Not Balkanization but Ignorance

"Why, in the face of such richness of notions, words, sounds, is 'Balkan' snatched from its ontological base and recreated as an abstract demon?" Maria Todorova asks in Imagining the Balkans. She explains that the term has been "completely decontextualized and paradigmatically related to a variety of problems" - first coined to refer to the "parcelization of large and viable political units" but became "a synonym for a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian." Why, indeed, is the word chosen - including by the likes of Harold Bloom in The Western Canon to denote the rise of the uncivilized ideologue fracturing literary studies until they become entirely visual or oral. Such trends are manifest where I stand and I worry that my own 'no short cuts' teaching approach will leave me jobless but I disagree with the word choice; the (posing) philologist, after all, may comment in this respect.
"We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice ... The Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible," writes Bloom. The irony here is that in some Balkan countries, the education system right up to EU talks had been protected from these literary trends: the school system was somewhat Byzantine, exposing large numbers of students not only to Classical languages but to rhetoric, philosophy, etc. Until recently, aesthetics was a mandatory freshman subject for students of philology. "The Balkanization of literary studies" could imply if the word is taken to refer to the geographical Balkans, literary studies that in some of the Balkan countries were still - as the previous sentence implies - taught as subjects of philology, together with morphology, and so on.
To ignore Bloom's misplaced abstract demon and return to what he was mourning, one may indeed wonder whether literary studies are being dissolved. At so many educational institutions, the rigor of revision and correction has been replaced by the terrible 'opinion' (δόξα) the Greek philosophers viewed with suspicion: leaving us with the Socratic criticism of common opinion used as the basis of argument where it degenerates into sophistry.
Bloom observes that "difficult pleasures" are being replaced by "pleasures universally acceptable precisely because they are easier." These "difficult pleasures" include teaching Dante - whose Divine Comedy is, interestingly, currently the subject of an online reading group, also at The Paris Review. That it may be easier to read texts in online groups only underlines Bloom's idea that reading will no longer be done at places of learning. But the institution saves people time: assessing which are the more authoritative resources and assembling them as a solid starting point.
The Spring 2014 issue of the APA' s Amphora also addressed the demise of the humanities - mentioning as a model of how to teach them Shaughnessy's Error and Expectations, which I have written about previously. She addresses the teaching of "difficult pleasures" by writing that her exploration of error is prepared to "not ignore the linguistic complexity of the task they face".

When I asked my students whether they agreed that reading should no longer be done at educational institutions but at home, they explained their negative answer by saying, "You know when you read a book and you think it was written for you? When you come to class, you find not only that other people think this too, but that they understood the book totally differently than you." My students echo Shaughnessy:  "Ideas come out of the dialogue we sustain with others and with ourselves. Without these dialogues, thoughts run dry and judgement falters." Reading may provide another form of dialogue. And for the record, my definition of literary studies includes reading and writing; rhetoric; ἔλεγχος to assist the comprehension of text and context; a focus on clarifying the difference between and facilitating thinking at an abstract/general level and concrete/specific level.
Shaughnessy is not a wishy-washy teacher of composition. She opposes counter-classrooms "that abandon procedures and objectives under the illusion that freedom is something people simply fall into after authoritarian structures crumble". Sadly, I am under the impression that such classrooms abound. I hear that students are allowed to write whatever they wish in whichever way they wish, without thought of diction, coherence, support for arguments.
John Holbo, who seems an example of a professor doing the gritty work of teaching analytical skills, wrote about teaching confused students how to make a thoughtful argument. Many of the comments would support Bloom's idea that education is under fire. I particularly enjoyed William Timberman's musing whether "we’re not almost at the point of throwing up our hands, hiding all the books and our daughters, and waiting for the madness to pass. (If it isn’t madness, but rather the birth pangs of a new cultural phoenix, than [sic] it’s not our problem.)" Some of the comments implied this demise has been brought about in part by the bias of advertisements and illogical political speeches. In Brandon's assessment of those comments, however, he notes how many commenters fell victim to the very lesson Holbo wanted to teach his students: confusing persuasion with arguments. One might add that persuasion enslaves (to the confines of the ideologue) while good reasoning frees one from being carried away by the horse of passion.
If, however, there is no support for such work on an institutional level, as suggested by the Amphora article, I do not think that we can expect to call our culture literate, where literacy includes the dispassionate and reasoned reception and delivery of written arguments. To become uncivilized in this way is not "Balkanization" but the result of uncouth Western trends. Uncouth meant 'wild, remote places' before 'lacking refinement' and stems from ἀγνώς, 'things unknown, ignoble, ignorant'. I wonder if it might not be an oxymoron to speak of an ignorant civilization. By contrast, the difficult but sophisticated way includes, as Holbo also observes, marking up even those papers awarded an A. (There is always room for further consideration; humility.) Dealing with abstract demons to maintain our integrity.

No comments:

Post a Comment