The doubleness of focus is intrinsic to the very structure of the play. Othello in modern culture can certainly be said to have a “double consciousness” in the specialized sense used by W. E. B. DuBois: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body” (p. 172).
The play is itself the most elusive and maddening of optical – and conceptual – illusions, figure and ground constantly exchanging places. If Oedipus is the myth and the play about a crossroads, we might invoke an everyday icon of modern life and say that Othello is the myth and the play about a crosswalk, or what in Britain is known as a “zebra crossing”: a pedestrian crossing marked by broad black-and-white stripes on the road. Othello is a hero; Othello is a dupe. Iago is a devil, a scoundrel, a Machiavel; Iago is the type of the successful modern politician, from Richard Darman to Karl Rove. Iago is a terrorist; Iago is a strategy for combating terrorism, by getting into the minds of others. Othello is black, brown, Moorish, African; a white actor in blackface; a black actor; a cliché for black actors; a political challenge for white actors. Iago hates Othello; no, he loves him, but he doesn’t know it, or can’t admit it. The play is about race, about politics, about preferment, about jealousy, about desire, about evil, about innocence, about motiveless malignity (p. 177).
In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, philosopher James K. A. Smith offers a trenchant criticism of Christian education that assumes it sufficient to equip students with “a Christian perspective” on the world. He writes:
What is a Christian university for? Or what is the end of a Christian education? Please note that this is not the same as asking, “What makes a university Christian?” The most common answer to the latter question is that a Christian education provides “a Christian perspective” on the world, equipping young people to be successful but redemptive contributors to society precisely because they have been apprenticed in the disciplines and professions from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Such an answer to the latter question assumes an implicit answer to the former question, “What is the end of a Christian education?” According to this dominant paradigm, the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy Leagues and state universities do, but who do them from “a Christian perspective,” and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society. So the Christian university graduates students equipped to take up vocations and careers that are largely the same as the graduates of the state university down the road: we graduate engineers and entrepreneurs, nurses and math teachers, museum curators and architects, social workers and audiologists, and a few philosophers to staff the local Starbucks. Our graduates have the requisite credentials to become productive contributors to society, even leaders, exerting influence on culture. And on top of all this, they are graduating not only with the requisite knowledge, skills, and credentials, but also with a Christian worldview. They have been trained to think about and pursue their vocations “from a Christian perspective.”
But what if that’s not enough? Or worse, what if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel? What if the rather abstract formulas of a Christian worldview turn out to be a way to tame and blunt the radical call to be a disciple of the coming kingdom? Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework – a “perspective” or a “worldview” – we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship. And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits. Sure, we might think that we’re supposed to be moral, but we’ll construe this in terms of personal integrity (e.g., “honest” business dealings) or instrumentalizing existing cultural systems for charitable ends (e.g., “redeeming” exploitative business practices by donating a portion of profits to charity; or generating philanthropy for non-profits that is fueled by the charity of the extremely wealthy). In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective.”
How does that happen? I’m suggesting that a Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they seem themselves as fostering individual “minds in the making.” Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectual rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions. This is because such intellectualization of Christianity allows it to be unhooked from the thick practices of the church. When the Christianity of “Christian education” is reduced to the intellectual elements of a Christian worldview or a Christian perspective, the result is that Christianity is turned “into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by the church.” “Such a strategy,” [Stanley] Hauerwas notes, “assumes that what makes a Christian a Christian is holding certain beliefs that help us better understand the human condition, to make sense of our experience.” Such a transformation of Christian faith into a belief system unhooks Christianity from the the practices of Christian worship, and thus keeps its distance from the radical revisioning of society that is implicit in Christian liturgy. Christianity “is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.” But the domestication of Christianity as a perspective does little to disturb or reorient our practices; rather, it too often becomes a way of affirming the configurations of culture that we find around us – we just do what everyone else does “plus Jesus.” Or, to quote some favorite lingo, our Christian schools will be committed to “excellence” – which turns out to be what other schools value, but we add some Jesus-piety to the mix. And all the while the liturgies of the mall and the military-entertainment complex are making us the kind of people who desire their kingdom, even though we might be thinking “from a Christian perspective.”
