We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here; that life exists and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.
What will your verse be?
This is the question John Keating (Robin Williams) asked his students in a scene from the Dead Poets Society. Keating’s character was loosely fashioned after Sam Pickering who attended Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville as a student and later returned there to teach for a year – just as the Keating character attended and taught at the fictitious Welton Academy in Vermont.
One of Pickering’s students, Tom Schulman, later wrote the screenplay for Dead Poets Society using Pickering’s unorthodox teaching methods as his inspiration.
I was never moved to write a screenplay about my English teacher, but when I attended a military prep school in Tennessee he was as passionate, though not as unconventional, as John Keating. Somehow Captain Standard managed to capture the interest of a classroom full of 16- and 17-year olds whose hormones put anything but Shakespeare, Browning, and Byron in their minds. That he could sell us on reading, not to mention memorizing, Ode to a Grecian Urn, It Was a Beauteous Evening, and Ozymandias was a tribute to Captain Standard’s passion. It would have made Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley proud.
In a world of mouse clicks and key words, it’s easy today to learn that Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed several hundred or more lines of poetry in a dream (aided by a bit of opium extract) after reading a book about Xanadu. He managed to get some of the poem’s lines on paper after awakening before he was interrupted by “a gentleman from Porlock” whose visit kept Coleridge from his writing desk for an hour. Upon returning to his desk, the dream lines were mostly gone and what little we have in the last dozen lines of Kubla Khan today is all that remained. Captain Standard carried tidbits like that in his pre-Internet head six decades ago which he liberally sprinkled in his lectures upon introducing a new assignment. I still remember them today.
Upon entering the engineering school of Tufts University (it was only a college then) as a freshman I had to take the English courses that the academic worthies considered were the minimum needed to be considered an educated person in civil society. In those classes I met the club-footed Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I met Pepe Torres in John Steinbeck’s Flight and Le Père Goriot in Honoré de Balzac’s eponymously named book.
I suspect I’ve not earned a dime more over the course of my professional career for having been exposed to these and other works in the humanities during my stay at Tennessee Military Institute and Tufts. But I think they made my life a more curious and richer experience. I appreciate that both Captain Standard and the Tufts worthies decided what a teenaged boy should know without consulting me. Thanks to their decision I became a lifelong learner. Appropriately so, they served only the appetizer. The banquet choice was mine.
I don’t believe I’m an educational snob. But I was shocked to read in this week’s Wall Street Journal of Kyle Bishop’s Ph.D. dissertation proposal to the English department supervisory committee of the University of Arizona. It proposed that he do “scholarly research” on zombie movies! It was approved! When I submitted my dissertation proposal 40 years ago it was expected that doctoral students would have spent months confirming that the subject they chose to research was unique among prior doctoral research projects and would produce a scholarly contribution to its field of knowledge worthy of the university. More than a few proposals in my department were rejected as not scholarly enough. And yet Dr. Bishop is now chairman of the Southern Utah University English department and has lectured on zombies in Spain, Hawaii, and Canada.
I hadn’t realized how important zombie research was in academia until I also read in the article that Professor Juliet Lauro in the Clemson English department teaches how zombies represent the struggles of slavery and oppression. She is writing a book entitled The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion and Living Death. Maybe she got her inspiration from Dr. Bishop who turned his dissertation into a book, American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, which sold a thousand copies.
A professor in one of California’s universities has edited a book, The Economics of the Undead, which “raises issues of the use of resources” should our country or the world face a catastrophic misfortune. A zombie “scholar” in a university in England is working on a tome that “seeks to investigate zombie sexuality in all its forms and manifestations.” Now that’s something I always wondered about.
Heather Mac Donald informed us in an article earlier this year that UCLA students majoring in English – majoring in English, mind you – were required prior to 2011 to take a course in Milton’s works, another in Chaucer’s works, and two courses in Shakespeare. That is, until the junior faculty staged a departmental coup d'état and announced that the pillars of English literature were so “yesterday.” A UCLA English major may now take three courses from four “academic disciplines” – (i) Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies, (ii) Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies, (iii) genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory, or (iv) creative writing. In other words, a UCLA English major may now graduate without taking an English course. I’m not making this up.
And in the general student population – i.e. those not specializing in English – Ms. Mac Donald informs us, “UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the US; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.”
The collegiate educational establishment has gone nuts.
The psychobabble of today’s elite on university campuses obsesses over class, race, gender, inequality, its victim status, and the sins of our fathers … and zombies (I don’t want to leave that out.) It is turning its narcissism into fraudulent disciplines of academic scholarship. This is the modern day equivalent of Esau trading his birthright – his intellectual inheritance deeded in a millennium of art and knowledge – for a bowl of porridge, the “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.” A college education in the future might well have replaced the once serious inquiries into the minds and expressions of ages past for navel-gazing exercises in self-discovery. Why bother to go to college for that?
Several days ago I was reading a book and came upon a passage that stopped me cold. The author, referring to another person, observed, “His life existed in a minor key – a symphony pathetique – until last year when he got it all together and those minor chords gave way to the major key of success.” Reading that I wondered how someone schooled in gender, race, disability, oppression, and the politics of inequality could have a clue what this author meant. When Reagan met Gorbachev at Reykjavík in the fall of 1986 the Soviet leader characterized the Cold War as “the labor of Sisyphus.” Would an education steeped in the “scholarship” of women’s studies, Chicana feminism, and studies in queer literatures and cultures inform its graduates of Gorbachev’s complaint?
Early this year I began reading Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It chronicles the exploits of a small group of art experts who landed in Europe as the fighting still raged in 1944. They were not young men. They had been recruited for their expertise as art curators in civilian life. Armed with a signed order from General Eisenhower, their task was to recover the objects of art that Hitler and the Nazis had pillaged from museums and private collectors during German occupation.
While many priceless works were lost, the Monument Men, as they came to be labeled, recovered most of what Eisenhower called the symbols of “all that we are fighting to preserve.” One of the men was directed by the French underground to the mountaintop castle of Mad Ludwig in Neuschwanstein where he found 12,000 stolen art objects. Two other Monument Men found a salt mine in Altausee, Austria where Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was found among 137 sculptures, 6,600 paintings, and thousands of rare books and art objects. The meticulous Nazis cataloged what they had stolen and noted its hidden location. But even as recently as last month stolen art from the Nazi era is being found and repatriated.
A film – loosely based on the book – has been in theaters recently. While I recommend the book over the film, anything that informs the public of what the Monument Men accomplished honors their achievement. It did not come cheaply. Two were killed in combat action as much for love of art as love of country – Captain Walter Huchthausen, an American art scholar, and Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, a British art scholar. Astonishingly, this small group of art conservators recovered the world’s hallowed heritage of artistic expression for future generations to study and enjoy.
I expect today’s academic elites wonder why they bothered.