Knowing and Not Knowing a Country

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Some people have suggested that my next book will be about my time in Hungary. I think that’s likely, but if so, it will differ from books that claim to reveal a country from the inside. Instead, it will explore the very difficulty of getting to know a country, even when you live and teach there, even when you undertake to learn the language, even (I believe) after you have been there a few years. The difficulty is the great part of it; if I could learn all about a country in a few months, I probably wouldn’t bother; I’d look for something more challenging to do.

When trying to speak more Hungarian, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some express amazement when I so much as put a sentence together. Other people ask, “Why do you even bother? Hungarian is difficult, and surely you can find enough people who speak English.” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but I insist on meeting the difficulty. I seek out situations where I am surrounded by Hungarian (for long stretches, without translation). Then I can focus on listening and figuring out as much as possible. The brain does lots of work in the background, too; when I surround myself with the language, I start recognizing patterns and words.

The difficulty of learning a language, of getting to know a country, is all the more reason for doing it. It’s difficult because it shows the limitations of your own knowledge and speech. For a long time you simply feel clumsy, unable to say what you want to say, unable to understand what others are saying. Then, over time, the big clumsiness melts away and an awkward semi-fluency sets in. Then slowly the fluency grows and the awkwardness diminishes; and now you start to appreciate the things that one language can express and the other cannot. You read literature in the new language, without much use of a dictionary. You try making jokes. Even this has a tentative quality–but the tentativeness also sharpens the ear. Something similar can be said for getting to know a country; as you learn more, you keep your conclusions more and more in check and become more alert to your surroundings. (I say “you,” but the truth of this may vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time.)

In that spirit, here’s a recording of a bird I heard the other night. At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but I don’t think there are mockingbirds here. It might have been a starling or Eurasian jay. And here, below, is a video of an unknown bird I saw take flight. I thought it was a stork, but since it was completely white, it may have been an egret instead.

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Békés on June 5. The river is the Körös.

Tradition Without a Last Word

In yesterday’s comments on the second chapter of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, I ended with a conundrum: “When a school lacks such a tradition [of literary study], and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it.” Three paragraphs into the third chapter, Bromwich brings up a similar but more complex problem:

But a difficult paradox holds together the idea of a nonrestrictive tradition. Before it can be reformed intelligently, it must be known adequately; and yet, unless one recognizes that it can be reformed, one will come to know it only as a matter of rote—with the result that the knowledge of a tradition will seem as unimaginative a business as the knowledge of an alphabet or catechism.

In his book, Bromwich is talking mainly about higher education, yet the paradox of curriculum and tradition applies to K–12 education as well. The problem is this: in the loudest diatribes of the right and the left, tradition is either upheld as an authority or bashed as an authority. Bromwich defends tradition not as an authority but as a context for thoughtful discourse, solitude, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Unfortunately such an idea of tradition has been losing ground in higher education; instead, universities have been rewarding specialized and marginal knowledge in the name of professionalism. If you have a niche, you are marketable. Your work may not be understood by your colleagues, but that’s part of the point.

At the same time, many academics have come to see their institutions as microcosms of society; thus they attach great political importance to their choices within the classroom. The outside society, in the meantime, has lost much of its former nerve for informed discourse, so it relegates this formerly public activity to closed institutions. Thus, in a twisted way, the most virulent academic opponents of authoritative tradition have an entrenched authority of their own.

Like the book as a whole, the chapter is subtle and intricate; a summary does it poor justice. But I would like to take on this idea of tradition versus authority and suggest that, while no tradition should have ultimate authority, a certain kind of authority may be necessary for an open and changing tradition.

At the start of the chapter, Bromwich distinguishes between “the traditional study of the humanities” and “the study of tradition in the humanities.” The two concepts, he observes, are too often confused and mixed together. “Attacks on the first,” he writes, “tend to shade into attacks on the second, without understanding the very different challenge this entails. At the same time, defenses of the second often try to cover the first as well.”

The confusion he describes has grown worse. People on the right and left attack “traditional schools” (which of course house traditional pedagogy and traditional curriculum) as though they even existed and were all of a kind. The very word “traditional” carries negative connotations. Many proponents of free-market education use it with disdain today, implying that some thuggish gang of recalcitrant teachers has been thwarting rapid change and “results.” Many progressives distrust it too; they hold that traditional things impede the creativity and initiative of the child. So, when defending tradition, one ends up defending, willy-nilly, both traditional pedagogy (if there is such a thing) and traditional curriculum. In fact, under current conditions they are often of a piece.

The reason is this: to read anything of substance, you have to be willing to quiet down and listen—not only to the teacher, but to the book itself. I mean “listen” in the sense of taking the words, sounds, patterns, structures, and ideas into your mind, making sense of them, raising questions, following those questions as far as they will go, and reading again. So, for a little while at least, the book or the teacher has to become the authority—in that you will shut up for that short stretch of time to hear what it or he or she has to say.

