TOWARDS AN ETHIC OF ACADEMIC DISCOURSE
or
WHY DO PROFESSORS TALK THE WAY THEY DO?

Bennett H. Ramsey


The topic of this paper, I am going to assume, is clear enough given my title. And so I will dispense with the usual introductory comments, circumscriptions, leadings into my subject matter. Perhaps it would be appropriate to warn you, however, that I will be working here somewhat personally, psychologically even. And that I will take as my primary focus only my own academic writing and speaking. For I do not know how most of you do your written work, your teaching, lecturing. Neither am I out to convince you of something, but rather just to offer a few thoughts in order to elicit some responses from you.

Maybe I also should add this before beginning: that when I say that I will be working personally and psychologically I do not mean confessionally or subjectively. The form that my talk here will take is that of a recitation, an account of events experienced. I will be proceeding in the rather dry and objective style of a verbatim report. But I will do so within the context of my own workplace, the classroom of a moderately sized public university. And I will be working, as it were, from within a story: by way of a narrative of one of my class's conversations; through a recounting of some of the things that were said during a portion of an evening undergraduate seminar.

One last prefatory remark, lest someone among you say it before I do: a story about a seminar class does not sound like a very exciting setting for a talk. A colleague of mine, an academic dean no less, put the point nicely (if also a bit pejoratively) when he said to me recently: "teaching is the housework of Academe!" And so it is, despite all of the current rhetoric in universities about the significance and value of teaching. But as such perhaps a fit place for a man to enter further into a discussion of academic discourse. And not just because men need to start doing the housework. Rather because men in academics need to recognize that most of us have been doing housework all along. And that we are, as professors, even as scholars, primarily houseworkers: maybe we should begin to admit that fact into our work, learn to value it as our working's major mode. But enough for now. Suffice it to say that much of what I will talk about here will have to do with the links between my academic writing and my status as a male professor.

And so the report:
She said, as we returned from a break in the class: "Can we start by talking about the book?"
"That would be nice," I replied.
"No, not that way. I mean, I want to talk about the whole book. As a book." She paused for a second, looked around for her support among three or four other women in the class.
It was clear that this had been the topic of conversation downstairs in the bathroom during the break, and that we were about to embark on a discussion that would be not just analytical but also political. I motioned to one of the students at the other end of the room to get up and close the door.

She continued: "And most of the other books that we read in class. Why do academics write the way they do?"
"What way?"
"In meta-languages. So that you can't understand what they're saying."
"Maybe you just answered your own question."
"All right. But still?" she said. I admitted to her that I was being somewhat difficult.
"Can I say something," another of the women asked? "Because I think there's something very strange going on here. For example, you spend all your time in here when you're teaching doing translation work. Helping us decode what these books are saying. But I imagine when you write you do it in the same way as the people who write the books we read. You make it all inaccessible. Why is that? Why not just write out what you say in a way we can understand. Then we could do something else in class besides decode."
"Let me make sure that I understand you," I replied. "You aren't asking why these books are difficult, hard to read, are you?"
To which she responded no, that it did not have to do with levels of difficulty. Indeed, she found those books written by academics specifically for the student reader to be,for the most part, simply insulting. Rather the inaccessibility had to do with the books being out of reach, almost as if intentionally written so that one could not get at the words, could not make them mean anything, in effect could not bring them down to earth. 'The words never take place,' I thought while she was talking. However, I did not say anything because at the time the statement did not make enough sense to me to follow it out. But it stuck with me, somewhat uncomfortably. Nagged at me from the corner of the conversation.

"Maybe the writing's not accessible just for that reason," added a third student.
No one, including myself, had any idea what he meant by 'that reason.' Which was usual for him, by the way. He was one of those students who tended to wander away from his ideas, for whom one had to function more like a border collie than a teacher, constantly herding him back to what he was thinking. Usually the effort was worth it. For most of the time his ideas were good ones, provoking, ideas that led others not just to talk about them but through them. And so I asked him to explain what he had in mind.

"Sort of like it is with the Catholic church and the Eucharist. You know, that's what authority is made up of."
He looked around. We still were not clear what was the point.
"Look: universities are pretty much a product of the middle ages, and in that way they're like the medieval church. Okay?"
I told him yes, okay, but he was going to have to say more.
"Well, except for all the corporate influence, I guess. But that's still pretty new. Anyway, universities are like the church because their wealth, -- books and knowledge and all of that, -- is distributed, but...."
And with that he stopped. He had done it, wandered off. And lost now, he just sat down on his thought.

"But what," I asked?
"I'm not sure; it's too confusing here."
"No it's not," I said, although that was pretty much of a hunch given that I still did not know what he was trying to say. "Slow down. Go back to universities as medieval institutions and start there again."
"Right. The kinds of places where knowledge is distributed, and it is! That's part of what's medieval about them, because knowledge in universities and schools is distributed. And not just for sale like a consumer good, even though that goes on: there's still some regular old distribution going on too. But it's distributed, -- now I know what I wanted to say! -- on the basis of making knowledge accessible by first making it inaccessible. Like taking bread and wine, turning them into mysteries that nobody can handle except the priests, and then giving them out again. That's a weird kind of power. And it breeds a kind of authoritarianism. It's awfully undemocratic."
"Don't analyze it so much, that's what I think," came a response from the back of the room. "I mean me personally, I just don't think any of them know how to write. And that's all there is to it!"
"That's probably fair," I said, "although it might have more to do with cannot write than with do not know how."
And I told them about some of my own difficulties writing, about how daunting it was just to face the fact of writing, in turn how easy it was, if also extraordinarily childish, to stay caught between the arbitrariness of words and their definiteness, the way that each word seemed to constitute a kind of closure. And I explained how destructive so often were my attempts to move beyond that catching place, so that even when I resolved not to worry about getting it right, still I would break down each sentence as I began to put it together. Tear the words apart. Make sure one way or the other that what I wrote in the morning I destroyed by the end of the night. 'So there is a clue about that nagging phrase,' I thought to myself; although this had to do only with the phrase taken at its most literal level. 'That the words do not take place because I cannot stand the thought that they will always be only my own, and not the truth. And that the few words that I do write down are for the most part little more than temper tantrums, verbal fits and starts, self-destructing protests at my sorry state, that I cannot speak like the gods. Where did I get the idea that I could speak that way in the first place,' I asked? 'Or should?' And now that thought nagged at me too.

"But some people do write well," said one of the graduate students in the class.
It was apparent to everybody that he had a stake in the point he was making.
"And clearly. And there are some people who are trying to develop new languages, say things that others have not said and with new words. Maybe that's part of it too?"
"Yeah," she said; "and some people are just covering up for the fact that they just don't have anything to say. Admit it. Yes, I know, you all have to do it, don't you. To keep your jobs. But why in the world do you have to do it like that?"
"How about this," another student said.
He was sitting in the window well in the back of the room, off on the margins.

"Maybe it's got to do with ideology; notions like that there's got to be something different between teachers and, textile workers, say. You know. And that teachers don't want anybody to see, -- maybe they don't want to see themselves! -- that they're just workers too. I mean, they can't be workers really, can they? Because that would blow the myth wide open that the working class deserves to be economically dependent because it is full of ignorant folk, uneducated people. And so there's this so-called higher language scholars use to help make the distinction?"
"Some of that is changing," the graduate student interjected; "although you're probably not far off. But there are a lot of us teaching and writing now who come from what, for academics, are not your typical social locations, working class backgrounds and such. And we know very well what class teachers are in."
"And I'll bet you get caught in a bind when you have to write," came the reply. "Have trouble keeping your voice. I know I do, every time I have to write a paper: I feel like I'm supposed to show that I don't want to talk to my own community anymore; prove in writing that I've switched my allegiance or something."
"That's it," answered one of the four women who had conspired the conversation; "it all amounts to power and social stratification. Like all of these left-wing professors, who talk about social justice and redistributing the wealth and all of that. But when you read their books, what do you get. No ideas being redistributed here!"
"They're not Marxists, they're Stalinists," added another. "Academic Stalinists. You can tell by the way that they run their classes."
She lookedacross the table: "Like what you said about the Church, they keep all the authority centralized."
He, of course, had wandered off again, and so missed the distinction between her point and his. He looked back somewhat blankly.

