturbing elements that could upset the poor darlings if they were unprepared for them. Which means, in effect, that the element of surprise and wonder should be denied some great works of literature and cinema, lest they cause moments of discomfiture.

Who are these students anyway? Are they four-year-olds who need to be warned by their nannies about the dangers of crossing a street? Must they, as it were, be taken by the hand and led to safety? “Careful about oncoming cars.” “Careful about painful deaths or a horrid rape in this novel, which may upset you.”

But reading or seeing a great work should precisely put you at the creator’s mercy—how else would you learn from him or her? If authors want to surprise you, starkly and startlingly, they should be allowed to do so without warning. Any student who needs that kind of help has something seriously wrong with him, and may need psychological assistance; the work of art needs no such help.

I am especially struck by the attitude of Bailey Loverin, who in her picture looks perfectly normal. A sophomore at Santa Barbara, she said “the idea came to her . . .  after a professor showed a graphic film depicting rape. She said that she herself had been the victim of sexual abuse, and that although she had not felt threatened by the film, she had approached the professor to suggest that students should have been warned.”

What makes her reaction reprehensible? First of all, the arrogance of assuming such superiority to other students. If she, despite good reason, wasn’t upset by the film, maybe there wasn’t anything in it that could upset any normal person, even given past incidents. So why complain to the professor, unless perhaps to show off.

The real issue here is the nature of this being upset. Does it mean anything more than feeling intensely sorry for the victim, although it was only a movie or a novel? Such empathy is by no means amiss. It may prove, if anything, therapeutic. If it produces anything more drastic than that, look not to mollycoddling but to therapy.

A student who has a violent reaction strikes me as sick. Moreover, I don’t see how being warned can make much a difference. A predicted hurt is ultimately just as hurtful as an unpredicted one. Tell me I am about to get a beating and forthwith the beating becomes painless? And what way is there to prepare after such a  warning? With stringent physical exercise? With a specially invigorating meal? With clutching a pet dog or cat you brought along to the screening? With taking some sort of anti-anxiety medication? In the case of a book, must you skip pages 154 to 163? Or, safest of all, not read such a dangerous book as “The Great Gatsby” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” cited in the article as trauma-inducing.

At Oberlin College, a draft guide was circulated “asking professors to put trigger warning in their syllabuses” concerning the following, which “might cause trauma.” They are: racism, classism. heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and “other issues of privilege and oppression.” Because even the adult reader might need some warning, the Times explained cissexism as “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender [sic[ This neologism, may need explication. But anyone can figure out the equally clumsy “ableism.”

I particularly savor the horror of “classism.” Visualize a movie in which a glamorous hostess refuses to invite her hairdresser to a party, and then imagine the convulsions and nausea afflicting the more sensitive spectators.

What arrogance—or stupidity—from these Oberlin petitioners. If professors put such a warning in the course catalogue, there would be no shortage of students avoiding that course altogether to their eventual impoverishment. After a while, the school would drop such a course, to the disadvantage of all potential students.

But whereas student benightedness may come as no surprise, faculty pusillanimity does. TheTimes article quotes Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of  the College of Arts and Sciences, as declaring that “providing students with warnings would simply be responsible pedagogical practice.’” She explains that “We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Allow me an obiter dictum on the use of “issues.” People nowadays no longer have problems or difficulties, they have ”issues.” I myself have problems with this use of “issues,” unless I am mishearing, and what is said “is shoes.” Too tight, too high-heeled, too expensive. But back to the students.

If it were up to me, it would be compulsory to take courses that might upset them. We may have reached the point where students can be taught only by shock treatment. Profoundly upset students would be immediately recognizable as needful of psychological help, which could accordingly be administered. Such trigger warning to the faculty and administration might prevent later, more serious student breakdowns.

But if the students are merely displaying fake altruism as a form of self-importance, (like, I suspect, Bailey Loverin), let them not benefit from someone like Associate Dean Raimondo, who says, “I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up.’ That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with.” I share the objection. Kids, for the most part, are tough enough. It’s the professors and administrators who need toughening.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Valuable Is Rarity?