It is temporary authority, yes. But it is still authority. If a student does not believe that he has anything to learn from a book or teacher, then he might as well keep on talking and talking and talking. For me, that has been the most dispiriting aspect of being a teacher: that some students will not stop talking, during class, about matters that have nothing to do with class. They see neither the subject matter nor the teacher as an authority. Most of my students over the years have not done this, but a few have. Such talk, when it persists, can ruin a lesson. The common “strategies” go against the grain of what I am trying to do. Keep them busy at every moment, some advise. Hold them accountable for every step. Never leave them without something to do, something that will have consequences for them. I reject this as an overall approach (though I have to use aspects of it for survival). It is unfair to the students who come in prepared and willing to learn. Not only that, but it shortchanges the subject matter.

So a certain sense of authority, a certain kind of respect, is essential even for intelligent questioning of authority. To question authority well, you have to know what it is. To know what it is, you have to pay attention to it. To pay attention to it, you must give it temporary authority (which may seem like a lot of authority to some).

There’s even more reason to uphold a certain kind of authority. I wish I could take one of Bromwich’s courses. I wish I had done so long ago. I would do this not just to be in the midst of the thoughts and insights of peers, but primarily to hear what he had to say, to read the books he had chosen for the course, and to sense the effect on class discussions and my own thinking. A professor brings something to the students’ own thinking that wouldn’t be there otherwise—and so, in a different way and at a different level, does the schoolteacher. Our best teachers’ words and gestures stay with us, even after we begin questioning aspects of what they say. They have a lasting authority of a kind.

But Bromwich is criticizing a different kind of authority–a rigid, closed world, be it a “culture of assent” (that clings to a “canon”) or a “culture of suspicion” (that rejects anything suggestive of a canon). Both have a set of “socializing codes.” Neither one is tradition as it should be. “Traditions are made of something more,” Bromwich writes. “They offer, in fact, a kind of solitude, and a kind of company.”

Yes–and the solitude and company require a sense of measure:  a sense of when to listen and when to speak, when to question and when to hold back from questioning. This is not a question of propriety; it does not follow absolute rules, except for basic ones. The proportions come with time, and they are not fixed. They require, at the outset, a willingness to defer (in some ways) to something that one does not yet know. I don’t think Bromwich would disagree. This is, indeed, an aspect of the paradox that he brings up at the start of the chapter.

Note: I revised this piece on November 20.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.


“What Community Was This?”

My comments on David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means are not and cannot be exhaustive; the book holds so much that I can only touch on a small part. Also, I don’t want to take anything away from those who plan to read it (if you are one of those, I suggest you do that first). I will not comment on every chapter; there’s something to be said for silence, too. I expect to write one or two more pieces about the book.

The book is bracing and inspiring–comparable to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and, in some ways, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I often pause on a paragraph to think about it more or to admire the integrity of the words. As I mentioned before, the book leaves me with some uncertainties and questions, one of which I will bring up here. That’s one of the best things a book can do: to set an example of thought and language, bringing the reader to life and questioning.

This piece will focus on the first chapter, where Bromwich analyzes a series of stories from the news. In most of these examples, an institution or group (or person acting in an official capacity) restricts an individual’s expression or artistic work in the name of the interests of the community (or an ethnic group). Such reference to “community” is deceptive and destructive; often the community doesn’t exist, at least not as invoked. Moreover, as invoked, it falsely presumes sameness and consensus; has unwritten laws that come forth with a vengeance at seemingly arbitrary times; and is “hard as nails,” despite its insistence on sensitivity.

Ultimately, by invoking “community,” such officials and institutions demand a sacrifice of individual thought and art. They make claims to culture of a corrupted sort—that is, culture defined by demographics and group identity, culture that tells people who they are and should be. (I have seen exceptions to this, but I have also seen the problem in its fiercest form. This book untangles and examines the problem.)

The situation Bromwich describes has only mutated and grown. Everywhere I hear the mantra of “teamwork and collaboration” (a version of “community”); supposedly these are the necessary and desired alternatives to “testing and accountability.” If I had to choose between “testing and accountability” on the one hand and “teamwork and collaboration” on the other, I would fall into despair. They are more similar than different. After all, accountability presumes a group norm, as does “collaboration” in its current usage. All of these will arise in life; one has to navigate through them, make sense of them, find what good they may hold, and resist their pressures. One can find hope in individual thought, but for this, one must think well.

