The following talk was the annual Founders’ Day Address given at the December 6, 2006, initiation ceremony for Alpha of Florida chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Our guest speaker was Professor John Fenstermaker, Fred L. Standley Professor of English, FSU Distinguished Teaching Professor, Distinguished Research Professor, and Director of the Program in American and Florida Studies.
Dr. Fenstermaker gave an earlier version of these remarks as the Presidential Address at the 2005 annual convention of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. His address was subsequently published in the South Atlantic Review 71:1 (2006): 1-11.
A list of quotations and a word-list accompany this essay:
List of Quotations:
“Freedom’s Just Another Word….”
“Great Wits Whet and Cultivate One Another”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”
From the Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…. We are met on a great battle field…. We come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow, this ground – The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
From John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: Let the word go forth from this time and place…to friend and foe alike…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage…and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed….
From Martin Luther King: In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on the promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, Americahas given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
From William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: . . . the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about,worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself thatthe basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes notof the heart but of the glands.
Freedom’s Just Another Word . . .
by Dr. John J. Fenstermaker
–“Great wits whet and cultivate one another”
–“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”
The title of this brief meditation is “Freedom’s Just Another Word . . .” Note also on the handout two brief epigraphs: “Great wits whet and cultivate one another” and “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” “Great wits whet and cultivate” is Lord Chesterfield’s in a letter to his son, vintage 18th century England . “Freedom’s just another word” comes from Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” lyrics immortalized by Janis Joplin, vintage 1960s America . I concur with Chesterfield about the interaction of “great wits.” Thus, when a neighbor queried me recently about WHY and WHAT EXACTLY I profess, I invoked Chesterfield and began describing the university as a singular haven for great wits to whet and cultivate each other. Quickly, he interrupted, “yes, I understand, but,” revealing, of course, that he did not fully understand these words. No more than do students who offer me a thumbs-up or the peace sign really understand Joplin on freedom.
Occasionally, I use the heavily freighted Joplin lyric in class, not to demonstrate that I am hip, but as a brief gloss–words familiar from popular culture that I can link to a critical moment in our discussion: for example, when pondering freedom’s being “nothin’ left to lose” as applied to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles prostrate on a great rock slab at Stonehenge, anticipating peace at last via her arrest and speedy hanging or to Ernest Hemingway’s Frederic Henry at the penultimate moments of A Farewell to Arms, gazing upon the statue-like Catherine Barkley, frozen in her final repose.
Some time, as an impromptu language exercise with my students, I would like to parse Joplin’s remarkable sentence by itself, revealing its potent ambiguities. Absent Bobby McGee, might not “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” pulsate as pure bravado, literal truth, metaphysical complexity, sound over sense, nonsense? Unfortunately, many students would abhor such collateral discussion, neither comprehending nor valuing the capacity of words to incorporate multiple meanings–ranging from simple clarity to purposeful ambiguity to deliberate nonsense.
On this peg o’ truth, I hang my tale. And I come before you, students certified by Phi Beta Kappa as among the brightest and most accomplished of your peers, urging for us a mutual rededication.
An English professor, I teach students to read, write, and think critically. Additionally, my mission, and that of my humanities colleagues, is to offer access, largely through the printed word, to the humane content of disparate cultures, particularly western, specifically in my case, British and American. Today, this especial duty is seriously impeded by widespread failure among students to appreciate the word.
Permit me to secularize a renowned passage from St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The word, now lower case, continues vital, rife with god-like powers. All endeavors of ethical or moral consequence– splitting the atom, spacewalking, cloning live creatures, waging war– merely exist until anatomized, their meanings established, often “spun,” then disseminated in multiple verbal figurations. Unfortunately, the light potential in language for illuminating ethical complexity is swamped for young people today by a tsunami of technological effluents spewing continuously from the monstrous maw of commercial popular culture. Because language facility constitutes the sine qua non for apprehending both long-term and nonce issues, this situation is grave. As you, the brightest and most accomplished, know, course readings and ensuing animated class discussions, words of previous scholars anchoring your research, and, not least, books read for pleasure hone language skills and incite a propensity for critical intellection. Put simply, the fundamental desideratum of your rededication is the conscious cultivation in your intellect and imagination of a lifetime passion, initiated even today, by tentatively reaching for, cautiously touching, sensitively fondling, finally embracing with promiscuous and ecstatic abandon–written words.
