Book Review: In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X

In the Blink of an Eye by Michael Waltrip
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
Professor X
Viking Adult, 288 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Cri de Coeur

“I had not thought death had undone so many …”
T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”

[Full (enough) disclosure: I taught my first Freshman Composition course as a TA at the University of Michigan in 1952, and retired as a Full Professor from UCLA in 1994, after holding ladder-rank positions at NYU, Hunter College, and Hamilton College, 51 years in classrooms and lecture halls.]

Reading through Professor X’s decade-long career, a suite of semi-autobiographical essays on his life as a Helot in the ranks of the more-or-less novel army of educators recruited during the past quarter century, proved anguishing. Yes, of course I had in my early years met in classes taught day and night most of the young and old Americans he works with, or worked upon, or tried to instruct in the basics of writing an English sentence; but back in the 1950s they’d graduated out of high schools that maintained minimal standards of achievement from at least the 10th grade on. Graduated, not been released or dropped [out] into the world as less than semi-literate to make their way; rather, to try and make a living. Ever since the Internet arrived in this century, however, I began to see what two professor pals at Cambridge had in the 1990’s deplored in England: people who commented in the free space of the media online reserved for “Comment,” as opposed to writing Letters to the Editor, were simply persons venting hatreds of all and everything in non-literate imitations of drunks shouting in a bar, or hooligans yelling at a soccer match. In the UK then, K-6 was generally a bog in most industrial towns. Nowadays, most any OpEd article offering free internet Comments space will be instantly stocked with dozens of paragraphs, rantings spewed sans punctuation, spelling, or basic grammar (for which in reality most people have no need in conversation viva voce, no matter how elevated a newspaper’s pretensions to classy style). In short, people tap out what they wish to tell the world more or less in a language that might be heard in some crack-house room sunk in stuporous squalor. We’re not talking here about drugstore racks of popular “people gossip” magazines or muck-raking tabloids. We’re talking about everyday mindless pottage, aka “Comments” from the citizens of advanced and long-established democracies.

Professor X, who left school with a Master’s diploma in “Creative Writing,” never achieved the sine qua non for a possible life in our venues of “higher” education: what another desperate writer with a similar MFA I once heard denominate as “Vitamin T” — “T” meaning Tenure. He has labored over a decade of nights at two Junior Colleges, his 101 classes in composition and literature renewed only because this period witnessed a monstrous mushrooming of community colleges in every state and mid-sized town in the land. His own dungeons he quaintly names Pembrook College and Huron State, where he supplements a steady day job at some “government” agency. He relates how and why he took up those traces to drag a heavy plow along their fallow fields because he was a young husband and father and the couple had made the fatal mistake of buying a larger house than they could afford — at the wrong time — when the housing bubble was beginning to swell and brokers were still exhilarant, and people optimistic. That was before the great bubbles of easy-cash lending hit this country, before the catastrophe now called “9/11.” The old term used by Marxists, “wage slave,” doesn’t quite apply to today’s legions of helpless, unemployed and suddenly unemployable people. I don’t know what might be better than Helot, the slaves ancient Sparta threw into battle and grew powerful with … until it didn’t, of course, eventually failing as did a forty or so run of years for Athens’ democracy – before celebrities and actors and ran the show.

Professor X describes his 3-hours a night, 3-times a week classes pounding at the foreheads ranged before him in Writing 101, and/or Literature 101; he relates his casual hiring by indifferent Deans at indifferent colleges who simply need the bodies of students and lecturers, that is, “adjuncts,” to meet their swelling course lists; and he offers examples of the papers handed up by the harried, befuddled, exhausted and depressed fillers of seats at 25 desks. He reviews scenes that ought to have been as entertaining as those in a perpetual favorite by The Depression era’s Leo Rosten, THE EDUCATION OF HYMAN KAPLAN. Instead they loom as something out of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s INFERNO or those fantastic prison dungeons draped with chains and torture machines, the charnel houses etched by Piranesi. Only, today such modern basement chambers are occupied by 20-to-45 year-old intellectual innocents, maundering pilgrims seeking certificates of qualification. Another association that occurs to me is Henry Miller’s portrayal of his early working-life when he pretended to function as what today’s euphemism terms a “human resources” manager in Manhattan for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, the surreally-nutso pages of which open his TROPIC OF CAPRICORN. Miller, unmarried, finally gave up and fled to Paris in the 1930’s, just as our famous expats were lighting out for the States.

