Reason to Believe: Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Teaching of Writing by Hephzibah Roskelley and Kate Ronald promises to be an interesting read.
The subheading on the title page doesn’t match. It reads: “Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Possibility of Teaching.” Perhaps this reflects an earlier working title. I like it better, myself. This situates the book in the continuing debate (since Plato) regarding the very possibility of education. Indeed, the title of the first chapter reflects concern over these issues— “Is Teaching Still Possible?”
What lead me to this book was its engagement with Romantic ideology. While the book is specifically focused on American Romanticism, Emerson in particular, the general principles are of importance to me. This book is the only rhetorical scholarship listed in the Bedford Bibliography that deals with Romanticism and pedagogy in a positive light. Elsewhere, Romanticism is a demon to be slain. Here, the authors propose that engagement with the issues debated during the Romantic period can be a redemptive force in writing pedagogy.
Chapter one opens with contemporary theory. Chapter two continues the discussion, and procedes into American history. The third chapter provides careful consideration of Emerson, Thoreau, Fredrick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller. The fourth deals with pragmatism, and the fifth, neo-pragmatism. Chapter six deals with the presentation of romantic pedagogy in Dead Poet’s Society, and the final chapter presents real world examples of teachers using the romantic/pragmatic method.
The book opens with a quote from Bruce Springsteen, and ends with an inscription by Emerson. The authors found it in an attic, and it provides a great way to kick off the book. They snuck up to the attic of Old Manse— an area of the Emerson home not open to the public— and found some graffiti. It crossed several generations: Emerson’s grandfather, his father, and perhaps his aunt Mary Moody. The progression went like this:
Holy and happy stand
In consecrated gown
Toil till some angel hand
Bring sleep and shroud and crown.
Another had added:
Peace to the soul of the blessed dead;
Honor the ambition of the living.
And finally, in Emerson’s spidery script and signed with his initials, we read:
I visited this room and read the inscriptions of the souls gone before. (xiii)
The past can give a sense of the future, in terms of possibilities. Citing Ann Berthoff’s concept of a “usable past,” the authors provide this inscription to their project:
To understand the story of the past and of the present as mutually reinforcing, and to find in both stories a reason to believe. (xiv)
While the positivism reflected here seems a bit pollyannaish, it is consistent with their Emersonian foundation. I can’t help but think of Harold Blooms attitude toward history as counterpoint. The present exists not as a reinforcement of the past, but as the insistent annihilation of it. Rather than saying that the present and past are mutually reinforcing— I would prefer to see them as interdependent. I resist the positivism of American Romanticism— just because a connection with the past exists, this connection does not logically lead to the conclusion that the relationship is either positive or negative. It just is. Perhaps I prefer the irony and skepticism of the British Romantics, who saw both positive and negative elements in the construction of a mythic past. Understanding the connection does seem vitally important to me though, regardless of my resistance to golden age thinking.
One of the illusions though, that this book seeks to dispel is that romanticism (in the imaginative sense) and pragmatism (in the practical sense) are oppositional terms. As I have often said around here, I find my imagination to be the most practical tool of all.
Chapter 1: Is Teaching Still Possible?
The first chapter positions the aim of this book against ongoing critical conversation. The chapter title is taken from a book of the same name by Anne Berthoff, and the opening inscription from Berthoff seems reminiscent of Coleridge:
That species-specific capacity for thinking about thinking, for interpreting interpretations, for knowing about knowledge, is, I think, the chief resource for any teacher and the ground of hope in the enterprise of teaching reading and writing. (1)
Roskelly and Ronald’s [R&R’s] book grows from a belief that composition can “reinvigorate its work with a sense of hope, mission, and passion,” a belief that has been “lost, or at least hidden, gone underground in the current ‘social turn’ in composition” (1). In order to do this, they must substantiate claims that the “social turn” represents a loss of faith. On the anti-romantic side, the authors cite Jane Tompkins’s “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” Susan Miller’s “The Death of the Teacher,” Stephen North’s “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center,’” and George Will’s “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” (3-12).
