Saturday, March 25, 2006

The American Student

This past week at work was intense, to say the least - every day was a long, busy, frustrating day - and at about 5:30 on Friday I found myself in serious need of serious relaxation. I could have achieved this in a number of ways (I have a lot of moonshine). What I chose, however, was to drive to Richmond, to my parent's house, and instigate a seething and personal debate about the role "education" and "higher learning" plays in the retardation of American intellect.

So, I drove to Richmond and ate dinner with the rents and decided that we should talk about how "higher learning" (which will henceforth not be in quotes, although it should be) and "schooling" in general, in America, has caused us to lose any semblance of culture and passion and open thinking. Duly noted, also, that both my parents either are now or have been teachers or professors.

Anyway, my argument::::

French children, as an example, read, among other things, Voltaire, Constant, Balzac, Baudelaire, Proust. They all read these. It is a constant. It is not considered "smart" or "extracurricular"; it is just what they read. The French interns that I work with, for example, consider all Americans to be "Cartesian" ie. followers of Descartes' rational, mathematical viewpoint of the world. I say to them, "Fine, but what are you?" and they say, "We are "Pascalian." We are followers of Pascal. We are passionate, faithful. We weave the fabric of souls." For the French student, Descartes and Pascal represent the two possible ways to view the world. Of reason or of revelation. My point is not any of this. My point is that French students use these authors - Descartes and Pascal - in their natural, everyday speech.

Now before you say, "Oh, well I've read Kant. I understood most of it. I use it in my everyday speech. I'm smart, too," you have to consider that, were you to jump on a bus to D.C., you could not have a discussion about Kant, probably, with any of the passengers, and I'll bet they all graduated high school, and probably half of them graduated college. They are not stupid, by any means, just as a New Guinean who hasn't read Romeo and Juliet is not stupid. They just haven't read the same things you've read. Secondly, the fact that you think reading Kant makes you "smart" is fucking ludicrous.
We're you to jump on a bus in Spain, though, and I think you could talk to someone about Kant.

So, the French like them some French authors, yes? Like the Germans like them some Wagner and Heidigger and Dante and Goethe. Like the English, I guess, like them some Shakespeare and whomever it was who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. They like him a lot. He's pretty funny.

And it's not a question of QUALITY. I am not suggesting for a moment that any of these authors are either good or bad or readable or unreadable, I am simple suggesting that these other cultures have a literary framework on which one must stand to be considered "educated." They have these books that everybody reads, and maybe understands. These books are part of their culture, like, I guess, anyone from my generation can talk with great knowledge about almost all of the shows on TGIF in the late-80's, early-90's.

So what is the American literary framework? What literature do we all have in common? As a public school student in America, I would say the only literature we all read, and study, and feel is the cornerstone for our country, is the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (this is one) and the Bible (this is two). From henceforth we will concentrate on the Declaration/Constitution, because we're not legally ALLOWED to read the Bible in school, but that is not to say that most American children cannot quote them some Bible if need be, and do not think that it has had a remarkable impact on our ways of life.

Anway, the Constitution/Declaration are great pieces of literature, written at a time of optimism and original creation. They are wonderful, extremely influential documents to study.
Two considerations:
1) I would not consider either of these documents to be passionate or awe-inspiring or of the ability to "weave the fabric of souls," as my French friend said. They are rational, to-the-point (for the most part), and scientific in that they use words to convey a concrete, resolute truth. The Const/Dec, by nature, is a Cartesian document. It had a goal (people are free, let people be free, free the people) and it tried to prove that goal. Nothing flashy. Very impersonal.
2) Because WE ARE ALL SO SMART, we have, over the years, decided that these documents are racist, and classist, and written to further the wealth of the aristocratic government who wrote the documents. We have cast remarkable doubt over two of the only documents that every student is forced to learn.

So where does that put us? We don't have any though-provoking, beautiful pages to stand upon and enter colleges and the workplace with. We have these seemingly fraudulent, poor-intentioned, rational, cold Dec/Const, and then the Bible (although, granted, America is one of the only nations that actually READS the Bible for itself, as opposed to living off the interpretations of other (although, granted, obviously we don't read ALL of the Bible, just the parts in accordance with our ways of life, because, man, have you ever really READ THE BIBLE? It's fucking crazy.)).

