Thursday, September 3, 2009

Clever Titles and Life From Here on Out

Here I sit, 22 years old, a BA under my belt, and a part-time work schedule which fills my weeks that might pay my many student loans to be paid in the months/years to come. Before I continue, but before I prolong this piece of writing for too long, let me reassure the reader that I have thought out the point of this blog entry and what is certain is that this is not a blog-rant where I essentially write a diary entry online with the assumption/hope that someone will care. In case my opening line hinted at that kind of writing let me put your boredom to rest and continue on.

So, as I have said, I am out of college now, I possess an expensive degree, I have some great friends that seem like they will last, though some have already dwindled away, and now I must answer the very frequented question, "what are you going to do now?" Every single person reaches this point in their life--this point in which they have finished what they were doing and now will inevitably do something else. So many books and motivational speeches are given on this topic. It seems to be cliche and yet, I ask myself this question every day, "what am I going to do now."

To give a little context, at the beginning of this summer, I snagged myself three part time jobs that all mustered up to 36 hours a week. That's like working full time--kind of, except without benefits. Since then one job has effortlessly fallen to the waist side, my dog kennel assistantship which seemed just to be a seasonal summer job while everyone goes on vacation and leaves their dogs in someone else's care. Simultaneously, my sales associate position at Cost Plus World Market has invited me to work more hours bumping me up to working part-time over (20-35 hrs/ week). The third job is a volunteer position at my church's Reading Room, where I manage the merchandise and serve one shift a week.

Somehow, by working three random jobs week after week, they have already begun to move themselves like plate tectonics--the dog kennel job ending and the World Market job growing. It then occurs to me that perhaps life is in motion all on its own. Certainly I make choices for myself, I wake up, make a day for myself and then go to sleep. However, with just a little effort from my own hands, it seems that life is moving my choices forward and backward in a way that seems to all work together.

So now I return to my prodding question, "what will I do now." My retail job is not what I intend to do for the rest of my life and the customers I strike up conversations with at World Market assume to the same as well. Many customers can tell that I am in or just out of school and often ask me about my schooling and then follow up by asking, "what are you going to do now?" obviously insinuating that I am not already stationed at my career's end, which is true.

What is fascinating though, is while I once assumed that my "career" would include saving the world, working in Washington DC, or a variety of other vague options that end up making me important, as those who study International Relations should be, I am surprised by how satisfied I am with my retail job. I like selling the ever "authentic, unique and affordable" World Market merchandise as well as bonding with customers while I do it. I have a great boss who is wonderful mentor for management and team building. And before I know it, my temporary, "easy" retail job has turned into a new avenue of a career that I thought I was only resting on until I figured something else out. Again, it seems quite truly that life is in motion and my random choices have led me right where I need to be.

Since becoming aware of my potential to work in retail I have a whole new vision for where I might be headed, for instance being a buyer for World Market which would send me around the world to buy those items which I currently love to sell and talk about excitedly with customers. And I don't think I would be a very good buyer without the grassroots experience I am getting now of working in store and hearing customer's reactions to products.

So good for me, why do you care? Thus far in this piece I have spoken in specifics--specific to my life--however, at the beginning of the summer I wished there was a handbook that was going to make my mysterious future make sense or have some context. This is my effort to document for whomever else might benefit what I am learning and build my version of a handbook.

I have learned that we make choices that make sense at the time even if they seem small and inconsequential or even unconnected what you think you should do. In my case, I still don't know the exact timeline of where I'm headed or how I'll get there, but now I somehow magically know more than I did before. I have found that I don't need to know where I am going to be a year from now. I am where I am today and that is enough because whenever tomorrow comes I'm pretty sure that will be enough and I'll have what I'll need then too.

Whenever we come to these crossroads where we need to redefine ourselves all we can do is turn down a road that looks good and if that's not the right road it'll become clear (as was the case for me at the dog kennel, and then the owner soon after didn't need the extra help any more). If it's the right road it will keep expanding until a new road appears. So, while I have been wishing I had something impressive to tell people when they asked me what I am doing with my life, life evolves as it will in its own time and should only be impressive so far as it is satisfying to oneself. Though I have no clever title for this piece, and though I still don't have a job title that says much, I am where I need to be, I am who I am, life is moving forward and that is enough. The rest will come.