“Pedagogy of the Distressed” (which I haven’t read) leans heavily into Peter Elbow’s “Writing Without Teachers,” arguing for a student-centered classroom. It also, in the summation provided by R&R, seems to echo James Berlin’s views which I have summarized before. “Teacher’s always preach some gospel or another” (3). Theory influences practice, in these views (which I share), but not in all views. Stanley Fish is set up as counterpoint: “there is no direct causal relationship between one’s account of one’s practice and the actual shape of that practice.” I suspected that R&R misread Fish, as they assert that a “direct causal relationship” need not be “the only relationship they might maintain,” because Fish’s wording is careful, and he does not assert that direct relationships of causality are the only ones to consider. Anyone who has read Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” would be aware of that strain exists between theory and practice. The relationship need not be direct; this is stating the obvious. Though later, it is made clear where Stanley Fish really stands: “I have nothing to sell except the not very helpful news that practice has nothing to do with theory” (18).
R&R interpret the surrender of control in the classroom to students to tiredness, citing Tomkin’s assertion that her decision was based on a pragmatic conclusion: “on the practical plane I did it because I was tired.” The lack of theoretical underpinning is taken as an unforgivable sin. This is not the case with “The Death of the Teacher.” In a complex theoretical article, Miller argues that “the postmodern teacher cannot adopt the historical role of Father, the ‘good man’ that Cicero and Quintilian advocated,” and they also can’t adopt the roll of Mother, who invades students lives by getting personal. Miller argues that teachers should be relational rather than personal in the classroom. Building communities, the foundation of social-constructivist praxis, is taken by Miller to be a myth. In R&R’s response, both of these articles proclaim that there is no reason to believe (5-6).
North’s “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’” is a revisionist article which replaces a formerly “romantic” stance that teaching writing is idealistic, replacing it with a tired pragmatism. Work overload, in the time that separates the initial article with its revision, is taken to account for North’s narrowed perspective regarding the work that writing centers are supposed to do (12).
I’ll have to locate Will’s “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” someday. I see it cited all the time. It’s often used as a straw dog to beat up on. It contains assertions such as: writing teachers celebrate “inarticulateness and error as proof of authenticity” (12). Empirical studies have shown pretty conclusively that focusing on error does not lead to its eradication— it generally just causes students to hate writing classes. Claiming that recognizing this is a “celebration” of error is downright hilarious. It just means that informed writing teachers don’t worry about it as much. I’ve seen this work well. Yes, it is important to identify error— but not to harp on it. Error generally gets corrected, with practice, not by drilling on it. I’ve seen this work in the classroom. What R&R accuse Will of is not “thinking about thinking” enough.
What bonds these views together is “a sense of diminished hope and a retreat from action, a sense of how to name problems but no vocabulary for naming solutions” (13). The more I encounter the alternative, most often in citations from Paulo Freire, the more I decide I need to read more Freire:
The idea that hope alone will transform the world, and action undertaken in that kind of naiveté, is an excellent route to hopelessness. But the attempt to do so without hope, in struggle to improve the world, as if that struggle could be reduced to calculated acts alone, or a purely scientific approach, is a frivolous illusion. (13)
Another interesting citation here, is Freire’s proposal of two necessary conditions: “rage and love, without which their is no hope” (14). R&R propose that when North lost his rage regarding the problems of writing centers, he lost a lot of his hope. The connection here is one that I can easily empathize with. An alternative to the negative view I hadn’t encountered before is the thought of Cornel West. Of course, West’s extension of the concerns of an academic to the world outside the classroom has gotten him into a lot of trouble this year. Unifying theory and practice has its hazards. R&R review the usage of theory and practice as an oppositional dyad in the same manner as opposing knowledge and meaning, or theory and story. Overlapping some of these conceptions always results in a minimization of story (experience) in favor of science (theory).
The declared aim of the book is to unite the two, through a revisionist history. Not exactly original, but thought provoking none the less.
Chapter 2: The Doctrine of Use: Seeds of Romantic / Pragmatic Rhetoric
[The tragicomic vision] encourages me to put a premium on garnering resources from a vanishing past in a decadent present in order to keep alive a tempered hope for the future, a hope against hope that human empathy and compassion may survive against the onslaught of human barbarity, brutality, and bestiality.
—Cornel West, Keeping Faith
This use of the world includes the preceding uses, as parts of itself.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
The invocation of parallel visions of the utility of history provides the beginning of an exploration of the American experience. Discussing Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, R&R label Mike Rose’s connection of thought and action and his emphasis on hope and possibility as exemplary of the romantic / pragmatic stance. The aim of Reason to Believe is to explore the foundations of this ideology through people who consciously or unconsciously support principles found in the American Romantics— the standard bearers, for Rose, seem to be John Dewey and Walt Whitman.