X’s short 21 chapters of informal prose mix the personal-poignant and social-pathetic. They illuminate the pathology of a multi-billion-dollar purely-American enterprise: the community college network snaking through 50 States. Bloated with the goodwill of the ingrained national optimism, it expresses our mania for pieces of paper guaranteeing employable skills supposedly learned from hundreds of pages of sociopsychological babble, the ink-tracks of text in thick books laying out techniques of “administration” by the numbers. These tomes make up the stuff of a universe remote from, indeed alien to the customary ways of age-old master-apprentice systems in other societies and lost civilizations. The last quarter-century has seen waves of money (billions in the recent Bush-presidency years) flooding over vacant real estate, paying for buildings that house administrative squadrons upstairs and adjuncts below; and even more billions now proposed and promised by an Obama “Initiative” to prepare millions of youth for of all sorts of jobs, employment opportunities vanishing like puffs of vapor in the recession presently afflicting this country. The vast structures of State universities that budded in the early 20th century and blossomed after WW II, replacing former Schools of Education, certificate mills that taught teachers teaching, derided at mid-century, morphed into universities, colleges, and junior colleges intended to be vocational, as opposed to today’s all-powerful “research” institutions managing well-enough, given lip-service encouragement by federally-supported professional schools. The juniors desperately need bodies for ballast, but not, as it turns out, securely-tenured professors with doctorate degrees, our familiar globe-trotters to conferences discussing our ever-labile societies: the social and political “scientists,” trending to become public policy-analysts on behalf of a public that knows not such things. [The young Jonathan Swift knew all about “academies,” and described them perfectly in 1710 in his introduction to A TALE OF A TUB: Academies are meant to distract and corral those misfit wits good only to annoy a realm’s.]

Little by little, yet pretty fast nonetheless, a lucrative “text-book” industry developed after 1945; not manuals of chemistry or biology or physics, but potted run-throughs of history and society that metastasized and inserted themselves into the cells in which students sit stunned, absorbing a monotonous rodomontade pouring not from upstairs professors but desperate, part-time “adjuncts” nightly scrawling ten-dollar words over blackboards in the basements of the Ivory Tower. These adjuncts, like Pharaoh’s overseers in an old Technicolor flick, drive them along struggling to build upon concocted themes, to make unreadable “research” papers compounded of downloaded snippets of plagiaries. Finally, these adjuncts agonize over inventing tender-hearted rationales for assigning grades below C-, below D, but most often that fatal F for which no (-) is necessary.

Research? By non-readers? Into what? For why? At best, knowledge distilled out of texts so full of drearily long chapters detailing how to compose an inter-office memorandum or sales report — were one so fortunate as to get to work in an office?

All this social disaster welling up in so many varieties is run through genially by Professor X. What is most dispiriting are quotations taken from textbooks pretending to teach adjuncts how to teach whatever must be taught, manuals choking with abominable, incomprehensible jargon presuming some educational purpose produced annually in theory-for-administrators workshops. What is that all but deliquescence of what once was learning; degenerate, humbug lucubrations spooned out in dollops of polysyllabic neologisms. Worse, whereas anthologies of primary works were once upon deemed useful — as in a two-volume set for sophomores known familiarly if long ago as “English Literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf” — those have been “translated’ into triaged sets of “readings,” “interpretations” of “meanings,” in which folios of psychobabble are applied to what were anciently the Humanities in Renaissance times half a millennium gone. Even so, things would not be as truly bad as X describes them, good-humoredly enough, meanwhile powdering crayons against the chalkboard, were students, mostly working people by day, not required to buy them, let alone read them, though they may not be ready to tackle paragraphs at the 9th grade level.

