Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Liberal Arts

Elizabeth D. Samet has published her account of teaching literature at West Point, titled "Soldier's Heart." Her Ivy League background equipped her with a knowledge of her topic, but ill-prepared her for the type of students she would meet there. It's likely many of her peers -- in academe, not the Academy -- still labor under the delusion of "Rambo" stereotypes. Here's hoping they read her book.

She cites British general William Francis Butler on the education of soldiers:

The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.

Her sympathetic reviewer (Mark Bauerlein, one of my favorite academics) adds:

This explains why the West Point years have affected Samet so deeply. She pledges to cross that line of demarcation, and while her colleagues at Ivies and state universities ponder at length their role as teachers in a post-9/11 world (always an adversarial role), Samet and West Point have had to act on that question daily from September 12 onward, and they've produced an ironic outcome. Literature, history, and philosophy matter, and they do so less to students and teachers in the cozy quads of the college campus, ensconced in libraries and symposia, than they do to bedraggled, bored, and anxious officers sweating it out in the desert.

I think it was more than the coincidence of having read them on the same day that connected that thought to this experience.

I have said goodbye to a mortally wounded soldier in the hospital, spoken to grieving family members of our casualties, and tried to comfort soldiers who just lost their best friend in a single violent moment. I have been under fire, looked insurgents in the eye, and seen corruption up close. I have also seen people emerge from oppression and live with hope for the first time in years. I have seen children reach up and grasp the hands of American soldiers just because they trust them. I have felt the desire to help and then been given the resources to do it. Finally, I have felt the close knit camaraderie that develops when you serve with a group of people fighting for a cause larger than self. Yes, this experience has changed me. I am stronger, more driven, and humbled all at the same time.

What did I do the last year? I wrote some, raised a child, paid some bills, argued a lot. I don't envy that soldier his life -- but you can't deny he's living it. And he's written that to thank us for allowing him to do so. The topics worth studying are those that fit a person to live, to grapple with angels and survive demons and understand what happens in that man-made exalted hell called war. The most fertile artistic and philosophical community in the history of the West was Athens in a generation when it was perpetually at war. A city where every citizen was a soldier. Aeschylus made no mention of his dramas in the inscription he wrote for his tomb, but he wanted it remembered that he had fought at Marathon.

"Macbeth" isn't just a slow day's entertainment. Not to some people.