A good many people are content to be part of the ordinary multitude. A good many others are not thus content. There is the not infrequent desire to be special, outstanding, even unique. This translates into becoming powerful or, more modestly, interestingly different. But how is that difference, let alone power, achievable?

It isn’t easy. One way is to be, or become, very rich. Yet that registers as special mostly to the degree one is envied by everyone else. This can require great zeal or great indolence as well as money; we read about millionaires, men or women, for whom wealth brought only misery.

Such people were unhappily or multiply married, with usually highly publicized divorces, perhaps as a kind of serial rather than simultaneous polygamy. This means a media-begotten celebrity, though not of the kind that most seekers would welcome. So what are other, better ways of achieving fame?

It could be by the youth and beauty of an elderly nabob’s trophy wife. The downside of that is that most of such celebrity goes to the wife rather than to the nabob. Reflected glory is, after all, a second-rate sort of distinction. But there are other kinds of extraordinariness more greatly prized. One of them is an impressive art collection.

That would require an appreciable amount of Rembrandts, Picassos or Van Goghs. (Pathetic, by the way, when you think how unsold and impoverished Vincent was during his lifetime. And how many millions even his lesser works go for nowadays.) The good thing about a major art collection is the number of ways you can score with it.

One, of course, is just by reveling in it. Then there is promising it posthumously to some major museum. Another way is to offer it up for sale, and collecting big money thereby. Still another is to start your own museum, with your name attached to it. Moreover, it devolves to your glory just that you collected such a lofty thing as art, rather than, say, vintage automobiles, which requires much more space and is less readily displayable.

Now, speaking of space, what demands less of it than postage stamps? Of all types of collection, stamps may be the most convenient, but also the most questionable. There are, to be sure, some desperate souls who claim practical benefits from philately. They allege that you learn things about geography or, better yet, history from stamps. These can display historic figures, historic locations, historic events, familiarity with which enriches the lives of collectors.

Alas, when it comes to learning history, history books are preferable by far to stamps. What good is it, for instance, to learn that there was a major exhibition in such and such a year in Chicago? And does it profit us greatly to possess in miniature the face of, say, the inventor of the sewing machine or the last czar of Russia? Why, even Madame Curie can be duly revered without owning her countenance on a postage stamp. But, you say, what if a stamp is a miniature work of art?

This, I regret to say, happens more often in Europe than in America. And whereas art on your wall does something for you, your kinfolk, and your visiting friends, what good is a tiny artwork buried in an album, and not to be steadily viewed? It is about as good as a fine painting hung face to the wall.

This is where rarity comes in. I read in the Times of May 2 about what may be the rarest postage stamp of all, the One-Cent Magenta from British Guiana, of which there is only one surviving specimen in the entire world. The newspaper refers to it as the Mona Lisa of stamps, and observes that it should fetch, at the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, somewhere between ten and twenty million dollars.

Yet it is not even as famous, or as upside–down, as the Inverted Jenny, a stamp of which there exist a hundred. A rather blurred picture of the One-Cent Magenta appears in the Times, which does not even clearly reveal what it depicts, namely “a workmanlike image of a schooner and a Latin motto that translates as ‘we give and we take in return.’” All that is clear in this newspaper illustration is the stamp’s octagonal shape, unusual enough, but probably not quite worth ten million, let alone twenty.

But yes, there is that rarity, that stamp’s uniqueness. Still, why should rarity, or even uniqueness, be worth that much? Let’s say you have a gorgeous girlfriend of Hollywood caliber or, better yet, as beautiful as a Botticelli Venus. Let us even assume that, should you be able to sell her, she’d bring in, being a rare specimen, a hefty sum. But ten or twenty million? I suspect not.