Monday, May 25, 2009 - Top 20 Guy Books

Top 20 Guy Books

Playboy has taken to providing a extensive series of top twenty lists. As always Playboy in this undertaken has proven to be a driving force of American culture. More often then presumed by most Playboy's editorial staff has a keen eye for what it is that makes culture, well culture. In the field of literature it is no different. The above link leads to a top twenty list of American literature for men. It is a knock out collection of must read literature. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Examples Sartre’s Concept of Bad Faith in Modern Literature

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower
literature contains an endless array of examples of Sartre’s notion of bad faith. Understanding these examples of bad faith in modern literature is important to understanding its philosophical place. It is in literature that the common man truly grapples with philosophical problems and ideals. We see this catholic layman takes to task the twisted tales of Augustan’s Confessions not the highly technical and even abstract works of Aristotle. In Sartre’s own words, “Literature is everything or nothing… a novelist cannot deal with the slightest concrete detail of life without becoming involved with everything” (Sartre, 1961, p. 12). When the novelist takes up the pen all the issues surrounding him take to the page with him. Sartre goes on to explain that no writer can hope to truly portray any concrete part of human existence without inadvertently dealing with all the others in some way. Bad faith is a topic to be seen and dealt with in a wide spectrum of modern literature, for this paper in particular, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
Bad faith is an ordinary French expression which was turned into a key concept of existentialism by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre described bad faith as a self deception which has at its goal the avoidance of one’s own freedom. Some critics, like Robert J. Yanal, reduce bad faith to the simple paradox of self deception. This ignores the critical transcendent nature of bad faith. In the aforementioned novel two examples of bad faith can be drawn out. These two examples will bring to light bad faith’s place in modern literature and in the modern world. Viewed in the context of existential literature bad faith is shown only to exist in the presentence of transcendence, a transcendence that is captured in the essence of the existential novel.
Existential Literature
“We must start with the bourgeois world. There is no other starting point. In this sense Existentialism is a bourgeois ideology, certainly. But this is only the starting point” (Sartre, 1961, p. 16). Existentialism above all else is the philosophy of the street. So why begin with the middle class? Because they control the means to produce everything even literature. It is in such a world that literature, according to Sartre, does not change people. Its effects are not long lasting enough and do not bring individuals to action. It is for literature, through its description of the world, to bring context and meaning to individual experiences. Literature makes subjective the experiences of the other in the form of a narrative. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower we are confronted with the life of a young man named Charlie. Charlie witnesses bad faith and experiences it. These experiences allows Charlie to view the other as an object and allows Charlie to feel the shame of being viewed himself as an object. Before we confront what bad faith is and how it is portrayed in the novel let us begin first with the transcendent nature of existential literature.
After World War II existentialism first found realization in the novels and plays of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Marcel and others. These where far more accessible and more widely read by the general public (Michelman, 2008, 143). A piece of literature can be said to be existential in nature when it expresses and ‘idea or content associated with existentialism, such as bad faith and alienation. In this story the reader is the other (Michelman, 2008, 143).’ The novel takes the form of a series of journal entries passed on to the reader as anonymous letters. This form is very similar to Sartre’s Nausea and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The novel in question here has little to do with the characteristic existence of objects which abounds in works like Nausea and focuses on transcendence.
The reader is the chosen recipient not because they know Charlie, know any of his friends, or hold any position in his physical life, but simply because there name is over heard in a conversation. Charlie understands only that the reader is a good person. The reader has no opportunity to view Charlie as an en-sai. To the reader Charlie is, in an unconventional way, the pure abstracted transcendent conciseness of another (por-sai). Charlie is characterized in the novel by Sartre’s chief example of transcendences, shame (Sartre, 1956, p.198). Sartre describes shame as ‘non-positional self-consciousness, consciousness (of) itself as shame or what the Germans call Erlebnis. This is consciousness as it is lived before any sort of conceptualization, the opposite of Erfahrung. Sartre gives example:
I have made an awkward or vulgar gesture. This gesture clings to me; I neither judge it or blame it. I simply live it. I realize it in the mode of for-itself. But suddenly I raise my head. Somebody was there and has seen me. Suddenly I realize the vulgarity of my gesture, and I am ashamed (Sartre, 1956, p. 197).