I must take exception with a poorly phrased assertion near the onset of all this: “Romanticism became a term set out by Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (30). This is inexcusable. Wordsworth never used the term romanticism, and it would have turned his stomach to have it applied to him. In the Preface, Wordsworth tears into those “sickly German Tragedies,” which were labeled as “romantic” in his day. Romanticism is a construction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and as a movement had no meaning to Wordsworth. The attitude of his preface is largely pragmatic, and in deep contrast with the actual poetic practice in this collection of poems. The term, present from the Middle Ages, has gone through so many redefinitions that assigning it to Wordsworth alone is horribly myopic.
However, the assertion that “romanticism and pragmatism together construct a rhetoric uniquely suited, as Whitman says, to ‘creating America’” seems well placed (31). The terms “romantic” and “rhetorical” are often taken as oppositional, stemming from the deep wound descended from Aristotle, who separated rhetoric from poetry. The definition of rhetoric as being purely pragmatic and practical— crafted to persuade— denies the value laden and poetic components of all language. R&R note the stereotypical usages of pragmatism and rhetoric, while dangerously stereotyping romanticism themselves.
I do agree that the opposition of rhetorical and romantic stances has dominated the conversation in compositionist studies. “There has been, in theory if not in practice, an unwavering line drawn between ‘expressive discourse’ and discourse that ‘persuades’ or ‘refers/informs’” (33). The schemes enumerated include Kinneavy’s divisions of discourse built on target audience: “expressive (writer), referential (subject), persuasive (audience), and literary (text),” as well as Emig: “reflexive” and “extensive” and Flower’s similar arguments regarding writer and reader-based prose. The process movement, in my estimation, was expressivism cloaked in a more palatable, less “romantic” theoretical structure. The problem is, most authors equate romanticism with anti-social and anti-societal aims (35). Reflexive discourse (inner directed) need not be anti-anything, though it often is. The division between rhetoric and romanticism seems to be fueled by the secessionary nature of Rhetoric departments, fighting to hold their own against literary studies.
A new lead: Romancing Rhetorics by Sherrie Gradin deals with this subtopic: “The result has been the construction of oppositions in which expressivism is relegated to the position of weak ‘other’” (36). Part of the indictment of expressivism deals with a perception of romantic principles as “messy, ineffectual and elitist” (37). Also summoned into this backdrop is what R&R consider to be a “less well articulated and more stereotypical response” to the indictment of Romanticism: Ross Winterowd’s 1992 “Where is English? In the Garden or the Agora?” (36).
And then, finally, the chapter turns to history. The roots of American romanticism are deeply twisted around puritan ethics. As more of a student of British romanticism, I sort of wonder at the nearly monolithic nature of dissent in America. In the British version, each writer constructed, to a certain extent, his own “version” of what Christianity was, whereas the Americans seem to be much more cohesive in just what being a “puritan” meant. One of the considerations cited by R&R is that the Americans were forced into a more cohesive community due to the imperatives of survival (38). Thus, pragmatism and romanticism in America were born side-by-side in a way not reflected in the previously established British version. I would add to this, the consideration that the practicalities of war and revolution colored the British version with a cynicism that is not found in most variants of the American version, or German romanticism, which seems to me (at a glance, I’m not that familiar with it) as much more self-involved. However, R&R’s perception of the differences are much closer to the status quo. The label British Romanticism as “self-involved” and credit American romanticism with provincially laudatory aspects:
For North American romantics, in contrast, self from the beginning was created both socially and individually. Americans were, as Stephen Spender says, those “without a past.” (39)
How pompous and arrogant can you get! Continuing, they undermine this assertion by saying “the link between individual and emerging national identity was embodied in the Christian dogma that propelled the Puritans’ experiment in Massachusetts” (40). How can you proclaim that there was no past for America at this time, when it clearly emerged from dissenting movements from England? One might just as easily argue that the American version of this dissent represents only an atrophied splinter of a more dynamic history unfolding in England.
