Fear the Reaper Posted by Hello
"Is there a pessimism of the strong?"-Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy
I would like to preface this entire post by saying, clearly I should not read German philosophy. My avoidance of German philosophy up until now has not so much been because I don't like it or agree with it, but more to prevent fme rom killing myself or others in a fit nihilist mania. ( Can nihilists be manic?)
However, I have to teach Nietzsche next week and so I spent this weekend reading the Birth of Tragedy. Let me tell you, you don't know the Birth of Tragedy until you deal with two of my classes and then go into a staff meeting where 12 adults argue over a comma for fifteen minutes.
On the other hand, I suppose as the declared Queen of Righteous Anger ( thank you Bakerina) I have a certain obligation to rant. I wouldn't want "all y'all" to feel deprived.
For some reason about half way through any given semester, I begin wanting to come to work with a cowl and a scythe- telling my kids "Your parents should have drowned you like kittens when you were born. And honestly, I have more use for kittens." ( I told my mother when I was very young, I didn't want to have children I wanted to have kittens. I stand by that commitment.)* I was speaking to a fellow academic who is the enviable position of only doing research ( she is a sociologist) at Harvard ( on weekends she is a bartender-go figure). Dr. Bartender told me, "At Harvard, the kids come to class prepared. They have the reading, they bring it with them, they have questions. They are very motivated students. " I told her if my class ever came to one session, JUST ONE, with that kind of preparation, I would actually have to leave the room in order to weep. I'm not kidding. I would have to politely excuse myself, close the door and sink to my knees as tears silently cascaded down my cheeks my arms upstretched to G-d whose Divine Mercy had just physically manifested itself in my class.
Instead I get students falling asleep while I try to do my stunning performance art/comedy act version of Rousseau. I try to get them interested, I try to bring up modern politics and entertainment BUT they still want me to do their thinking for them. And with every year, I become more cycnical, more hardened, and more convinced that really NONE of these kids deserve higher education. They should go work at Starbucks or Tower Records and enjoy an employee discount until they actually WANT an education. Having an educated society is a great idea, but as a person trying to get these kids to actually warm up a brain cell on occassion, I don't think it's even remotely possible. And you can talk about all kinds of causes, but to me the primary reason is very simple: the US is an amazing indulgent nation and that indulgence has begotten not only the tolerance, but the absolutely reverence of instinctive gratification. It's not simply that my kids are ignorant, but they are in love with their ignorance. They regard the educated and the passionate with a jaundiced eye.
Machiavelli saw man as a balance between the bestial and the rational (The Allegory of Chiron). For all of the proclaiming that Machiavelli was a pessimist or a shattered idealist, it seems he was truly an optimist. My students bring to mind a phrase from Rowan Atkinson, they are "a herd of steaming social animals." Aside from their ability to text message, I see little in the way of the rational. They are, in the words of Kevin Spacey, the living example of what is wrong with the "Mtv microwave generation, you all want it now." ( Swimming with Sharks) Even the other professors, for example The Mistake who revealed today that she didn't know who John Edwards is, demonstrate a marked lack of embracing anything vaguely ressembling an "examined life".
This insitinctive quest for pleasure has far reaching negative implications including facilitating manipulation. In an introduction to S/Z, Richard Howard warns that the instinctive pursuit of pleasure is terrorism. "We must learn, when we take, the cost of our participation, or else we shall pay much more." Yet Americans continue to pursue the "easiest" path. A student told me this morning that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a good movie because "It made it easy. It made it so you didn't have to think." (This response runs contrary to Moore' "I just want to start a conversation/inquiry" platform) But certainly a public that wants its news in an "entertaining" manner is going to have accept some sacrifices like accuracy and autonomy.
Mark Edmondson, his essay "On the Uses of a Liberal Education As Lite Entertainment For Bored College Students " , concurrs with my finding (he more elaborately ties student apathy and the need to be entertained to consumerism in a nicely argued package). "A democracy needs to constantly develop, and to do so it requires the most powerful visionary minds to interpret the present and to propose possible shapes for the future." But how is the development of anything more than the next big blockbuster possible when you have people with the attention span of a gerbil on crack?
Oh I could go on and huff and puff and bring in Nietzche and Rousseau and Machiavelli, I could pontificate, but I'm tired. I'm tired of being enraged by such a state of affairs. I'm ready to lay down the cowl and scythe and just go into publishing, or even better, bartending.
Bucket of martinis anyone?
*A physician friend of mine was the master of insulting comments about his staff and co-workers. On one occassion I stopped by his office and asked him how things were going. He turned and said, "Some days I feel like coming down here dressed in all black with a large black brim hat like Max von Sydow inthe Exorcist and asking my staff 'DO YOU RENOUNCE SATAN?'"

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