What’s the alternative? If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal? Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor. If the goal of Christian worship and discipleship is the formation of a peculiar people, then the goal of Christian education should be the same. If something like Christian universities are to exist, they should be configured as extensions of the mission of the church – as chapels that extend and amplify what’s happening at the heart of the cathedral, at the altar of Christian worship. In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.
From Brad Leithauser’s essay in The New Yorker, “Meet My Metaphor“:
To my mind, it’s one of the deepest gratifications the poet or fiction writer knows. I mean, the internal stumbling upon some satisfactory answer to the question, What is this like? Or, What does this remind me of? A comparison is laboriously but successfully introduced. You meet your metaphor, and it’s good.
Back in college, in one of those roots-of-civilization survey courses that flourished in the days before the near-simultaneous birth of irony and multiculturalism, I was told that the greatest similes and metaphors belonged to Homer. It’s in Book 1 of the Iliad that we’re given our first taste of the “wine-dark sea,” and I don’t suppose anyone ever has better evoked the mesmerizing, inebriating thoughts that marine motion moves in us. In Book 8, we come upon the famous image where the Trojan campfires become constellations. And in a number of places, Achilles is likened to a lion. But as equations go (ocean equals wine, campfire equals constellation, leading warrior equals king of beasts), these don’t represent leaps of any sizable or significant distance. To my mind, the deeper pleasure in metaphor lies in creating unexpected equations, perceiving likeness in the land of unlikeness.
I don’t suppose any literary metaphor or simile has ever struck me more forcibly than when, in my early teens, I first read the opening of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
“Prufrock” is an amazing poem for all sorts of reasons, not least because over the years its opening image remains so fresh, so disconcerting. Those first lines are an oxymoron: an expected, dependable surprise. Over time, a sense of familiarity may slow and solidify Homer’s bounding lion and bounding warrior, petrifying them into statues, but Eliot’s inert body on the operating table continues to twitch and pulse.
One of the profoundest pleasures of verse lies in the way a poem’s constituent elements—meter, rhyme, diction—can trigger surprise where meaning alone would suggest there isn’t any. I think of the final stanza of John Crowe Ransom’s splendid “Parting, Without a Sequel,” in which a woman has just put into a mail carrier’s hands a letter severing relations with her lover:
Away went the messenger’s bicycle,
His serpent’s track went up the hill forever,
And all the time she stood there hot as fever
And cold as any icicle.
The concluding metaphor runs very close to cliché (cold as ice?). But the over-all effect is perpetually startling. This is partly because of the rumbling clangor of the trisyllabic rhyme (the biggest and boldest such pairing in the poem) and partly because the introduction of the serpent abruptly conjures up a divine, slithery fall from grace, and partly because the mode of transport itself seems so unlikely—not a truck, or the black horse or hearse of popular imagination, but a wobbly, wayward cousin to a velocipede.
THEY died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.
It’s too soon to reclaim Nov. 22, 1963, for Huxley and Lewis, and reassign John F. Kennedy to a lower rung of historical significance, where some of us suspect his presidency belongs. But pausing amid this month’s Kennedy-anniversary coverage to remember the two British-born writers offers a useful way to think about the J.F.K. mythos as well.
Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.
For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.
For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.
In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
Two passages from their work illustrate this point — that comfort purchased by sacrificing transcendence might not be worth the cost. The first comes from Lewis’s Narnia novel “The Silver Chair,” in which a character named Puddleglum confronts a queen who has confined the heroes in an underground kingdom, and lulled them with the insistence that the underground world is all there is — that ideas like the sun and sky are dangerous wishful thinking, undermining their immediate contentment.
