Where the Circle Closes

Ever notice how hard it is sometimes to tell the difference between mastery and a con?


May 27, 2011

Ever notice how hard it is sometimes to tell the difference between mastery and a con?

For instance, I was referred to an allergist this week because I react to all antibiotics, most recently after a bout with strep that ended my semester. The good doctor wouldn’t look me in the eyes, had no opinion on the efficacy of testing, and only glanced perfunctorily into three of my more easily-accessed orifices. When I asked if he thought I might have been sensitized to certain drugs by one very aggressive treatment long ago, he shrugged and spoke about feedlot cattle, distractedly and in considerably less detail than Wikipedia. It was the only time I ever felt the need to inspect diplomas on a wall, but Dr. Zlouch’s credentials were in handsome frames. The only thing I can say in the end is that he’s either a master of the healing arts, unconcerned by my non-life-threatening problems in his mental triage, or an insurance fraud.

The difficulty of knowing when you’re being conned comes up surprisingly often, or at least in situations where the stakes are surprisingly high. Thomas Merton says, in his introduction to John C.H. Wu’s The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T'ang Dynasty, collected in Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968):

Though much has been said, written and published in the West about Zen, the general reader is probably not much the wiser for most of it. And unless he has some idea of what Zen is all about he may be mystified by Dr. Wu’s book, which is full of the classic Zen material: curious anecdotes, strange happenings, cryptic declarations, explosions of illogical humor, not to mention contradictions, inconsistencies, eccentric and even absurd behavior, and all for what? For some apparently esoteric purpose which is never made clear to the satisfaction of the logical Western mind.

That is, the Western reader wonders if she’s looking at enlightenment, a swindle, or at a typical course of study for an English major.

Last week I went to meetings for a university project on sustainability, where previous participants told us what they’d done with their classes. A business professor spoke on his students’ service-learning projects on micro-business and how his own decades of research comparing poverty in south India and the United States guided them. He set clear goals and limits—he was not an expert on poverty anywhere else in the world, he said—and had specific case studies, such as failed attempts by outsiders to change the economy of one Indian fishing village destroyed by tsunami. He took students abroad to visit the village during the semester. He seemed informed and humane, and while I don’t believe that deeper participation in a global market economy necessarily means a better way of life at the local level, I would take his class in a heartbeat to see for myself.

Someone from the English Department did an interesting session about a proposed course on honeybees and humans. It will model for students how to find their way into a topic, starting from self-admitted ignorance, even on the teacher’s part. Together they’ll research, write, and position themselves within the discussion through self-reflection. The professor’s description of the coursework began to sound like recent popular writing in books such as Cod; Salt; Spice; Coal; and Chocolate.

Excuse me, the organizer of the event said, raising her hand in the air. You’re in English, right? Because this sounds like something anybody on campus could do….

It was a good point, but not everybody on campus is interested in doing it. Besides, she didn’t seem to know that in the modern English department everything in culture is a text waiting to be read, so the socially-constructed relationship, through time, between bees and humans is considered a valid topic for a literature course.

William M. Chace, writing in The American Scholar in an essay called “The Decline of the English Department: How It Happened and What Could Be Done to Reverse It,” says:

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum…and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

Chace has taught for four decades, and many younger scholars will see his complaint as reactionary. But there’s no doubt the change has occurred and that the center currently does not hold in terms of mission. There are many proficiencies and interests in a large department, and little common identity beyond statements on the website. Chace writes:

[T]o teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. […] In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor.

Chace points to the drop in student enrollment in humanities courses over the last 40 years as a consequence of this move away from literature itself, even as he explains that the perceived “golden age” of literary study was brief. He quotes Louis Menand (“It may be that what has happened to the profession is not the consequence of social or philosophical changes, but simply the consequence of a tank now empty”) and says:

His homely metaphor pointed to the absence of genuinely new frontiers of knowledge and understanding for English professors to explore. This is exactly the opposite, [Menand] implied, of the prospects that natural scientists face: many frontiers to cross, much knowledge to be gained, real work to do.

The human need to be recognized as relevant and significant mixes with psychological pressures on humanities scholars to prove their social utility—or fiscal viability—and various symptoms begin to manifest. The first time I heard scholars from an English department asking each other, “What are you working on?”, I thought they must be medical researchers close to solving problems in human nutrition or aging. And it’s petty tragedy when an English scholar isn’t fulfilled by a book with Cambridge, invitations to speak with his kind internationally, and promotion to Associate Professor at a good school; he also craves to be read by the McSweeney’s crowd even though his work is mocked for being the worst of jargon-filled academic prose in Internet threads similar to this one.

The real competition between science/technology/business on one hand and the humanities on the other is for boundaries in the territory of influence. Who in the end can achieve a unified theory that will subsume all other disciplines?

There’s an old joke told by English majors: We don’t know anything, but we know where to go to find things out. As English curriculum committees try to envision the future of their discipline, to stay relevant, to provide service to the campus community—to keep their jobs—there’s a push in some cases to return to what my community-college composition teacher taught me decades ago: research, reading and writing skills. It’s no con, really; mastery is both basic and high-stakes.

"Zen enriches no one," Thomas Merton writes. "There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while... but they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the 'nothing,' the 'no-body' that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey."

Picking over the body of English studies, scholars might do well to take up what others often leave alone.


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