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Highs and Lows: Sustaining the Humanities

                                                Edward H. Friedman

                                                      When folks who still can ride in jitneys
                                                      Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
                                                      Lack baby clo'es,
                                                      Anything goes.

                                                                  Cole Porter, "Anything Goes"

This brief essay was inspired by the eighteenth annual Harry C. Howard, Jr., Lecture, "The Humanities in Our Times," delivered with conviction and eloquence at Vanderbilt University on October 18, 2012, by Dr. Edward L. Ayers, eminent and award-winning historian of the American South, president of the University of Richmond, and former professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. Dr. Ayers addressed the importance of intersections among technology and the humanities, with a focus on his own work in digital history. He emphasized that the latest technologies have aided research scholars and students in all disciplines and that the way of technology is the path toward the future. It would be difficult, not to mention counterproductive, to refute the message of Dr. Ayer's talk. We must be aware—and train our students to be aware—of the exceedingly sophisticated resources that are available to them. There is no sacrifice involved in this enterprise. What Edward Ayers advocates is complementary to other analytical methods; it is a mode of expanding our horizons and supplementing the approaches that have served us in the past. In short, the use of advanced technologies is a win-win situation. For example, the Warren Center is hosting a HASTAC Scholar, Miriam Martin, and sponsors a seminar on the digital humanities. Here, I want to move to the other extreme in order to look at a low-tech phenomenon that strives for a meeting of minds: the simple act of reading, reflection, writing, discussion and debate, and further reflection. The method is as old as education itself, but it calls attention to the act and the art of word-processing from ground zero, and it is a part—substantial, but decidedly only a part—of a comprehensive pedagogical design, where high technology and low technology can intermingle and serve each other. 

In one of my classes during the fall semester of 2012, I had the opportunity to discuss with students such topics as the casualties (broadly defined) of war, nostalgia for the Old South, family dynamics and dysfunction, racism and reactions to the civil rights movement, variations on the theme of the class system, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, Affirmative Action, identity in multiple combinations and permutations, civility and lack thereof, and the creation of art. The course was not in the field of the social sciences, but an Honors seminar with the title "Contemporary American Drama: Art, Culture, and Society." The primary readings included fifteen plays, five one-act plays, and a history of theater in the United States in the twentieth century. The course had a heavy aesthetic dimension, with emphasis on the structure of drama, approaches to performance, and what can be labeled the languages of the theater, but each of the plays—from Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947) to Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park (2010)—offers a symbolic representation of American society and its pervasive polemics. Theater is, after all, dependent on conflict, and playwrights in the United States and elsewhere have no problem finding issues upon which to draw. The format of the course was, in many regards, old-fashioned. The sixteen students, from freshmen to seniors, and I sat in a circle with books in front of us and talked about the readings and the themes and artistry contained within them. I often referred students to websites and online sources of information, but I used no technology in the classroom. I wanted our sessions to be about dialogue, and the group complied brilliantly, in class discussions and in weekly papers. Given my pre-technological spirit and, alas, mindset, I feel energized by the eloquence and analytical skills of students who, though generally versed in all measures and means of communication, can feel comfortable with a book in hand. This also has been true, as recently as the summer of 2012, in a course called "Analyzing Fiction" in the Vanderbilt Summer Academy (part of the Programs for Talented Youth) for twelve- and thirteen-year- olds, and offered with "cooler" and higher-tech options within the course selections.

Despite the fact that they have been raised on computers, texting, and so forth, the students in the Honors seminar, to a person, wrote clearly, correctly, and elegantly, and the depth of their thoughts matched their writing ability. They belied the perception that grammar, spelling, punctuation, and care with expression have been lost in translation (and transition) to the new media. They were comfortable with the structure and openness of art and with the wide range of referents inscribed within a work of art. Their comments on form were rich, nuanced, and on target, and their comments on content were, as their elders tend to say, wise beyond their years. And they knew, probably intuitively, that form and content are ultimately inseparable. I was especially struck by the perceptions evidenced in the discussion of Affirmative Action: how engaged, understanding, empathetic, candid, and—in the best sense of the term—critical they were. They were attuned to flaws in the system, but they were willing to consider problem-solving, rather than dismissal, as the more viable option. Our dialogue was going on during the time leading up to the national election, and thus we were attuned to the power, plays, and universality of rhetoric. We could revel at the range and reaches of interpretation and at the elasticity and mutability of language. One could not help but note, in contrast, that some of our leaders, including politicians and even justices of the Supreme Court (not always mutually exclusive sets), as well as spiritual guides, insist on the viability of literal meaning of texts, including laws and the most sacred scriptures. Rhetoric, from classical antiquity to post-poststructuralism, is arguably the key link among discourses, fictional and non fictional, and I was glad to observe that the students recognized on their own that reality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We were not seeking compromise but shared insights, and the members of the group listened to their colleagues' ideas, debated points in a highly courteous manner, and accepted differences of opinion as natural and positive. I was captivated and enlightened by the conversations, which stood in stark contrast with what I was reading about and seeing on the political scene, where uncompromising attitudes were the order of the day, disrespect was rampant, and polarization was the operative code. Dramatic literature and theatrical performance functioned as the centerpiece for the course, but texts and their seemingly limitless contexts blended and invited us to explore the fascinating dialectics of word and world. My goal was to select plays that lent themselves to scrutiny as compelling artistic creations and social documents, mirrors on and off stage, as it were.