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things,” Puddleglum replies — “trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”
The second comes from the end of “Brave New World,” when a so-called “Savage” raised outside the dystopia confronts its presiding “Controller,” Mustapha Mond. The Savage lists everything that’s been purged in the name of pleasure and order — historical memory, art and literature, religion and philosophy, the tragic sense. And Mond responds that “these things are symptoms of political inefficiency,” and that the comforts of modern civilization depend on excluding them.
“But I don’t want comfort,” the Savage says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
– Puddleglum and Savage, The New York Times
- The New York Times: Joseph Laconte, A Mind That Grasped Both Heaven and Hell
- The Guardian: John Naughton, Alduous Huxley: the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia
Gary Gutting argues that the real humanities crisis is not a decline of study so much as “one of harsh economy reality”:
Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.
But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.
This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement. If you have (in Pierre Bourdieu’s useful term) the “cultural capital” to gain a tenured professorship at a university, play regularly in a major symphony orchestra or write mega best sellers, you can earn an excellent living doing what you love. Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.
Teaching should be an obvious solution for many humanities majors. But secure and well-paying tenure-track jobs are disappearing, with at least half of college teachers now part-time adjuncts, many of whom, even when they combine several academic jobs, fail to make a living wage. As for non-college teaching, the sad state of so many of our K-12 schools — with their unprepared and undisciplined students, overcrowding, lack of funding and obtuse, test-obsessed bureaucracies — make teaching there a path to frustration and burnout.
The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partner whose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.
We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, which finds it harder and harder to find good jobs, as wealth shifts to the upper class. But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.
Read the whole article to hear Gutting’s specific suggestions for improving the situation. I was especially interested in the suggestion pertaining to education:
We could open up a large number of fulfilling jobs for humanists if (as I’ve previously suggested) we developed an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding. Meeting the needs of this part of the cultural middle class could, in fact, be the key to saving our schools. At the same time, colleges should rethink their dependence on adjuncts, who often differ from regular faculty members more in their poor pay and work conditions than in academic quality. If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.
– The Real Humanities Crisis, The New York TImes
N. D. Wilson:
As Christian artists and Christian consumers, it is all too easy for our eyes—particularly (but not only) the eyes of the young—to look ever sideways. Is this cool? Is it cool enough? We get embarrassed by a movie celebrating life and grieving over abortion carnage and bemoan the state of Christian film. Why? Because of the camera work? Because of the acting? Maybe. But more likely because we believe a worldly lie about our own branding.
I come to you with strange news. Brace yourselves. There is a hundred times more schlock and garbage in unbelieving art than in ours. More terrible camera work. More bad acting. More mindlessness. More soul-lessness. More pitiful lyrics. More misery. Not to excuse our own inadequacies (which are all too real), but we should stop fearing the snarkiness of those performing worse than we are.
Need some confidence? Take a look beyond our own pop-frothy moment.
Christian art? Are you kidding me? Christianity has produced the greatest art of all time. Get some swagger, people, because we’re undefeated. Did a culture of atheism bring us Handel’s Messiah? Bach? What faith fed the Dutch masters? Give the cathedrals a glance and then find me better architecture. Have a listen to some American spirituals. To the blues. To gospel. Our brothers illuminated manuscripts (and don’t you forget it). Narnia. Hobbits. Folk songs. Symphonies. Through the history of the Christian church there runs a wide and roaring river of artistic glory, feeding believers and unbelievers alike.
Now before you start pointing to some of the unbelieving masters, watch me cheat: all beauty is God’s. All truth is God’s. All goodness is God’s. Even those who hate him are made in his image, and if they, by grace, craft glory, we should thank them very much for their contribution and swipe it.
– Our Love-Hate Relationship with Christian Art, Christianity Today
Because college students hate writing essays, and because professors hate grading them, Rebecca Schuman argues in SLATE that the required college essay should come to an end altogether. A professor herself, Schuman relays the frustration she feels when attempting to help her students write well, ultimately concluding that it is a hopeless endeavor.
Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.
– “The End of the College Essay,” SLATE