Monday, December 24, 2007

Monday review of books

I've finished two books in the last twenty-four hours, including one that I capped off in a single three-hour sitting this afternoon: Jonathan Kozol's The night is dark and I am from from home (Simon and Schuster Inc., 1990), and Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night (Dell 1999). Although neither directly relates to teaching at the university level, the former deals with Education with a capital 'E,' and in reading the latter on the heels of the first, I couldn't help but be impressed by dramatic differences between the two, as well as some deep parallels.

Both books I read just now by accident: Kozol's book I came across at an ongoing book sale in the basement of the Swannanoa Branch of the Buncombe County Library system this past Tuesday, and just yesterday afternoon when I accompanied Maggie in to keep her company during her short holiday weekend work Vonnegut's novel was on the top of the bin we pulled from the Pack Library's return kiosk. The title was fresh in mind, recently recommended by one of my students; it was one of the small few of Vonnegut's novels I'd not read before.

Odd that I should have read them so close in time to one another, so different the views they express, on the face of it.

Kozol's book paints a bold picture in absolutist strokes, uncompromising, often laced with ugliness and spite. The world he portrays is one in which unassailable good does battle daily with the purest of evil. The battle takes place throughout our society, our author assures us, but not surprisingly his focus rests on the nation's public schools. His thesis: "the first goal and primary function of the U.S. public school is not to educate good people, but good citizens. It is the function which we call -- in enemy nations -- 'state indoctrination' " (p. 1). To support this thesis he erects argument after argument, exposing for the reader the "straightforward lies" told by the educational establishment, laying bare the artfully hidden connections between the adversity felt by the nation's poor and the plenty enjoyed by its wealthy, and indicating the means by which teachers and administrators encourage the children in their charge to substitute passive concern for meaningful action. Certain themes recur, indicators of our nation's evil: My Lai (the book was written during the period from 1969 to 1975), Kent State, socioeconomic discrepancies in infant mortality rates, income opportunities, and access to medical care. Every aspect of our educational system, we're convinced, goes to supporting the perpetrators of these crimes.

Kozol's criticism is harsh, his tone cold and merciless. In fact, many of his accusations are simply unjust, and many of his comparisons inapt, insulting, and hurtful. Fortunately an older, wiser, Jonathan Kozol recognizes this fact, and for the 1990 edition of the book I just finished reading has written a set of critical annotations offering a rebuttal to the words of his younger, more hot-headed, self. "It was a time [1969-1975] when people who grew up to love their nation felt a sense of shock and shame. If, like myself, they had also staked their early years to try to bring about some serious social change, they were also likely to feel bitterness and rage. This much background may explain, though it does not excuse, the passages within this book in which I seem to speak about America not as a good but flawed society but as a land of unabated cruelty and evil" (pp. 18-19).

In his critical notes Kozol often decries his own words as "exaggeration," "abhorrent," and "reckless overstatements" (pp. 240-243).

I have to say that I agree.

While I agree also with the general thrust of many of his arguments, his tone is so continually demeaning that by the end of the book I felt a disgust which surely must have lost him many allies. Ultimately this is the problem with the book, the way it's written: though I too believe that the American educational system is deeply, deeply flawed (for many of the reasons Kozol highlights in this book, and for others reasons that didn't obtain when it was first written), I believe that through the sort of hectoring he does with The night is dark, he is likely to lose the support of those most ready and able to answer his call for change.

The chapter that struck closest to my mark, of course, was that titled "Colleges and Universities." Here Kozol sounds much like an acquaintance of mine in Illinois, who insisted on referring to the University of Illinois as "that little university down the street" on his spite-spewing radio program, all the while both he and his wife drew their paychecks from that same university. Here Kozol bars no holds: "the university is built on blood and nourished by injustice," and functions "both to sedate the lives and to protect the conscience of the university population, to insulate the college common and the paneled dining quarters of the college faculty and deans from either knowledge, memory or recognition of the pain, the description and the devastation of those tens of thousands who live just beyong their reach and recognition" (pp. 214-215). The claim that university faculty have difficult jobs to perform he calls the "Fiction of Hard Work" (p.215); the seersucker-wearing, lime-sherbet-slurping ivory-tower intellectuals with whom Kozol populates his college campuses (he has a thing for lime sherbet, mentioning it at least three times) are said to lead nearly effortless work lives. This would come as a surprise to me and to my colleagues (I can name several) who work 70-plus-hour weeks on a regular basis. I'm not claiming that we dig ditches for a living, I'm simply claiming that it takes a great deal of time and, yes, intellectual effort, to create meaningful coursework, serviceable assessment measures, significant learning experiences, and insightful evaluations and subsequent revision of our own work; to work with one another in planning and implementing truly impactful activities that involve not just the university but also the surrounding community we are chartered to serve; to craft original ideas and to incorporate those of others into our own, and to spread these ideas far and wide; and yes, to challenge our students to do more than say, but to do as well; to do more than care, but to act as well.

I found that chapter insulting, as did Kozol himself, in retrospect: "too many words like 'evil,' 'brutal,' 'fraud' demean these pages" (p. 251).