"Yeah, I guess," he responded.
Something of a free-for-all ensued at this point in the conversation: a spirited interchange; the academic equivalent of talking trash. And so now I wandered off too, back to my own nagging questions, but also to the comment just made about losing one's voice. For there was something beyond the childish response to arbitrariness that occurred when I tried to write, something that had to do with that woman's comment. And it kept my writing, long after the angry voices had died down, from coming to any sort of fruition. However, it did not have to do just with issues of social class, although that probably played its part in my words not taking place. What then?

Whatever it is, I thought, it stops the writing cold. I pace the room, back and forth up and down the hall. Into the kitchen for coffee. There is that telephone call that, I decide, must be made just now. Done with that, now I sit down again. Up within a minute. The whole thing three or four more times. A friend of mine, I remembered, classified schizophrenic, paced almost the entirety of Holy Week during his thirty-third year, wanting just to make it through Easter without breaking apart. He succeeded so to make it and, as often occurs with schizophrenics in their thirty-third year, his symptoms began gradually to diminish, in a qualitative way. While we were talking one day, on one of those pacing days, I said to him: "there is nothing more dismal than a dead god." He reminded me that he was not just depressed and that, besides, there were indeed things much more dismal than that.

"People can't keep their word!" he said.
"Or at least some don't," I added.
"He didn't!" he replied.
And now I could see rising behind my friend's pacing a backdrop of the Word rent from the flesh, split, apart, false promise of a human incarnation that might hold together. And something of the logic of his 'voices,' even more, of his conviction for the literal words of the Bible, by which he meant, by the way, not just their literal meanings but "those things there in front of you, sitting on the page."

"Didn't God say this," he would ask over and over again? And: "Those are God's words!" he would say, pointing to the passage in the Book. "And what about this, didn't God say this?"
Finally, I could see something of my own mythic backdrop, less grand than his, more mundane: "No, He did not keep his word," I said to him. "But then, men tend not to keep their word."
For although we repeatedly pronounce our words, -- too often? -- and give our word, -- to too many? -- they always seem to fly off, fail to get embodied, fail finally ever to take place. Indeed, they do so to such an extent that, should our words be recalled to us, we experience them as foreign voices: "no; I never said that," we say. The realization that this is happening is deeply frightening; and I remembered that others, those who had had to bear the brunt of the occurrence, had been saying that to me for some time. And so maybe he, we, pace in a struggle to keep our words down, here, with the rest of us? That we walk, sit, stand stock still in the middle of the room in a tremendous struggle just for once to keep our words, make them take place, keep them and us from ascending up and away, away from where they and we need to remain if we are to have our words make sense, materialize as the articulations of mouths and lips, gestures of hands?

'How have we men gotten so tenuous in our connections to our own words and voices,' I asked myself? 'Particularly those of us who do academic writing?' But I could not get any further along those lines. And then a new series of questions arose, questions that moved the issue of that nagging phrase beyond its literal level, questions, in turn, that moved me closer to the specific problem of the strangeness and incomprehensibility of academic writing that the students were trying to address. 'Okay,' I said to myself, 'it is clear enough now that your words do not take place. But what is it that they are doing? For, as you just said, it is not just the case that you don't write or speak; you do both quite often, too often, as you put it.' And then a rather odd follow-up question: 'Has it occurred to you that maybe your words do not take place for a reason? Because they have been replaced? As it were by the words of another?' All right, I thought: those are, indeed, odd questions. But they seem to have their point. That was about as far as I would let myself wander into them, however. I had to get back to the class.

"They're not Marxists, they're Republicans. Reaganites."
The trashing was still going on.

