Saturday, May 2, 2009

Who's Trying to Strangle Obama? (Introducing Cultural Literacy Check)

No, that's not a question about his political enemies, but instead, a question about the representation of the question.

When I came across this cover on The New Republic, I was both amused and intrigued. To me, the point of reference was obvious because it's drawn from my field, namely European cultural history: the famous Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoön, priest of Neptune, and his sons, being strangled by serpents, as described in literary accounts of the Trojan War (notably the Aeneid).

For the pioneering aesthete and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, writing in his immensely influential treatise of 1755, its "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" epitomized the spirit of Classical Greek art. The sculpture entered still more deeply into the realm of aesthetic theory when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing employed it as the centerpiece of his famous critique of Winckelmann, Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie (Laocoon. An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry; 1766). Since Lessing's time, other critics have appropriated the title for aesthetic treatises of their own.

Once among the most famous works of art in the world—at any rate, among the cultural elites—the sculpture may not be anything like a common reference anymore.

Fortunately, in the case of the TNR cover, one doesn't really have to understand the allusion in order to get the point (though if one did, one might ponder the appropriateness of the analogy): It looks as if Obama is in trouble, and to help you out, there's a caption.

In other cases, knowing the reference may matter more.

This got me to thinking about the larger issue of cultural literacy: not in the sense of defending or opposing canons, but simply as a practical matter. It can have some import. For example, in the classroom, I cannot assume that the historical allusions I make—even if they deal, say, with the comparatively recent era of the 1960s and —will be readily understood.

This was brought home in striking fashion when Sam Wineburg, a noted scholar of historical pedagogy from Stanford, gave a series of workshops here earlier this semester. One of his fundamental points is that historical thinking is a skill that is anything but natural and has to be learned. In order for it to be learned, however, historians have to teach it. In order to be able to teach it, historians have to remind themselves that they cannot take what they do or say for granted. All too often, they approach a history class with the tacit assumption that students may lack historical knowledge but at least understand how to think historically. On the contrary, since no one has ever told the students that they have to do this, much less taught them how, the results are often disastrous or at the least unnecessarily but unavoidably frustrating.

One of Wineburg's noted techniques is therefore to watch how people teach and learn, film the process, and show it to them and others. He will ask scholars and students alike, for example, to read a passage of a historical document, but not in the ordinary way. Rather, he forces them to pause repeatedly to reflect on what they are doing as they are doing it: to state out loud how they are approaching the text, to explain their reaction—their assumptions and questions alike—as they encounter a given fact, formulation, or idea.

On other occasions, he will ask a diverse group to respond to an image. In one example, he showed us how a student and her parents offered their off-the-cuff interpretations of a photograph. This one happened to be a Vietnam-era demonstration by "hard hat" construction workers calling for support of the government and military. To any of us who are of a certain age (I am getting disturbingly familiar with that phrase) or have studied any recent history, the interpretation was obvious. It seemed equally obvious to the student, but it turned out she was dead wrong. She could could not conceive of such a thing as a pro-war demonstration (though they have occurred even in recent years), and believed that the workers were therefore demonstrating against the war. Accordingly, to the extent that their signs backed the President, she could only assume that he was an advocate of peace and withdrawal. Unfamiliar with the then-prevalent denunciation of soldiers as "baby-killers," she knew only the modern left's vapid and rather disingenuous call to "support our troops by bringing them home." Even the American flags were not a tipoff, because she had been raised in the era after liberals and leftists decided to reappropriate the flag rather than cede the symbol to the Republican right. To an older or historically literate audience, as I said, the message was all too clear: these were reactionaries whose idea of patriotism was not "dissent," but "America, love it or leave it!" and whose idea of a good time was breaking a few "hippie" or "pinko" skulls. All of that was completely unfamiliar to her.

A sobering lesson.

What do we talk about when we make cultural and historical allusions? Can we really be certain that we fully understand one another?

I'll return to the larger theme of cultural as well as the example of Laocoön here and elsewhere. In the meantime, let the quest begin.

No comments: