You all have talked much lately of the generation divisions, but today I saw one that is not, I suspect, what most of you were thinking about. In the midst of one of our endless workshops on grading freshman English papers, we were divided into groups to compare grading techniques. This was generally meant to encourage us to grade in a more similar manner – given that some of the sample papers we were given were graded with 40 point differences, probably we do need some standardization.
Well, I complained in passing that years ago, at my first go-around of college teaching, students were constantly telling me that “one does this” and “one does that.” A fellow teacher of approximately my age groaned about the “pompous one.” They don’t do that so much, now – McWhorter & countless others have noted the informalizing of American writing. Getting rid of the “one” is a small silver lining in that particular cloud.
The recurrent problem today is some form of “they is” – though they aren’t that stupid. The problem is that they are uncomfortable saying “he” or “she” any more, so they end up with some vague plural subject and a singular verb or they use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. A young whippersnapper in our group (otherwise made up of four boomers – and a 40 something whose husband is a Russian Orthodox minister so that probably doesn’t make her typical) informed me that “he/she” was important – that many young girls had told him they felt uneasy with philosophical texts that used the word “he”. Really, I replied. So, the other boomer launches off into an anecdote about a guy who was “mentoring” her years ago. His only comment in terms of “needs improvement” was that she used words like “man” and far too much of the pronoun “he.” (That particular mentor – an old colleague of my husband’s – was not particularly respectful of women students nor his wife. Does that surprise?)
And here we have a young guy surrounded by mature women, none of whom feel he has much of a case. Like English is the most sexist language, I exclaim. The third boomer teaches languages and snorts out loud. That number isn’t important & gender is strikes me as a screwed up priority.
I look at him and he is clearly distressed. So, I say, well, you were trying to be thoughtful of the women who surround you. And he said, no, he was distressed because clearly we didn’t understand what modern research said. I thought, yeah, sure. And he started quoting Levi-Strauss; I read him when I was about this guy’s age – which means I’ve come damn close to living two of his life times since.
But this goes to the heart of two things I feel strongly as a teacher: one is that we need to move people away from thinking about how they feel and into how they think; our modes of thought, I believe, are often gendered. (I’m about the only person on here, for instance, who almost always leads with a personal anecdote; Helen & I are about the only women who post regularly.) On the other hand, since the truth is, after all, the truth, I figure men & women thinking arrive at the same place eventually. That’s why I can meander around & most of the rest of you cut straight to the core. But we understand each other. (Because, of course, we are right.)
Implying that the mode is the important thing or that truths are always relative seems to me to cut us off at the knees when we are trying to teach a corpus of old but still alive literature. Oedipus still works because human nature hasn’t changed all that much in 2500 years; reading Lolita in Tehran is exciting because, well, human nature is not that different geographically. The old questions – most predominantly, what is human nature – are always there, always to be puzzled about, never answerable but always worth thinking about. And if you aren’t moved by Jonathan Edwards’ metaphor of honey or Edward Taylor’s vision of communion, you are leading a sad & narrow life. That doesn’t mean that many of us find the theology of the Puritans all that attractive – but we understand them, understand the power of their passions. We understand because we, too, are human; we, too, have the same needs.
But, he replied (not to my much more hazily put response, of course – that’s why I like writing a post: I can clean up my thinking & get rid of all the vague bullshit): But what you are saying is that you want to impose your universals on others – the question is always, then, whose universals are you talking about? The priest’s wife softly (more polite than I) snorted. She muttered something about the definition of “universals” & I said on a mundane level, at least, we had those Pinker describes. Of course, this was not a concept he understood – well, maybe, incest, he admitted. I started to reply, but the woman next to me put her hand on my thigh.
He turned away and the meeting was a unified whole, returning to grading papers. (We all agree comma splices are bad – well, they do; mostly I don’t notice.) Later, I asked her if that hand was a sign of disagreement. She laughed & said, no, but I’ve tried it before. With those theory people, it’s a stone wall. Of course, the whole belief in a marketplace assumes various values.
No, in that particular conversation (and I suspect in many more), the boomers quote both more contemporary research & older works; the twenty-somethings read the assigned theories of fifty years ago & not all that much lit. Some boomers have sought different theories & keep rereading the old texts, because they have noticed the theories of their own day didn’t always explain well, were inadequate analyses & paltry consolations. We have begun to buy into ideas that work – and in some cases worked for thousands of years. Experience taught us what it always does.
And because, well, the boomers got into this whole thing because they think literature is alive & that writing is thinking – and both work toward a greater understanding of not only who we are as a person but who we are as a people.
How can a twenty-something, with such a vision, look at “Reconciliation” and find the power of “My enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead.” Losing that is losing something quite profound.
Reading Lincoln or Whitman, they are likely to echo what someone of my generation told me lately: If they believed such things and still went to war, they must have been hypocrites. No, of course, they believed such things and so they went to war: A slave, too, was divine. An Iraqi, too, is divine. And a world in which that divinity is respected is one in which children are not turned into suicide bombers & bat mitzvahs are not blown up. It is respect for that child in a suicide belt & the woman in a burkha, as well, indeed, as those child victims. For, we sense that a belief that sees in the other that spark is one that respects the other. And so we saw the Israelis slowly talk the retarded boy out of his suicide belt, slowly rescue him from the fate planned for him by his “tribe”: this was that respect in action.