"You know, trickle down theory and all of that except with knowledge."
I finally broke in: "Enough. I get your point. Anything else?"
"Men," the fourth of the women said. "I know it's got something to do with men. And I say that because there's something different between the readings we do by men, and those by women."
Some of the students looked skeptical.
She continued: "Okay, not all of the time. Because there are some women who are as male-identified as men are. But those women who write,...I don't know,...maybe it's like one of the books that we read in here put it, with an awareness of woman's place in history: those writings are different. It's hard to say what it is. It's like they are more experiential, more grounded."
"But we've said everything that these women are saying," said one of the men in the class. "I mean, I've read these women you're talking about too: it's all Hegel, and process thought, open systems theory and stuff."
"Maybe" she responded, and did so, I thought to myself, surprisingly calmly given what had just been said. "But I don't think that's entirely fair. But even if it is the case, still, with women, it is said differently; it's like it's written from what goes on with women everyday. And that makes a tremendous difference, at least to me."
"So, what are you saying," he asked back?
And now I thought, here comes the inevitable comment.

"That men are different from women? Give me a break."
"I'm not sure," she said; "but I certainly hope not."
And then she looked up at me and asked: "What do you think? You're a professor, and you're a man. Tell us what it's like for you when you write?"
I had expected, of course, that sooner or later I would be called on to bear the brunt of the conversation. And one might assume, given what I was just thinking through, that I might have an answer ready. But I was caught off-guard somewhat by the timing of the turn to me, also by the closeness of the conversation now to my own thoughts. And so I backtracked a bit, returned to the issue of power with which the students had previously been engaged. I said something about having to pay one's debts to the scholarly guild, and that yes, that was some part of why men, and some women too, wrote the way that we did; and that yes again, both of those did have something to do with power, earning one's place among a professional elite and so forth. And I added out of that how there were also some good reasons for the kind of academic writing about which they were complaining, beyond the issue of teachers trying to keep their jobs.

"You know," I said, "sometimes there is just not any easy way to explain what you're trying to work through and understand. Things are complex, after all. And part of what it means to do scholarly writing is to deal with things in their complexity. And that defies straightforward explanations."
No one was particularly impressed. Out of respect, however, they let me go without further pursuit. But one of the women in the group did say this:

"But when you're in class you seem able to explain things straightforwardly."
She stopped for a second, and then added:
"And although you never do really tell us what you think, but just what the books are saying, you do seem committed to explaining things in ways that are clear to us, and to helping us ground what the books are saying in terms of our own experience."
Now, I might have taken that as a compliment, but at that moment I did not. Rather, I found myself with a somewhat peculiar, although not unfamiliar reaction, -- doubting my abilities as a teacher, checking to make sure that the door to the seminar room was still closed. And I imagined a colleague passing by in the hall, hearing the conversation that had just taken place, particularly that woman's last comment. He was horrified by what he heard. Finally, I found myself getting slightly irritated, angry at the direction things were taking.
And so I said, "Look, right now we need to get back to work. But if you really want to we can finish up this discussion at the beginning of class next week."
"How about you give us something in writing next week?" came the response from the woman who had started the conversation: "Tell us what you think the problems are in all of this academic writing. Tell us who's at fault."
"In writing."
"Yes. That way you won't forget to bring it up, like you usually do when you tell us we'll come back to something next week. Besides, if you put it in writing, we won't have to take so much time away from our 'work,' as you put it."
"Nice try," I said, but there was little left that I could do but assent to the proposal. "All right; I will write something down for you about all of this."
With that we returned to the book that I had assigned for the week. I got up, went over to the door, opened it, sat down again, asked what people had to say about the material, what they needed. There were a few, tentative comments, interspersed among increasing spells of silence. No one seemed to know what was going on in the book. And as was usually the case when the class got itself caught in a silence, everyone began to get tense. Finally, after a particularly long period where no one said anything, I took over. I spent the remainder of the class lecturing on the material, explaining the text.


Now, I did fulfill my promise to write something for the class. Or at least I tried to. The whole thing came off rather badly, because I continued to avoid the issues that the woman in the class had raised when she asked me about my own work. I settled for tracing out only the surface lines of the fault that ran between the students and the writings they were trying to read, that produced in them that familiar, too often repeated statement of self- defeat: 'This is over our heads.' What a shame, I thought as I wrote, that we who do academic work do so in a way that so frequently breaks people down. Diminishes them. Makes them believe that there is a lack of integrity, an inferiority to their own experience and abilities. And all the time no one reads off the list of crimes that belongs to us, whose words soar over their heads?

