Another Anecdote from the Classroom: Reading & Its Perspective

I set my students a minor task in rhetoric & comp: definition, narrated example. The terms were gendercide, feminization of American culture, and democide. When I defined them in a general way, my students posited reasons men drop out. One girl said they were lazy; another argued they were stupid. I looked at the boys; no argument there. What’s happening, I thought. Then, as they discussed organizational approaches, one said his topic was gendercide in Bosnia. I was surprised – most were looking at India and China.

The paper proved problematic. The most obvious flaw was the length of an interview with a woman in a refugee camp – the block quote took up most of his paper. A woman was interviewed who described the destruction of her village: the boys and men separated from women and children. Then, the women heard gunfire. The young boys came running, telling them “it was finished.” The women were ordered off to Albania. Spotty gunfire continued. The women were threatened; they started on their trek. The incident, of course, was representative not only of tragedies of that place and time, but eternal ones in war zones. At the end of America’s first war, King Philip was executed, his children and wife sold into slavery. But we don’t need much historical knowledge to recognize the pattern.

My student’s belief was that this described a society that wanted to rid itself of women and children so it could have a stronger, more educated workforce. Indeed, he observes “in the past, women were emotionally murdered because of the male dominant workforce.” In a flourish at the conclusion, he says we are learning women are capable and perhaps one will become president, perhaps the best president we’ve had. Transitions were less his strong suit than mine – and mine are often tenuous. And, well, sure. A woman and mother of three daughters doesn’t think we belong at the back of the bus – nor under a veil.

But the paper demonstrated two problems: what he has not been taught (nor by me, I guess) and, on the other hand, what he has been taught. Reading closely, understanding the context was not learned. Whether he merely cut and pasted this long passage or typed it over, his mind was not engaged. At our conference, I asked him what he thought the “shots” were all about. He looked at me blankly. The narrative – a truly gripping incident – had not constructed a reality in his mind. The power the woman’s anguished words captured had not reached him. I don’t think he’s a sociopath; he just, well, ignored words that would hit most of us in the gut. What does that say about our students’ relation to reading? Do they see it as unconnected to feeling? Or merely to reality? Perhaps this is the fruit of post-modernism – the word has died.

But he has learned, as well. He’s learned to see the world obsessively in terms of gender – just not his. And his conclusions arise from a limited understanding of war, of human nature. How do such students make sense of their experiences – give them context? He isn’t, I think, as stupid as this looks – he’s doing much better in science & math. I think he wanted a good grade (that he dropped indicates he hasn’t reached the level of apathy of some). He is probably lazy but not inordinately so, lacks perseverance but not much more than other students. He found a passage, he interpreted it as he thought I expected it interpreted. And now he has dropped.

I complained about the paper to a friend who had grown up in Lawrence, Kansas. She had, she said, naïvely as a child, played during her youthful recesses on the site of a similar massacre. As so often in history, the women and men were separated: men killed, women spared (if damaged beyond the imagination of we who have never lived in such war zones).

These seldom touch us, not in modern America. We forget. But we would best remember that the authority men have taken throughout the centuries comes not only from physical prowess but also because they will be the ones dead first – whether disproportionately on the Titanic or even among the Donner party. Man at his worst has always revealed man at his selfless best as well.

And our boys – they look at such a narrative and only find evidence of problems of the workplace and women’s rights. Have they been deprived of narratives: bad examples and good, manliness and cowardice, gallantry and rape? Do we train them in self-discipline and self-respect, appropriate humility and appropriate pride, respect for competence and courage? These are essentials in civilizing them, establishing a world in which they will become productive, useful, and, of course, happy.

Have we denied them the riches of our history, that enables us to interpret our own experiences with some perspective? Will the generations that follow have to painfully accumulate the understanding we’ve hoarded for millennia? We scoffed at tradition and ritual. They deserve a sceptical eye. But where did we get the notion we knew so much more than others learned from centuries of experience? And stranding the next generations in a desert, surrounded by institutions we razed, is that where we should leave them? Some are surprised at how quickly Beck’s recommendations hit the best seller lists – but isn’t that because a public that views the world as my student does has reached adulthood hungering for the stories most societies have told around the campfire, retold in the great epics of their civilizations, been a part of children’s literature and children’s education. Landmark books, such an important part of my childhood, are viewed with irony, Wilder’s tales with distaste. The public if not the schools understand the power of words and history to give perspective. The public, if not the schools, longs for its birthright.

