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.