At the end of the day, I feel that Kozol's downfall is his insistence that in order to wash away the brand of "hypocrite" we must not simply put in a few hours each week at the homeless shelter, tutor math in our neighborhood elementary school, or work weekends for Habitat for Humanity; we must instead disavow all connection with the bloodthirsty machine that is the U.S. government and its corporate allies, we must pull our names from the university class rolls or quit our university posts, we must throw away all but the clothes on our backs and the staffs in our hands, shaking the sand from our sandals at any house where we are made unwelcome, making of ourselves martyrs for the cause of the have-nots, when often such martyrdom removes us from the positions in which we are most able to affect meaningful change. While I agree that too many people lead relatively comfortable lives blissfully unaware of the sometimes-causal connection between their own comfort and others' agony, I find ludicrous, for instance, Kozol's claim that he is hypocritical who, with access to quality medical care for his family, does not eschew that care available to him but instead brings his family to one of the understaffed and undersupplied clinics that service the nation's poor (pp. 204-205). Kozol's insistence on absolutist actions like this out-and-out boycott is the stuff of relatively immature extremism.

In final assessment, again, I find myself agreeing with Kozol in much that he says, but his message is lost in the brutal static of his medium. He loses much by demonizing not only his "enemies" (whoever they are; in sketching them his job is poorly done. As near as I can tell, his attitude is a Bush-like "yer either fer us or ag'in us" in which a nebulous Marxian elite plays the role of bogeyman), but also his allies. The world he paints is black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, and he makes it very clear on which side of each respective terminator he stands.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Vonnegut's world is a different one. The novel's anti-hero, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., served the Americans as a spy by adopting the role of a high-ranking Nazi official charged with promulgating anti-American propaganda. Throughout the novel he tells us of the pragmatism that kept him alive during the war and after it: to himself he ascribes neither guilt, nor a sense of loss, nor a loathing of death, nor heartbroken rage, nor a unlovability, nor a sense of the cruelty of God (pp. 231-232). He steals, lies, deceives, schemes, and somehow even when caught manages to purchase freedom by one means or another. His world is not black and white, but gray, a full-blown cloud of obscuring mist. In order to perform the greatest acts of espionage, he was forced to author and deliver the most hateful of anti-Semitic screed. Which outweighs the other, the sinner or the saint? Impelled by whatever situation he finds himself in, our hero eventually loses all sense of black or white and opts for suicide over freedom when freedom might lend him another opportunity to pick sides.

Still there are parallels between Kozol's work and Vonnegut's. Most notably, both admit that in order for an ordinary human to live with herself, she must adopt a certain degree of hypocrisy. Early on, Kozol quotes Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you: "the men of the ruling classes -- the honest, good, clever men among them -- cannot help but suffer from these internal contradictions...We cannot pretend that we do not see the policeman who walks in front of the windows with a loaded revolver, defending us, while we eat our savoury dinner or view a new performance...We certainly know that if we shall finish eating our dinner, or seeing the latest drama, or having our fun at a ball, at the Christmas tree, at the skating, at the races, or at the chase, we do so only thanks to the bullet in the policeman's revolver and in the soldier's gun" (quoted on p. 62). Kozol limns a similar modern American myth: "the lives of children of the white and well-to-do within a land like ours exist upon a plateau of relaxed and innocent intent: one which turns at times, if we so wish, to passages of benefaction, at other times to academic labors, string quartets or summer garden parties, yet one which is at all times disaffiliated from the exploitation that it rests on, uncontaminated by the blood that nourishes the soil" (p. 63).

Compare this with a passage from p. 223 ff. of Vonnegut:

I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which may be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random...The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined...The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases. The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without certain obvious pieces of information -- That was how a household as contradictory as one composed of Jones, Father Keeley, Vice-Bundesfuehrer Krapptauer, and the Black Fuehrer could exist in relative harmony --That was how my father-in-law could contain in one mind an indifference toward slave women and love for a blue vase --That was how Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, could alternate over the loudspeakers of Auschwitz great music and calls for corpse-carriers --That was how Nazi Germany could sense no important differences between civilization and hydrophobia...

For Kozol, school is the file with which the teeth are removed.

Vonnegut also seconds Kozol's observation that in totalitarian societies there is safety in imitation and danger in originality (that, in fact, true originality can be punishable by death): "'What harm is there in writing what's already been written? Real originality is a capital crime, often calling for cruel and unusual punishment in advance of the coup de grace' " (Vonnegut, pp. 206-207). Vonnegut stops short of labeling our own society a totalitarian one, as Kozol does throughout his work.

I suppose we all, those of us well enough off to be writing or reading these words right now, must pull a bit of ethical legerdemain in order to sleep well in a world as rife with inequality as is our own, and I suppose we all must mask our true intentions from time to time in order to preserve the integrity of the society in which we live and work.

How much is too much?

And how, if the balance is upset, do we reset it?

I'm going to have to think some more about these books, and how they relate to what I do, with what tasks they charge me.

Until I next check in, I welcome my readers' insights: have any of you read these books? What do you think?

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