But I did not say that. Rather I pointed out how part of the fault, although not all of it by any means, ran through them, or at least to the extent that they were socially and culturally constructed. I explained that they existed in a society with generally bad educational systems, systems that produce citizens barely able to read a newspaper or understand what someone else is trying to say. And that they lived in the midst of a cultural medium that, again systematically, seems bent on reducing reading comprehension capabilities to a grade school level, writing abilities to nonexistence. Finally, I explained that they had been led by a cultural economy into a life of civilizational laziness when it came to understanding others' experience, indeed even their own, a laziness bred by a promotion of the desire not to know coupled with an over-ingestion of images in the place of words, more lately, feelings at the expense of thoughts and ideas. This was not to say, I added, that words or thoughts were somehow more important than images and feelings: they were not. But human experience demands metaphor if it is to be understood, I told them. And there can be no metaphors without a connection between what we see, what we feel and what we think and say.

All of that may have been to the point. I believed at the time, and still do I suppose, that it was. But was it fair? For certainly I knew from my own experience that most people struggle to overcome, and to a large extent succeed in overcoming those systematically inherited and inbred diminutions. That people are not simply virtual reproductions, mere captives of false consciousness and such. That somehow in the midst of all of this social and cultural push and shove they find a way to keep their wits about them, get what they need to know and then some. It is a matter of survival, after all, and people do survive. Indeed, and despite the pressures, they often thrive, for again I knew from my own life that there is a savvy, a depth and breadth of general thinking, analysis and understanding afoot. And so surely I must have known as well that it is mostly a defense to try to claim that people cannot understand scholarly writing because they lack the critical skills, thinking skills, whatever? So why did I not say any of that to those students? Indeed, why, at the time, did I not even remember my own experience, what it had taught me?

'Memory knows,' wrote Faulkner, 'before knowing remembers.' There are, thankfully, at least occasional tender mercies. And so there was then a memory, quite familiar. It was nothing dramatic, by the way, which is probably why I did not write it down for the students to read. Rather just a line, embedded in an image. The line, first, one of those psychological rules of thumb, a line about the child king and how he must become unutterably sad before uttering his first words. And the image surrounding it, of a family's chronic depression: hours sitting together in a living room without any words, or words and sentences filled with breaks, elisions, empty gaps; at the same time a constant playing with word games, -- crosswords, Scrabble, the anagrams and such in the evening newspaper, -- in silence. But then sitting together at the kitchen table, now all face to face. Suddenly a breakout of a brilliant hyperlucidity: jokes, puns, palindromes; words tumbling over words, flying so high overhead that no one sitting there could see them trip, entangling, turning but then, falling, fragmenting, breaking into pieces as they hit the floor. No webs woven, no connection. Not able to convey. Dinner as manic defense.

Now telling them all of that would have gotten them somewhere, for in that image and that line the fault became both more apparent and concrete. And it no longer ran just on the surface, where the cause of the lack of understanding belonged to the students. Rather, within the depressive position of the image there appeared now that peculiar defensiveness that one finds so often in academic writing. Where words seem to be thrown up not as invitations but as stumbling blocks to knowledge and understanding. Where lines and sentences and paragraphs create rather than cross over gaps. Indeed where they appear as gaps, fault lines, words with only the narrowest of meanings or split off altogether from any bodies of meaning, anybody's meaning. They thought, those students, that verbal mastery meant an ability to communicate ideas. And so when, while reading, they found themselves with no idea what the writer was saying they assumed that the fault lay within themselves. Here maybe for once they could see something of the fault line on its farther, other side. And maybe see as well how verbal mastery can constitute a disavowal of ideas. For ideas are forms of connection. And the masterful display has control as its intention, which is to say, the denial of any connections trying to take place.

