[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The Renewed Professor

Jesse Bier
English (Emeritus)


—Jesse Bier
Jesse Bier

How ironic that professors in the humanities are giving up their academic prerogatives just at the time when all they have traditionally stood for is being justified. Even before the current recession, when people were being increasingly called upon to change jobs and even fields in midlife, it was becoming clear that the specialized and so-called "relevant" and "practical" courses they had been directed to take were turning out to have very short-term relevance and not be so practical after all. What graduates into the real world need is not higher vocational training, as of Business Schools especially, but the adaptive mechanisms of thought provided by any serious core curriculum in liberal arts and—surprise! literature, in particular. The breadth, composure, flexibility and habits of insight and persistence thus bred into the mental processes of the young undergird and safeguard them for the rest of their lives.

What a sense of surprise we have, as well as melancholy, to read the luminaries like Professors Stanley Fish ("The Last Professor," The New York Times, January 18, 2009) and Frank Donoghue (The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, 2008) concede that the academic days of literature and the humanities are numbered. How disappointing it is to hear them accept the triumph of the corporate university when they have every moral and educational reason to resist it and every realistic argument to defend the older tradition. It is especially puzzling that the renowned Professor Fish, after an academic career as a literary critic and maverick in academe, should so surrender his intellectual and pedagogic prerogatives, his—may I say—ongoing place in our educational life.

I have been in academic retirement long enough now to have met several generations of former students who have themselves retired, successful men and women who repeatedly testify to the long-term efforts of their college education in the liberal arts and especially in literary studies. I am talking about the non-majors who underwent their required core assignments. I mean all those whose subsequent lives in business, government, education, even engineering, medicine also, and other walks of life owed so much, in retrospect, to the drill and experience they received, class after class, quarter after quarter, in literature and literary criticism, fostering their powers of attention, penetration, and perseverance. Never mind their being set up as repositories of knowledge and culture, though that still counts, but they were enabled to thrive in their varied fields from ingrained habits of mind contending with complexity, especially of simultaneous and multiple nuance, and the protracted challenge of illusive or obdurate meanings. These courses, at their best, were exercises in disciplined thought and imagination, along with comparable lower division courses in mathematics and science, at the very heart of the broadening university experience.

Those blunt critics on campus who claim that "expanding the mind" through liberal arts is a great "waste of time" are right in one regard. There are a very few students, as all teachers encounter, whose minds are so impervious to begin with, so closed that they are an undoubted waste of resources. And some of these, evidently, slip through slack programs somehow to plod and vociferate in the halls of academe themselves.

Modern educators remind us that young adults, up to about the age of 25, are in their final formative stage of cognitive development, according to all the psychological and neurologic information we have. The middle years of college are the last, decisive time we have to inculcate mental stamina and resolve, to guide students to the end and the whole of a thing through the unforeseeable, the concealed, the new and, unexpectedly maybe, to instill the trust that there are meanings and resolutions which determination and habit can at last fathom and fashion.


Let me give a brief pedagogical example of the kind of critical reading to which I refer, centered on the first line of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In the casual start of the poem—

Whose woods these are I think I know

—the word "think" is a curious, immediate puzzle. An author who doesn't know his own mind sufficiently may put off some readers at once. Why take a chance on such a tentative, uncertain introduction? But we suspend judgment (another good thing students learn to do), trusting that the context of the whole poem will justify every one of its details, including this minor but initial effect. The woods, we learn quickly, belong to someone whose house is in the village. But there is another house in the village, in every village, isn't there?—the church, whose owner owns everything, the village, the woods, the world. The poet thinks he knows Him as well, but he doubts that he knows, because he is traveling and living in a world that is essentially alien to him and domineering (his horse shakes its bells to remind him of his workaday rounds, making him conform to or accept conditions he questions), threatening even (the falling snow is deepening about him), and also probably fraudulent. How strange the economic and general system is—one can live over there but own over here—how unnatural. The absentee landlord is God ultimately, who authorizes a spurious freedom and whose own identity is vague, uncertain, and maybe unfounded. The poem is a thinly disguised anti-capitalist, agnostic critique.

A pleasant, harmless little nature lyric turns into a basically dark though un-panicky meditation—to which a student's suspended judgment but perseverant drive to conclusions, his tolerance of nuance, his flexibility, and his stubborn holistic grasp will lead him. Frost's lyric eventuates in a sort of gentle but comprehensive doubt in a God who is not all-seeing or omniscient, who is not a presiding presence at all. And the famous sleep at the reiterated end of the poem becomes, for the steadfast reader, a sleep of extinction, not a prelude to any compensatory afterlife. Only the happenstance of unbidden random beauty mitigates the poet's theme, meanings finally accessible to a student's trained pertinacity.