X doesn’t mock his fate. He is a serious adjunct. He wants to teach what writers of fiction or essays or poems go on about, if not necessarily what those writings actually say. Alas, he’s up against blank incomprehension. What purpose is served, why are people forced to pass courses in writing essays analyzing short stories, when they come to class from a contemporary culture in which reading is not a skill they have tentatively or scarcely acquired. Any honest full prof at a top university would admit that his or her own reading, even into the later 60s of life, remains something insecure, that any chestnut from Shakespeare or the Book of Proverbs turns out to be rather more meaningful than could have been supposed at 20, 30, 40 or even 50. Meaning: that meaning flowers or grows intense through experience of a life lived long enough to reveal meaning. To read a book in any canon demands a discipline that Emerson advised: A book must be read as deliberately as it was written. Anyhow, do 90 out of 100 of those high school graduates drafted, recruited, or chivvied into junior colleges today know what that statement means if they do not and cannot write a page of grammatically-arranged words narrating the day they’ve just passed, and hope to make it interesting to themselves, let alone someone else? Who’s kidding whom?

All this trouble and more — like the telegram-delivery messengers Henry Miller hired who fall into epileptic fits as soon as they step into the street, or who toss the lot into a sewer, as I once saw a Sicilian postman do with a sackful of tourist cards freshly-posted at a lunch-stop — is rehearsed by X. It is a litany strung out during a decade of purgatorial penance for having bought too large a home carrying too high a mortgage. But displayed without self-pity although with sympathy for his charges. Because — and here’s what the book’s reader comes away with — a million a year or more of such students as he’s tasked to instruct ought never have been forced to suffer, some for years, to pursue 100 college-level credits most of which are irrelevant to possible future employers, whether companies or professions like nursing or patient-care. Most jobs today have no need for the mastery of a few pages of plagiarized blather about Jay Gatsby, or deconstruction of a ghastly lamentation for her father by Sylvia Plath. Not only to suffer the injury of such arbitrary brainwork, but to suffer the worse insult of an accumulated load of debt that with the most decent will and back-breaking effort in the world cannot be paid off in 30 years, let alone allowed to lapse through bankruptcy — according to current legislation regarding Federal loans. For that matter, the Fed’s sovereign debt may never be redeemable by the Chinese who bought it.

Yes, a night course in a skill, accountancy, say, or bookkeeping, if it’s not quite yet canned or automated into a computer program or two; practical skills in reading blueprints, say; or running a complex milling machine — but, English 101 compositions? X must of course bend his head to drink at all this social muck to keep a roof above his family. Notwithstanding, he knows where he’s at. Moreover where we are at, so far as educating the average high school person of our time above his or her ability. Henry Miller collected into THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE some of his wildest outpourings against a crazed America nearly a century ago. But today Professor X’s fluorescent-lit, evening-hour classrooms populated by sweltering victims of educationalisms are mostly not even air-conditioned.

In short, what credits are indispensable today and tomorrow in our multi-billion dollar institutions of the junior college, out of which less than 40% can climb, only to find themselves loaded with monstrous debt? What credits are needed in a horizontally-oriented, social-networked society in which 140 tweeted characters comprise mini-minor communication? What are compositions treating “literature” to people who may or may not have jobs from which they come home [when not slogging off to a night-class] to stare at the tv screen, at sports broadcast 24/7, snatches of headline news, serialized “soaps” or sitcoms boosted by laugh-tracks anciently-recorded in radio days? Why undergo opaque teachings from some adjunct scarcely better off economically than themselves, when or if they can pay for cable-channels that might show how something is manufactured, trek through a forest and study its primitives, or zoom out to visit some galaxy blasted into a black hole once upon a whenever?

As for what is taught when it’s not vocational, observe most adults as they trot through a museum; see if they pause long enough to look at something with more than a glance. Valued objects ask to be “read,” as Emerson says, deliberately; vertically, as it were. Most people have neither the time, nor training, nor desire to descend into depth. Who can blame them? But the students X tries to help realize a page or two of prose are being forced to submit to a loony, newfangled menu of “credit requirements” in hopes of earning an hour’s pay; usually not offered at the same rate as sheer physical labor, mining or farming or road-laying, truck-driving or assembly-line tasks, building-construction, or whatever is materially-needed to house us and feed us. There are all those sales-workers, supermarket checkout “associates,” mechanics, repairers or office people who make do with reading quite well-enough to answer our questions in any business.