The rarity business strikes me as altogether spurious. Why should rare be synonymous with precious? If everyone owned a Maserati, Lomberghini or Rolls-Royce, would that make it less satisfying to own? If your girlfriend were the last remaining woman on earth to look like Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, would that make her better company at the breakfast table, to say nothing of between the sheets?

I think rarity is vastly overrated, in stamps or anything else. But there it is. So gold is worth more than copper, even though it wouldn’t, in my esteem, look appreciably better than copper in a frying pan. Whatever beauty gold possesses need not in itself justify its enormous price. It is the rarity that does it. There was a Gold Rush; there could never be an Aluminum Rush. And then consider platinum, which, if you ask me, doesn’t even look as good as chrome.

Which brings me back to envy and to one of its provokers, the boast. Face it: most if not all of us enjoy being able to boast about something. Whether it’s your son getting straight A’s in his senior year in high school, your wife’s fabulous beef Stroganoff, your ancestors’ trip on the Mayflower, or the impermeability of your trench coat (or perhaps just its brand: Burberry); all those are things to boast about.  And yet they are not all that rare—think how many people must own Burberry trench coats. But it’s a brand, and not inexpensive, hence less ordinary, more prestigious, than the one you picked up out of desperation when you were caught in the rain in Podunk.

Granted that either garment will keep you dry, the British one is more rare; it alone is not only proof against the rain but also proof of your affluence, and of your rare good taste.

Still, rarity may in some cases be an actual disadvantage. Say you have a rare disease, or are a rare visitor to a watering place long since gone out of fashion.
What no one wants may easily be as rare as what everyone wants. Hula-Hoops, a year after they ceased to be (briefly) in fashion, have become hard to find, but does their unstylish rarity confer prestige on their tacky possessors?

Let us, however, beware of the opposite error and assume that all rarity is meaningless and absurd when overvalued. It is very rare to live to be a hundred, but is the rarity of being that old a privilege or a drag for its possessor and the caretakers? Like so much else, rarity is what you make of it.

Which reminds me of a tale by Anatole France, which I read as a youth. I recall it somewhat dimly, but no less approvingly. A mighty but troubled ruler is told by a seer that he will be happy only when he wears the shirt of a truly happy man. He orders his flunkies to find him such a shirt. Needless to say, they head for the abodes of the rich.

Yet all the wealthy turn out to be variously unhappy. One rich man, for example, takes these seekers onto his terrace, affording a magnificent view of his vast lands. But, as he points out, way out there is a barely visible, thin column of smoke rising from a chimney, which ruins the view for him. And so on, with mogul after mogul.

Finally, however, the searchers come across a shepherd who sings merrily while contentedly tending to his flock, and is of manifest good cheer. They fall upon him, tear off his jacket and lo, poor as he is, he doesn’t even own a shirt.

The moral of the story is that happiness is a wonderful thing but has nothing to do with rareness. It depends not on disposables but on disposition. Neither rarity nor frequency is of itself a good thing

So there is something very arbitrary about automatically valuing things for how rare they are. Or how not rare they are. What comes closest to real value is quite independent of quantity, whether profuse or scanty. But neither is it a nonsensical concept. If you love mashed potatoes, you love them equally whether you get them once a month or once a week.

Yet what a different world this would be if value were universally recognized as totally independent of rarity. If imitation leather were considered no worse than the genuine, provided it looked as good and functioned as dependably. How many of us moderately well off would then be as contented as the rich.

A better world, one likes to think. But then again, is that rare thing, excellence—or, better yet, perfection, if such a thing is possible—not to be sought? Of course it is. So I would say that a talent for surgery, is an admirable thing, however rare or not; whereas a gift for solving crossword puzzles, however rare or not, is of no great consequence.

Then to acquire the One-Cent Magenta, except for the purpose of selling it, would hardly be worth the effort. On the other hand, the opportunity and ability to enjoy the great arts, any and all of them, is well worth any number of One-Cent Magentas. But hold on: if any number existed, they wouldn’t be Mona Lisas in the first place. No better, in fact, than what you could purchase at your neighborhood Post Office.