That leaves us, I think, with students with a more rational, unpoetic view of education. That leaves us with students who don't stand upon any concrete culture when positioning themselves in life. That leaves us, worst of all, with the "select" students who think they've invented the wheel when the read, and think they understand, Plato's Republic. These are the students that I am worried about, because they are not standing on anything when they make grandiose claims about the ways of the world, the intentions of dictators, what's right for "the people."

My point, in the end, is simply that it's the really passionate, outspoken, "honors" college students who are not thinking for themselves, because they've just recently discovered this world of amazing information and thinkers and novels and great, wonderful documents that say things in a way that these students have never heard things said before, but they (the students) have not been taught to stop, and step back, and look at themselves as they eat this information, and consider where they are, and what they're doing, and what culture they come from when making these statements.

And of course none of this should ever stop anyone from arguing and yelling and making their crazy statements. It's just, like, eating away at the intellectual fabric of the United States. That's all.

7 Comments:

Blogger Anneth said...

Apologies. It's long. :)

I. On the general blog of Wry and Stanley
A. The recent political/intellectual discourse has been overwhelmingly thought provoking
B. Ryan's contribution is seriously underestimated by all (self included) because obviously he has much to say
C. Ryan should contribute more
D. Pulling "intellectual names" out in a purely opinionated and wholey unacademic blog is pretentious. If you're going to do it (as Ryan notes, we don't all remember/memorize/care about Kant) at least add a citation

II. On "The American Student"
A. P2 - (a)I don't think the previous post was person centric. I think a lot of people don't pay a damn bit of attention to world politics, so any discussion might seem person-centric, but it's not because we think we are right. None of us are in top government positions deciding the fate of our "universe." We just have opinions.

(b) It's always better to debate with the folks. They know more, they've experienced more and they can pay attention to long, detailed conversation more readily than us. I spent about an hour on the phone (holy-crap!) with my mom the other night discussing my huge distaste for predominant public opinion in this country, explaining that if anyone held a gun to my head and wanted me to admit that I love this twisted place, well, I'd get a bullet through the brain.

B.P4 - I've had to read (note the "had to") several of these mentioned authors, however, as Ryan points out, my experience with them is wholey due to a college subject. As an American I would never know to read these Frenchies. And on a personal note, a Pascalian view to life is much more interesting.

C.P5 - Again I will agree and reiterate Ryan's point that just because you know so much about such and such, doesn't mean you're any smarter than the person who doesn't know such and such. Let's use something besides literature/philosohpy. Ryan's bro is some sort of aeronautical/mathematical/Texas engineer. I'm sure he knows a lot about equations and figures that Ryan, nor the rest of us know. However, that doesn't make him any smarter than Ryan, he just understands/knows something that Ryan doesn't. Same with Roberto and myself. Rob has an inante sense for music and performance than I only can begin to comprehend when I'm way more than two sheets to the wind. (I'll also say that for Ryan, comprehension that is) They have a knowledge of (or an opinion of) music that I don't really listen to, and I like to hear their analysis. It never makes me feel uncomfortable because they aren't pretentious. And I think that's a big problem because a lot of people are pretentious about their knowledge/degree. Which leads me to a point that being unpretentious about your knowledge and helping other people understand what you think, is the only way to further the spread of knowledge. Nobody likes a know-it-all (ex. "Top Chef," Steven)

C.P6 - (1) Dante = Italian (I'm not sure if you just typed that because you were sloppy or it was some sort of PRETENTIOUS test. No, no. I'm just being an idiot - like mostly)
(2) The Importance of Being Ernest - Wilde. Ahhh that amusing homo dude. I read Dorian Gray when I was maybe a senior or junior in high school and it's really haunting. It really makes you think about how your immaculate image would look if you finally admitted to all the shit you've caused. Done. Watched. It's not really uplifting obviously. But then I'm sure I'm writing for a bunch whose already read it. Oops!!

D.P7 - Again, agreement. And the whole quality thing is a good point because we really do remeber the worst of anything put out there. You all know Fabio. He was an icon of romance literature. We're not talking DH Lawrence here. We're talking shitty romance literature. With a freaky long-haired blond buff Italian dude promoting it. Ick. But maybe, and I don't know the marketing history of early 20th century romance, that was just par fo the course. But yeah, it's not quality, it's culture. Good point. Point taken.

