Wednesday, 5 October 2011

False dichotomies, stereotypes and intellectual neglect

What in the world is this emotion?
What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which make me feel so glad?
-Rebecca West, English author

In his book, The History of Reading, Alberto Manguel talks about the long history of prejudice against intellectuals and readers in general in the last chapter of the book titled, The Book Fool. In it he says something both familiar and disheartening about the education system in Nunavut – a system that is at once trying to better the lot of aboriginals but at the same time, sometimes harshly unkind in its assessment and indictment of its aboriginal students.
“The argument that opposes those with the right to read, because they can read 'well' (as the fearful glasses (icon of bookishness, blogger’s note) seem to indicate), and those to whom reading must be denied, because they 'wouldn’t understand', is as ancient as it is specious.”
Further the “elitists” shall never let us forget:
“…Aldous Huxley defined it as the special accumulated knowledge of any united family, the common property of all its members. ‘When we of the great Cultural Family meet,’ wrote Huxley, ‘we exchange reminiscences about Grandfather Homer, and that awful old Dr Johnson, and Aunt Sappho, and poor Johnny Keats. ‘And do you remember that absolutely priceless thing that Uncle Virgil said? You know. Timeo Danaos… Priceless; I shall never forget it.’ No, we shall never forget it; and what’s more, we shall take good care that those horrid people who have had the impertinence to call on us, those wretched outsiders who never knew dear mellow old Uncle V., shall never forget it either. We’ll keep them constantly reminded of their outsidedness.”
But this assessment begs the question:
“Which came first? The invention of the masses, which Thomas Hardy described as ‘a throng of people…containing a certain minority who have sensitive souls; these, and aspect of these, being what is worth observing’, or the invention of the bespectacled Book Fool, who thinks himself superior to the rest of the world and whom the world passes by, laughing?
Their chronology hardly matters. Both stereotypes are fictions and both are dangerous, because under the pretense of moral or social criticism they are employed in an attempt to curtail a craft that, in its essence, is neither limited nor limiting. The reality of reading lies elsewhere.”
I’m suggesting here not only racism between different peoples. This type of prejudice (as any) occurs among one’s own kind as well (perhaps even more harshly). You’ve heard of the nail that sticks out is soon hammered down.
Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps willfully we so readily “buy into” stereotypes (even those used against us) because it requires no thought at all for nothing but our tacit acquiescence and silence is needed to perpetuate the prejudice. We know no better. But there is no reason not to remedy this “state of innocence”.
Stephen Marche, in his book, How Shakespeare Changed Everything, in talking about Paul Robeson, the first famous African-American actor deemed worthy to play the role of Othello, wrote:
“Slavery makes miscegenation (ie, the mating of Othello and Desdemona: blogger's note) the ultimate crime, because the act demonstrates the basic biological truth that whites and blacks are the same species, and the recognition of common humanity, in an economic system based on the denial of that humanity, is utterly subversive.”
Though it is no longer socially acceptable to openly hold such misanthropic views and prejudices, some of us still cling stubbornly in our most private lives because self-examination is hard and mostly depressing. We all find in ourselves shameful truths so we’d rather leave well enough alone. But a truly emerging enlightened society and individual cannot find this short-coming acceptable. The last bastions of unvoiced assumptions about our “lesser” brothers – the education, justice and welfare systems and the corporations – must change or the weight of our inaction will drag everyone and everything down, as is already been happening in the aboriginal communities.
In Nunavut, the school system descends to the level of the student and there the student languishes in the perfect storm of apathy, alienation and servitude to ignorance. Little wonder the grossly high rates of dropping out. The remedial courses required after the student has “graduated” from high school takes valuable time from their post-secondary studies (if they even go back to school) so that even at the college level this whispering demon that one is never quite up to snuff still bears down upon them when they’ve begun to take education very seriously.
It seems that no one robs them of these opportunities. But it is also everyone in society that robs them. In this case, the absence of evidence really is evidence of absence (and neglect by a system that is yet to catch up to the times).

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