Notes Toward an Integration of Education and Citizenship

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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37 Responses

  1. rj says:

    I find it hard to believe that notions of citizenship or the great books/great men/great invention the Athens and Jerusalem post argues for is possible as a neutral concept (sorry, unlike A&J I Won’t Capitalize Every Concept Like It’s Some Special Invention Of Mine Instead Of Just A String of Common Nouns).

    It’s very hard to divorce American conservatism from white male tribalism.

    To illustrate, A&J say “[w]e should not waste time on pop culture, peasant studies, black studies, womens’ studies, gay studies, postmodern physics, etc.”

    For starters “postmodern physics” is made up. For all of their cloying pretention, they just can’t help themselves. But what of black/womens’/gay studies?

    Yes, these fields developed after A&J’s unarticulated cutoff date for Serious Academic Stuff. However, there is no reason to think that when a group either develops a coherent identity (GLBT) or has more access to higher education (black, female), it’s not a serious endeavor to do what white males have been doing for centuries. There have been excesses and some pretty strange theories bandied about in those fields, but that’s what happens when a new field is in flux. Look at pretty much every scientific field over the centuries.

    Blanket denunciations of black/womens’/gay studies as things that aren’t worthy of study and general attacks on students (as if we could just get new, better ones) betray the tribalism that pervades CCOA.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to rj says:

      A couple things:

      1) While A&J does periodically engage in (at least borderline) blanket denunciations of parts of academia they don’t like, the post I was talking about is, indirectly, getting at the fact that blanket denunciations aren’t enough. W. wasn’t endorsing any of those 6 as written, but trying to summarize them — (and the Random Capitalizations of Big Mundane Topics was partly sarcastic).

      2) More importantly, the idea (or word!) “citizenship” doesn’t appear in the post at A&J and the virtue discussion is separate from the canon discussion — I’m honestly not certain here whether you’re conflating my introduction of a concept of citizenship as a “neutral” substitution for virtue with run-of-the-mill, not-quite-coherent editions of CCOA, or keeping your guns narrowly on A&J. If it’s the former, then: I wasn’t aware that being a good citizenship has become a wholly conservative/tribal/whatever you wanna call it. (See 12.1 in the main post.) And I’ll further repeat that the people I know who have been most strident in calling for a university that promotes citizenship — who beat me to it by several years, in fact — are WELL to my left. As in, one of them, a dear friend, is the one whom I joked was going to get thrown-up by the right as the poster-girl for radical academia when she took the section she TAs on a field trip to an protest of a GOP Congressman. (She’s neither white, nor male, nor tribal.)

      3) For the record, I see nothing wrong with teaching Toni Morrison in college courses. Just teach her well. As Eliot pointed out, the literary tradition rearranges itself with the creation of any work, no matter when or where, that merits being considered part of the literary tradition.

      So my point is, I guess — I think you’re not only talking about something completely different than what I was talking about, but you’re also missing the point of that particular A&J post. There are some there that DO do what you say, but not that one.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        RJ, I tried to figure out what I disagree with about what you wrote. It’s not your point that blanket denunciations of black/womens’/gay studies often stem from white male tribalism because I’ve certainly seen that before. In fact, I agree with the general thrust of what you’re writing here. But here’s my nit:

        “I find it hard to believe that notions of citizenship or the great books/great men/great invention the Athens and Jerusalem post argues for is possible as a neutral concept…

        It’s very hard to divorce American conservatism from white male tribalism.”

        I don’t think theories of citizenship or the great books are neutral concepts at all- but nor do I think they’re necessarily conservative domains. I mean they often are- but I don’t think liberals or anyone else should be unable to theorize about citizenship or great books for any particular reason. Hell, I work with plenty of liberals who spend all day thinking about the great books.Report

        • rj in reply to Rufus F. says:

          I suppose I could stand to be a little more precise in my words. It’s not that liberals care only about “average” books or are some sort of stateless global village types. It’s that whenever I hear someone complain about the academy and advocate for “great books,” nine times out of ten they’re talking about a closed canon instantly recognizable to their grandfathers’ generation.

          It’s not quite a dog whistle in the higher education reform debate, but it’s close.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to rj says:

            Right, but the main problem with the traditional canon, as I understand it, was that it was closed and deficient. People would say, “You need to read the Iliad- it’s good for you!” but refuse to read the Shahnameh or the Mahabharata. The answer to that, it seems to me, is to keep adding to it. But, you know, reading the Iliad is still good for you.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F. says:

              The problem wasn’t the canon, it was the cannoneers. That old reprobate Harold Bloom groped his female students for many years at Yale. Nothing was ever done about it. Sunt superis sua iura.Report

            • rj in reply to Rufus F. says:

              You can’t add to it indefinitely. Something has to go to make room.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to rj says:

                Wait, what? Canonizing as a zero sum game? Now, sure, the curriculum needs to fit within four years, and so, alas, we can’t teach every great book. But the canon itself needs to limited? I don’t know- you can read a lot in one lifetime. And the traditional great books program could probably be read in a few years.Report

              • rj in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Yes, a person interested in literature can read “a lot in one lifetime,” but if the great books are something every educated person should read, it needs to be something a physics, biomedical engineering, international relations, archaeology major, etc. can get through in four years while also studying something else.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to rj says:

                Well, then you’d have to do it as a sampling- with the current sort of curriculum, I can’t see how it could be anything but a small sampling. Of course, I think that’s how most colleges do it now. Even the Saint John’s list is that, although it’s a very good sampling.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I’d argue the Canon is replete with hoary old bologna, especially in the Dead White Victorian Ladies department. Can anyone justify Jane Austen? Or George Eliot? Dante in Italian, maybe, but wasting more than a week on the intricacies of 13th century politics is bollocks. That moonbat Wordsworth is another candidate for the chopping block, Shelley ditto. Milton… jeebus, where did that ponderous old versifier gain his lasting reputation?

