…the insidious cultural tendency of students to think of themselves as customers…
People keep saying this, but it won’t change the simple fact that students are customers. (And their teachers, by the way, are employees.) Perhaps the more insidious cultural problem is the ubiquitous dissimulation of market relations as non-market relations. For instance, Mr. Almond goes on to refer to my favorite term, “literary citizenship”—what is this but the salesman’s cant moralized?: “Subscribe to my magazine or else you’re a bad citizen!”
Much of what Almond discusses in his essay is true enough—our culture is rotten with a cheap, carping, spectatorial negativity. We’ve forgotten that the spectator’s genuinely broader perspective—furnished by the contingency of distance—comes at the high cost of not acting, not creating. Or rather, we haven’t forgotten it, but tried to repress it, and the resentful whine in our tone is the evidence of our guilty conscience: we piss and moan out of powerlessness, corralled in our media pens, and we know it. I was an early adopter of this mode: you should have seen my blog in 2005, it was a pre-Twitter festival of unremitting outrage toward this or that. And then I realized that not only was such a mode useless—worse than useless, in fact, because it was a stealth mode of advertising for what I supposedly thought pernicious, as all censorious discourse ultimately is—it was a waste of energy that could be put into creation of work I judged beautiful, interesting, and insightful. Because making such work would put me into action, I would lose the spectator’s privilege of absolute judgment, but the rewards (the inner rewards, I mean) would be greater, and they have been.*
But…college students—including those in non-funded MFA programs—are still customers, quite literally. None of the foregoing changes that. As a teacher, I handle this ineluctable fact in the following ways: 1. I transparently explain how what I teach will be useful and necessary to them; 2. I try to teach material of broad necessity and usefulness, scorning the tendency to use the courses I am assigned as mere platforms for my own niche interests (yes, professors, we may be aged and weary of Plato, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison, but there are 18-year-olds who have not read them yet!); 3. I try to avoid making excessive and unnecessary moral judgments (“entitled!”) on students who, if their behavior is impolite, have simply not yet been taught any better. When my students are wrong, I tell them—nothing in the exchange of services for money prevents that. They may not accept my judgment, but that was the bargain made when we went from feudalism to capitalism. Marx and Engels, after all, praised capitalism extravagantly in the beginning of the Manifesto, precisely because it put an end to the cultural coercions of power relations disguised as ethical relations (i.e., master and man as one happy family).
Art is a different matter, in that—unlike education, which may be formalized—it is always an ethical relation between the artist and the world. I believe that art must be shielded from the hasty judgments of the market, at least for a time, usually by the mediation of public or private institutions willing to pay artists for “whatever,” trusting that the “whatever” will eventually prove itself valuable in ways not immediately visible to the money people. To that extent, art must be protected from its customers insofar as they have a consumer mentality. This is because, among other things, mystery is essential to art, the unfathomable is the core of it, transparency is fatal to it. Art, therefore, is anti-capitalist (also anti-socialist, as socialism too is the quantification of the spirit). Education’s rigors lie elsewhere, and while I won’t say there’s no mystery involved in it, the elements of contract, which have no place in literature itself because literature does not deal in fixed quantities, can be respected if one only makes the effort on either side.
* I’m not for a minute coming out against negative reviews; I write them myself—all the time! I’m against ambient negativity, atmospheric sarcasm, a cultural tone in which nothing serious can be discussed. Negative critical judgments are important and essential, as long as they are made with reference to and in service of higher values.