Sartre proclaims that no man can be vulgar alone. There is no internal base for evaluating vulgarity. Shame manifests itself as a physical emotion which we feel immediately upon discovering the other. Charlie feels shame as he describes everything from masturbation to thoughts of suicide. When he confronts and describes a shameful act he often follows with a series of apologetic remarks often leaving the reader with no real explanation of his actions. Sartre agrees with Husserl in stating that conciseness is conciseness of something (Sartre, 1956, p.lx). Although by the beginning of Sartre’s chapter on bad faith he has taken this conception several steps forward. Now he can, through identifying the human capability of negation, that “Consciousness is a being, the nature of which is to be conscious of the nothingness of its being.” Charlie knows he can annihilate himself not only physically but consciously. In comprehending his classmate’s suicide he realizes the absurdity of his own existence.
Charlie is in the beginning a sequester. After confronting the suicide of a classmate he finds himself with no friends and consumed by the constant floating fever that is consciousness. It is a consciousness very much like the one described by Sartre. Charlie is constantly gobbling up new experiences. He is constantly consumed by Sartre’s ideal of negation. A missing classmate, a room where he used to watch TV with his aunt, a mix tape abandoned by his sister are all examples of the sorts of absences which Charlie is found to be penetrating and becoming a part of. As Charlie makes new friends and expands his range of experiences he deals with his emotions by writing. Sartre was at one time fascinated by the “sequestered life” before coming to realize it as myth. “There is a common myth-it was very common in my youth-about the writer or the poet who locks himself up and just writes and writes because he can't help himself. It's his nature to be a writer and that's all there is to it (Sartre, 1961, p.16).” If Sartre found this myth to be untrue then Charlie proves it to be untrue. The moment Charlie begins to write all the experiences of his life begin to flood in. Even when he talks about writing a book report he confesses to interpreting the literature he reads in terms of his own experiences. Through his own literature and other Charlie transcends his own being. He begins to realize the absurdity of his existence. He is at the end a being which questions itself, a Dazien.
Examples of Bad Faith
Sartre gives the example of the French waiter. We need only examine George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London to realize why a French waiter would seek out deception as a form of avoiding his own freedom.
The waiter’s outlook is quite different. He too is proud in a way of his skill, but his skill is chiefly in being servile. His work gives him the mentality, not of a workman, but of a snob. He lives perpetually in sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes.
The waiter according to Sartre only plays at being a waiter. He fancies himself as more than just a waiter, as a great writer in training or simply imagines himself as a man of greater class than he is. As Sartre points out all of the waiter’s movements are too precise and overly exaggerated. He is too eager to take the customer’s order. He, as Orwell pointed out, is not a workman as the waiter only plays at being a waiter. He cannot be a waiter as a en-sai is what it is (i.e. a rock is a rock). Instead all of the facticity of being a waiter refers to the transcendent other, the society which acts to turn his consciousness into an en-sai. His desire to be more than a waiter in this way manifests as an act of bad faith.
Charlie becomes a prime example of Sartre’s notion of bad faith. Charlie is a pour-sai (for-it-self) which realizes himself as an en-sai (in-itself) when confronted by the other. In each of his journal entries Charlie gains this same level of transcendence through the reader. Charlie is constantly attempting to explain or account for his feelings, actions, and ideas to the reader. Through this transcendence Charlie attempts to authenticate himself. In the end he only becomes transformed into an en-sai by the reader. No one can be in state of bad faith on his own. The transcendent nature of existential literature is essential to bad faith’s place within.
Bad faith is found not only in the structure of the novel but also in the narrative itself. Sartre provides us with a narrative of his own, that of a young woman under the courtship of a new boyfriend. While dating she disarms all of his comments of their sensual meanings. In an act of transcendence his approaches become ‘sincere and respectful as the table is round or square’ (Sartre, 1956, p.55). When he acts on his desires by taking her hand or brushing the hair from her face she is forced to confront the facticity of his desire for her. Instead she reduces the acts of her companion to the mode of the in-itself, to a simple en-sai. She is a being who has at the heart of its essence nothingness. This ability allows her to negate her facticity through transcendence and perpetuate a state of bad faith.
Charlie’s sister is in a state of bad faith. She finds herself perused by a young man at school. She views him with distain tossing the mix tapes he makes for her in the trash or handing them off to Charlie. In this way she reduces his desires to objects of distain. She continues to see him but often belittles and betrayers his affections keeping him constantly at arm’s length. All this lead to the point where she was forced to confront his advances head on:
“You see. Even Charlie stood up to his bully. You see.” And this guy got really red-faced. And he looked at me. Then, he looked at her. And he wound up and hit her hard across the face. I mean hard. I just froze because I couldn’t believe he did it. It was not like him at all to hit anybody. He was the boy that made mix tapes with themes and hand-colored covers until he hit my sister and stopped crying (Chbosky, 1999, p.11).
She now begins a sexual affair with the brown haired boy. But she remains in a state of bad faith in convincing herself that she is loved. That she is respected by him. She is clearly aware now that she is nothing more than an object of sexual desire. She chooses instead to remain in a state of bad faith.
Charlie lives in his own state of bad faith. Throughout the novel Charlie is constantly trying to reconcile to lose of his great aunt. He remembers spending time with her. He remembers her life story. He grieves at her graveside. We find Charlie constantly excusing his aunt for her melancholy or derailed state of affairs. It becomes clear that Charlie is trying to account for something more then all of that. In the end we discover the Charlie was sexually abused by his aunt. Was this memory repressed? We must be cautious of excusing Charlie’s consciousness of its role based on such a Freudian phrase. Sartre explains:
Psychoanalysis substitutes for the notion of bad faith, the idea of a lie without a liar; it allows me to understand how it is possible for me to be lied to without lying to myself since it places me in the same relation to myself that the other is in respect to me… (Sartre, 1956, p. 51)
The relation of the ‘id’ and the ‘ego’ still demands a censor or barrier between two distinct consciousnesses within the individual. Such a barrier itself still contains the capability to be in a state of bad faith. More interesting in the wide spectrum of literature is the question of whether repressed memories, or ‘dissociative amnesia’, has any legitimate existence as a disorder. A group of leading psychologist in 2006 challenged the existence of ‘dissociative amnesia’ by challenging the general public to provide any example within literature of dissociative amnesia prior to 1800’s and the development of Freudian psychology (Pope, 2006, p.1). No examples where produced. While not definitive, when viewed alongside Sartre’s assertions we are left to question the existence of such a psychological condition.
What we must recognize here is that bad faith is above all else more than simple self-deception. Critics such as Robert J. Yanal seem to ignore the part played by transcendence. Yanal wishes to reduce bad faith to a simple paradox where an individual accepts a false belief rather than a simultaneously held true belief (Yanal, 2007, p.109). In a length series examples Yanal explores all sort of theoretical self deceptions, none of which seem to consider the importance played by transcendence. The negation of lying does ‘not bear on the consciousness itself; it aims only at the transcendent’ (Sartre, 1956, p.48). The facticity of the individual’s actual self rests on the transcendent.
Charlie transcends is actuality through the reader. He has found himself in a foreign world left to question his own right to exist. He struggles to understand the paradoxical emotions of not only his sister but many others around him. He feels all the classical effects of being reduced to and en-sai through the transcendent power of the reader. This is proper since in the end Charlie is not real. He has no conscious existence or material existence to which he could even constitute an en-sai outside of the readers own consciousness. In this way Charlie is acceptable to the read in a way that most individuals in bad faith are not typically acceptable to us. He is idealized. The contingent nature of his existence allows for a idealized example of bad faith. Someone in complete position of the truth and at the same moment completely self deceived into believe that he is something he is not. Charlie wants to be normal instead he’s a victim of sexual abuse and he carries this scare under the thin veil of bad faith. It is in this way that The Perks of Being a Wallflower as well as Sartre’s and many other writers us literature to provide us with is idealized examples of complex human states such as bad faith.
We are left thought to wonder whiter or not such a state can actually be found in the real world. How many of us can proclaim having been in a state of bad faith? How many psychiatrists identify bad faith in their case studies? And if it did exist how many of us would even be willing to admit of its existence? No one can maintain a state of bad faith alone. An individual requires the presence of the other. Sartre’s ontology allows to posses the individual in bad faith as an en-sai. This leave us with a great difficulty, that of accessing the conciseness of the other. We cannot examine the other’s conciseness anymore then we can examine the conciseness of a fictional character. We are left in the dark. We are left once more battling to escape the time old tendency of French philosophy, solipsism. Hopefully Sartre and Husserl are correct. If phenomenon acts as an index to the actual essences of things then perhaps the idealized notions of bad faith found throughout literature will have some bases in reality. For the time being we will be left to accept literature as one of the best ways for us to examine the complex nature of bad faith.

Work Citied
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness. Kensington: Citadel Press.
Stephen, Michelman (2008). Historical Dictionay of Existentialism. Lanham, Marland: Scarecrow Press.
Pope, Harrison G. (2006).Is dissociative amnesia a culture-bound syndrome?. Psycholgical Medicine. 10, 1-9.
Ruppert, Peter (1977).The Aesthetic Solution in Nausea and Malte Laurids Brigge. Comparative Literature. 29, 17-34.
Yanal, Robert J. (2007). Self deception and the Experience of Fiction. The Author. 20, 108-121.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The new F-Word?

Feminism is a dirty word. According to Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner’s book, The F word: Feminism in Jeopardy, it could even be the new F-word. In a time when women are more politically active then ever how is it that the ideals of feminism are so often under attack? Increasingly women and men are turning their metaphorical noses down at feminists. The feminism has taken on the image of the un-washed masses of inferior women who gather in the enclaves of liberal colleges seen only to ‘stitch and bitch.’ In reality the numbers of such feminists are few and seldom live up to the stereotype. So why does it matter if women approve of the feminist movement? Because even with the increase of women voters in the US little political ground has been made as most women are still reluctant to demand equal rights. In order to gain equal footing women need to form a coherent political movement or risk witnessing women’s rights continued undermining by past stereotypes. College age women are a prime group for examining such stereotypes. Their views show a need to redefine the image of the modern women’s movement.
US Census department states that 69 percent of women compared to 66 percent of men are registered to vote in the US. This slight edge in political activity is lost in an ever increasing wage gap. A gap which has led most sociologists to define a new category of ‘pink-collar’ jobs which are fields almost solely comprised of women. These fields include teaching, healthcare, daycare, house cleaning, and many other fields characterized by lower wages. More women are now working outside the home than ever before. But most do so for lower wages then men while baring, quite often in the case of single parent households, a great share of the burden for raising children. Buchman and Lenart note in their research that college women ‘exposure to non-traditional gender roles,’ (i.e. women working outside the home or independent from men), ‘are no longer definitive, or even relevant, predictors of support for feminism.
Buchman and Lenart actually find that most women fall into a group they term ‘precarious feminists.’ These women ‘have moderately strong group identification as well as strong beliefs in individualism.’ They belief these women see a need for combined political action but believe that in their case they will advance based upon individual merit. Some of this feeling comes from the raise of women like Hillary Clinton and others who have seemingly broken through the metaphorical glass ceiling which has held women back in the past. Although as Jackson Pollock could have told us metaphor in our post modern world is bullshit. If anything Clinton has simply side stepped the glass ceiling. The Fortune 500 still reports only ten women CEO’s on their list and congress, the political body elected by an electorate of over 60 percent women is comprised of only 17 percent female representatives.
College age women, according to Buchman, have increasingly negative responses to the term ‘feminist’ commonly associating it with women’s liberation movements like the 1960’s protests of the Miss America Pageants. These protests are the source of the metaphorical bra burners and nothing more, as these protestors never actually burned any bras. Buchman explains that many women associate feminists with cognitive images of militant radicals. In perspective no feminist, and for that matter no group of individuals, ever fits into such a cookie cutter mold. Interesting the leading cause of support among college women for feminism comes, not surprisingly, from personal experiences with sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Too many women wait till they are the victims of discrimination before standing up for their rights.
So if Feminism is the new F-word what happens now? If women continue to allow the ideals of equality represented by feminism to be attacked future generations will have little chance for gaining equality. As it stand women have a great deal of ground yet un-covered. Along with the wage gap the Equal Rights Amendment remains an unfulfilled dream. The equal access to oral contraceptives for women, abortion rights, and equal footing in the workplace still stand just outside of the reach of most women in the US. College age women need to reach out and change the stereotype of feminism or whiteness the death of the movement which first proclaimed their freedom.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Random thoughts...

I hate society. In such, I in no way hate the people for which it is composed. I love the people. In color, shape, composition, expression, taste, they come as they are in many forms and causes. They are in every way as material as the capitalism that feeds them, as formal as the laws that bind them, as efficient as the hammering of an old steel press, and as final in nature as their very own god. It is the structural arrangement of such people which I hate. It is this structure that so much like a dysfunctional typewriter never punches out what they put in. There spirit is lost in translation. Lost somewhere in one of Searle’s Chinese rooms.

The Beat’s had it wrong. Society doesn’t suck. Kerouac saw that much himself. In his wild ramblings of ‘On the Road’ he gave us a narrative that was devoid of society’s underlying structure. Bums, drinkers, crazed intellectuals, street walkers, and all the rest composed a narrative of people on the fringe. Not just on the fringe but beyond the scope of its reflection. Outside the reach of it twisted scope. These people have greatness not unlike the greatness of all people. They are at the bottom of things just as they will be and nothing more.