Now, we may go on to judge and condemn Frost's personal timidity in merely positing doubt in God and His whole system of life. In a larger frame of American literary study, we might compare Frost's little work with, say, Whittier's extended "Snowbound," also on the brink of despair, and discuss the timorous nihilism just under the conspiratorial uplift in our American psyche. But this is supra-criticism, for more sophisticated students, national and philosophic analysis beyond what I am after here, the drift and details of our undergraduates' foreground mental processes.

The final version of the poem was written after successive sheaves of paper lay about Frost's table chair and feet, accumulated—like the snow in the poem?—through the long night, just after supper to dawn. With his last fastidious corrections, Frost had written probably the perfect lyric in the English language. It is a composition in which no word is casual or merely conveniently fills out a requirement of rhyme or meter, though those matters also rightfully deserve artistic control, which they get to superb subtle effect in the poem. Every detail, thematic and phonic, contributes to the whole, which, in turn, accounts for any part. Every element—painstakingly discovered, more than invented—functions just so in the governing whole.... Do we think, momentarily, of a perfect machine also? The liberal arts and sciences come together. Isn't it indicative that mathematicians and scientists reserve "beautiful" and "elegant" as their highest praise for successful proofs and theories? There is not so much inspiration—I mean, finally—as tenacious intelligence involved in all wondrous craft and endeavor.


The educational value of the study of literature does not require that only works of near perfection, like Frost's famous poem, be placed before the student. Flawed works may be the sources of the benefits I have described just as well, or perhaps even better. Let me offer two familiar texts as examples.

Everybody knows about the Trojan horse: how it was left, after ten years of warfare and futile siege, outside the walls of Troy, with a secret Greek cadre inside its big hollow body; how the invaders ostensibly departed for home in their ships, leaving this curious vestige behind; and how the Trojans debated what to do about it. Although warned by the prophetess, Cassandra, against hauling it inside, they ultimately did so—not through their gate, which was too narrow to allow it to pass, but through a breach they had to make in their protective city wall.

Now, this famous epical event, recounted actually not in Homer's Iliad but in Vergil's Aeneid, provokes a few questions. And it is inherent in the kind of disciplined, critical reading for which I argue that we should ask questions, we should confront the sacrosancties of the past critically and, by extension, those of the present—that is precisely what a liberal and liberating education is for.

First, why didn't the Trojans listen to Cassandra or, what is the same thing, to their own experienced skeptical judgment, and leave the thing alone? Second, if this curiosity overcame their caution, as the wily Greeks hoped, why didn't the Trojans simply send out a party to investigate the device outside of city limits, where it was left? And third, when they did decide to bring it in and confirmed the fact that it was too large to drag through a city gate, why on earth would they go ahead and destroy their vital fortification to give it adequate entrance?

One might initially defend the errant Trojans by pointing out, absent the Greek armed forces, that there was no pressing danger any longer in such accommodation. But even so, why would veterans of a ten-year siege not deploy scouts to make sure of the wholesale Greek departure and guard against any imminent and deceitful return—especially from behind the sheltering island of Tenelos, where the Greeks actually did conceal themselves? This triple Trojan slippage in psychology is grossly unconvincing, to say the very least, and remains a primary reverberating literary hoax.

But most remarkable of all, in the event, is the witless instead of ingenious Greek stratagem. Why in the world place men in the belly of the beast, from which the commandos were supposed to emerge that night, during distracted Trojan revelry and drunken stupor, in order to open a gate for returning comrades, when there would be a gigantic hole in the Trojan wall? Why this scheme, with so many contingencies involved, to open portals to a city already opened to them by a vast gap in the city defense? No need for a hollow horse and special forces inside it, only a need for the very size of it to occasion the Trojan self-sabotage, giving the Greek besiegers an avenue far more capacious than any constrictive narrow gate to pour through and overwhelm the inert garrison.

It will not do for modern post-Freudians readers to fathom all the prevailing sub-rosa birth imagery—Caesarian, to double the anachronisms —since there are symbolic inconsistencies involved there also, which will carry us too far afield. The whole episode is colossally foolish, on both sides: the fatuous Greek over-planned ruse and the, no excuse me, monumental Trojan stupidity—and, then again, the Greeks counting on just that dumbness. The fact that the story is so venerable and venerated should not protect it from sensible exception-taking, from either contemporary or subsequent critics of the elaborate mistaken or brazen imposture.