14 thoughts on “Another Anecdote from the Classroom: Reading & Its Perspective”

  1. You are a female teacher and he gave you what he figured you wanted, that’s my guess. When you turned out to be harder to read, and did not accept the usual formula, he decided it was not worth risking a poor grade.

  2. Ginny, on an aesthetic note:

    There is a gentleness to your writing that is very pleasing. It completely draws the reader (well, this reader!) in and makes your arguments stronger.

    : )

    – Madhu

  3. Some are surprised at how quickly Beck’s recommendations hit the best seller lists

    Popular histories do well, don’t they? Is it because there is a hunger to understand the world and policy choices as we get older, and so, we turn to history in our own way given the poor way it is often taught?

    At any rate, history seems alive in its own way in the private sector, if not in schools.

    Well, that’s just a theory. What say you all?

    (Here’s something sad and kind of related: go to youtube and search “communism.” You’ll find a lot of admiring stuff and a lot of ” all that anticommunist stuff is lies!” Seriously sad.)

    – Madhu

  4. I think many students have probably learned that “education” is about accepting a particular intellectual framework propounded by the professor, and that was what the student was trying to do. Related story here.

  5. Madhu – Thank you, though you must remember that such a discipline comes because I have the filters of writing, rewriting, then putting it up here. Would that I had such filters in my daily life, where, as my daughter says, Mommy you never think before you speak. Of course, with such filters I wouldn’t have pissed off whole groups of people I know, but then again, with them I don’t know if I’d ever say anything.

    Foster – That is an interesting post; I think it would apply to the big school across town where people vie to teach more and more theory. Here, I don’t know. This is a 1st semester freshman class at an open admissions junior college. If they have been immersed in theory in high school, then education is worse than I’d thought. But probably it has seeped down.

    Reader – That is a good link, but I might point out that students are quite aware of the Holocaust. They are also quite aware of slavery in America in the nineteenth century. What they don’t have is any historical perspective. (Nor do adults. In a group of well-educated adults who complained of the church’s backing of slavery – a calumny in itself – I mentioned modern day slavery. One (representative I suspect) wanted to discuss the slavery of people working at minimum wage jobs in our (unusually low cost of living) city.

  6. Ginny…”But probably it has seeped down”…there was a Royal Navy saying to the effect that “Today’s wardroom roast beef is tomorrow’s lower-deck stew,” implying that what is being discussed today among the officers will be discussed tomorrow, probably in distorted form, among the enlisted men. I think something similar happens in academia. Today’s Ivy League theory will soon make its appearance in the state schools, and thence in the community colleges and on Oprah, probably without the qualifications that were included in the original.

  7. Your student has had other teachers before you. They created a narrow, ideological framework with which to do this paper. That earlier framework was incorrect and misleading, or at least inadequate.

    There’s an educational analogy to a famous Mark Twain saying. “If you don’t read the papers, you are UN-informed. If you do read the papers, you are MIS-informed.”

    Seems like the same situation today with “education.”

  8. My daughter’s freshman composition class at U of Arizona was just what he expected. Her final project, counting 60% of her grade, was an essay on a white male raping or abusing a woman or minority. I helped her choose a subject and she wrote about William Kennedy Smith, a good example. I wondered if her teacher, an English grad student, had a sense of irony. She apparently didn’t get it as Annie got an A.

    I think boys are lacking some life experience that they got because of the draft. Even going through basic training is an experience very few have anymore. I was very disappointed that my two sons did not choose a military experience, even the reserves. My middle daughter was grumbling about the poor job prospects for her degree in Anthropology. I told her the Army was recruiting anthropologists but she was not interested.

  9. What popped into my head while reading this was a story I saw a while back that told of English women converting to islam. Ethnically European “white” English women perhaps I should note.

    It seems to me the dominant culture of the Western world- leftist and feminist, guilt ridden and self loathing- regards men and masculinity as a problem that needs to be solved.