The missionary zeal of the Americans is recounted through Winthrop to Cotton Mather, and finally R&R settle on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter as the benchmark text on matters of the individual vs. the social (40-43). The challenges of the frontier, in their reading of history, forced a sublimation of individuality. Or, better, as they would have it, early Americans “transcended personality”— meaning not the loss of individuality, but “grounding individuality in the community at large” (44). “Literacy was linked not only to religious principle, but to the more practical end of establishing a method for preservation and enhancement of the colony” (45). Puritan rhetoric is built upon a sense of contingency, where the personal must be submerged for the betterment of the community. There was a sense of experimentation that is uniquely American (at least on this point, I’ll agree with them) because tradition did not adequately answer the challenges of a new nation (47).
The captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson is summoned next. It was a favorite of Dr. Jim Levernier’s, so I’ve experienced more nuanced readings of what is really going in it. R&R summon it as a comparison between the native tribal customs and the new Americans, stating that they both employ, due to the nature of the land itself, a doctrine of use(48-50). The American outlook is defined by Benjamin Franklin shortly afterward: “Practicality, situation-dependent action and belief, community, and individual will were the hallmarks of ideal American character” (52). However, the fruition of these historical tactics is found in the work of Ann Ruggles Gere’s research into writing groups:
The dynamic role of groups, as Gere describes them, and their dialectical purpose— to establish community and individual identity— define two philisophical postions that help characterize romantic / pragmatic rhetoric: the belief in the individual knower as potential truth-finder and the belief that the outcomes of knowing were the property of everyone. (53)
Returning to Cornel West, they quote his four aims:
- Broad and deep analytical grasp of the present in the light of the past
- Connection or human empathy
- Tracking hypocrisy
The summation of the chapter rests on a rather abbreviated and, in my view, flawed nationalistic premise. I’m disappointed so far.
Chapter 3: Romantic Dialectics and the Principle of Mediation
The book got better suddenly. This chapter opens with consideration of Emerson’s “American Scholar,” and reconsideration of the Transcendentalist attitude toward self. Cornel West asserts in The American Evasion of Philosophy that Emerson is the writer who prefigures the themes of American pragmatism, because he “took is ideals for realities, believed them to be part of real and possible action,” and that Emerson proposed “an inseparable link between thought and action” (56). R&R accuse that scholarship on Emerson has been confined to the attitudes he conveyed in “Self Reliance,” which seem to justify the “Captains of Industry” attitudes of American capitalism. Their point is that Emersonian rhetoric systematically undercuts this form of thinking, and rests rather on a social foundation as Emerson also proposes that individuals “consider whether you have satisfied your duties to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat and dog . . .” (57). West sees in Emerson an awareness of the inequities of power that most critics ignore.
Emerson’s ideas are focused on both the individual and private, and the responsibility of the individual within the community. R&R attempt to show how Emerson’s thought diverges from Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, who were also “romantic,” but were romantic in a more stereotypically European way (58). The tentativeness of Emerson’s language, his response to progress, and his misreading (to me) resembles the way that Wordsworth is often pigeonholed as solely a nature lover. I particularly like their citation of Emerson’s thoughts on language:
All language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead. (58)
The relationship between self and community in Emerson is described wonderfully: “Self-reliance builds itself on that paradox, that one finds community in self and self in community” (59). R&R remark that very little of the “personal self” is revealed in Emerson’s writings, and later, they say the same thing of Thoreau. The reflection in this chapter on Walden attempts to demonstrate that Thoreau was constantly referring to attributes of community in nature, and had internalized Emerson’s thought on the relations of individual vs. community to such an extent that though he was writing a solitary journal, concern regarding community dominates. Even in retreating into the woods, the importance of community was never far from his concern, even if that community didn’t include much in the way of people (60-62). I really agree with Thoreau’s apology over using I so frequently: “I should not talk so much of myself if there were anyone else I knew so well” (63).
A discussion of Fredrick Douglass and Margaret Fuller follows, ending in the summation that “Douglass anticipates autobiography as manifesto; Fuller obviously prefigures modern and postmodern Feminism” (64-68). Hawthorne’s ugly reaction to Fuller is summoned, with the conclusion: “Hawthorne’s condescending venom betrays his own difficulties with the ‘dark lady’ who is both strong and intelligent” (68). We’ve all got issues, now don’t we?
The “mediating principles” which close out the chapter are those of individual vs. society, and technology vs. nature. The responses, in the case of all romantics, are hardly simple. Though the authors slight the European version, they do bring new depth to the American flavor of romanticism.