So much for the main plot. The complicating additions are equally absurd and over-extended. A supposed turncoat, Sinon, has been previously planted in Troy in order to eventually convince the gullible enemy that he is vengefully on their side; in due course, he prevails upon them to bring in the horse. More credulousness: the Trojans formally defile it, homage to Athena that it ostensibly is, in order to dispel her protective custody of the Greeks and then they feel, after the insult, quite secure. In a single gesture of narrative realism, amid this hocus-pocus, Vergil allows one skeptical citizen, Lacoön, to pierce the sides of the horse just in case, after all, someone is inside; but then, for some reason, no Trojan, including Lacoön, hears the audible groans of the afflicted Greek soldiers within. All these conveniences, plus the eventual inebriate city-wide celebration—including the dismissal of all guards from their posts, allowing the sweltering and otherwise shortly doomed commandos to emerge just in the nick of time to needlessly open gates coincident with lighting a beacon for the returning Greek army. Nevermind the fact that unhindered Sinon himself could have opened a gate or two and lit a lantern, except that the Greeks could no more count on the complicated series of successes of his role than on the involuted doings of the sequestered commandos. What sane Greek general staff would have relied on the exquisite timing and uncertainties and synchonicities involved in any part of this project, including the convenience of a virtually unconscious enemy?

Furthermore, there is in-built contradiction in Aeneas' guiding theme itself—to show that only a superior Greek diabolism could have at last defeated the noble Trojans, from whom the proto-Romans are descended. That is, only a superb deviltry could have brought down ancestral Troy. Somehow, this left-handed compliment to the masterfully insidious Greeks redounds to Trojan and Roman credit.

As for the semi-hysterics of Athena, the less said the better. She does not so much preside over the action as roil the basic plot with countless backslidings and human self-contradictions. The most you can say for her interventions is that she is a supernatural exteriorization and motive force of human indecision and neurosis. But that does not really answer to, no less rationalize, anything. The cascade of shifting and faulty motivations in the characters is merely placed at one more remove from our judgment.

Still, may not classic devotees argue that modern logic and stickling on details were simply not in the minds of our predecessors, especially where the heroic and marvelous were concerned? Playing fast and loose with motives, events, and connections was no literary or artistic fault. The age, the mind-set, was different. Oh? Then, say, instead of a heel, Achilles could have had a vulnerable earlobe or bellybutton by which he was held and steeped into salvational waters? No, too awkward, impractical, absurd. So, at extravagant extremes at least, we do render judgment. In any case, sometimes details are of the essence in a story, and at other arbitrary times they are violated or fudged. So what? Just this: whenever there is lapse, fault fudging, carelessness in art, anywhere, anytime—slipped coherence, marred unity, negligence, indolence, loss of thematic or technical control, downright imposture—that is failure in all of the arts, including literature, ancient or modern. There are no exemptions from universal principles or simple competence and good faith. We are not obliged, out of classic idolatry, to check our minds at the Trojan gates, even or especially if the fictional Trojans did. Furthermore, teachers in particular, guardians of on-going sense even more than of cultural tradition, should welcome all applications of exactitude and right understanding. They earn their credentials, in fact, for subsequent praise they bestow when they censure appropriately. We must school the young in autonomous judgment more than in anything else, in the processes of critical even iconoclastic thinking, certainly not in easy modes or habits of acceptance. We want to foster minds that are properly appreciative—or depreciative—but operative.

Now, to come forward historically, may we focus, another moment on sacrosanct Shakespeare, particularly in his true bailiwick, language? Recall the start of his most famous speech, Hamlet's soliloquy:

To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

If it is possible to disenchant ourselves from the almost hallowed text we have fixed by rote in our memory, consider the renamed image: one takes up arms against a sea. Seeking a symbol of overwhelming force against us, the dramatic poet chooses the vast unstoppable ocean (monosyllabic "sea," of course, is more suitable, metrically and sibilantly, in the particular line). But the concreteness of the arms, "slings" and "arrows"—and we are mindful of the rest of the age's infantry paraphernalia, swords and lances, maces, shields and bucklers, etc.—requires equal and opposite imagery. Or, come to think of it, we are left with the most egregious mixed metaphor in the language. Is the solution not to think of it? Well, understandably, we tend not to subject fond templates of poetry, songs, declarations, speeches, etc. to concentrated thought. But here we are. Stalwart apologista, cudgling their brains, suggest that the whole image may come from naval warfare. But in such combat one would not be liable to defeat by the sea itself as by human fleets and opposing marines.

No rationalization suffices. We are left with the author's simple vocalic problem, a one-word image of insuperable military resistance. "Multitudes" or "legions"? No. The meter requires a monosyllable. "Swarm"? Wrong connotation again. "Horde" is closer, in sense if not sound. "Mass"? Maybe. But there is a better, fitter choice: "host." The word is complementary in context, resonating militarily, historically, even biblically. Oh, the presumption of editing Shakespeare. Nevertheless, while we are at it: consider phonetically the st sound in "against" coming just before, and then the assonantal o bindery "host" and "opposing" in the next line. And the gain is sense: you cannot really take arms against a sea but you can against a human host. Alerted readers may have even apter alternatives, all better than the cliched, dare we say, lazy use of "sea." When his friend and colleague, Ben Jonson, complained that Shakespeare never revised or blotted a line, this must have been a prime example. And yet, as for Vergil and others in antiquity, so for Shakespeare in our middle cultural distance—we unthinkingly accept and celebrate almost anything coming down to us.

