[Milton-L] Milton as challenger?

Watt, James jwatt at butler.edu
Sat Oct 3 17:37:29 EDT 2009


With respect to this discussion I believe it is useful to ponder something my undergraduate professor, Carl E.W. Dahlstrom, once let fall in a lecture.  It stuck in my mind as it was intended to, immediately, like a persistent burr catching in one's stockings and refusing to be easily removed.  "Even the BEST teacher," he said, "can only do limited damage to his students' interpretive capacities."  

Milton is, of course, the best teacher most of us have ever encountered, or ever will encounter.  

The point is, I think, to remember that what we do, as others have said better than I can, is open the book.  What happens next is neither in our power nor, really, any of our business.

jim watt
________________________________________
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Hannibal Hamlin [hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, October 03, 2009 2:10 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Milton as challenger?

Hmmm. Well, I should probably qualify or complicate this I suppose. I'm still inclined to think that a careful reading of, say , Paradise Lost, is likely to challenge the orthodoxies or received religious beliefs of our students. Sex before the fall, angelic sex, the charismatic appeal (at times seemingly logical --  highable contestable I know) of Satan, the two-dimensionality of the Father (how does one dramatize omniscience?), and so forth. At the same time, I acknowledge that orthodoxy (religious or other) has always proved remarkably resistant to challenge, and readers of both Milton and the Bible have proven adept at both ignoring what is in the text and inserting what is not in it. That Paradise Lost was sitting comfortably for centuries on the bookshelves of the pious and upright, alongside the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress is proof enough. One of our greatest challenges as teachers, I think, is simply to force students onto the page. But then the history of biblical exegesis as well as Milton criticism also shows how a brilliant reader and/or theologian can wriggle out of almost any interpretive difficulty. Of course, our students our not, for the most part, working on the level of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin. On the second half of my sentence, it is also true that there are many ways of teaching the heresy out of Milton. For C.S. Lewis it simply wasn't there, if one read properly, and for Stanley Fish it's there only as a test (I oversimplify of course). My sense -- hardly expert, I confess -- of the current orthodoxy among Milton scholars is that it tends more in this direction than in that of the Blake-Shelley-Empson line, though I myself find the latter hard to resist.

So I suppose, Richard, that, in response to your question, I'm acknowledging the limitations of my earlier statement, while still hanging on to it in a more restricted sense. Perhaps better to say that, while we can't rely on our students to read Milton aright, and while a forceful teacher can (re)shape Milton in any number of ways, if our concern as teachers is to complicate our students' overfacile orthodoxies while not directly attacking their cherished beliefs, we can let Milton do this for us, if we encourage careful and sensitive reading.

Hannibal



On Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 6:57 PM, richard strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu<mailto:rastrier at uchicago.edu>> wrote:
Hannibal.

I'm interested in this claim:  that Milton "will inevitably challenge any orthodox
position of belief, however we teach him."  It's hard for me to believe this,
especially the second half of the claim ("however we teach him").  I guess I think
that can't be true.  Could you elaborate on what you mean?

