Goodbye, Mr. Keating

So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

  • Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
  • Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
  • A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
  • A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
  • Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one’s special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
  • A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired “transcendence.”
  • A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
  • A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
  • A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
  • A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
  • A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
  • An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
  • A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.

Those answers defied everything they had been taught in my theory seminar. Nevertheless, they were all, in different degrees, the answers I would have given as an undergraduate. —Thomas H. BentonGoodbye, Mr. Keating (Chronicle)

An interesting personal essay, that begins as a reflection on Dead Poets Society, a film that I confess I’ve never seen.

I blog almost every one of Benton’s Chronicle essays, though sometimes he lays it on a bit thick. Still, it’s not so much the elegiac tone for his idyllic undergraduate experience that attracts me, but the intensity of his self-scrutiny: “You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don’t know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.”

I remember the time at my previous job where I asked each student in a small, intensive upper-level seminar to prepare a demonstration of an unusual cybertext artifact. I asked one student if she was ready to demonstrate a particular text, and she said she was. After she spent two or three minutes fumbling with the computer to get it started, it became clear she didn’t know what she was doing. This was the very first time she had even looked at the text, and she was supposed to carry a class discussion for the next twenty minutes. And she just didn’t care. She didn’t come to me for help outside of class, she didn’t send me an e-mail asking for an extension, she didn’t blurt out an apology. And I felt like the bad guy for asking her to sit down.

It’s not the naïve students who trouble me — though I confess I’m glad I don’t teach creative writing courses, since I’ve seen plenty of talented but undisciplined beginning creative writers become paralyzed when they realize just how much time and effort goes into revising, polishing, and proofreading a creative work at the college level.

If students are naïve about their own talents, and if they’ve complacent and puffed up by the easy As they received in high school, they can burn out and become alienated (especially when, at the same time, they realize the competition is so stiff that they get cut from the team, they don’t get called back after auditioning, they run for office and lose, and so forth). So here, the quote from Mr. McAllister seems worth reflecting on — that asking students to apsire for greatness can be risky: “When they realize they’re not all Rembrandts, Shakespeares, or Mozarts, they’ll hate you for it.”

But underlying that warning is the notion that Rembrandt, Shakespeare and Mozart had so much talent that they didn’t have to work hard like the mediocre slobs whose work they outshone. That’s getting it all backwards, of course. Of course education, class, the political machinations of patronage and sponsorship, and dumb luck all combine to affect an artist’s career, but few people have achieved anything of value without working hard at it. Talent isn’t a ticket to easy street. We waste those talents if we don’t work extra hard in the very areas where we’re primed to succeed.