    So that culture strives mightily to make men irrelevant, powerless, and ignorant. So we see students such as this poor critter who presents a paper about the evil that men do- and are, perhaps only because he is expected to do so. Yet this guy still knuckled under and said what women told him to say. FAIL.

    Homo sapiens didn’t evolve per leftist/feminist dogma. So while nice civilized western men present papers on how evil men are western women are still looking for bad-ass men who will kick ass.

    Too often they don’t find that in the sort of men who don’t drop out from the feminist game and who end up “leading” western nations.

    So they look elsewhere. In the end no good will come of this, at least if you’re a woman who enjoys learning to read or leave the house alone.

    But you’ll have brought it on yourselves, ladies. Western “men” certainly don’t seem to figure they get a vote on all that. They’re too busy groveling.

  10. Reread Rand’s description of the young metallurgist in “Atlas” and you will find your student there.

    Never thought to think critically, just to parrot back whatever nonsense was being pushed as the hot new approach, punished whenever he went off the reservation and had an original idea or dissented from the pc analysis.

    He gave you a blank look because he has been discouraged from seeking any cause and effect relationships, punished if he thought or acted as a man instead of a guilt-ridden pc thought-criminal.

    And the worst? He has been taught that literature, history, indeed, all culture, is opposed to him, reflects only the evil of his genetic structure and primitive desires, and cannot ever be a source of joy, enrichment, or satisfaction.

    Why are you surprised he does well at math or science? They are “clean”, uncluttered with human emotions and unfathomable transgressions.

    His blank look was not lack of comprehension—it was rejection. Why look any further when all there is to see is guilt and embarrassment and self-hatred?

    Educators wonder why they’re losing entire generations of young men who are simply not interestd in school anymore. Why such mystified confusion? Education for young men has become a form of self-flagelation. They’ve thrown the whip down and walked away.

    Only a certain kind of man revels in his own pain, you know.

  11. While I generally agree with Lex’s interpretation, I would suspect that parroting vaguely imbibed ideology was less a factor than the student’s habitually lazy approach to classwork, poor writing skills and limited exposure to reading anything substantive enough to require more than hunt and peck scanning paragraphs for key words.

    Reading is a fairly complex skill, cognitively speaking, which requires than elementary school kids work with a variety of different kinds of texts, receive frequent feedback and correction and be pushed to think about what the meaning of words actually are. The past quarter-century has seen reading instruction distorted first by “whole language” fanaticism followed by disconnected skill-drilling for standardized tests. Along the way, schools first cut out first, any type of fiction that might appeal to boys or offend multicultural activists; then any novels or classical literature that might be too time consuming or “hard”. Non-fiction is also scarce because history and the sciences have been narrowed out of the curriculum in many states and districts. Don’t even get me started on writing has been dumbed down for all students with a cookie-cutter format that the bottom quartile of students can manage( barely).

    Consequently, we have a generation with limited vocabularies, who know little, who are befuddled by contextual implications, who generally dislike and avoid reading and do it badly when forced to do so. This paper probably accurately reflects the confusion prevailing in this young man’s head.

  12. Mr. Zenpundit,

    I believe an author invented a word for such people, as he projected such a fate for Western Civilization:


  13. I would guess your student has never been exposed to anything a sane person would consider “history,” as opposed to the sterile mult-culti drivel that passes for social studies these days. He has no context to understand war or group violence, and lots of other forms of human interaction, and no sense that there might be something there, beyond what he thinks he knows. So, confonted with a narrative that made no sense to him, he fit it into the poor mess he had available.

    One example of many I could cite: How else to explain people (like the millions of lefties and Obama voters) who all through 2002-2008 were totally unable to deal with the reasons for the armed combatant camp at Gitmo, and even after their hero took over the government and decided he couldn’t just close it despite his promises, still just throw hissy-fits rather than try to understand the issues.

    Plenty of other examples, military, foreign an d domestic, I could mention.

    I fear we have raised a whole generation and are into raising a second that is almost totally detached not just from their own history, but ANY history, and lack the intelligence or grounding or other skills to figure out any of its lessons de novo.

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