                There’s a metric buttload of the Canon which belongs in the library, not on the syllabus.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to rj says:

      I took postmodern physics to mean relativity and QM. If the clockwork universe, which encourages responsible behavior with its implications of inevitable consequences, was good enough for the Founding Fathers, it’s good enough for us.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to rj says:

      I dunno about that White Male business. Quite a few Black and Hispanic people of my acquaintance are profoundly conservative. While it’s true the debate has been dominated by a few Old White Dudes who held the microphone for far too long, I would counter with the example of George Washington Carver, the preeminent black conservative of his day. There are many others.Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    once they get down to particulars, that disagreement will disappear.

    One “dis” too many?Report

  3. Rufus F. says:

    “This is a CCOA only if society itself has become a conservative cause.”

    I’m starting to think it’s much the opposite, sadly.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Opposite as in “because” rather than “only if”? Or some other part of the statement?Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        I think society was once the conservative cause, but frankly cannot think of any instance in which that’s still the case. Oh, lip service is still paid to ‘society’, but no work is done towards strengthening society and, in fact, all bullwarks are to be removed if they’re at odds with the ‘market’ or the politique.

        The problem here is that there’s no such thing as a “free-market conservative”- it’s a complete oxymoron. Marx was wrong about plenty of things but the old cultural conservative was sure right about that. When you defend both traditions and the solvent of all traditions in the same breath, most of your values are lip service at best, and your defense of culture becomes a petty grudge for the tastes of the middle class.

        I mean, what you’re referencing in this post is a perfect example of what I mean- the university is a pillar of society- it’s fundamental to the life of a free society and thus a bullwark against the reach of the state. So, let’s attack the thing and call ourselves “conservatives”, shall we? No, the word is “reactionaries”. When you want all social institutions to be brought in line with your political party, you are no longer defending society- much the opposite.

        At one point, there still were conservatives in American life. Now? It’s something else- but it’s not conservatism.Report

  4. Rufus F. says:

    I think maybe the definition I’d feel most comfortable with is that the inculcation of seriousness is a duty of the modern college/university. Does that mean moral seriousness? Well, I’m not sure that seriousness isn’t the precondition of virtue- well, or that virtue can exist without seriousness.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Rufus F. says:

      One thing Latin did for English for which I’ll always be grateful was to give us the word “grave” — not in its present sense, but more or less as an equivalent of the Latin word of the same spelling, dealing with both physical weight and moral seriousness. The word — both in English and Latin — has a reality (a near visceralness?) that has always made me prefer it to seriousness — especially when talking about the type of seriousness you refer to. We need gravity. But if I go around talking about “moral gravity” my friends will think I’ve either lost my mind or am merely being pretentious. Or both. Which may be symptomatic of the problem…Report

  5. tom van dyke says:

    To return to Mr. Wall’s fine OP, I followed 2010’s Texas Schoolbook Massacre with great interest.

    Not from the breathless fulminations and half-truths by the [need I say lefty?] academic establishment and MSM—and their leading source of “news,” some entity calling itself the Texas Freedom Network.

    The core conservative objection to the original Texas curriculum was that it had been taken over by what might fairly be called the “marxist” [small “m”?] interpretation of history: more anthropology than history, really: the stories of the masses, raceclassgender natch, but also, culture, customs, what kind of food the indigenous folks ate, etc.

    To cut to the relevance to Mr. Wall’s OP, the changes take this shape, from Kindergarten [below] then onward:

    “In Kindergarten, the focus is on self, the self, home, family and classroom. The study of our state and national heritage begins with the study of the celebration of patriotic holidays and the contributions of historical people.”


    “In Kindergarten, the study of the self, home, family and classroom establishes the foundation of responsible citizenship in society. Students explore state and national heritage by examining the celebration of patriotic holidays and the contributions of individuals.”

    [Bold face mine, as most germane to Mr. Wall’s point.]

    The rest is worth skimming [link below]. Excised from the previous text is “food, clothing, and shelter” as well as “folktales, myths and legends; and poetry, songs and artworks.”

    This may seem harsh, but the idea is to return to the study of history rather than the “softer” science of anthropology. Also excised in the same passage was using the song “Grand Old Flag” and a children’s biography of George Washington as teaching tools.

    Further reading of the curriculum changes shows the continual substitution of “good citizenship” and study of the substantive contributions of individuals [including many minorities] to the state and nation, for the flabbier study of “people” and folkways.

    I applaud. Dunno if Mr. Wall will, but it hits his point.

    The university level, I dunno. I’d be satisfied if the modern liberal arts graduate could even articulate what is meant by “Athens and Jerusalem.”

    And as an aside to Mr. Wall, I very much appreciated the mentions of Leo Strauss and Thomas Aquinas. I personally am of the Thomist stripe, with an affection—albeit not a complete agreement—with Strauss. Near the end, Strauss’ classroom was “full of priests”—their agreement substantial in his exquisite critique of modernity, the Platonist’s and the Thomist’s [and in their/our/my view, mankind’s] common enemy.
    ref: Final TEKS changes [PDF]

    Now, there were many stupid proposals made by the righties on the board during the debates, and a great media-internet sensation was made of them. But few or none actually made it into the final document, and I pass in advance on any discussion that doesn’t reference the actual final document.

    It’s also interesting to skim, just to see how sausage is made, since the original text and the new text are color-coded. Oy.Report