E.P7 - Okay. The American literary framework. We've got the DIC (k? har har!) and the Constitution. I feel I can't really discuss these two documents because after like 7th grade I definitely stayed far away from them, (excepting 10th grade when I had to write weird document commentary for AP US history, or something...it was bull shit anyway.) Ok. Um I don't personally consider political/legal documents to be forms of intellectual literature. Maybe political treatises. And obviously important philosophical documents; but literature, ehhh.., I don't know. But that's beside the point.
I'ts true. We read these documents all the time. We quote these things all the time. And Ryan makes a good point about the Bible (bible to me). People (in the US) base a lot of understanding of other documents on this christian book. I think we should discuss the bible in school simply because it's a huge historical work that the entire western world (and a large portion of the east) uses as a tool for determing societal behaviour and governmental action. No one can deny that states use the bible to back their actions. I don't mean US states (though they do too) I mean political states who even now use the bible for justification.

E.P8 - (1) I'm avoiding commentary on these documents for their literary importance. It's not that they don't, but it depends on your view of litertature. I'm not sure if we're discussing "Literature," or if we are discussing reading materials. Because there is a big difference when it comes to discussing a society's literary background/educational curriculum.

(2) I don't think there's racism or classism. I think Americans have evolved to think that. White Americans just want things their way - that's why they interpret things like they do.

F-P's 9-12. - As far as anything eating away at the intellectual fabric of the US, I think it's ignorance. And I could go on about how people who are intelligent but don't have the resources could be contributing way more than they do to this society, but that's not the point. I think anyone who has experienced a wider degree of learning has something (though is could be miniscule) to contribute, is important. And I think everyone should have the ability to contribute. There is NO excuse for ignorance. And in the US we allow it to continue to be a reason. "Oh.They didn't have enough resourses in school."

Well assholes, that isn't their problem. It' you're problem for not allocating those resources to them. Instead of upgrading the rich Midlo area to now G5 computers, why don't you give the poor Jeff Davis kids new G4's? And pay those teachers who work in shiit areas a little more than the others.

But in these country, the bottom line is the dollar sign. And if the people living in low income areas can't make the cut, well then the gob'ment can't take care of them.

25/3/06 4:06 PM  
Blogger Stanley said...

You highlight a key difference between us and Europe: anti-intellectualism has long been en vogue [that's French] here in the good ol' U.S. of A. I've read this theory in books. Unfortunately, I was never able to discuss it with anyone, especially not on a bus (or a bus in Spain even, and I've been on a bus in Spain).

I agree that Ryan should post more.

27/3/06 1:24 PM  
Blogger Stanley said...

Also, on a meta-blog note, we should have Tom teach us how to hide part of the post. On these longer posts, it'd be nice to have the option to "read more," rather than having to scroll through all the way to the end. Alternatively, you could stop writing these long, goddamn posts.

27/3/06 4:49 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

So upon rereading my post after receiving comments both in person and on the blog (that's you, anneth), I am cutting out the following paragraph, because most comments were, I think, comments on this paragraph, and I did not really intend it to be the focus the the post, and, in the end, it's not a good paragraph and it doesn't really convey my intended point. Here it is (was):

You should know that (a) I do like to debate things, but not in a setting where condensation and a sort of personcentric I-am-smarter-than-you-and-therefore-I-am-right-and-I-will-not-actually-listen-to-what-you-say-because-my-position-is-backed-by-all-these-famous-thinkers-and-my-position-is-hip-and-I-read-it-in-The-New-Yorker forum is created. This is not always the case when people debate, of course, but, generally, I would say it is. And (b) when I debate things with my parents, we have popcorn and coke, and stay up to the wee hours, and sometimes my mom makes cookies. You would never do that for me.

27/3/06 6:01 PM  
Blogger bikkhouschka said...

but, ryan! i can't help using examples from my teachers when i talk about daily issues. howcome that makes me an asshole? i love philosophy, i've spent years upon years studying this shit. i mean, should i make it a point not to mention the authors? wouldn't that be like plaigirism?i don't want to be an asshole!!!

28/3/06 5:05 PM  
Blogger Stanley said...

No, silly. You should stop talking about philosophy and start talking about American Idol.

28/3/06 5:52 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

i never called anyone an asshole

28/3/06 6:44 PM  

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