I love people. I suppose that is the point. People though do not always like me. I presume that’s because I’ve had so little respect for normality. I’ve burned at both ends. I have missed no opportunity to live. In doing so I have done terrible things, I have done great things, and everything else in between. I have never apologized. All I have done is simply to state the truth. I love people.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Censorship and the Second Amendment

Contrasting Censorship in Music and Literature.

In Michael Dyson’s essay, Gangster Rap and American Culture, we are confronted by the idea of censoring rap music due to its obscene nature. Dyson makes a very important point which is easily lost in his complex essay, simply stating that, “Even Rap’s largest controversies are about representation.” Representation is the essence of a constitutionally established republic. Julia Bradly, in her paper Censoring the School Library: Do Students have a Right to Read?, states clearly that the nature of such a republic gives rise to a special importance for the first amendment (749). It is necessary for the functioning of a representative government that all people have free access to information. Censorship stands directly opposed to the first amendment which defends just such ‘intellectual freedom.’ “Intellectual freedom is the unrestricted access to legally defensible information unfettered by government intervention” (Simmions, 2001). The subject of censorship is central to understanding the cultural condition of our nation. In order to understand censorship’s central role we must first examine the nature of censorship in America and how censoring music is so akin to censoring literature. In doing so we will see that literature has a critical role in preserving the culture of a democratic republic.

The censorship of literature is the censorship of the very information which is the foundation of a child’s understanding of the human condition. In today’s world access to such information comes in many forms. A case in point is the expanding importance of the internet in American classrooms, which according to Simmons, “the percent of public schools connected to the internet has increased from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999” (p. 10). Simply observing the banning of the internet in countries like Saudi Arabia and the transformation of owning a modem in Burma to a capital offense demonstrates the power of the internet to provide limitless amounts of information. It also demonstrates the constraining power of censorship. Simmons also points out that this has brought about a modern class reflective of John Dewey’s conception of learning by doing (p. 20). In Dewey’s conception of learning students chose what to learn. Teachers act as guides to such learning rather then dispensers of knowledge. First the internet allows more time for reflection on information, as a result of its rapid recovery. Second it allows for a greater variety of information to satisfy the personal interests of students.

This new ‘Net Generation’, is thus allowed free exploration of all forms of modern literature and thought. What makes this so problematic? Simmons points a long held attitude of parents revealed to us in Wordsworth’s poem, We are Seven:


That lightly draws its breath,

And feels its life in every limb,

What should it know of death?

Simmons does not fully explain the poem (p. 15). It goes on to depict a family of seven brothers of children, two of which die, and one remaining daughter’s inability to understand death. It reveals a simple fact of life. Children are not adults but they deal with many, if not all of the same problems and emotions that adults do. Parents in America wish to protect the supposed innocence of children by appeals to the cliché of ‘family values.’ Michael Dyson pointed out that “’family values’ is a code for a narrow view of how families work, who gets to count as a legitimate domestic unit, and consequently, what values are crucial to their livelihood” (p. 166). A child’s freedom to read challenges this narrowly defined view of life by opening his eyes to the many different ways people live their individual lives.

Brief examination of last year’s ALA list of frequently banned books provides examples of such challenging view points.[1] A children’s book like And Tango Makes Three exposes children to homosexual life styles which challenge traditional family structures. One of my own personal favorites, the Perks of Being a Wallflower exposes students to controversial drug use and sexual abuse. These books do not expressly tell students to adopt a certain viewpoint. The latter even demonstrates the dangers of drugs and teen sex. But they do provide a sound basis for students to evaluate their own way of life. As James Symula states,

…the English course should not be considered a course that gives answers; rather, it should be thought of as an opportunity to help individuals develop in such a way that they become well adjusted, thinking, feeling, inquiring, wondering human beings (p. 128).

Denying a child access to such literature prevents them from developing as a human being. Unfortunately such an appeal to the importance of understanding the human condition is lost on the general public. Robert Gard experienced this general condition when dealing with objections to E. E. Cummings poem “I sing of Olaf.” In this case ‘parents argued that immortality, obscenity, and anti-American sentiments… regardless of literary value… stated that “If it’s in the text, its influencing students.”In a way such parents are right. Parents are trustees of the schools. As taxpayers they expect schools “to deal only with purity in thought and deed- inspiration rather than realism” (Gard, p.256). Students are sophisticated people and when they sense such attempts they can easily smell the hypocrisy.

On the other hand Gard also points out that even though students have a right to read, teachers do not have the right to require students to read any particular piece of literature.

