Category Archives: Education
From Mark Edmundson, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a passionate paean to the college English major as a field of study that is ultimately devoted to “pursuing the most important subject of all — being a human being”:
Soon college students all over America will be trundling to their advisers’ offices to choose a major. In this moment of financial insecurity, students are naturally drawn to economics, business, and the hard sciences. But students ought to resist the temptation of those purportedly money-ensuring options and even of history and philosophy, marvelous though they may be. All students — and I mean all — ought to think seriously about majoring in English.
. . . English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who — let us admit it — are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense — more alive with meaning than you had thought.
Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds. “Life piled on life / Were all too little,” says Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and he is right. Given the ragged magnificence of the world, who would wish to live only once? The English major lives many times through the astounding transportive magic of words and the welcoming power of his receptive imagination. The economics major? In all probability he lives but once. If the English major has enough energy and openness of heart, he lives not once but hundreds of times. Not all books are worth being reincarnated into, to be sure — but those that are win Keats’s sweet phrase: “a joy forever.”
. . . Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world — what to be, how to act, how to move through time — at its center.
What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study — or at least made some significant progress on your way — then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.
COMPLETE ESSAY: “The Ideal English Major“
The “practical beginner’s guide” to H. P. Lovecraft that I published here last month has received a lot of attention and traffic, but not all of it has been necessarily positive. One observer, Teeming Brain regular xylokopos, commented, “What is the point of this detailed, beforehand investigation into the man’s life and correspondence[?] . . . . Doing any sort of online research in advance of reading the stories, will do the reader a major disservice. Why approach Lovecraft with already formed ideas about his themes and motivations?”
I certainly understand and sympathize with the criticism. Even before I clicked the “publish” button on that post, I noticed that I had given the prospective Lovecraft reader a fairly heavy load of introductory material. Chalk it up to my natural bent as a professional teacher of writing and literature, which leads me to focus on the undeniable fact that the very worthy work of a great many authors, and also of many other types of artists, isn’t readily accessible to a lot of people’s sensibilities.
Sometimes this hindrance is due to an inherent quality of idiosyncrasy, complexity, or some other sort of difficulty in the work itself. Sometimes it’s due to the passage of time, which has made an author or artist’s basic style, cast of thought, and/or cultural worldview remote and strange. Sometimes, as in the case of Lovecraft, it’s because of all this and more. Lovecraft, in addition to living and writing nearly a century ago, deliberately wrote in an antique and even archaic style, and to call his basic tropes and themes “idiosyncratic” is a gross understatement. Many modern readers who have heard of him approach his work eagerly at first but then bounce off in boredom, incomprehension, and disappointment.
This is why I think there’s definitely a place for the formal type of introduction that I laid out in my post. The “classroom”-type approach is intended to help a person by giving enough contextual information to facilitate an authentic appreciation and enjoyment of a given author, artist, or work of art or literature. Yes, when done poorly it can be insufferably pedantic, but when done well it can be a wonderful thing. Or at least it has been a wonderful thing for me personally, on the several occasions when I’ve been fortunate to have excellent teachers who introduced me to life-changing discoveries.
That said, I do take xylokopos’s criticism to heart, and I’m perfectly happy to admit that I myself have had many wonderful literary and artistic experiences by skipping the classroom approach and simply diving right into someone’s work.
I think the fact that this has all been on my mind in recent weeks may explain why two recently published essays that would have caught my attention anyway managed to catch it with extra sharpness. Each says something, and says it very well, about the danger of killing art and literature by playing the pedant and refusing to give the works a chance to speak for themselves. So of course I want to share them with you. Read the rest of this entry
Dr. Angela Voss is an expert in mythology, astrology, and Western esotericism. She’s also one of the two editors of Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, whose imminent publication I recently talked about here. In conjunction with that post, she has asked me to help spread the word about an exciting new graduate program in these subjects that she has helped to create in the UK. Conveniently, this is a request that plays right into my already-existing plans, since I was planning to mention the new graduate program at some point anyway! In the past few months I’ve seen various announcements and updates about its development and planned launch in January 2014, and have thought the whole thing looks and sounds quite fascinating.
As you’ll see from the following description, the program also lands right in the middle of the same territory explored not only by the Daimonic Imagination book but by portions of this very blog. I urge you to click through the title link below to the program’s page at the Canterbury Christ Church University site, where you can read more details on the specific subjects to be covered. Items that leap out at me personally include “”The nature of mythopoeic thought: symbol and metaphor,” “Renaissance art and theurgic magic,” “Jung, Corbin and Hillman on active imagination,” “The return to the gods in transpersonal psychology,” and “Subliminal mind and the unconscious.”
Maybe somebody among The Teeming Brain’s audience will find that this is just the thing they’ve been looking for.
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Announcing a new Masters programme in Canterbury, UK:
This interdisciplinary Masters programme draws on studies in psychology, anthropology, theology, esoteric philosophy, a range of wisdom traditions and the arts. It offers a discerning investigation into seemingly non-rational modes of knowing, exploring the cosmological sense of the sacred, the widespread practices of symbol-interpretation and divination, and the cultural role of the creative imagination. The programme will appeal to all those seeking to enrich their lives through the study of the history, philosophy and rituals of Western sacred and esoteric traditions, and will be of particular interest to teachers, practitioners and therapists in the fields of contemporary spirituality and well-being who would like to engage more deeply with the foundations of their work. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation. The MA is taught at alternate weekends Jan-June, with additional Wednesday mornings for full-time students. The second half of the year consists of supervised research with a presentation weekend in September. Students will be required to submit four essays, a creative portfolio and review, extracts from an ongoing reflective Learning Journal and a dissertation.
