10.29.2008

Teaching is Hard -- Pay us more, Obama!

Mind if I vent a little?

Thanks. I just finished teaching a 75 minute class on Ralph Waldo Emerson. I intended to spend only a few minutes on Emerson, since the last two classes involved extensive discussion and analysis of "Nature" and "Self-Reliance." But the discussion in those two classes was sticking in my head -- one of my students said, "Emerson's crazy," and others, more Southern Baptist still, implied that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, a false prophet. They reduced the godfather of American literature to a heep of ashes, and were ready to move on. Over and over again, the question of authority arose, as it should, with Emerson (he writes in a prophetic voice).

So I started with this:
So... imagine it's the year 30 AD. You're Jewish. You live on the outskirts of Rome, because Rome doesn't like Jewish ways. You hear about this guy who is baptizing people in a river out in the desert. Rumor has it he's eating only locusts and a little honey from time to time. He wears nothing but a loin cloth and he never shaves. Most of the people you talk to, Jewish and Roman alike, dismiss him as crazy. Would you go to hear him? Would you get baptized?
They say they'd go to hear him. They say they'd have to listen to what he was saying before they decided to get baptized. I ask, "What would he have to say to get you to accept the baptism?" They look a little confused. I continue:

Imagine it’s a couple years later – You’re Jewish, and you hear about a guy wandering around talking about how he IS G-d. He’s talking as if he has more authority than the holy texts. Would you go listen to him? He never shaves, he’s quit his job… he's got long hair... would you recognize, then? Would you believe in him, or believe in your sacred texts?

See, I'm asking all of these questions because I see Emerson as a kind of true prophet, as a prophet who is delivering, faithfully, the unchanging/eternal/holy-divine Spirit of the world (I see Jesus this way too, and Moses and Daniel and Hafiz and Walt Whitman). I see my students as "in-danger-of-not-going-to-get-baptized." So my students struggle to understand me, but I don't struggle to understand them. They see it like this:

[Jesus: Good]-----------------------------------[Emerson: Evil]

And I see it like this:

[Jesus, Emerson: Good]-----------["Evil is... privative, not absolute."]

When pressed, they retrench behind the language of orthodoxy: "Jesus said he is the Way, the Truth, the Life." If Emerson tells us to rely on "the Self," my students object: "the Self is fallen, the heart cannot be trusted." Their definitions make their argument for them. I try the route of deconstruction, asking them again how they would recognize G-d in the world. They say "Revelation says [something about trumpets]." I say, "But how would you have recognized Jesus as G-d?" They say "Miracles." THEN I REMEMBER: I've been meaning to read C.S. Lewis' book, Miracles, for a long time... maybe there's a crack in my argument... what if they're right? I haven't read enough about ancient Rome, or about Judaism during the time of Jesus--maybe I'm presenting John the Baptist unfairly... What if it is a horrible corruption of the Tr-th to say that every person is G-d, or to say that the Self can be trusted, or to say, as Emerson does, that "If... a man claims to know and speak of G-d, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not." (?)

That is what my students are doing. They are claiming to know and speak of G-d. They are carrying me backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world.

But, by rigid allegiance to their holy texts, my students have turned the camera around on me: I find myself in the situation I wanted them to be in: I have to think about where I see authority. Emerson tells me I should "Believe them not." But do I believe him?

My students leave, having learned far less than I have. I retreat to my office disheartened, doubting that I'm in the right profession -- in short, I discover that I don't trust myself. The "THEN I REMEMBER" above is the lightning flash of doubt, and it always, always hits me, and nobody else, never my students, and I'm sick of it!!! Everyone else walks around sure of what they believe, whether that's the Bible or Emerson or Chomsky or Whitman or Henry Miller or whatever... and like a bratty child, I find myself wondering: am I alone in this f*ckin' exile? Ironically, it turns out that even if Emerson's claims about virtue are correct, I fail to live accordingly. I guess I'll drive home tonight half-Southern Baptist, tail between my legs.

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