It is one thing to feel free to examine a Brave New World… or the words of a controversial popular song which some students have experienced and are discussing. It’s another to require all students to read or experience such a selection.

This brings us to a crucial question about the limits of the first amendment. This is the same question which was confronted by Dyson in his discussion of Gangster Rap. That is where does the right of children to read, or to lesson, reach it limits, or does it even have any such limits?

Let’s take a look for a moment at what the Supreme Court of the United States has defined as obscene. That is material which ‘is descriptive or depictive of sexual conduct which taken as a whole, by the average person, applying contemporary community standards:

(a) Appeals to the prurient interest in sex;

(b) portrays sex in a patently offensive way;

(c) dose not have series literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

As Bradly stated the first amendment not only holds a special place concerning information of political importance to the electorate, but also protects material of cultural value. This is seen even more vividly when the politics and culture collide, as in the case of rap group N.W.A.’s 1988 track ‘Fuck the Police.’ In this track Ice-Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E portray a mock court room where LAPD is placed on trail for the fictional killing of a minority. The track is laced with obscenities and violent references including threats against LAPD officers. Is this the sort of culture the first amendment protects? Well clearly there is no sexsual reference to make it obscene in nature, but the use of obscene language alone would offend the average member of my community. But for the young black male growing up in a post ‘Rodney King’ Los Angeles the cultural value is clear. The track becomes an outlet for the rage felt by minorities towards the police brutality that many have themselves witnessed.

A track from a rap album may not seem applicable to banning literature from a public school library. Untill you reduce it to printed word. In black and white laid side by side with E.E. Cummings ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’ we see that the objections to each are strikingly similar.[2] They are each claimed to be obscene, to strike out at accepted societal norms, and both shed light on the moral ambiguity of some unexamined part of our society. It seems as the ideas of the free market place have become intertwined in some sense with the idols of the market place. In the words of Francis Bacon, ‘by discourse that men associate, and words are imposed according to the apprehension of the vulgar. And therefore the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.’ Words have the power of distorting the true message of anything. In both the cases before us, society has been consumed by the vulgar nature of words, and has lost all understanding of the underlying message.

Why should we become so transfixed on preserving the school library as a market place of ideas? Why protect the very literature which causes so much controversy? John Dewey in his ground breaking Democracy and Education explains quite simply for us the importance of all forms of literature in education. In the simplest of terms Dewey let us know that literature more than anything else is simply fun. Literature first found its home in the educational institutions of the landed aristocracies of Europe. In Europe education was about becoming a refined gentleman who was destined to become a member of the ruling class. In the US the public school system has been designed to promote the very democratic principles which Bradly stated lead to the preferred status of the first amendment. This is not only because an informed electorate is needed to preserve democratic government but because the free access to the art form of literature is what helps the common man become the equal of the ruling classes. Literature and all forms of art in education are described by Dewey as follows:

…they are not only intrinsically and directly enjoyable, but they serve a purpose beyond themselves… in forming standards for the worth of later experiences. They arouse discontent with conditions which fall below their measure; they create a demand for surroundings coming up to their own level. (Dewey).

It is in modern works such as the perks of being a wallflower and even And Tango Makes Three that children and young adults alike learn what the world is really like. It is from literature that children learn how to question the way the world is and imagine the way it should be.

When children grow older they will confront the music of N.W.A. and other gangster rappers and there only way of evaluating its content will come from literature. Through literature young people, and adults, form standards for the experiences of other people and cultures. They will be aroused with discontent at rap music which depicts violence and poverty. They will know how and why to demand change based on what they have read and learned from literature. In this way culture will be preserved and changed as new literature introduces children and adults alike to new ways of life. Democracy is served not only by a well educated population but also by a culture which is free to evolve through the free exchange of literature within the libraries of public school and throughout the nation as a whole. We may never be able to require the teaching of E.E. Cummings any more then we could require children to listen to N.W.A. Although to prevent their access to it is to deny them the body of knowledge which will allow them to rule themselves.

Work Cited

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon.

Bradly, Julia T. “Censoring the School Library: Do Students have the Right to Read?” Conn. Law Review 10 (1978): 747-771.

Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. Project Gutenberg. 26 July 2008. <>

Gard, Robert R. “Censorship and Public Understanding.” NCTE 60.2 (1971): 255-259.

