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July 28, 2008

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In Search of Shadows

Over in The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz writes about the disadvantages of the elite education as commonly experienced today:

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude.

It’s a nicely-written piece, especially in the beginning.

One of Michigan State’s signature songs goes, “MSU, we love thy shadows” — and what a wonderful (if counterintuitive) thing to celebrate about a school: the shadows, the quiet spaces, the free afternoons, the empty paths.

(Via Jane.)

Posted July 28, 2008 at 4:56 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


I always thought that "MSU Shadows" was a creepy hymn to the "rape trail" just east of Brody. I wouldn't sing the thing, it just weirded me out. ;)

MSU does have a lot of marvelous grass and trees, and plenty of places to sit and run and do pastoral things with fellow eighteen-year-olds (or in my case, seventeen-year-olds). But let's not exalt the romantic myths of nature and loneliness beyond their proper scope! As Frank O'Hara wrote,

I have never clogged myself with the praises of
pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of
perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the
confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes–I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life. It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and even they continue to pass. Do they know what they’re missing? Uh huh.

You need solitude, I think, in an absolute sense, i.e., unstructured time, a pause in activity, but that can happen on a subway or record store as easily as a church or retreat, and in free, engaged conversation with friends as much as alone, in the dark. The point is to find ways for the mind to move, not to simply move the mind.

"Signature Song"? I believe Alma Mater is the preferred nomenclature.

I liked Tim's take on this on his blog (why no link?). I have some more thoughts about it knocking about in my head, I'll see if I can pull them into some semblance of order.

On a related note, I am currently reading "The Big Test" - its a history of the SAT. Wow is it good.

Posted by: pon on July 28, 2008 at 06:06 PM

holy shit

When Pavarotti gets to the part about flushing deep and softly paling, my heart just goes a pitter-patter.

Posted by: pon on July 28, 2008 at 06:12 PM

Right right -- and I hardly think the pastoral bits of MSU are the best. Walking the wrong side of Grand River was always as good a reverie as along the Red Cedar.

But yes, of course, big crowded cities are famously some of the most solitary places around.

PON: *LOVE* the Big Test. It's actually one of the very first "policy books" I read at MSU, and it made a huge, HUGE impression on me -- not for the subject matter specifically, but for the way it seemed to sort of pull back the curtain on reality and show you the gears all spinning underneath.

I met Nick Lemann years later and did one of those, "Uh hey, I, uh, read your book, in college, and, er, it was really important to me... er." -- He smiled and said thanks. :-)

Deresiewicz's piece bugged me from the start, and not just because the plumber story reflects more on the author's inanity than anything else. (Tim and I discussed this over at Short Schrift awhile back) But I couldn't place my dislike precisely until just now, after having read an essay by Lionel Trilling from 1961, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature." Sadly, I can't find a version online to point to, but it's published in Trilling's Beyond Culture and also in Hollinger and Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition--a copy of which I know Robin to own, and he'll be happy to lend it to all of you reading this.

Trilling's essay has two lives. In broad arc it tells the story of a teacher's problem: how to teach a modern literature that feels too intensely personal and too dangerous to the compromises necessary for social life, and then how to overcome the disappointment of having students prove their skill in making even the most distressing literature domestic. Its second life is an argument, not a story. It claims modern literature to have its origins in the attraction to the spiritual, the sexual, the primal, the animalisitic part of the self that emerged out of the most rationalist and modern of late nineteenth century thought. The point of the essay, as I see it, is to play out the tension of the modern condition: the see-saw between yearning to let the self run wild and submitting to the constraints of social order. Trilling hopes to see his students shaken by this modern literature, thrown from their everyday lives. When they write essays laced with interest, but not madness, he feels let down. Yet one presumes he would have been more distressed to have seen decorum fly out the classroom window.

Moreover, Trilling doesn't blame his students too harshly. In fact, he holds open the possibility that some of his students were shaken to the core by their encounter with The Magic Mountain or The Wasteland. He believes it possible and even likely that his students choose not to share their most personal thoughts with him, and that his encounter with them misses their fullness of being.

Trilling, a perceptive critic as ever, admits that he cannot know his students completely, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. Deresiewicz lacks this intellectual humility. He judges his students too harshly, and in haste to criticize culture does them violence. That is what pissed me off about the essay. And Lionel Trilling helped me see it.

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