Bromwich’s first example of such “community ” involves a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, whom the school’s administration charged with “lewd and indecent behavior.” The student had displayed a few Penthouse centerfolds on the door to his room. The official complaint came from the dormitory’s supervisor and her husband; they cited student complaints, yet no student came forward. The dormitory supervisor’s husband explained, “I was acting in the best interest of the community.” Bromwich asks in this chapter, “What community was this?” The Affirmative Action office called the centerfolds “degrading and abusive to women”—thereby making reference to a vast group that may or may not have agreed.

The point is not that the act of putting centerfolds on one’s door deserves any sort of respect. As Bromwich points out, the student who did it was displaying vulgarity and inviting censure. Still, there is a difference between individual reprimand and an official charge from the school, in the interest of “community.” The latter was based on slippery language, “degrading and abusive.” Bromwich comments, “Degrading such pictures undoubtedly are … But on no ordinary understanding of the word could a mere display of pictures be described as abusive.” This distinction is subtler than may appear. To say that such pictures are abusive is to suggest that students have no inner defense against them, no judgment, no capacity to turn away. If that is the case, well, then more “abusive” things must be removed from their sight.

This is only the beginning. I have not gotten to my favorite parts of the chapter. At the very least, I want to bring up some of the discussion of art.

Bromwich describes the controversy over the Broadway casting for the London play Miss Saigon: the lead actor, Jonathan Pryce, was going to bring his role to America; the Committee on Racial Equality, of Actors’ Equity, voted to bar him from performing it, on the grounds that it should be performed by an Asian-American actor. (Ultimately Pryce did perform it.) The committee’s initial decision ran counter to art, to put it politely. When you demand that a character be played by a person of the character’s demographic background, you imply that people can only understand reflections of themselves, or, at the very least, that representation counts for more than imagination. But art offers much more than confirmation of who we are, much more than a chance to play ourselves.

Bromwich writes, “As I shall argue throughout, it seems to me that art, like thinking, does exist in tension with culture thus defined. You cannot serve both at once–cannot even pretend to when, as often happens, the two come into open conflict. … It follows that in art, the suitability of person to role is a matter of strength of imagination–only that.”

(I am giving a shortened version of the argument; there’s much more, and I have many more thoughts about it.)

Education, too, holds more than a confirmation of who we are—and that is part of Bromwich’s overall thesis. I recall when, at age twelve, I first visited the school that would be my high school. I was moved by the serenity of the place: students walking quietly through the halls, students intent on a lesson, the sound of someone practicing the piano, a giggle coming from somewhere. The school taught Latin and Greek; I longed to study these languages. I left with dreamy impressions and a copy of the school’s brochure. On one of the pages, there were various quotations from students about the purpose of education. A seventh grader said, “It is to teach you something that you don’t already know.” I cried over those words because they were so simple and so remote from the conception of education at the junior high school I attended.

That leads to one of my favorite passages from the first chapter:

Is it our job to turn students back to their parents safe and sound, intellectually and demographically much as we found them but, if anything, more confident than before that they ought only to be what they already were? Is it the aim of education to assure students that they need not change, need suffer none of the pains of distance that go with the liberation of intellectual life? Or are we a superior social adjustment agency, in the business of granting degrees that mean: “Your son or daughter has turned out correct. Politically, morally, socially correct, at least by this year’s standards.” An institution going forward on these principles would deserve to be called many things. A laboratory that knows how to monitor everything, and how to create nothing. A church, held together by the hunt for heresies, but without a single ritual, credo, prayer, or prayer book in common. Maybe it would resemble most of all an industrial park, with a perpetual supply of interns and apprentices, but with enough refinement not to want to call itself an industrial park. It does not much matter what we call it, for once the reflection or the remedy theory of education has been accepted, new demographics will always dictate a new name. Whatever the place we work in turns out to be, it will not be a place for thought.

Such institutions brandish the “we” against which Bromwich protests throughout the book. When discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (which he calls “a great and liberating work with a wrong title”), Bromwich finds, in Emerson’s remark “imitation is suicide,” a distillation of the problem of a self-aggrandizing and self-assured “we.” Bromwich explains: “The people who believe that it takes one to know one, who know exactly who and what they are, to whom and what they belong, want no singular person ever to survive as singular. They aim at complete possession.” Their “we,” in other words, allows for no “I.” I have heard this “we” in many places, particularly in schools and in education discussion.

Now, here is my qualm, in short. In order to make room for individual thought in schools and universities, one must counter the trends that have pushed it out. To do so, one must define some sort of common purpose and understanding, including some kind of (non-restrictive) curriculum. Otherwise one is left with a battle of opinions where words cross each other. If students are to have a chance of encountering Shakespeare and Milton in a college course, instead of focusing on “21st century media literacy” and such, then a school must foster kindred minds (that may differ deeply on certain matters) and kindred purposes. Otherwise there’s no standing up to the fads. So, in a sense, we do indeed need “we,” but this is profoundly different from the “we” of false consensus and false community. (For more on “we,” see my third piece about this book.)