But could they follow all of this? I thought for a moment, and then thought again: can I follow it, and do I want to? Common sense said that of course they could, and that I could as well, although yes, there might be reasons why I would not want to. The fault line, after all, ran not just through the image but through it straight back into the class, more to the point, back to that last part of the class after I had cut off their conversation. Look at the image! Look at the line! There is the class, domesticated a bit but right there. The silence. Everyone looking down at their books, staring at the words, trying to puzzle them together. Or leafing through the pages for a phrase, one line, anything that might provide a key, compel a conversation. And there we are, all of us gathered around the classroom table. No one saying a word. No one able to say a word? At any rate waiting. Increasingly uncomfortable with the intimacy, the face to face. Everyone frozen in place.

Finally, somewhat suddenly, the image moves as I give in and begin to speak. Or rather not I but the child king, my familiar self-possession and self-protection. Whom I seem so often to become. Who comes to the rescue when, as here, the closeness of others threatens. Anyway, it is he here who marshals the words together. Moves them out. Takes command of the situation as he begins to hold forth, bursts out loud with a flood of words. Everyone watches attentively, even with a bit of fascination, although not really able to understand and thus unable to listen. And no one dares to interrupt for they all realize, or at least sense, that in part he is using his words as weapons. He holds forth in this fashion for quite a while, for most of the last half of the class, until the class is over. Suffice it to say that he gets rather caught up in his lecturing, at times disappearing behind the words. Which is part of the point of the flooding, of course. To remove himself from the group, gain some relief from the pain in the intimacy of the silence. And to attain that sensation he is seeking, the verbal high that he gets when the words rush over him, carry him away.

On the way out the door after the class one of the students whispers to another: 'Did you understand what he was saying?' 'No,' comes the response from one of the men in the class, 'but it was brilliant. I mean, did you notice that he didn't use any notes or anything? I was amazed.' And the child king is pleased, at least momentarily. Pleased at the recognition of his verbal abilities and command. Pleased more deeply also, for the comment confirms his belief that his magical omnipotence is still intact, also that his outward purpose in speaking has been achieved, namely, to secure his hold over his little classroom realm. The pleasure is short-lived, however, for as he sits there, leaning back in his chair, there comes to him a third comment, from another of the students grouped outside in the hall. 'He made me feel like an idiot,' she says. 'As if nothing that I think about has any worth, anything to do with what he is saying.'

Something about that remark strikes him, catches him off his guard, pushes through his self-absorption. 'That's her problem; she'll get used to it,' he says to himself; 'that's the way academics is.' But the line does not work this time. He gets up and walks over to the window, sits down on the window sill. The missing identity aches. For he does, after all, know what it is like to be that student, although he remembers it, now, a little late. Remembers his own humiliations at the hands of teachers as they trained him up, forced him to go beyond his everyday, generalized thinking, broke him of his normal speech, his usual words. In small ways, mostly: a mark through a line on a college term paper, crossing out the words 'I feel;' a sharp comment in a philosophy class concerning the use of the phrase 'it seems,' followed by a warning that reality was not to be construed as seeming; lessons about never using personal examples or even personal pronouns, and about the need to work dispassionately with one's words. Were they small ways because his mentors were all kind? Hardly. Or as they were it was because there was no need for much more than a kindly reminder. For how long had it been since he had written or spoken his own words with any regularity?

He does not know. But as he sits there in the window well he remembers one other story, recalls the time when he was five or so, and his sister was seven or eight: the two of them took a bus ride from Baltimore to Richmond to see their cousins. They had packed a sandwich, which they split and, being inexperienced long-distance travellers, ate before the bus left the Greyhound station in Baltimore. By the time they reached Richmond they were hungry. The bus had arrived late, and the station was closed for the night. Their aunt, who, they were told later, when they were older, was an alcoholic, did not arrive until well into the middle of the night. At some point in their waiting both his sister and he began to panic. Two very skinny middle class white kids out on someone else's streets, not knowing what to do.

