Friday, November 16, 2012

By the skin of our teeth

Here is my idiosyncratic news culled from the last couple of days:

  • The Americans approach the "fiscal cliff" because Republicans refuse to tax the wealthy.
  • Demonstrations occur in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where government cutbacks have created instability and high levels of unemployment.  In Spain, they blame the bankers.  Maybe we need to update Shakespeare's line from Henry VI about the lawyers:  "First thing we do, let's kill all the bankers."
  • My environmental network is telling me that the current managers of the PFRA lands, which the provincial government wants to sell, are being muzzled, forbidden to comment on the value of the million acres of native prairie and sustainably grazed pasture, in spite of the fact that they know that land and understand its importance and its management from the inside out.  Nevertheless Candace Savage, recent winner of the Hillary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, will be speaking to interested people on Thursday November 22 at 7 in the Education Auditorium, and a group of people interested in saving the PFRA lands from the auction block will gather on Friday, November 23 at the Orr Centre, 4400 4th Avenue (on 4th and Lewvan Drive).
  • Meanwhile, Harper is calling into question the charitable status of any organization that doesn't tow the conservative line, particularly on environmental issues.
  • Then, of course, we come to the Faculty of Arts and the English Department.  In some ways, what is happening here is clear:  the provincial government is demanding that U of R become "more efficient," and is forcing that efficiency on us by threatening to give us no increase in our funding or by holding us to a 2% increase.  (A 2% increase is, in effect, a decrease, since our costs rise by about 5% a year.)  The other clear fact here is that Saskatchewan, currently a "have" province, ranks 9th among the provinces in the amount of money it provides to post-secondary education.  It is unclear whether the Faculty of Arts is being asked to take more of a financial hit than other, more profession-oriented faculties.  I am hoping that Paul Bogdan's excellent piece, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" in The Carillon and David Fraser's briefer piece in the Leader-Post will shake down some answers to our questions.
  • Chris Hedges believes, as do a number of people I respect, that governments are attempting to "silence" or "starve" the humanities and the social sciences because we're the ones who teach the troublemakers--if we aren't troublemakers ourselves.  We ask the uncomfortable questions.  We don't take the government or corporate line for granted, nor do we share their vision of "prosperity"--that it is synonymous with "profit." We don't believe that the lives and the societies and the environments they have in mind for us are either the best or the only possibilities.
This fall, just before the term began, the English Department met to consider the budgetary realities, and I found myself saying that critical thought, the arts, cultural institutions, and the natural world that so beautifully supports our existence, are hanging on "by the skin of our teeth."  My memory queried that phrase the minute it was out of my mouth.  It came from somewhere memorable.

It's the title of the first chapter of Kenneth Clark's Civilization, the one that describes the dark ages between the fall of Rome and "The Great Thaw" that began, from his perspective, in 1100 C.E.  I nodded inwardly, realizing that we are heading, possibly world-wide, toward a twenty-first-century Dark Age, one where the barbarian hordes are those who believe that profit and wealth are the only true "good," in spite of the fact that the economists of happiness and the cognitive psychologists will tell them that their hunger can never be assuaged.  So I went back to Kenneth Clark's book, and found both some disturbing parallels and some hope. 

First, the devout St. Gregory burned countless volumes of the Classical literature we had inherited from Greece and Rome because they "seduced men's minds away from the study of holy write" (17).  He is the precursor, then, of ideologues who want to silence dissent and free thought.  On the other hand, there was Charlemagne, who, with the "help of an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York...collected books and had them copied....Our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne" (18).
I don't find despair exactly energizing.  At any given moment, it is probably as rational to say the glass is half empty as to assert that it's half full, and I fully respect this fact.  So I choose to take the "half full" view, even though sometimes it's initially quite a struggle.  In part, that means teaching with all the passion and joy I can muster, because for every politician or CEO who's on the wrong track, I can touch an Arts student who can reflectively maneuver us onto the right track. In part, it means looking out my window as I work, taking in the beauty of the natural world, thinking about my daughter's photograph of the church in King's Lynn on Ascension Sunday and about the potters who made the jars that unceremoniously hold pens and clips.  The natural world always reminds me that there's something bigger than myself, something as beautiful as anything humans have ever made.  So I also drive to work through the park, making my left turn off Albert at the Legislature and taking the long way in along the lake, where the geese still have a bit of open water they gather around and where the opposite shoreline is often shrouded in fog.  It means taking a different route through the park on the way home where I almost always see a rabbit out for for "silflay."  In the words Kenneth Clark uses to describe the wonderful Unicorn Tapestries, "nature goes on naturing."

In some ways, I keep hope alive by writing this blog, by finding a place where literally no one stands between you and me.  It means, unfortunately, trying to ignore the fact that Candace Savage won the Hillary Weston Non-fiction prize for a book published by Greystone, and imprint of the now-bankrupt and restructuring Douglas and McIntyre publishing firm.  That, in turn, makes me think of book stores...and forces me to take a deep breath before I spiral down yet again.

It makes me want to spend time with creative writers, as I will be doing on Saturday when the English Department hosts a Creative Writing Open House.  Creative people are the only ones who can get us out of this.  That's not only because they are the ones who will entertain us on the improbably dark nights that are ahead or who can make history live in our memories so we know where human progress left off.  They are the ones who will help us be subversive, if not the ones who come up with the solutions.  But more than that:  creative people know the joy of making something, not simply buying it.  They can't be bought off.


  1. Adding to this, today's news about the closure of the Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, serves to uphold the premise of your argument. And, it can easily add to the despair factor!

    Still, I believe we are already in that dark age and the awakening we're seeing around the world and here in Canada in the form of huge protests is evidence that we're moving into a new age.

  2. Very thoughtful post Kathleen. And honest. I like your idea that creative people (the makers) are part of the solution.

  3. This is wonderful. I will be sharing it.