We see our educational crisis most clearly when we turn our attention to desire. We can’t miss the dispiriting reality that many young people don’t desire what we offer. We talk about disengagement and lack of motivation. We discern even among those who do their assignments what seem to be unintelligent or even ignoble desires. We talk about narcissism, cheating and consumerism.
Though our lives have something of the enchanted about them–-at the flick of an Ipod high tech speakers body forth the best music ever made, exotic fruits from every clime are piled high in brightly lit markets, family members across the globe arrive in our chambers via Skype, the best words ever written can be summoned from online archives for free, and the most beautiful people on the planet compete for our approval from screens in every building–-we are not satisfied. We think we want more. Probably we want something different.
Listening to contemporary arguments about education, carried on for the most part with no mention of anything very important, I find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s quite compelling distractions. Every morning he left the enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach to gaze out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. It was not what he was made for.
He was born to make worlds. That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him–-his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone to the underworld and posterity not yet born, and, most important, the kingdom that had emerged through his marriage to Penelope.
Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond or even a sacred bond. Wendell Berry notes that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family of both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth” (The Unsettling of America, 127). He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” which is necessary if love is to be enacted and embodied, was the goal of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a home that could only be had by making the world which situated it. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, keeping him from a stronger desire. It was a vacation from the things he felt seriously.
Calypso’s island is a familiar place to most people. Many of us reached some island of relative peace and pleasure, compared to other places we’ve experienced. It isn’t what we set out for, but it’s better than it might have been, and who knows if there can be any more? One could settle.
Last week one of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. She was in a desultory mood, and the novel was tied up with her vision of how she wished the world might be. She was trying to bring into focus career plans for after high school. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.
“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after,” I said teasingly.
“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”
It’s certainly true that they are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remains high.
Increasingly, young people feel trapped in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” cultural relativism had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:
“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”
Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” which thrives on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.
Reality and art mirror each other, or become each other. In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing 2011, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty; country music’s embrace of the stripper pole and a holiday performance from Lady Gaga in which she did a bump and grind while performing ‘White Christmas.’” At this point, such reports fill volumes.
A typical response to them is to affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of bad youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”
Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact lived at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. He was quite aware of a general dissolution–cultural suicide really–of Greek society. In fact, the moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.
But what’s a teacher to do? Our work is difficult enough, amid such distractions as percussion lines marching in the halls to celebrate spirit week, phone logs to document calls home, emails with deadlines for curriculum maps to show compliance, PA announcements about photo retakes, staff meetings to discuss yet again the tardies, the dress code, and PDAs. All this can make it hard to wonder whether what Homer saw is still real, and therefore still relevant to that boy with the sly grin in the second row–to wonder what, precisely, such a kid might need to hear from a man who rejected hanging out in a place where he could stay forever young, with no hassles, on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”?