X may survive in his basement in the Ivory Tower. X might be spared, even escape a disaster that cannot be legislated away or floated to safety on a raft made with billions of fiat cash. At this hour, who knows how many thousands of adjuncts are expecting termination as colleges scale back, cutting out hundreds of courses, reducing student admissions 30% or more. This is happening in California.

Professor X in youth would be a writer. He seems not to have intuited the truth that any culture disposes of innumerable writers or painters or sculptors, composers or performers, and all who pursue the Arts. Only a few important or great ones ever emerge over time. He acknowledges naivety. Raging in not-so quiet desperation at the educationalists who notwithstanding make it possible for him to endure it, Professor X ends expressing a decent gratitude to all those uneducated, undeveloped souls being ground to dust in our foolish system of “accreditation.” That’s honest. Whether his book at this juncture in history flashes a scintilla of light that reveals our situation as a perhaps teachable, if not salvageable, moment, is hard to say. Still, he’s tried. So far, it seems, castigation not compliment has been hurled at him. I recommend this work, the outcry of a middle-aged man trapped in the morass of the unconscionable. Though, fun to read, it ain’t.

No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech by Lucinda Roy

No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech by Lucinda Roy
No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech
by Lucinda Roy
Harmony, 336 pp.
CLR [rating:3]

Making Sense of Slaughter

Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the unexpected juxtaposition of violence and youth culture in our nation’s schools. When the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University occurred in Cole Hall (the same building I suffered through lecture-style general education classes as an undergraduate in the early 1990s), I started asking questions. Not just “How can this happen?” but “Why?” and “What could have been done differently?” and “What is my/the university’s/society’s role in this type of brutal tragedy?” and “What does this shooting teach us about students?” and “What does this teach us about the American education system?”

These are just a few of the questions that Lucinda Roy investigates in No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech which chronicles the public and private story of Seung-Hui Cho, a senior English major who used a 9mm Glock 19 and a .22-caliber Walther P22 to kill thirty students and faculty members on April 16, 2007. What’s so hard to understand is that after Cho killed two fellow students in Johnston Hall at 7:15 a.m., he returned to his room for nearly three hours while university administrators kept classes running. They didn’t even issue a mass warning about the earlier deaths until nearly two hours later, and that was an email that didn’t reach many students. After mailing a package of video files and documents to NBC, Cho left for Norris Hall at 9:45 a.m. and chained the entrances shut before opening fire in the halls and classrooms. For nine minutes he attacked faculty and students alike, finally committing suicide with a gunshot to his head.

On one level, this book does what I imagined it would. It belongs to a body of writings known as the literature of grieving (other examples include Nuruddin Farah’s Knots and Elie Wiesel’s Night). It tells stories of heroism, such as how Solid Mechanics professor and Holocaust survivor Professor Liviu Librescu braced the classroom door with his body while instructing students to leap to safety through the second-story window; he died after being shot by Cho multiple times through the door. It has moments of a kind of I-told-you-so attitude from Roy, who worked individually with Cho after poet Nikki Giovanni refused to allow him to remain in her class, saying she’d rather quit teaching than be around the “menacing” and “intimidating” student who snapped photos under the tables of female classmates’ legs. It also answers the questions of how a professor can write this sometimes scathing assessment of a university’s “chronic inability to respond swiftly to crisis situations” and continue teaching at that school. Roy admits that despite her twenty-plus years of service there and an admitted love for the people and the area, part of the sacrifice in speaking the truth might include her being forced to leave Virginia Tech. The multi-million dollar lawsuit following her termination would likely preempt any such move.

On another level, what Roy’s book does is deftly crack open the issues that underpin what happened: youth subculture, censorship, gun control, race, parenting, violence, and education. That’s where the red-hot core of this book exists.

