Saturday, August 26, 2006

Truth and Beauty: Part Deux

J. David Woodard, who teaches political science at Clemson and holds the Strom Thurmond Chair of Government, entered the fray over the book assigned to Clemson freshmen to read this summer, Truth and Beauty.

In the book, a woman makes bad choices in her life and pays the consequences. Sounds like a good book for college freshmen with a new burst of freedom to read. But Dr. Woodard doesn't think the book was appropriate because the author didn't spoon feed the freshmen readers a sermon with the proper moral lesson.
In the words of a local pastor in his letter to President James Barker, 'Lucy eventually pays the price ... not for these mistakes, but for her false sense of invincibility. Little is done to dissipate the moral fog, even by the book's end.'
Woodward quotes John Gardner that
Art is essentially and primarily moral -- that is, life-giving -- in its process of creation and moral in what it says.
Beyond the fact that many would argue with that definition of art, Wikiepida notes that:
[Gardner's] direct and often unflattering (perhaps courageous) judgments of contemporary authors harmed his relationships with many in the publishing industry...

Gardner published "The Life and Times of Chaucer"... [with] several passages in the text that either in whole or in part were lifted directly from works by other authors... [which] Newsweek magazine and other mainstream media outlets were quick to simply label it plagiarism...

John Gardner was married twice... [and] died in a motorcycle accident just days before a scheduled third wedding.
Evidently, Garner never absorbed the lessons of his own uplifting moral fiction. Perhaps Dr. Woordward thinks it would have been more appropriate for Clemson freshmen to have read a biography of the man he holds up as a moral beacon. Gardner clearly seems to have made bad choices and paid a price. Let's make sure, though, in this book that we don't challenge young minds to examine and debate the moral choices that Gardner made, but rather by the end of the book let's make sure we lift the moral fog they surely will be in.

My daughter is a Clemson freshman. She and I attended a reception at Clemson this week, where a top academic official told her that for eighteen years her parents had taught her a value structure and now she was independent and would have to test and build on that value structure herself. An image came to my mind of a National Geographic film where a newly born giraffe struggles and wobbles to get to its feet, teeters a few times, and then runs off into the savannah to make a new life for itself. If all the parts are there properly, the young giraffe will be just fine. It they're not, the youngster is not long for this world.

I'm confident, yet still pray, that my daughter has a strong foundation and will thrive in the intellectual milieu that is Clemson.

10 comments:

Steve Stevenson said...

I can assure you that most faculty I know are quite cognizant of these things call "students" and the responsibility we face. But, like everyone else, we are not perfect.

I always ask my students to be reflective and seek evidence. Some youngsters do and they prosper in the bigger world. Unfortunately, I see many students who have no new ideas after 4 years.

Steve Stevenson said...

I can assure you that most faculty I know are quite cognizant of these things we call "students" and the responsibility we face. But, like everyone else, we are not perfect.

I always ask my students to be reflective and seek evidence. Some youngsters do and they prosper in the bigger world. Unfortunately, I see many students who have no new ideas after 4 years.

J A Greer said...

Isn't a bit of a fallacy to argue that Gardner's definition of art is bad because of incidents in his life?

Would say, arguing that historian Stephen Ambrose judgements about warfare or what makes a good soldier be circumspect because of other historian's views of his approach to popular history (which at times were quite negative) or accusations of plagarism in his last few books? I'm not sure that it would.

Clemson is a secular university, so it does secular things, no one should be surprised by that, least of all those that send their kids there, so the reaction to the book is a bit odd to me.

I am a bit surprised, though, why out of all the great thousands books in the canon of great books, this one was chosen? I don't think I've heard the explanation for that.

Swamp Fox said...

The argument isn't because of incidents in his life Gardner's definition of art is bad. The argument is addition to the fact that many would disagree with Gardner's premise that "art is essentially and primarily moral," his life makes him a poor example of Dr. Woodward to use.

Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others." The Nazi’s used their skill and imagination to create aesthetic experiences. Is Nazi art “essentially and primarily moral?”

Dr. Woodward's argument is that if freshmen read literature that contains the right moral lessons, then freshmen are likely to live more moral lives. But Gardner wrote literature that meets Dr. Woodard's litmus test, and yet Gardner was unable to apply the moral lessons in his literature in his own life. So why does it follow that young freshmen merely reading Gardner's work would absorb moral lessons that he was unable to absorb himself?

J A Greer said...

Again, just for starters, I do think the surprise and reaction to the book by those oppossed to it is odd. I wonder, for example, if the reaction would have been the same if Tom Wolfe's recent novel about the excesses of modern college, I am Charlotte Simmons, would have gotten the same reaction.

