Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Alma Mater

(Cover image by Charles W. Smith)

Alma Mater: The Gothic Age of the American College describes Henry Seidel Canby's youth and early professional years as both a student and professor at Yale University. As with his previous work, The Age of Confidence, Alma Mater paints a nostalgic image of pre- and early-twentieth century life, though sometimes demonstrating a disturbing ambivalence about that era's stereotypical notions.

I read Alma Mater as a professor who is interested in the changing practices and values of college life. Yet I was surprised by how similar Canby's experiences were to mine. This entry does not seek to "review" Alma Mater. Rather I hope to weave together some quotes from the book that illustrate the strangely consistent patterns of his day and our own.

Initially I was touched by Canby's recollections of undergraduate life. He noted how the daily grind of coursework, particularly the demand to endure professors' dull recitations on outworn topics, was swiftly forgotten by the willful choice made by kids to ignore both past and future and live only for the moment, celebrating freedom without consequence:
What frankness, for we had little to conceal! What fresh perceptions, for we had seen so little! What confidence, since the difference between success and failure seemed still to be an accident which a push could avoid! And those moonlights, marching home from our mild carouses, hearts released in convivial expansiveness, singing... (p. 35)
Much of the book concentrates on Canby's experiences as a Yale professor, a position that allowed the author to reflect on college life as two parallel but distinct worlds becoming permeable to one another only through excruciating effort:
They [the professors] talked to us as visitors at the Zoo might deal with a jaguar from the jungle, futility and ignorance on either side of the bars. Their neat categories of thinking were cages into which our disorderly and somewhat childish imaginations refused to step. We kept our vigor, our rich loyalty, our faith in a panacea called success. They kept their naive confidence in facts and theory unrelated to the social environment. They talked in a vacuum while we breathed the raw air from outside. (p. 93)
Yale's student body, especially those who came from moneyed backgrounds, saw college as a post-adolescent idyll that offered the added benefit of assuring even the dimmest kids some increased chance of material advancement, if only through their associations with various clubs and fraternal organizations. College was both a retreat from the outside world and a conveyance to that world. Consequently, the entreaties offered by professors to wander the groves of academic pursuits were heartily dismissed by virtually all their students:
For I quickly learned, intuitively, crudely, yet I learned, that whether it was the history of the English language, or Shakespeare, that I was trying to teach, the actual conflict was not with ignorance but with college life and all that it implied; and behind it the ideas and ideal of an American society in which materialism dominated action and governed thought. One could plant facts by waving a mark book, but when it came to ideas, beliefs, ideals, the soil was stubborn. (pp. 108-109)
While professors struggled to maintain some sense of relevance amid a society that valued practicality over abstraction, students generally eschewed the hard labor of the mind, choosing instead the quick and easy paths through educational thickets. Canby marveled at the willful ignorance demonstrated by both sides in this silly performance:
It seemed to me incredible that a mature and civilized person, who in private life had an impeccable character and often geniality and charm, should be willing to earn a living (and usually a meagre living) by asking trivial questions day after day of young men who had either memorized the answers as the easiest way of getting on with college life and their real education, or constructed a system of bluff so transparent that only a defeatist who did not believe in education would have stood for it. I understand more now of the exigencies of life and the conditions upon which a scholar was permitted to be an intellectual in those days. Even so I wonder when I think of men I know who have persisted in this rigamarole for thirty years. (pp. 64-65)
Even when their students had departed the classroom, a majority of Canby's professors withered, their rough vines hacked to make room for more efficient farms of knowledge. Specialization inspired by the transition from liberal arts monastery to twentieth-century university swept a number of ambitious academics along, leaving many great minds stuck in abandoned furrows. For some, the result was bitterness: "Arrogance, pedantry, and dogmatism . . . the occupational diseases of those who spend their lives directing the intellects of the young" (p. 135). Other professors cheerfully abandoned any pretense to practicality, choosing instead to build vast and intricate mazes that they alone would chart until their careers collapsed at last among boxes of meaningless files bundled for burning:
I know a so-called fabulist in my days in the graduate school, who for years had compared manuscript with manuscript of the fables of Aesop, tracing their indebtedness one to another by the use of "wolf" for "fox" or a peculiarity in the ass that wore the lion's skin, until he had curves of dates and influences running clear across the European Middle Ages. It all meant nothing . . . It meant no more than counting the bricks in a hundred city blocks. Yet he was a happy man. His task extended onward indefinitely. He would never finish, and so need never draw conclusions. He had a puzzle so good that it got him a professorship. The case was extreme, yet illuminating. (pp. 204-205)
Canby noted that the professorate was, at least in his era, marked by the drudgery of social hierarchy and the disheartenment of blasé students. Most professors sought safety from that strange and fickle world, living in a perpetual fear of their undoing by a society that couldn't care less about poetry or ethics or philosophy. In the manner evoked by Wordsworth I am tempted to call those few who affirm the value of their pursuits happy warriors. Such a professor:
who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired
Yet Canby's description of the persistent professor who continues to stoke the fires of his own inner light is far too grim for such optimism. It is duty more than joy that animates the college professor. And still, one may recall a rare moment when the professor transforms solitary resolve into passionate demand, exhorting students to question the values of naked ambition and clothe themselves in garments of virtue:
He knew that his ordering of Shakespeare's sonnets or his analysis of the subjunctive in Anglo-Saxon, was a permanent contribution, however slight, to the fund of human knowledge, more permanent, if less immediately useful, than a factory or a lawsuit. Yet he knew also that to the country, and to his students, his work seemed to be an eccentricity of a belated adolescent, who played twenty questions while life roared past outside his study window. Remembering Mary and Martha, he wondered whether his dutiful service in the kitchen of literature would be properly appreciated, even by the Deity. It was after such moments of painful introspection that he would close his books, and with a grim resolve to make himself felt in his generation, charge into his classroom, and grapple with the callow imagination of his pupils, until even their conventional minds were ploughed up and planted here and there with distrust of their own smugness. Thus great teachers might be made. (pp. 212-213)
I don't claim to be that kind of teacher. I still have two or three decades of growth ahead, and even then I don't expect to be done learning (or teaching) anything of value. Still I recognize some of my own experiences in Canby's memoir, even while I teach in a vastly different environment. And I feel renewed in my respect for those who enter the classroom seeking to add something to the lives of students who may not recognize the value of that gift until they are long gone.

Canby, H.S. (1936). Alma mater: The Gothic Age of the American college. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

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