Simmons, J. and Dresang, E. School Censorship in the 21st Century: A Guide for Teachers and School Library Media Specialists. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association. (2001)

Symula, James F. “Censorship and Teacher Responsibility.” NCTE 60.2 (1971): 181-131.

[1] This list is compiled by the ALA and is available for reference at:

[2] See Appendix II and III

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Einstein a name synonymous with genius, he was a man who with only his mind, and a pencil, accomplished more than any other scientist in defining our modern conception of reality. You would be hard pressed to have grown up in America having not encountered his iconic image. Whether it is on a coffee mug or t-shirt, in a TV documentary or high school science class, or even the bold characters of his most iconic formula reaching out through a grim covered bumper sticker in traffic we have all encountered the icon of Einstein. As, Einstein has been packaged and marked to generations of school children and adults around the world, he has become the global symbol of humanities ability of achieve the impossible. The globalization of Einstein has served to spread the ideal of the liberal scientific society. A society where education serves to help even the most down trodden of society raise to greatness. Goofy images of Einstein, hair standing on end and tongue extruding from his mouth, hang in many an American science class room. While Einstein’s globalization has turned him into an American icon for the values of scientific progress, the same globalization has concealed the actual culture which created and obscured the scientific ideas he gave birth too.
Einstein was the son of Hermann Einstein a salesman and engineer. He grew up in early 1900’s Germany. This was a Germany dominated by a monarchy and an educational system which valued technical ability above all else. Einstein had been exposed to mathematics and philosophy at an early age while reading the works of Euclid and Kant. He showed an endless curiosity for the world. Einstein quickly proved to be a adapt mathematician while teaching himself Euclidean geometry at an early age. He was in no way the product of anything close to a liberal society while in Germany but sought out a liberal education by moving to the Zürich. If anything Einstein represented the struggle of one man against the overly militaristic society of his homeland. Einstein returned to Germany after gaining fame and a professorship as result of his work on relativity only to find himself surrounded my German scientists devoted to developing weapons of war such as mustard gas. Einstein would devote much of his life to the peaceful pursuit of science, only to later cap off his life by urging the United States to create the first Atomic Bomb. In these ways Einstein did not represent the ideal of educational success through scientific ideals as he does in the American class room of today. Instead he better represents the struggle between the ideals of science and societies lust for war.
Einstein’s most famous equation is most likely: E=mc^2. You may recognize this simple equation as relativity, but it is not actually relativity. It is Einstein’s theory of energy-mass equivalence. You may also assume that it was relativity that won Einstein the Nobel Prize. Not even this commonly held belief is true. Einstein actually won the Nobel for his paper on the photo-electric effect. Relativity is Einstein’s greatest claim to fame, even though, the two formerly mentioned theories are arguably more important to everyday people like us. Energy-mass equivalence gave birth to the atomic age and the photo-electric effect is what allows us to watch all those documentaries about Einstein on TV. A lot it seems has been lost in the dissemination of Einstein into a global icon. This may simply be because his ideas where so difficult to understand. The following is a description of the New York Times headline which first announced Einstein’s theory:
On November 10, The New York Times picked up the story with the headline, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens" and announced, "Einstein Theory Triumphs." The paper reassured its readers that no one need bother trying to grasp the new theory. Only "twelve wise men" would be able to understand it (NEFFE 2007).
It seems this attitude, first provided by the media, has lasted till today. We are told not to try to understand the complex internal working of Einstein’s thought. Instead we should simply stand in wonder and awe of the world of electronic gizmos which have resulted. As an icon like Einstein is converted into posters and t-shirts, or any other two-dimensional image, the three-dimensional human being that is Einstein is lost. With each coffee mug or bumper sticker we turn Einstein into a diminished entity one which is easily consumed and completely lacking in substance.
None of this is drawn from a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Or for that matter any other object with Einstein’s iconic image plastered over its surface. As American’s we find that for the most part our understanding of a man like Einstein is limited to the obscured grimy covered surface of a bumper sticker. Our grasp on this elusive man is only skin deep. Although the globalizing effects of mass marketing Einstein to the public has obscured the true relationship between Einstein and his culture, it may not have diminished the man himself. The public doesn’t know enough about Einstein. The public has, through its consumption of his iconic image and the countless documentaries and books on his life and work, demonstrated an endless desire to learn more. Human curiosity all ways wins over mass consumption. As Einstein becomes more and more tangled up in his image people will become more and more curios to understand what his life really meant to them. We can only hope that as Einstein is constantly re-disseminated to generation after generation we will all come to better know the real Einstein.
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