Sunday, 31 March 2013

In defense of a classical or liberal arts education

I was watching with my nuliakuluk yesterday a movie called, The Emperor's Club, starring Kevin Kline as a classicist teacher struggling with issues of ethics and personal values:

...a man's character is his fate.

In this dialogue below, Mr Hundert's class is reading from Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar:

Sedgewick Bell [as Brutus]: Oh Marc Antony, let us be sacrificers and not butchers.

William Hundert: Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers. Your Brutus lacks conviction, Mr. Bell. You are aware of what you are saying, do you not? The fate of the Roman Republic is at stake!

Sedgewick Bell [sarcastically]: Not for me.

William Hundert: Yes, I know not for you, but try to place yourself in the time period. You, Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, are at the center of a conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar! And you believe this is for the good of all Rome. But you are struggling profoundly with the moral and physical implications of what you are about to do.

Sedgewick Bell: I do not agree with their plan.

William Hundert: Brutus does not agree with their plan?

Sedgewick Bell: No, I do not agree with their plan. They should kill Marc Antony as well as Caesar. Brutus is a pussy!

Class laughs at Sedgewick's vulgarity

William Hundert [appalled]: A pussy?! Because he has a conscience? Because he believes there is a wrong way and a right way?

Sedgewick Bell: In the end, Marc Antony ended up taking him down, right?

William Hundert: He and Octavian, yes. In a manner of speaking.

Sedgewick Bell: If he did what the other guy suggested, uh...uh...

William Hundert: ...Cassius.

Sedgewick Bell: ...yeah, that is it. If he did what Cassius recommended...Brutus might have gone on to become King!

Sedgewick gives smug look to class

William Hundert: Emperor, as a matter of fact. Which Brutus had no desire to be.

Sedgewick Bell: Whatever! He would have won!

William Hundert: Yes, but at what cost? Do you remember the lessons of Socrates?

Sedgewick Bell: Not really.

Class agains laughs at Sedgewick's flippancy

William Hundert: It is not living that is important, but living properly. Socrates chose to die an unjust death, a death he freely accepted, rather than break the laws of Athens to which he pledged his loyalty!

Sedgewick Bell: Another genius. [Sedgewick whispers cynically]

This is a scene where Mr Hundert is in Senator Bell's office (the father of Sedgwick)

William Hundert: That is why I am here Senator, I have come to see you about your son.

Senator Hiram Bell: Sedgewick? Oh Jesus, what the devil has he done now?

William Hundert: Sir, Sedgewick is not paying attention in class. Nor is he doing his reading assignments. I am sure Sedgewich is a bright boy, but..

Senator Hiram Bell [chuckling]: That is a horse that can talk! So basically what you are telling me is my son Sedgewick has got his head up his ass.

Mr. Hundert stammers at hearing such a crude remark

Senator Hiram Bell: Let me ask you something. What is the good of what you are teaching these boys?

William Hundert: The good?

Senator Hiram Bell: Yeah, the good.

William Hundert: Senator, the Greeks and the Romans established systems of popular involvement and the rule of law protecting the rights of everyone, respectively, which, I should not have to tell you, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution used as a model for the American constitutional republic. Besides that, I believe that the boys are put into direct contact with men from history such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. As a teacher it is my job to mold your son...

Senator Hiram Bell [interrupting and enraged]: Mold him? Mold him! Great God in Heaven you ain't going to mold Sedgewick! You are a teacher. Teach him why the world is round, teach him his times tables, teach him who killed whom in what battle and why. I, sir... I will mold my son!

The reason why I'm quoting this movie extensively is because I'm trying to make a point that a "liberal arts" education is inherently about questions of morals and ethics, about developing character. The final scene between the now-grown Sedgewick and Mr Hundert is a powerful scene about the implications of a morally-bankrupt leadership, why utterly insideous hypocrisy and conceit in the political, legal and business classes are to our society.

The Nunavut system of "education" (I think the whole of public education system in Canada, actually) is utterly empty of a liberal arts component, an almost total absence of a discourse on the archetypal characters to emulate or avoid, no hero figures to aspire to and be inspired by.

One of my heroes is Northrop Frye, a famous Canadian literary critic and social commentator. Literary critics and classicists (and social commentators) often appear in one and the same person, and Frye was the epitome of this rule. He saw the shift in Canadian (at the least, Ontario's) education system to what is called "child-centered" pedagogy, and it must have him bothered a bit. He wrote about it at any case as Ontario was reviewing its education system in more than one essay. This from a perspective thus:

The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single world-wide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it's really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears. What the myth tells us is that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. All had originally one language, the myth says. The language is not English or Russian or Chinese or any common ancestor, if there was one. It is the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer to heaven, and that it is time to return to earth. (Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, p.98)

I'm watching right now PBS's Moyers & Company where Bill Moyers is talking with Bryon Stevenson re: publicly funded constitutional right of criminal representation. It turns out that not all states have this constitutional guarantee though the supreme court decision was made in the US and copied in almost every democratic nation on Earth. (Bryon Stevenson also gives a talk in TED ( regarding this issue).

I always learn something from shows like Moyers & Company because though the show talks about US-specific issues and topics these usually have bearing on our own society. In any case, it gives me a better perspective on Nunavut's (and aboriginal) social issues and alternative ways of looking at the problems and ways of addressing them (and the logical consequences of not discoursing on them).

This overall perspective is more important now since the voting in of a quasi-fascist government of Harper in Canada where many progressive social policies have been decimated or outright eliminated (supposedly in the interest of public finances but upon cursory reflection these are targetted at the vulnerable in our society - aboriginals, women's rights, NGOs, children at risk, etc.).

As the dialogues quoted from The Emperor's Club movie, a liberal arts education is often unappreciated and dismissed as navel-gazing by intellectuals and academic task-masters. This is especially the case with the rightwing narrative which is often rightly portrayed as "anti-intellectual". But a liberal arts education is nothing less, nothing more than about learning "...the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi."

Upon the writing of this entry (started this morning), I heard on the news yet again of a murder-suicide visited upon one of our communities: a father, a mother and a three year old son. There are no guarantees against tragedies and deformations of the human spirit like this which are sadly a familiar experience of many aboriginal groups (methinks) around the world. The Weberian "polar night of icy darkness" is an existential reality that has long been in the Canadian Aboriginal communities but becoming very real in mainstream Canada where Harper's government is truly a consequence and cumination of an education deplete of character development. But a change in perspective in education wouldn't hurt either:

What the critic as a teacher of language tries to teach is not an elegant accomplishment, but the means of conscious life. Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance. The ultimate aim is an ethical and participating aim, not an aesthetic or contemplative one, even though the latter may be the means of achieving the former. (Northrop Frye, The Well-Tempered Critic)

Finally, in this apologia for a liberal arts education I'd like to leave with another quote:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. (John 13:34, King James version)

"Love" as I read it in this case is not a mere emotion but a living, breathing principle.


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