For the student handbook and all admin information (including fees) contact Michelle Childs firstname.lastname@example.org, 01227 863458. For information regarding course content, contact Angela Voss email@example.com
We also welcome enquiries for M.Phil and Ph.D research in related areas.
The inferno of busyness that has overtaken my life in the past few weeks has abated somewhat, although various fires are still still burning all around. So here’s another interim item for your amusement and edification while I continue the emergency cleanup.
The following video seems particularly appropriate to share right now, since all around America the summer break from school is presently in full swing. In this piece you’ll see, hear, and experience Taylor Mali, “one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement and one of the few people in the world to have no job other than that of poet,” delivering what’s probably the most powerful recorded performance of his now-famous poem “What Teachers Make.” It’s an inspired (and carefully crafted) rant that literally sends chills up the spine with its flat-out annihilation, on a level rivaling the holy terror of a fiery-eyed biblical prophet, of the fatuous assumption that kids can’t learn anything valuable “from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher,” because, you know, what do teachers actually make?
So this is for teachers everywhere, especially those who toil away in public schools the way I used to do, but who are currently enjoying a well-earned breather. No matter that the system itself is largely broken and deserving of the criticisms that are heaped upon it. A large percentage of the people who work it in do so out of an authentic sense of calling and vocation, and far too often, like Rodney Dangerfield, they don’t get no respect.
Let the delicate-minded among you be advised that there’s a bit of mild profanity in what you’re about to watch. There are several different versions on YouTube showing Mali performing the poem in different venues on different occasions, and some of them qualify as G or PG for language. But this one is PG-13. It’s the preferred version for its flat-out potency.
“Let me break it down for you so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamned difference. Now what about you?”
I spent many years reading/reveling in Calvin and Hobbes, both live (so to speak) in the newspaper comics section during its original run from 1985 to 1995 and then later in the many book-length collections. This still ranks among my most cherished literary and artistic experiences. The strip was not only hilarious but frequently brilliant, both artistically and philosophically, and the characters as well as the overall vibe and mood became enduring mental companions for me.
And so it’s always a delight to read any news about the man behind the strip, Bill Watterson, not least because any and all such news is basically non-existent, in accordance with the utterly admirable design and intent of the man himself:
In the days of 4G wireless networks and Twitter, when virtually every moment of a person’s life can be tracked online and many people offer up that information freely, it’s a rare thing to come across a public figure who not only doesn’t buy into the idea of constant communication, but takes themselves in the opposite direction — completely out of the spotlight. The term “recluse” seems like a dirty word, a slur — “private” or “introverted” seem much fairer ways to describe someone than a word that suggests agoraphobia — but that’s how many would describe artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Marcel Proust, Harper Lee to J.D. Salinger.
Some say that the “recluse” is an endangered species, but to my knowledge, there’s still one artist who is keeping the idea of the private public figure alive: Bill Watterson, writer and illustrator of the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
. . . . “As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”
Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would not survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.
. . . . For all the journalists rejected, it’s easy for new ones to imagine that there must be someone able to break through Watterson’s solid exterior; it could be anyone! But Watterson, for one, has said most of what he seems to ever want to say.
— Liv Combe, “Searching for Calvin’s Dad,” Full Stop, April 4, 2013
The new burst of Watterson-centric attention represented by this article, which was also published at Salon, has been occasioned by the appearance of a new documentary film titled Dear Mr. Watterson that debuted, as it so happens, just yesterday at the Cleveland Film Festival:
Here’s a description of the film from its official Website:
Calvin & Hobbes dominated the Sunday comics in thousands of newspapers for over 10 years, having a profound effect on millions of readers across the globe. When the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, retired the strip on New Year’s Eve in 1995, devoted readers everywhere felt the void left by the departure of Calvin, Hobbes, and Watterson’s other cast of characters, and many fans would never find a satisfactory replacement.
It has now been more than a decade since the end of the Calvin & Hobbes era. Bill Watterson has kept an extremely low profile during this time, living a very private life outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Despite his quiet lifestyle, Mr. Watterson is remembered and appreciated daily by fans who still enjoy his amazing collection of work.
Mr. Watterson has inspired and influenced millions of people through Calvin & Hobbes. Newspaper readership and book sales can be tracked and recorded, but the human impact he has had and the value of his art are perhaps impossible to measure.
This film is not a quest to find Bill Watterson, or to invade his privacy. It is an exploration to discover why his “simple” comic strip made such an impact on so many readers in the 80s and 90s, and why it still means so much to us today.
For a glimpse of the genius of Watterson the man — aside from and in addition to the genius to Watterson the artist — I urge you to see the only (to date) college commencement speech he ever delivered. It was given to the 1990 graduating class at Watterson’s alma mater, Kenyon College, and it illuminates much about Watterson’s choice to remain personally outside the media spotlight while relentlessly fighting all attempts by the Borg-like machinery of the modern merchandising industry to capitalize on Calvin and Hobbes. It also offers deeply wise and insightful advice to the rest of us who are likewise obligated to live and work in this same cultural inferno of universal hype and hustling:
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons. Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards. The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need. What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and t-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
. . . Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.
— Bill Watterson, “”Some Thoughts on the Real World by One Who Glimpsed It and Fled,” Kenyon College Commence Speech, May 20, 1990
From a lecture titled “Solitude and Leadership,” which William Deresiewicz delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009:
Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now — older people as well as younger people — you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.
Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.
— William Deresiewicz, “Solitude and Leadership,” The American Scholar, Spring 2010