Thursday, December 03, 2009

Something to read while I'm away

I'm still around. Various distractions have arisen since I last posted and Finals Week is next week; thus, I'll be scarce for a while yet.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to direct your attention to "A Lonely Kind of Courage" by Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at West Point. The immediate occasion for her piece was President Obama's address to the cadets on Tuesday, but it is really about two larger things: A quick survey of how presidents have addressed cadets in the past; and, as the passage below puts it, the cultivation of "sympathetic knowledge" in the cadets of "the processes by which non-military life operates." If that sounds to you like the space of the humanities and arts, you would be correct. Samet's piece conveys strongly not only the relevance of that cultivation but the richness of that experience for both the cadets and their faculty.

This piece piqued my interest on two levels. Back in my job-market days, I'd see ads for jobs at the military academies and find myself wondering what it would be like to teach literature in such places. It's rather embarrassing to look back now on what I had assumed and recognize how uninformed my assumptions were. Reading Samet's piece, I couldn't help but envy her--talk about a context-rich environment! And that leads me to the other way this piece engaged me: As long-time readers here know, my primary teaching assignment is at my college's branch at McConnell Air Force Base. The vast majority of the military personnel I've taught are enlisted men and women, many of whom aspire to become officers one day, and this particular base's airmen have not faced anything like the dangers and strains of war that, even, airmen at other bases have faced. (McConnell is home to an air refueling wing.) But they are grave and thoughtful about warfare, whether they will make a career of the military or have plans to leave after a while, and no matter their politics--which, I assure you, pretty much mirror the political spectrum in this country.
Samet's piece is brief but meaty; all of it is well worth your time. The concluding paragraphs are so elegant, though, that they're worth quoting here:

[President Franklin] Roosevelt regarded another attribute as essential to an officer’s successful negotiation of complex responsibilities, namely a “sympathetic knowledge of how other men’s minds work and of the processes by which non-military life operates. There is no greater quality of discipline than the ability to recognize different techniques and different processes, and by persuasion and reason to bring these divergent forces into fruitful cooperation.”

It is to the growth of that “sympathetic knowledge” in cadets that I look forward each day when I head to class. When we meet shortly to look at Robert Lowell’s meditation on the Union dead, the cadets will seek to understand the workings of the poet’s mind and perhaps the workings of that of his subject, Robert Gould Shaw, the 25-year-old colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, a regiment of African-American soldiers, over 70 of whom died along with Shaw in the assault on Ft. Wagner, South Carolina, in the summer of 1863. In the image of Shaw in St. Gaudens’s memorial on the Boston Common, Lowell perceived a “wrenlike vigilance, / a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” William James, speaking at the dedication of the monument on Memorial Day in 1897, discovered in Shaw a “lonely kind of courage,” a courage beyond even that required to “storm a battery.” I’m going to ask the cadets what they think that means.

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