It is good to be distrustful of “we.” It is good to avoid slipping into its muck. This book invites me to shed that sticky “we,” and I accept the invitation gratefully. But there’s a rocky, hardy, glistening “we” somewhere, a “we” that gets you to the place where you can stand on your own. I don’t think Bromwich would deny this, though I might be wrong (and I recognize that the book was published twenty years ago). In any case, it’s a puzzle waiting to be solved. What is this “we,” and how do we sustain and defend it against the other kind?

Note: On November 18, I made a few revisions to the penultimate paragraph, and added a new paragraph before it, for the sake of clarity. I made some additional revisions (again for clarity) much later.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

“I Want to Starve Them of This Credit”

School is closed until next week, so I’m rolling up my sleeves and rereading David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means. I will be posting some commentary as I go along. I will be sparing, as my commentary cannot and should not stand in for the book. If you intend to read the book, please do so before reading these posts.

The book argues that and that both the right and the left (I’m simplifying here) have subordinated independent thought to group thinking in the name of “culture.” It proceeds to defend this thesis in a beautiful and uncompromising way.

I don’t always know why a book affects me. Here, I can see several reasons and something beyond them. First, the author has a refreshingly fierce (and humane) understanding of solitude. This book is closer to my Republic of Noise than any of the contemporary books I read for research. I am not boasting of any equality here; to the contrary, I know that Bromwich’s book would have informed and sharpened mine, had I read it a few years ago or earlier.

That leads to the second point: this book was published when I was a graduate student at Yale and in some ways unhappy. My unhappiness had various sources, one of which was the “professionalism” I saw around me, the kind that Bromwich lambastes in this book. People latched onto the latest theory as though it were their ticket to a career. I’d bring up a literary work, and the response would often be, “Have you read so-and-so’s article?” A young professor told me once, with a slight hint of condescension, that “close textual analysis” was my forte, as though that were quaint or narrow. (In his preface, Bromwich writes, “By 1990, it was possible for a senior editor of an established journal of literary history to admonish a young scholar who had submitted an article for publication: ‘You stick too close to the text.'”) I rebelled against these trends but didn’t fully understand them. This book would have helped me understand, and it would have given me hope.

There’s much more. The book calls me to hone my thinking, to use words more precisely, and to trust myself to stand alone. I say this not in self-disparagement. To some degree, these are already my strengths. But it’s easy to take one’s own strengths for granted instead of developing them to the fullest. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book led me to something like the final words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo“: “you must change your life.” Now, life has plenty of “archaic torso” mirages: often, things that seem life-changing do not prove so. Or rather, it is the will that fails, not the work of art. Can I live up to what I am learning here? We shall see.

So, on to the preface. The more Bromwich thought about his topic, and the more comments and criticisms he received from others, the stauncher he became. This passage is wonderful: “I have been told often by members of both camps [roughly, of the static right and insular left–DS] that my reactions are too negative. Calm reflection has made them more so. Both cultures are deeply sick, and it would be a good thing to rid ourselves of both.” Yes, indeed.

Such ridding must start with a resuscitation of language, which requires some initial asphyxiation. Bromwich points to the corruption of three concepts: culture, community, and professionalism. Each one can be used in an honorable or perverted sense–but the perverted sense, having won for now, flashes booty of the honorable sense just for prestige. Bromwich writes:

The reader is well warned concerning my prejudices, for, in the course of this book, they oblige me to use in a pejorative sense certain words that need not be pejorative. Culture is one of these. A great confusion now prevails between culture as social identity and culture as tacit knowledge acquired by choice and affinity. If I could use the word and be sure that people would understand the second meaning, it would appear in the following chapters frequently and without blame. At present, however, most people have in view the first meaning of culture; they use the word in the hope of borrowing a reflected prestige from the second. I want to starve them of this credit. I therefore write against the idea of culture and speak of it, in its likely current meaning, as an institutional lie.

If one could starve careless or corrupt word-users of the credit they have borrowed, and starve the corrupted words themselves, it would be like feeding on death, that feeds on men. It’s as worthy a deed as slaying Eurymachus and all of Penelope’s suitors. I’m all for it–until a part of me gets slain or at least badly stung in the bargain. That happens right after the preface, in the book’s epigraph:

The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word “we.”

–Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Wait, I used “we” carefully! I even brought up its problems, on the fourth page of my book, and got slammed by a reader for doing so! Doesn’t that exculpate me?

My impulse is to justify my “we.” But I know that the impulse is wrong. It’s impossible, when writing about a societal tendency, to avoid all “we”–even Bromwich uses it–but if I were to write the book again, I’d starve “we” (and myself) of its credit.

This is invigorating, not disheartening. More soon.

Note: I made a few edits after the initial posting. For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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