Throughout the taut, driving style of this book, Roy’s frustration is readily evident. In a complex, litigious society such as ours, finding the right balance between (a) wanting to respect people’s privacy and desiring public safety; (b) a school’s obligation to students and a parent’s obligation to their children; and (c) remaining student-centered and holding back to protect/insulate yourself as an educator and human being, she laments, is a lot like a game of Russian roulette. We trust that people will follow the established rules and if they’re having difficulties, they’ll take it upon themselves to seek help.

Yet in the fall of 2005, Cho “repeatedly contacted the Cook Counseling Center” to obtain help with his growing depression after being coaxed by Roy and other colleagues. Roy writes: “Even after he actively sought help, treatment was not administered by the Cook Counseling Center, nor did Cho receive follow-up treatment from on-campus or local counseling services following the order by a judge that he be treated on an outpatient basis.” And, according to Virginia law, since Cho was not involved in an inpatient program, he was allowed to buy the handguns that he used to murder fellow classmates and teachers.

That’s the sort of culpability that makes me squirm—the same reaction I get when reading short stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Steven Millhauser’s “The Knifethrower,” which both explore the idea of communal guilt. But this book refuses to hold back since this is “a story which needs to be spoken,” as Roy writes in the prologue to her self-described “memoir-critique.”

If there’s a problem with No Right to Remain Silent, it’s that very idea of the “memoir-critique.” While certainly Roy’s mixed-race background and early-years teaching experiences in Sierra Leone helped shape her as a human being, the memoir sections feel, at times, out of place. Several essays about pedagogical issues and parenting don’t connect well with the rest of the text. And though her love for poetry is abundant in references to Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, and Hart Crane, her book-ending sestina falls a bit flat of closing this potentially riveting cri de coeur.

Another issue is that Roy’s actual interactions with Cho seem so brief that it’s hard not to wonder if Roy truly has enough material to go beyond swift portrayals of Cho, who simply stared back at her through sunglasses as she tried to uncover the root of his energetic, immature writings that accused other classmates of killing and cannibalism, saying he is disgusted with them and hopes they will all “burn in hell.” One of Cho’s own poems, a sestina entitled ”a boy named LOSER,” testifies to the self-loathing he exhibited that prompted Roy to assist him in seeking professional help and have a code word for immediate help from her assistant during her meetings with Cho. But even Roy recognizes that her first-hand knowledge of Cho is sketchy at best because all she got “were glimpses, and these were rare.” Perhaps this is why she includes so many personal stories that say more about her own life than Cho’s far more relevant one.

Being both witness and outsider, Roy feels she has no right to remain silent in the face of such a massive failing. Neither does the Virginia Tech administration, whose silence after the tragedy seemed more a denial of blame and a refusal to discuss the crucial issues at hand than anything else. And I applaud her for daring to write a book that quite clearly suggests that were there another such conflux of events on a U.S. campus today — a student suffering from depression, anger, self-loathing, and insecurity who feels trapped but cannot (will not?) find the necessary assistance to calm his ongoing agony and frustration — the ending could easily be as tragic.

Like any good argument, this book has a call to action: we must critically examine the problems in American culture and education or prepare ourselves to pay another unconscionable price.

Hanna Rosin Discusses God’s Harvard

Hanna Rosin [Photo by Jona Frank]

Hanna Rosin has covered religion and politics for the Washington Post. She also has written for the New Yorker, the New Republic, GQ, and the New York Times. Her new book, God’s Harvard, is about Patrick Henry College, a Christian school just outside of Washington D.C.