Thanks,
RS

---- Original message ----
>Date: Fri, 2 Oct 2009 17:25:25 -0400
>From: Hannibal Hamlin <hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com<mailto:hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>>
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Herbert's poetry and belief
>To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu<mailto:milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>>
>
>   This is indeed a more complex question, one I've
>   thought about for many years in teaching a Bible
>   course in an English Department. My conclusion, not
>   easily arrived at, is that those of us who teach
>   "The Bible as Literature" are kidding ourselves if
>   we think we are not going to shake certain kinds of
>   faith, since some do not believe the Bible is
>   literature -- that it isn't all historically true or
>   inerrant, for instance, or that "God" and "Jesus"
>   can be discussed as literary characters, or that
>   much in the Gospels in fiction (Matthew's and Luke's
>   childhood narratives can't both be true, for
>   instance, but that's missing the point -- each
>   serves its own purpose in the different stories). I
>   also believe (!!) that to challenge a position of
>   belief is not to destroy it, and I have indeed had
>   some devout, even evangelical, students who have
>   relished an open-minded discussion. And yet, and
>   yet. There will inevitably be students whose beliefs
>   are more seriously troubled, who go home and have
>   difficult arguments with parents or pastors (I've
>   heard this). I think we're copping out as scholars
>   and teachers, though, if we shy away from this.
>   Education is sometimes challenging, sometimes even
>   scary, for the very good reason that giving up our
>   comfortable received beliefs and opinions is
>   unsettling. So be it. Do our colleagues in the
>   biological sciences worry that they are intolerant
>   of their fundamentalist students who favor
>   Creationism or Intelligent Design over Evolution? I
>   don't think so. But that's perhaps an oblique
>   analogy, since we are not engaged in empirical
>   scientific study (though we might be if we were
>   teaching biblical higher criticism).
>
>   As for the question of how best to guide students
>   through the process of open their minds to a larger
>   world, I think we're lucky that we have writers like
>   Milton to do that for us. I've found nothing so
>   effective for expanding horizons in biblical
>   interpretation than teaching the history of
>   interpretation. Then it's not me against them, but
>   rather all of us together looking at an undeniable
>   fact -- the diverse range of responses to the same
>   texts. So too with Milton, who will inevitably
>   challenge any orthodox position of belief, however
>   we teach him. Shifting to a more pedagogical point,
>   I've usually found humor a very effective tool, and
>   I often enjoy playing the heretic in a way that
>   students seem aware is play (i.e., I am not
>   necessarily one or other brand of heretic myself)
>   but which nevertheless raises the questions that (as
>   Ohioans say) need raised.
>
>   Hannibal
>
>   On Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 4:59 PM, Jason Kerr
>   <aelfric at gmail.com<mailto:aelfric at gmail.com>> wrote:
>
>       Well said. We call it a liberal education
>       because it liberates us from our particular
>       circumscribed experience so that we can see the
>       world as others do.
>
>     I agree that this is, and should be, the aim, but
>     it seems to me that the larger question raised by
>     Prof. Thickstun's initial post is how to guide
>     students with sensitivity through a process that
>     can feel--as Samuel Smith rightly points out--like
>     they're being told to doubt things that they feel
>     deeply and fundamentally to be true. I'm a
>     Miltonist, and I believe with Milton that belief
>     can be strengthened by being challenged, but not
>     everyone feels this way. Sensitivity is important
>     not so much for the sake of being PC or
>     touchy-feely, but because the challenge won't work
>     if students feel threatened and decide to turn
>     off.
>
>     Of course, sensitivity framed in this way sounds
>     like political guile, which I suppose it is, but
>     on the other hand there's the question of just
>     what it is students expect to get for their
>     tuition. For me, the point is not to breed
>     heretics in the truth by directing students to
>     preconceived ideas, but to help situate them such
>     that they are sufficiently exposed to difference
>     that they can start sorting things out for
>     themselves. Simple reinforcement of what I already
>     think to be true can be had for nothing more than
>     the price of an internet connection or a cable TV
>     subscription (not that these media necessarily
>     work only to that end). Cheaper than college, in
>     either case.
>
>     I suppose the issue here is the same as in Of
>     Toleration: everyone should be tolerated, except
>     the Catholics, because they reject the system of
>     testing ideas that makes toleration possible. If
>     my classroom needs a certain amount of tolerance
>     to work, to what extent am I justified in pushing
>     an ideological agenda of tolerance? I realize that
>     I'm talking about a minority of cases here, but
>     isn't respecting minority views one of the tenets
>     of toleration?
>
>     Jason A. Kerr
>     --
>     The purpose of poetry is to remind us
>     how difficult it is to remain just one person,
>     for our house is open, there are no keys in the
>     doors,
>     and invisible guests come in and out at will.
>
>               —Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars
>     Poetica?"
>     _______________________________________________
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>   --
>   Hannibal Hamlin
>   Associate Professor of English
>   The Ohio State University
>   164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
>   Columbus, OH 43210-1340
>   hamlin.22 at osu.edu/<http://hamlin.22@osu.edu/>
>   hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com<mailto:hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com>
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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/<http://hamlin.22@osu.edu/>
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