Chapter 4: Imperfect Theories: The Pragmatic Question of Experience and Belief
[We] learn to prefer imperfect theories and sentences which contain glimpses of truth, to digested systems which have no one valuable suggestion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
The opening of this chapter echoes what is to me the rallying cry of William Blake’s romanticism. “History and society lead people to lean toward predetermined structures, set systems, and traditional categories.” R&R cite Emerson’s comment published just after “Self-Reliance “was published:
People wish to be settled. It is only as far as they are unsettled that there is any hope for them. (79)
The aim of this chapter is to paint a picture of American pragmatism as a work in progress, built from a paradoxical view of technology as both useful tool, and potential threat, to humanity.
The precepts of pragmatism are set forth in these tenets:
- The most important subject of in inquiry is human experience.
- Inquiry is a process of observation, hypothesizing, and experimenting.
- Human experience is always the test of conclusions.
- The more varied the sites of inquiry, and the greater the number of inquirers, the more useful their conclusions.
- An idea is defined by its consequences.
- Inquiry into underlying principles brings opposing ideas into relationship.
- This process of inquiry leads inquirers into contingent truths. (85)
Dewey expressed a “faith in the continued disclosing of truth through cooperative human endeavor” and James, the idea that pragmatism meant “looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking after last things, fruits, consequences, facts” (85). Blake, and the Sophists, would have embraced this sort of “man is the measure” thinking. as well as the contingency of truth. However, the emphasis on multiple inquirers is different, American, and democratic.
The only difficult premise for me here is that an idea must always be judged by its consequences. To adopt this, half of the precepts by which humanity operates could be thrown out. Does the extension of life by medicine improve life? This could be challenged on a dozen counts, from overpopulation to poor management of resources. That precept does reek of Darwinist determinism, and I really have to think about it further. The focus on consequence rather than cause seems counter to continued scientific investigation as well. Perhaps this is one reason why this theory does seem to me to be quite imperfect.
However, the purpose of this chapter is not to look for the flaws in either pragmatism nor romanticism; instead R&R are looking to situate them as companion philosophies. Citing West again, the characterize the work of the Metaphysical club as “principally interested in demystifying science and, a few, in modernizing religion” (86). The collision between science and belief, and the willingness of pragmatism’s founders to grant belief a place in the scheme of things is highlighted. Pierce and James are noted for their belief that faith can “help create the fact.” James, in particular, felt that facts “contain interpretive, individual, passionate elements and are subject to change given changes in an in individuals and contexts” (87). What attracts me most though, is their citation of Freire:
Dreaming is not only a necessarily political act, it is an integral part of the historico-social manner of being a person. . . .There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope. (87)
James’s characterization of experience as a “weasel word” is quite fun. Experience is both subjective and objective; experience cannot be an either / or decision— experience becomes synonymous with method (88). “In a dynamic universe, individual inquiries are never completely true” (89). R&R see pragmatism as illuminating American romanticism by explaining why the individual must always be mediated by the group (90). The overall emphasis seems to be that belief can only be justified by confirmation with a group. This really does explain my aversion to American romanticism.
The remainder of the chapter is focused on Dewey’s approach to education in America, a subject I’d like to do more reading on. However, the sorry taste of “group consciousness raising” comes out in the backend of the chapter, and I feel certain that there are elements that are oversimplified which if I were more deeply read in American writers, I could more faithfully engage.
Chapter 5: A Way of Seeing is also A Way of Not Seeing:
Whatever Happened to Romanticism and Pragmatism?
Dewey’s work on education is set up as a high-water mark by both Cornel West and R&R. The difficulty of understanding pragmatism, which has made me read this all rather slowly, rests in its contradictions. At once, it is said to emphasize consequence rather than cause— and yet, it is painted as emphasized as favoring pure research. It is described as anti-systematic, and yet it supposedly supports scientific methods. It seems to be a matter of scale. This chapter describes pragmatism as being the study of “mind, knowledge, emotion, and connections to social and political structures rather than productivity, distribution, immediate outcome” (100). Pragmatism is construed as a “messy, time-consuming investigation into bases and consequences” (101).
