The Liberal Arts and Jiu-Jitsu
Joseph Ugoretz | May 1, 2010 | 3:59 pm | Why Are We? What is Learning? and What is Literature? | No comments

Why do we need schooling? Especially, why do we need a liberal arts education?

It’s easy to see why a plumber needs to learn about plumbing, or an electrician about wiring.  A chef really should learn ingredients, sauces, knife work.  An auto mechanic had better understand transmissions and radiators.

But why does anyone need to know English literature, or American history, or elementary physics, or French?

What is the purpose of a liberal arts education?  Aristotle wrote about the study of rhetoric as being similar to the study of the martial arts (he meant boxing and wrestling, not jiu-jitsu and kung fu).  A person needs to be able to defend himself.  Even if you’re not going to argue publicly in a political or legal arena, you need to know the techniques that might be used there–so you can defend if you’re attacked, so you can judge the competition of others.

An educated person might need to know enough chemistry to understand product safety and how ingredients interact, or enough history to see when political are new and what their roots are.  For self-defense, if nothing else, a broad education with a basic grounding in most academic disciplines might be necessary.

And some people make the argument that we live in a democracy–so we, all of us, need to be able to make the decisions and set the policies that govern all of us.  And to do that, we need to be educated citizens–with a broad enough knowledge to evaluate those policies.

I would also argue (particularly when it comes to the study of art and literature–I am, after all, an English teacher) that studying literature lets us think about unanswered questions–and unanswerable questions.  It gives us the opportunity to think deeply and widely and to engage with complexity.  To see alternate points of view.  To “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I was at a symposium last week, and almost all the conversation was about what college can do to make people better employees.  “How,” businesspeople were asked, “can we our students better-prepared to help your companies?”

But are you looking for something more, from education? Is it about self-defense, or being ready to govern, or being ready for a job, or more than any of those?

Allow me to romantic for a moment–I think that education is about being the hero of your own life–it’s about finding the questions…and I mean the quests…that will define you and your world.  And education, to me, means something that can go on forever–even after schooling ends, even near the end of your life, you can be, if you undertake a wide-ranging education, like Tennyson’s Ulysses.  Sitting old, and ready to retire, you can still be the heroic king, ready to set off to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield!


Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end.
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, my own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

SF and “Sci-Fi” and the Question of Genre
Joseph Ugoretz | May 1, 2010 | 2:06 pm | Why Are We? What is Learning? and What is Literature? | No comments

As an old-time fan, I react very strongly (with chills and nausea) and very negatively (with an angry face angry face) to the term “Sci-Fi.”

Science fiction is a unique form of literature in several ways. One of these ways has to do with how it’s looked at by people who do not approve of it, and do not like it, even if they’ve never read any of it.  For me, “Sci-Fi” was the term that was always used with disdain and contempt by outsiders–by people who would condemn SF as garbage or trash. (even if these days the term is often used, with affection, by insiders). (But for a more detailed discussion of this question of terminology, please read this conversation.)

You may or may not have noticed, but there are hierarchies in literature. People make lists, in their minds, or on paper, of “great books.” The Modern Library has made their list of the “100 Best Novels of the Century.” And they asked readers to submit their own lists. Take a look at the two lists by clicking this book an open book.

Did you notice the differences in the lists? There’s actually some science fiction on both lists, but there’s a lot more on the readers’ list.

Most people imagine some kind of  continuum or line of literature…like this

the continuum of literature from comics to Shakespeare

Where does your preferred reading lie?

You can place “types” of books at different places on that line above (“romance,” “western,” “romantic poetry”).  Where you place certain books or types of books says something about you and your preferences–and about the books, of course. And as you can see, sometimes whole genres get placed on the literature or garbage end of the line by some fairly authoritative sources.

So who decides where a genre gets placed? How much does it depend it on who is doing the placing?

I’ve had people ask me why I would want to use SF as texts for an honors course at the college level.  Is this a question people would ask about Shakespeare? Isn’t it one you should ask about Shakespeare, or Poe, or Alice Walker, or Toni Morrison?

Robert A. Heinlein has said that the loveliest phrase in all literature is “pay to the order of” and many SF books make a lot of money, even if they don’t get read or admired by college professors. So is money, or popularity, a measure of good literature? or is it something else?

If a book is popular, does that automatically make it valuable? Or does it automatically not make it valuable? Where does the lasting value of literature come from?  And again, who decides? The people who read and love the literature? The people who think some other kind of literature is superior?

Remember our experience with the novel Frankenstein in the previous unit.  For one of us, it’s an all-time favorite book.  For others, it’s a disaster.  So which is right, which is true?  When I used to teach introduction to literature, I would often start by having people shout out their favorite books, which I would list on the board.  Then I would have people shout out the books that they absolutely hated, and I would list those on the board, too.  Inevitably, some of the same books would appear on both lists.  Some people would love the same books that others hated.  How can that be?