He took up a position of lookout, standing atop one of the station's outdoor benches. As it got later he began to walk, then walk more quickly, up the street and back, back and forth over and over. At one point a group of teenagers turned the corner and came towards them. He froze, right there on the sidewalk, like a little monument. They passed, but he stayed right where he was, still stuck, literally unable to utter a word. A man walking by asked him if they were all right. And a voice came out of his mouth, but not his voice: 'we're fine,' it said. The voice surprised him, hurt even, but it did not seem to surprise that man. Maybe, he thinks now, as he sits looking out of the window, that was because the man knew what the rites of passage into manhood were all about? At any rate, the man nodded in his direction, then walked on.

His sister, meanwhile, had just remained sitting there on the bench the whole time: not frozen like himself, however, but just remaining, playing some game with her hands, making circles. At one point she began singing a song that they had sung together on the bus, the words to which, he recalls, went like this:

Little Betty Blue lost her holiday shoe,
Now what can little Betty do?
Give her another one, just like the other one,
Then she can go dance with two.
So what was she doing, he asks, as he watches the last of his students walk away down the street. An incantation? Probably not. Or at least not in any way that had to do with traditional power, or heroism, or mastery or control. That, after all, was what he had been attempting to accomplish in his pacing back and forth, in his monumental effort. And he doubts that his aunt remembered them any more quickly because of his sister's actions, alcohol being a somewhat stronger spirit than the ones that she, or even both of them, could at that point have been able to conjure. So neither of us was doing anything particularly useful by way of remedying our situation, he says to himself. We were, after all, only five and eight years old. But he sees that where he had disappeared behind his stonefaced fortress, and in doing so had lost his ability to communicate, she had remained present, there, open to that space, and in turn able not only to speak but to sing. Something of a sameness with a more original place, evoked in the words of that ridiculous children's song. And he a difference, a feeling of being...well, yes, cut off? And cut off in such a way that the words that did come out of his mouth denied what his own voice wanted to say, defied what he would have told that man that he wanted to take place.

So what exactly happened to me there, he wonders. What occurred in that monumental moment? At the very least, the beginning of a habit. And he remembers that his sister had asked him essentially the same question the next afternoon. They were sitting against a fence on the edge of their aunt's pasture, picking with sticks at a dead water moccasin that they had found in in the field, killed by one of the goats.

'So were you scared last night? I was.'
'I don't know. No! I knew that nothing was going to happen to us.'
And then.

'Do you think there's still any poison inside here?'
He was pushing the stick against the underside of the snake's mouth, then pulling it quickly away.

'Stop it! You're going to hurt him!...I think you must have been scared. I mean, when those boys walked by and everything?'
'I said I wasn't, didn't I? Just drop it!...Besides, he's already dead, stupid. He can't feel anything anymore.'
And with that he started to cry.

Now. When will the child king learn? Learn what? That all of his training, his increasing specialization, his expertise serve him ill and serveothers, which after all is their point, even worse? And that they do so servebecause they produce in him and in his work a narrowness of thinking; a narrowness, moreover, that has become now so disproportionate to the breadth of general thinking as to be split off? From general readers. From students. Even from coworkers in other disciplines, other fields. And when will he see that working in these accustomed ways does not produce knowledge, or if it does so it then turns the knowledge into a hoard? For, worked in the traditional ways, his words and his writings can at best be abstract, loosed from the broader body of people's thoughts and words and deeds. Like words coming from somewhere outside, above peoples' heads. Like disembodied voices, frightening in their incomprehensibility, yielding humiliation rather than knowledge. Finally, when will the child king see that not only is he the child king but that the child king is he? That the symptoms of his academic narrowness and incomprehensibility mirror the way that it is to be he. And that the fault line runs very far back indeed, not just in time but in identity. To who he is? He who is? So. When will the child king learn, and in learning begin to see? Maybe when he addresses himself directly to the statement that the student made out in the hall. And directs himself to the pain that she expressed, admits it as his own internalized pain as well. Finally, however, the child king will learn, and see, only when he does both of these and with them one thing more. When he directs himself to her and to himself and says to both:

'this is not good; I will learn how not to do this anymore.'


Copyright Bennet H. Ramsey

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Last updated: May 25, 1996