This has been, perhaps, a small matter, but indicative. There happens to be a larger presumption—and exculpation, maybe—to bring forward about Hamlet, throwing it in a new light, as we have with the Aeneid, though not necessarily putting it under a cloud. During a conference in Missoula many years ago, professor and writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark (The Oxbow Incident, The Track of the Cat, etc.) confided the following idea, only partly whimsical, about the down-to-earth composition of the whole play. He imagined a back room Globe Theater conference during which Burbage or someone else of the company asked Shakespeare what he had in mind for his next venture. "Oh, something about a melancholy Danish prince, but I've given it up." "Why?" "Because he doesn't do anything, mostly. He hangs around, he speculates, he hesitates. He wants to avenge his father's murder and succession by his uncle, who has also married the queen, Hamlet's mother, but he delays, he doubts, he questions—and he postpones and he dawdles and he doesn't get to it—for about three and a half hours of our stage time, until the sudden huddled end. How can you write a play, for heaven's sake, about inaction? It's a contradiction in terms. I gave it up." "Yes," others concur. But Burbage insists, "Wait. That's just it, Will! I mean for you. At this moment of what all of us in this low business will agree is a transcendent an illustrious, maybe great, career—don't blush under that beard, you know it—it is exactly the sort of thing to attempt." "How can I hold an audience's interest with no development, no on-going real action?" "That's the point. What a technical challenge! At the height of your powers, testing them by stringing out a long play where nothing keeps happening, and holding the audience's interest, gripping it all that time—how can you resist it?! It's unbelievable—but you can do it." And, of course, he does: on that basis he writes a work eventually taken as a marvel of psychiatric insight and profundity but that he accepted as the greatest challenge to stagecraft that he and his colleagues could envision, a triumph of artifice rivaling and forerunning his last works, especially The Tempest. This play was an epitome of pure technique. So much for over-reading. And a pertinent caveat from a respected and technically adept craftsman himself, with a generally independent and unintimidated mind. And if the theory is true, if Shakespeare had been in such a mode for the play as a whole, he may also have inserted other non sequiturs and egregious mixed metaphors to further tweak insiders like Burbage and colleagues like Jonson.


My main concern here is a tutorial argument, not a scholarly or critical revelation. There is immense gain, beyond the practice of aesthetics, when we are teaching literature and the classics, in bringing young minds to independent processes of thought. Yes, the teacher's task is to transmit knowledge and our cultural heritage. (I am not a general deconstructionist.) But even more significant than this function is the help that a teacher provides in fostering an active, ongoing critical judgment. One may make mistakes in that vein, too, as I may have committed here, but the steady possession of a truly independent mind, even quixotic one, the continuing habitual operation of it, including self-amendment, will be a warranty of good sense in our communal activities as well as in our private intellectual life.

Of course, students will not remember the ins and outs of any particular poem or literary exercise later in their lives, no more than they will recall, say, specific theorems of geometry. But in either case they will have been schooled in precision and thoroughness and have been instilled with practical adaptive trends of mind, the ability to recognize and abide ambiguity, a tolerance and readiness for subtlety, the reflex of suspended judgment, the habits of penetration and persistence, pushing to the end or the end after the end—a whole complex of supple, holistic powers of mind that will function subliminally but practically in the next 30 or so years. Not all of these traits and tendencies will be equally instilled in all students, and few if any of them will have been explicit pragmatic aims of their instructors, but they will have ineluctably occurred in sound undergraduate classes hosting sophomores and juniors mainly. That is to say, in a proper core curriculum students will have been formed, not just informed, in ways they themselves may not immediately appreciate but testify to later. These are modes and influences of competent higher education that will be crucial to subsequent careers and, happily sometimes, creative work as well. And one more thing. There is a significant extra advantage in literary study, as students progressively understand the varied works they are reading, the feeling of "getting it" more and more on their own; they come into enhanced self-confidence, deep-down and lasting in its empowerment.

Why present-day humanistic professors have forgotten their role in such a vital educational process is a puzzle. They are defeatist at a time when we most need both their courage and renewed conviction most, even when they are being actually vindicated against the short-sighted corporate-minded officials trying to run academia just now. In their present downheartedness they are surrendering in a spirit of doom and self-abrogation when they should be most buoyed and resilient in defense of all liberal arts and sciences.

[The Montana Professor 21.2, Spring 2011 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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