The strong arm public relations tactics have gotten out of line, to the point where the chairmen of the CU boart of trustees is calling out Woodard publicly is just not healthy.

But... back to Gardner...to use a personal example, I read the Bible most days. Just about all the time I fail to live up to what it teaches. In other words, I guess you could say I have failed to absorb its moral lessons, and that of a lot of other great moral lit., so should those who fail to absorb great moral lit. lessons, Bible and otherwise, not advocate its reading? I don't think that argument is sustainable.

I do think the NAZI's attempted to use (or misuse) art to advance moral causes (hence their exibits on denegerate art). The problem is their starting point for their morality was wrong. They wanted to use art, through Albert Speer and others, to encourage conformity to type of morality that was wrong, but that doesn't negate the argument that art is constantly used to encourage, challenge and motivate behaviour.

It is nearly impossible to imagine art, literature or otherwise, that does not have a metaphysical teaching & demonstrative element to it.

Swamp Fox said...

Dr. Woodward is free to comment, but Les McCraw (Clemson Chairman) isn't?

J A Greer said...

there are limitations to this type of discussion, aren't there?

The point isn't that Dr. Woodard is free to comment and Les McGraw is not. The point is when something, as supposedly benign as a freshman reading assignment becomes an argument between a professor and board of trustees member, in what originally started as an argument between the school's president and a member of the board of visitors (Wingate), that then exploded into newspaper advertisments and advocacy groups.

Then some serious boundaries exist in rational discussion.

Swamp Fox said...

Actually, it has been a very interesting and healthy discussion for the community. In addition to what you mention, the discussion has also occurred around dinner tables and in break rooms, and in op/eds and letters to the editor.

If they have paid attention, young freshmen have learned lessons far beyond what the faculty at Clemson originally envisioned. My family discussed the book much more than we otherwise would have without the controversy. In a very public way, the debate has helped expose each side for what they are.

One side of the debate sees value in exposing students to diverse ideas, some of which they and the community at large might disagree with. Through this exploration, students will learn to think objectively and grow as individuals.

The other side of the debate believes students must be protected from dangerous ideas and should only be exposed to ideas that are moral, however that is defined. Presumably if students are exposed to immoral ideas, they lack the fundamental values and intellectual capacity not to be led down a path of destruction.

One of the things young freshmen must decide over the next four years is which type of community they would like to be a part of. One thing is certain. If a freshman leaves Clemson four years from now the same person that entered Clemson today, she's missed what the university is all about.

Anonymous said...

Swamp Fox,

It's pretty clear that you utilize ad hominem attacks to refute Gardner's position. Instead of identifying why art is NOT "essentially and primarily moral" in nature and purpose, your post focuses on how Gardner was a hypocrite.

For the sake of intellectual exchange, remove Gardner from the picture to make your argument. Likewise, support your argument with less contentious points--using one definition of art to refute another renders your rebuttal fairly pointless. And for Pete's sake, stop borrowing your definitions of art from online encyclopedias.

Swamp Fox said...

I didn't make an ad hominem attack on Gardner. I challenged Woodward’s assertion that students ought to be exposed only to moral works so they will lead moral lives. Gardner wrote works that Woodward views as moral yet Gardner lived an immoral life. So how does it follow that if students merely read Gardner's works they will be led to a more moral life than Gardner led? Woodward’s argument is fallacious.

Beyond that, if you read my last post, Gardner wasn't even mentioned. What was mentioned is that one side of this debate believes students will grow by challenging them to think, and the other side believes they need to be protected from dangerous ideas. That's really the crux of this debate. What people who criticize Clemson are concerned about is that students were exposed to the wrong ideas.

Whether art is essentially moral or not is not fundamental to my case. And I never suggested that Britannica Online’s definition of art was right, merely that it was a definition of art that did not require a creative expression to be moral to be art. Therefore whether or not art is essentially moral is a point that is subject to debate.

Young freshmen will grow by thinking deeply themselves about whether or not the essence of all art is moral. Students can even debate the merits of whether they'll find truth in the wisdom of the crowd reflected in an online resource like Wikipedia, or in the wisdom of authorities like the Britannica Online, or in the wisdom of an enlightened individual like Gardner or Woodard.

You seem to be afraid that if students are asked to think deeply about important questions they might arrive at the wrong answers. You’re certain that you have the answers that students should be led to, so students should be protected from those with different views that are “wrong.” That is in direct conflict with what any great university should be about.