What is Patrick Henry College? How old is it? What is its mission?
Patrick Henry College was founded in the year 2000 by Michael Farris, one of the leaders in the homeschooling movement. The school’s mission is to train the next generation of Christian leaders to “shape the culture and take back the nation,” as they like to say. For the first two years the students follow a Christian liberal arts curriculum, studying many of the classics. For the final two years, they are encouraged to find internships in influential institutions, which could mean the White House, Congress, Hollywood or prominent magazines.
Does the future success of the school depend on Michael Farris or does it have a more solid foundation than the actions of one man?
The school is very tied up with Mike’s vision and his charisma. But it’s already gotten larger than him. At the end of the year I spent there he had already stepped down as president and become chancellor. Now he serves as more ambassador and fundraiser for the school, and tutors a select group of students. He told me that he started out thinking of the students as his 350 children, but that that view was making him crazy. So at some point he has to let go and let it be an institution that operates outside his scrutiny. This year, I’ve heard, they’ve given up on mandatory chapel attendance, which was one of his priorities.
How did you research this book?
In 2005 I spent some time at the school to write a story for the New Yorker magazine. Farris was not unhappy with the story, and agreed to have me spend a year there. I did not live on campus, but I came several days a week, and sometimes spent the night. I also visited students in their homes and went on debate trips with the kids. I tried to choose students and professors with a wide range of views so a reader wouldn’t leave with a Stepford feeling about the school, which doesn’t seem so interesting to me, nor true.
Who are the kids who attend PHC? What is their previous education and how do they differ from students at other elite colleges?
About eighty five percent of students at Patrick Henry were homeschooled. This means their parents opted to teach them at home, usually because they decided the values of the public school were at odds with their own. All the students have to sign a statement of faith which would place them at the conservative side of the Christian evangelical spectrum. On the whole, they tend to be smart, ambitious, and committed to the mission.
Is there a tension between the secular teaching they’re exposed to and their Biblical beliefs? How does that play out?
Tensions often arise between secular teachings and Biblical beliefs. Many students are reading, say Kant and Nietzsche for the first time. They may be alarmed, but they also may find those writers intoxicating. I’ve certainly seen some of the more rebellious students read influential philosophers and then begin to question their beliefs. The school often has a hard time finding a modern novel to teach, because they tend to have a lot of curses, or a nihilistic worldview. In the year I was there the school went through a major intellectual crisis. The administration warred with several of the professors about whether their teaching and writing was consistent with a Biblical worldview, and several of the professors ended up quitting.
When Christian home-schooled students meet the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics, how do they deal with that psychologically?
This, too can often come as a shock, or at least a surprise to some of the students. They have grown up thinking of the Republican party as their natural home. But then they get out there and see that young Republicans drink and sleep around. On a policy level, they begin to realize that Republicans make compromises, or are not always upright in their personal lives. For some, this leaves them disillusioned with politics. For others, it makes them resolve even more forcefully to be a “light unto the unsaved,” as they would say.
How deeply is an “End Times,” apocalyptic view of the future a part of the students’ belief system? How does this affect their views on topics like global warming or Middle East policy?
Because they are part of a sophisticated new generation of evangelical elites, they don’t tend to talk about this much. They are often disdainful, for example, of the “Left Behind” series of novels. But their home churches very much subscribe to this philosophy. So they usually toe the evangelical party line on those two issues: unquestioning support for Israel, and particularly Israel in its original borders, and resistance to the idea of global warming.
Should we be concerned about a new generation of leaders who are not up-front about the Biblical reasons for the policy decisions they make?
Well that’s part of the reason I wrote this book, to make people aware that the Christian right is not what it used to be. The next generation of leaders will not be as obvious or in your face as the Pat Robertson generation. On the other hand, someone with Patrick Henry on their resume couldn’t exactly hide what they’re all about. And the kids who are really extreme wind up being disillusioned and dropping out of politics.
What has happened to the first graduates of PHC? Are they successfully working their way into positions of power?
The graduates have done remarkably well. A handful work at the White House, and dozens more work for conservative congressmen. They work for think tanks and interest groups all over Washington. A couple are making their way in Hollywood, one very successfully. They’ve gotten decent journalism jobs and the first graduate just got into Harvard Law School. So they have a lot to be proud of.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
by Maryanne Wolf
Harper, 320 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

What is Reading?

Have you ever pondered how those implicitly intricate symbols on the page transform into life-altering experiences for a few of us? What is the basis for this uniquely human fascination for reading, and what can that fascination teach us about ourselves?

Maryanne Wolf, Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, broaches these questions and offers a comprehensive view of the history, the present, and the likely future of this beloved skill.

The misleading title is a reference to the French novelist’s description of reading as an intellectual “sanctuary” and to the use of the squid brain for neurological research in the 1950s. These seemingly unrelated symbols are meant to indicate Wolf’s approach to writing this book. She marries the cultural-historical (referred to by the former) with the biological to paint a well-rounded picture of reading and reading disabilities.

