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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Keynote address for MCTE

October 7, 2011

WE SHALL ENDURE AND PREVAIL: An English Teacher’s Manifesto

                Events quite beyond our immediate control have thrown us into varying states of anxiety about our lives, about the institutions in which we practice our vocation of teaching language and literature, and about the possible shapes that a future might assume.  We are deeply concerned about change, the seemingly irrevocable relocations and dislocations that we must experience from one day to the next. Whether we teach in the public schools or in colleges, we are required now to be more accountable not only for the quality of our pedagogical efforts but also for measurable student outcomes.  The onus is placed on our shoulders.  If large numbers of our students fail to perform well on tests mandated by our institutions, we are blamed. Student failure is rarely attributed to the possibility that many students are inattentive and enthralled by the temptations readily provided by the Internet, i-phones, and “social networking” (text-messaging, Facebook and so forth) .  They are very comfortable with the paradox of active passivity encouraged by new technologies and uncomfortable or alienated by the discipline and focusing demanded by forms of instruction which are not thoroughly integrated with and imitative of the current technologies.  To be successful teachers in contemporary realms of young, pre-occupied minds, we are often asked to compromise or abandon any art of teaching that is predicated on face-to-face social communication between one human being and another.  It is understandable that many of us teachers are experiencing the pains of future shock as our doubts increase that efforts “to create out of the materials of the human spirit” have a viable future.

                Slightly less than sixty-one years ago, William Faulkner, one of the great writers of Mississippi,  had the obligation of considering a world where many ignorant armies clashed by day and night in the post World War II ambience of the Cold War.  The dominant fear at that time, at the beginning of the 1950s, was the threat of nuclear disaster.  Human life on earth, or a very significant portion of it, might reach a terminal point as particles in a mushroom cloud.  Perhaps a very small number of us can still recall pamphlets on civil defense and information booklets on how to create and stock bomb shelters. The threat of annihilation then seemed more profoundly frightening than does the threat of rampant terrorism in the twenty-first century.  In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1950, Faulkner was adamant in believing that human beings could bear the threat and that they must teach themselves “that the basest of all things is to be afraid.”  Great writers often supply us with insights that transcend accidents of time and location.  And I am very much convinced we can profit from listening yet again to the words in the final two paragraphs of Faulkner’s Nobel banquet speech and what they say about “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself“:

Until he relearns these things , he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.  I decline to accept the end of man.  It is easy enough to say that man is immortal  simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this.  I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.  He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.  The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Faulkner’s optimist, compelling, and moving sentiments from sixty years in the past deserve to be recycled into words appropriate for the complex conditions that Mississippi’s teachers of English must grapple with in 2011.

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