My problems with the engineering students had to do with their arrogance and shallowness. Those were universal traits in the students I got from the engineering department (and I’ll throw business majors into that category, too), and I think when I read Armey’s remarks, he reminded me so much of my old students that I had to lash out. I had quite a few pre-med students as well, and a lot of them shared that arrogance (the extreme shallowness was less of a problem with potential doctors), but there were exceptions.
My other problem with engineer wannabes was their shallow thinking. To put it in the bluntest terms, not one of them had ever read a challenging novel, essay, poem or play. They had reached their late teens without ever having thought a serious thought, without ever having challenged their own immediate perceptions in any way. Their understanding of human behavior was straight out of sitcoms and the cheapest, most exploitational movies. Black and white. Them and us. Good and evil. Unless they have aged better than I expect, I don’t think any of them would be capable today of understanding that there was anything odd about the notion of a “war” on “evil.”
started me thinking, and, as happens sometimes, a light went on in my head.
I went back to Dawns post on parenting, which said
When I look back at those first months of Lily’s life all I can remember are just snapshots of moments. I was so exhausted and overwhelmed. I feared sundown for the first month because I knew I would be tired and in need of sleep, but Lily would be wide-awake. We spent many nights in the rocking chair, her looking up at me out of the corner of her eye, nestled at my breast, me reading every child care manual I had – over and over.
Lily grew, as all children do and soon she will be three. We don’t see eye to eye on most things and she tests my boundaries every chance she gets. She is frenetic, stubborn, ornery, devilish, smart, sweet, manipulative, interesting and thoughtful. Sometimes I think she hates me, sometimes I think I am the only person she loves. Sometimes I want to tape her mouth closed, sometimes I want to cry because she is so insightful and bright.
which led to Devras reply where she said:
But I wonder if they weigh the mistakes they’ve made against the positives & find they’re somehow lacking. I can’t imagine that a loving parent would say they ‘regret’ having children, but I wonder if there isn’t a small voice inside asking “Are you sure you made the right decision?”
If you’re a parent, are you allowed to wonder if you’re the last person in the world who should be trying to raise children? If you’re a parent, are you allowed to doubt yourself? How do you get past that terror? How do you get through each day without thinking you’re fucking it all up?
And what do you do when you do fuck it all up?
Now, I admire the hell out of both Dawn and Devra (except for the whole Dawn stalking me thing, but shes accepted the restraining order with a certain grace that bespeaks experience
), but theres a thread here I want to try and follow, and to bring out for your consideration.
Its about self-doubt, and self-criticism, and a perception that maybe traps us an endless loop of self-criticism and self-doubt. Look. Doubt, and a willingness to change are critical to any kind of progress. Some measure of introspection and self-questioning are a part of any adult. But when they become the dominant strain in one’s philosophy or spirituality, I think there are consequences, both personal and political, that are serious and negative.
Jeannes post centers on the difference between someone she considers literate and deep (Dick Armeys words, not hers, but they fit here), and someone who deliberately isnt.
Now, Ive got a foot in each world. Many of my friends here in L.A. are poets, writers, and artists, many are engineers and businessman (the artists have better parties). Maybe thats part of what makes me so weird. But one thing that I do see is that the relentlessly self-critical attitude (and yes, I do mean to tie this in both to critical theory and to Maoist self-criticism) is one that brings with it a certain set of bags, and a certain philosophical worldview…and hence, Ill argue, a certain politics.
That politics is based on an inherent doubt and distrust of authority, of the future, of our fellow citizens and it results in an increasing bureaucratization of risk, the paralysis of over-analysis and a worship of a perpetual, inclusive process over result.
But inside where it counts we are left insecure, unconfident, anxious.
And part of what I see in todays society and part what I am sure drives people toward religious fundamentalism is the corrosive self-doubt that has become the reflexive position of a modern thinker. This doubt cuts to the core issues deepest in our lives.
Dawn doubts if she can be a good enough mother.
Devra doubts if she should be a mother at all.
And in reaction to that pervasive doubt, some people choose a mad kind of certainty.
Ill turn to John Gardners On Moral Fiction for a response.
The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions for instance those between modernist and post-modernist — that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever to read, criticism has become trivial.
In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, hollow and academic, I argue by reason and by banging the table for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be. Not that I want the joy taken out of the arts; but even frothy entertainment is not harmed by a touch of moral responsibility, at least by an evasion of the too fashionable simplifications. My basic message throughout this book is as old as the hills, drawn from Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, and the rest, and standard in Western civilization down through the eighteenth century; one would think that all critics and artists should be thoroughly familiar with it, and perhaps many are. But my experience is that in university lecture halls, or in kitchen at midnight, after parties, the traditional view of art strikes most people as strange news.
The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us. I do not deny that art, like criticism, may legitimately celebrate the trifling. It may joke, or mock, or while away the time. But trivial art has no meaning or value except in the shadow of more serious art, the kind of art that beats back the monsters and, if you will, makes the world safe for triviality. That art which tends toward destruction, the art of nihilists, cynics, and merdistes, is not properly art at all. Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy. It is a tragic game, for those who have the wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose; a comic game or so a troll might say because only a clown with sawdust brains would take out side and eagerly join in.
And some of those people with sawdust brains walk up the stairs of burning buildings into tragedy, because they choose life over death, and hope over doubt. They aren’t all engineers, some of them are poets.