The problem of pragmatism is characterized in its reliance on Darwinian principles:
- Survival of the fittest
- Increasing diversity
- Increasing complexity
The interesting twist here, is the way the authors apply this information. They apply it to the world of educational theory, noting the increase in diversity and complexity to the theories adopted in critical studies. A theory cannot be adopted unless it is more complex than its precursors, and thus better (101). The problem is, this results in competition rather than conversation (102). The “pendulum swinging” has been rapid and sure in the relatively recent world of composition studies (103-106).
Because of the complexity of pragmatic exploration (due to its emphasis on long-term consequences), it was replace with the “cult of efficiency,” Fredrick Taylor’s system of “scientific management” (106-112). This is contrasted deeply with Dewey’s feeling that science was too seductive and easy:
It is very easy for science to be regarded as a guarantee that goes along with the sale of goods rather than as a light to the eyes and a lamp to the feet. It is prized for its prestige value rather than as an organ of personal illumination and liberation. (112)
Dewey is often characterized as emphasizing the practical, but he was a vocal critic of the supposed “scientific” approach to education.
R&R next take up the modern pragmatist Richard Rorty (113-114). The difference between neo-pragmatism and pragmatism is reduced to a different question. Instead of “What difference does it make?” the neo-pragmatist asks “What can we say?” (114). However, the most fascinating part of this chapter is occupied by a consideration of the evolutionary views of Stephen Jay Gould (115-121). Rather than a linear progression of increasing complexity, Gould’s work with the Burgess shale suggests that chance, one of the primary factors considered by the original pragmatists, indeed has as much of a bearing on the outcome of evolutionary forces as anything else. Increasing complexity, faced with the nature of survival itself, can sometimes abruptly end. Evolution need not branch, or transform in a linear fashion, in order to still be valid as a theory. Oddly enough, it almost seems reducible to the idea that shit happens. Understanding outcomes though, need not be hampered by this. It just points at the necessary contingency of any progression of thought, rather than its inevitability.
Chapter 6: Changing the Course of the Stream:
Romantic / Pragmatic Perspectives on Systems
The chapter opens with a discussion of the film Dead Poet’s Society.The teacher, played by Robin Williams, is taken to be an example of romantic / pragmatic rhetoric in action, though the object lesson of the film is that the efforts of the teacher are futile and ultimately destructive. The teacher leaves the academy, and nothing is changed. The use of American romantic figures in the film is taken to be exemplary, and the film, even with the reservations is celebrated. It amazes me how deeply this conflicts with a listserve conversation that flared up on NASSR-L (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) last year. I decided it was worth revisiting those reactions, though it represents a digression from the book.
Claire Sparks initiated the conversation, asking what the perception of these (British, mostly) romanticists thought of the film. Sparks was disappointed by it. Debbie Olsen responded:
From a film theory perspective, Dead Poets Society speaks directly to male socialization in the US (similar to the theme of the masculine ideal in American Beauty).
Ralph Dumain, autodidact, responded with his typical venom:
That film was a real piece of crap. Makes me cringe remembering the bad experience. Robin Williams could not breathe any life into that preppie course. The woodenness and stiltedness of verything about it including the dialogue was just too embarrassing. Liberalism and boarding schools are just not a convincing combination in the America that 99.99% of the population actually populates. Even the artsy-fartsy crowd could not like this film. It takes a person who never had a taste of real life to buy this load of pretentious fake crapola.
PLease do tell how this prep school version of male WASPhood has any connection whatever to anything in society. From a film theory perspective, my ass. Now AMERICAN BEAUTY is something to discuss. It is ideologically fascist to the core, showing what inexhaustible reserves of contempt for humanity smolder in the burbs of America.
After Ralph’s outburst, the list moderator Avery Gaskins stepped in to suggest that discussion of a film that was only tangential to romanticism was appropriate, and that the flaming would not be allowed. But the discussion refused to die, as Marc Redfield stepped up to trash it too:
I’m going to risk Avery’s disapproval and post this short note: –if you’re interested in those aspects of Romanticism that go into the making of what some call “aesthetic ideology,” Dead Poets Society isn’t a bad text to examine, dreadful film though it be. Consider that the secret society winds up painting on its members’ foreheads the double-lightning bolt that Himmler made part of SS iconography.
Of course Ralph dutifully apologized:
My apology for going off half-cocked, but the very mention of two movies I detest triggered reflex actions, esp. in a context where the invocation of high-falutin theory seemed to superfluous and even comical given the obviousness of what was wrong with DEAD POETS SOCIETY and AMERICAN BEAUTY. The difference between the two is that the former was incompetent in every way, whereas AMERICAN BEAUTY was very well done and even compelling until its underlying ideology became manifest, i.e. the dehumanization and fascist implications of the detached voyeur treating degeneration and death as an object of detached aesthetic pleasure.