In Wolf’s view, the Sumerian cuneiform was a landmark accomplishment in the development of writing. For the first time since the beginning of civilization, “symbols rapidly became less pictographic and more logographic and abstract.” In fact, this change forced a reworking of human brain circuits:

“First, considerably more pathways in the visual and visual association regions would be necessary in order to decode what would eventually become hundreds of cuneiform characters…Second, the conceptual demands of a logosyllabary would inevitable involve more cognitive systems, which, in turn, would require more connections to visual areas in the occipital lobes, to language areas in the temporal lobes, and to the frontal lobes.”

It’s a mutually reinforcing relationship, Wolf observes: “The brain’s design made reading possible, and reading’s design changed the brain in multiple, critical, still evolving ways.” Some of these changes come across as so radical that only the realization of our being at a safe distance from such physiological alchemy introduces a semblance of acceptability.

Her history of reading offers interesting insights into the great arguments of our age. She likens Socrates’ reservations about the transition from an oral to a literate culture to her own worries about the increasing digitalization of all forms of youth culture today:

“First, Socrates posited that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life; second, he regarded the new–and much less stringent– requirements that written language placed both on memory and on the internalization of knowledge as catastrophic; and third, he passionately advocated the unique role the oral language plays in the development of morality and virtue in society.”

Wolf applies each of the above criteria to her questions about digitization, and finds Socrates’ arguments remarkable prescient and cautionary. Perhaps our learning today is of a lesser form than the classical Hellenic variety, and our future generations may reap the woes of rapidly advancing computerization.

Wolf is a sympathetic writer, sensitizing us to the need for looking at the world of reading from a child’s perspective. If we are to understand reading disabilities better, we would need to get into the science of the reading brain. For this, she sets the reader a task. On the well-assumed condition that a reader of this book would be unfamiliar with the Chinese alphabet, she makes us compare two identical sets of Chinese letters.

It is a difficult process that needs close inspection for the reader to arrive at an answer. Had these been English letters, Wolf seems to be gently nudging us into acceding, we adults would have taken no time to answer. But since it is a new script, it demands our time and attention. So it is with children, and it is important to understand this difference.

Several such examples make the reader aware of the fine art of reading, its hidden wonders and dauntless vigor. In a chapter titled “The Unending Story of Reading’s Development,” Wolf cites the case of nine-year-old Luke, who recommended himself for her reading intervention program.

It turned out that Luke did not have any reading disabilities per se, but Wolf’s team had never come across “a child with a more profound problem in the time it took to name a letter and read a word.” That is, Luke’s was a case of moving from “accuracy to fluency in the higher stages of learning.”

Wolf then delves into a neurological exploration of the time line of mental processes that a fully expert reader uses, and in so doing, makes us better appreciate the nuances of reading. From here to dyslexia, which occupies the latter parts of the book, Wolf switches between biology and humanities to drive home her point.

Reminding the reader that the likes of Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were dyslexics, Wolf ponders whether we can explain the “preponderance of creativity and ‘thinking outside the box’ in many people with dyslexia?” Wolf’s rhetorical questions are tackled with grace and one always feels richer for having spent time with her.

Thanks to umpteen illustrations of the brain at various stages of the process of reading, and Wolf’s revelation of a dyslexic son, the book rises from a merely professional tome to a personal and highly accessible project.

The Future Without A Past: The Humanities In A Technological Society by John Paul Russo

The Future Without A Past: The Humanities In A Technological Society
by John Paul Russo
University of Missouri Press, 313 pp.
CLR [rating:4]


Rhetorician Richard Weaver, in his magisterial work Ideas Have Consequences gave us a unique metaphor, The Great Stereopticon, which he defined as a “wonderful machine” that “projects selected pictures of life in the hope that what is seen will be imitated.” Weaver was referring, of course, to the media in all its forms and the pernicious effects that communication technology was having on our culture in 1948 when his book was published!