As an undergraduate in the distant past, I was impressed by points of contact in the subject matter of my courses—mathematics and geology excepted—and by unexpected correlations between the old and the new, and I still am affected by anticipated and unanticipated associations. In the semester in which I taught the theater course, my second class was an undergraduate Spanish course on Cervantes's Don Quixote, which the students read in its entirety, along with introductory materials and criticism. The two parts of Don Quixote, published in 1605 and 1615, are cultural artifacts of imperial Spain, the age of the Habsburgs and of the Inquisition, of New World explorations and the Counter Reformation, of obsession with blood purity and honor, and of baroque art and baroque sensibility. By reading Don Quixote alongside contemporary American theater, I realized that an obvious common denominator was the theme of identity, with a corresponding ingredient of self-conscious art, that is, art about the making of art, art that links process and product. As the Quixote class was completing the novel(s), the theater class was reading David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face (2007) and John Logan's Red (2009). Yellow Face examines Asian-American identity and identity in general, mixing—and confusing—the playwright's real-life experience with a metatheatrical format in which Hwang fictionalizes himself and in which a number of actors play multiple roles. Red enters the domain of the artist Mark Rothko and the realm of artistic production. As in Don Quixote, reality and fiction collide with remarkable ease, and the insights into human nature and the outside world alternate with highlighting of the design and composition of art. The middle-aged landowner who becomes mad from reading romances of chivalry and who takes to the road as a knight errant shares the spotlight with a corps of narrators, storytellers, and inventors of fiction within fiction. In the second part of Don Quixote, Cervantes alludes with great frequency to Part 1 and responds to the pseudonymous author of a "false" second part; notable characters in Part 2 have read Part 1, some have read the spurious continuation, and another is in the illegitimate tome, but the real world is never elided or forgotten. The final play in the Honors seminar was Clybourne Park, in which Bruce Norris builds upon Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959), a play that the class had read toward the beginning of the semester. The deep structure of the two courses was close, and so was the pedagogical style: students talking in groups of two or three, and together, about books. Don Quixote helps to project literature into a future that is the playwrights' present. Cervantes's book about books—and, correspondingly, about readers, writers, critics, theorists, the nature of art and its ties with external reality—stands as an emblem of the force of rhetoric. Don Quixote figuratively brings art and the artist to center stage, as do literally, to greater or lesser degree, today's playwrights. To my delight, one student, perhaps now suffering from over-saturation, took both of these classes, with only fifty-five minutes between them. (He did exceptional work in each). The code-switching notwithstanding, he likely noted the parallel universes and, I hope, the benefits of books and readers in near isolation. Even in the theater, individual spectators can become captured by the dramatic moment.

Don Quixote is the archetypal character consumed by reading and motivated to transform himself into a commentator on art and life, without differentiating between the two. Viewed allegorically, his scheme—like the anachronistic knight himself—may not be as crazy as it seems. The contemplation of works of art exposes readers and observers to the world at large. In this case, novels and plays are not addenda to reality but fundamental elements of the big picture. Classical antiquity gave us rhetoric, and the most renowned thinkers of all times have been men and women with dazzling minds and with books (or what preceded books) in front of them, to ponder and write about and to discuss and debate with others. Technology has taken us to places unimagined mere decades ago, and technology rightly should be revered. So should the apparatuses of earlier periods, which at their simplest can be extraordinarily profound.

Edward H. Friedman is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Spanish and Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University. He is also director of the Warren Center.