And the questions of what the film was about turned to the reductive pedagogy of teaching romanticism through a few shining exemplars:
Bracketing any consideration of its aesthetic demerits, I guess I’ve always thought that the most interesting questions that Dead Poets
Society raises for Romanticists lie in the troubling metalepses it makes,
(a) with British and American Romantic poetry (particularly Byron and Wordsworth) coming to represent ALL poetry, with the supposition (claim, really) that to teach Romanticism is to teach English; and (b) with Romanticism standing in for the release of adolescent male fantasies, for simplistic resistance to authority, and, simultaneously, for the reinscription of authoritarian and quasi-fascist (as others have pointed out) fantasies and role-playing in the cave to which the boys retire.
Imagine my surprise to find this film at the center of pedagogical praxis in a book on Romanticism and composition.
Personally, I loved the film— I thought it was entertaining, but exemplary of a caring attitude from a teacher, and not suggestive of a method. R&R submit that this is a common reaction for young teachers. They love the methods of Keating (the teacher in the film), but can’t take lessons from him because ultimately his methods fail. He is forced to leave the academy. I don’t see anything fascist about the portrayal of Keating, or the “secret society” fantasies. They seem realistic to me, as adolescents internalize the hierarchy of the authorities they are faced with. And as for the centrality of romanticism in the film, I am reminded of a comment of one of my instructors that “all literature after romanticism can be interpreted as a reaction to it.” R&R find some positive things to say about Keating:
Keating does attempt to live out a romantic pragmatism in the teaching philosophy he follows. When he teaches poetry, he demonstrates the pragmatic maxim of use, by suggesting that the student’s responses and connections between poet and reader’s experience determine a poem’s worth, not its plotting on a chart that sets importance and perfection of style as the markers of a poem’s excellence.
Perhaps what moviegoers, especially hopeful teachers in training, respond to most strongly is the sense of possibility that this teacher inspires, the insistence that the individual matters and can make choices about how she lives and what she reads. But teachers need to be more than mythic heroes to make a real difference in their classroom. (125)
For the Nassr-L folks, Keating was no hero. The danger that R&R point out is the hazard of nostalgia, nostalgia for lost possibility. And the experience of Keating, booted out of the academy is hardly unique. Innovative teaching always represents a danger to the system. The system must be changed, in order for it to work. The next chapter is devoted to stories of real educators who have fought the battle for possibility as a real and active part of teaching against the atrophied systems. It was quite inspiring to me, like the movie, in the end. The programmatic nature of the responses of the Nassr-L folks has stuck in my head since it happened (March 2001) and it felt good to dig it out again. I don’t want to be like them.
Chapter 7: What Difference Does it Make? Romantic / Pragmatic Rhetoric in Action
It’s been hard for me to get that Nassr-L conversation out of my head. My views on what romanticism is are different from both the Americanist perspective represented by this book, and the stuffy theory-smart crowd on Nassr-L. At the close of the discussion there, Avery Gaskins noted that the most painful part of the movie was seeing “Professor Dryasdust” reading from a textbook that he had found liberating as an undergraduate. One man’s liberation is another man’s fascism. But that’s largely the point of R&R’s book. They read in Stephen Jay Gould’s revision of evolutionary theory, and Thoreau’s vision of “beautiful winged life” underneath the “dead dry society” a reason for hope. I do agree, deeply, with their convictions that the romantic / pragmatic philosophy they seek to explore is worth the pursuit, no matter how much the structures of authority indict it:
The philosophy we illustrate here is active, restless, imperfect, hopeful, and brave. Dewey argued that a philosophy worthy of the name must be connected both with agendas of real action and to responsibility for the consequences of that action. (139)
The classrooms described in the final chapter are filled with an emphasis on personal connections to the material, group discussions to illuminate it, and individual responsibility for action. A teacher has to respond to students as individuals, and shift the teaching method to reach as many as possible. It cannot be a static method, and it cannot be devoid of hope. I agree with their premises, and yet I have the nagging feeling that this book could have been much better at supporting that claim.
I need more bullets. Time to pick up another book.