Today it is commonplace to find a significant rebellion in academic circles to “the rise of the machine.” In that genre John Paul Russo, Professor of English at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, has taken his pen in hand to pursue the issue of cultural decline, specifically the extirpation of the humanities in academia caused by the domination of technology. He concludes at the end of his instructive introduction to say “This book will have achieved one of its goals if it gives the reader one big headache-the same headache I have when I think of these issues.”

As for this reader Professor Russo’s objective has been achieved, and I do not say that in the pejorative. The length, depth, and breath of Russo’s erudition is impressive, he validates his comments with notes (this can be trying at times), and he presents differing opinions with a certain panache that only a true humanist can employ.

For the record Russo defines humanist as standing “for the autonomy of the individual, the library of the world culture and arts, and an effort to translate the import of our studies into the moral world through teaching and other civic action.”

Russo begins his discussion by declaring that the West has finally reached an end of “transition” begun in the 1830’s and laments that “We now have students raised and educated wholly within the hard shell of the technological environment, a generation for whom the great transition is finally over,” a generation “fully technicized.” He points out that the communications and technological explosion of the 1980’s was a more significant event than the moral and political anomie illustrated by the so-called counter-cultural “revolution” of the 1960’s. Russo says Arnold Toynbee considered that Western civilization was in the midst of a “spiritual breakdown” brought on by the adoption of a sensate culture, that is a culture immersed in a “materialist, sensual, relativist, narrowly particularistic, seeking immediate gratification.”

The author explains the positions of the “hard technological determinists” and the few-in-number “soft technological determinists.” The softies think that the world is moving to a “…conciliatory global technology” and things will turn out just fine; that is following the predictable social catastrophe. On the other hand the majority opinions, and they are varied, indicate that Western civilization is “evolving on ground other than its own, or on one highly specialized version of its own, the technological, and it will soon cease to resemble itself.”

In this point Russo is indebted to Jacques Ellul and his book The Technological Society published in 1954. Ellul argues that by technique, a term that means “the ensemble of means, procedures, and above all the technical mentality,” the machine began to “integrate itself into nineteenth century society.” The problem was the speed at which new advances were made and introduced into culture. Instead of being gradually assimilated it became “runaway and autonomous,” the machine began to erode the old values and replace them with a yearning for more technology that can now be sated by technique. Ellul expands his concept of technique by explaining that it “clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes; it does in the domain of the abstract what the machine did in the domain of labor. It is efficient and brings efficiency to everything.”

“Soft technology determinists,” Russo tells us, counter that no matter how powerful technology and communications are, they are confronted by culture, ideology, politics, and religion. Critiqing Landon Winner, an interpreter of Ellul who wrote “we should try to imagine and seek to build technical regimes compatible with freedom, social justice, and other key political standards.” Here he argues that the word, “regime …implies an incompatibility with freedom” but, if Richard Weaver is correct-and he applied it in terms of sectionalism- “regime” is not only the political and cultural, but “a way of life” which may or may not be inimical to freedom.

Then modernity, with technology as the driving force, has all but destroyed morality and civitas. The sharp and observable decline in religiousness, the resultant interest in the parapsychology (the occult, UFO’s, etc.), the increase in drug and alcohol addiction, and the sharp increase in mental disorders are but a few of the symptoms that describe a civilization in anomie.

Russo’s seven essays address the domination of technology and its virulent techniques that have superseded the humanities in academia; the result is individuals who have not learned to think, to reason morally or ethically, to grasp the concept of self. He is defining an entire generation, and this is but the first, that are merely victims of the Great Stereopticon’s relentless propaganda; people who will have no means to decipher truth from lies, vulgarism from civility, lust from love.

One of the book’s blurbs tells the reader that it will appeal to “…general readers who are seeking deeper insights into today’s cultural problems.” Well, maybe, but you’d better have a foundation in “literary studies, intellectual and cultural history, philosophy, ethics, media studies, and American studies” if you wish to grasp the many concepts on the first read.

Russo’s discussion of technology unabated is both wide and deep, but I shouldn’t be too critical because we are often told just how decadent our culture is, often without proof or illustration. Professor Russo has eschewed the ubiquitous hyperbole and taken the time to present a critique that is precise and penetrating.