Unfortunately, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Americans do not read. Of your peers 18-29, only 23% read a newspaper yesterday. Fewer than 40% of Americans 30-49 and only 60% of seniors did. University students emigrate from homes barren of personal libraries. The average family claims three televisions, however, and 68% of youth ages 8-18 (70% of third graders) have a TV in their rooms; 33% have a computer. Seventy-nine percent have portable CD, tape, or MP3 players; 55% sport hand-held video game players. Only 47% of adults claim to read seriously. Two-thirds of men do not read books. Ninety-six percent of these stalwarts prefer TV, 60% would rather go to a movie, 55% would rather lift weights!
As a result, most students have never experienced the “rush” from selecting the precise word, from inscribing a breathtaking, never-before image. They are ignorant that simple statements can prove moving, memorable, even momentous. Recall Dickens’s Sydney Carton en route to the guillotine, sacrificing himself for another: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Or, at the Battle of the Bulge, General McAuliffe’s, “Nuts!” in reply to the German demand for unconditional surrender. Or Scott Beamer’s, “Let’s roll!” Hence, many students–even among the brightest and most accomplished–ignore reading as a leisure activity, foregoing new knowledge, fresh perspectives–-a sense of order, fullness, purpose. Many students--even among the brightest and most accomplished–shun courses requiring much writing and speaking and, further, dodge foreign language study. Such decisions weaken language facility; moreover, they diminish listening skills.
Many impatient students seek constant sensory stimulation, the beat that goes on and on. They feel no electricity in ordinary words; printed words stir neither imagination nor emotion. Four-letter words, vulgar epithets, street slang, and nonsense strings, however, they perpetrate with monotonous abandon in reflexive phrasings (“like, you know, “whatever,” “totally cool,“ or “Dude, that totally blows!”)
Such linguistic derelictions are stunted fruits engendered by an ubiquitous technological culture epitomized by the gaggle of CDs, VCRs, DVDs, i-pods, MP3 players, music videos, television, movies, video games, play stations, cell phones, instant messaging, e-mail, blogs, chat rooms, and more.
Not surprisingly, many students--even among the brightest and most accomplished--have lost the capacity for awe and wonder. You are awash in technology, drowning in graphic, computerized images and sounds--content loosed from print or expressed in a truncated or coded style dissolving grammar and conventional usage--describing fragmented virtual worlds that are not nor ever will be. Such images blunt the real, highlighting the extraordinary (sensational, often decadent) over the mundane world where we all actually live and seek fulfillment.
Yes, all students read and gather surface meanings. Many, however, labor over a word here or there, the casting of a phrase, even a common figure. Too many cannot analyze and are unmoved by language such as Lincoln ’s in the “Gettysburg Address.” Shallow responses to powerful texts derive from limited appreciation of words in patterned phrases, words alluding to other texts, words in context. On the handout in bold type are instances in key cultural texts where difficulty often occurs. The Kennedy and King excerpts embody language (much of it figurative) exhorting intellectual commitment and moral action, words harkening to American history, community, and vision. Consider the bolded words within John F. Kennedy’s address:
“Let the word go forth from this time and place. . .to friend and foe alike . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage . . . and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed. . . . “
Thus, the Problem: many students lack interest in the rudiments and the potentialities of language. This mind-set is serious because it threatens access to the past and mastery of basic interpretive tools for evaluating that history and shaping current cultural debates. What to do?
In humanities classes, particularly, we must take the problem head-on, occasionally using for illustrative purposes the sensual appeal, violence, and/or materialism undergirding popular CDs, movies, video games, and similar fare. Is there among them, for example, an isolable vision of contemporary society? Popular media present a broad spectrum from Sheryl Crow to Eminem, from J. K. Rowling to Bret Easton Ellis, from Shreck to the Sopranos. Assuredly some world-views dramatize a collapse of beliefs central to our heritage–from religious and domestic values to broader issues of personal and social responsibility.
Yet, commonalities exist among popular music lyrics, videos, books, and films, and the cultural visions explored in our courses. Words that freeze-frame popular culture images for discussion may defuse troubling media-constructed worlds by demonstrating similarities between these discourses and images and those explored in our classrooms. Selections from Eminem, Ellis, or the Sopranos offer appalling violence and sensuality. When this content is freeze-framed by words likealienation, loneliness, disillusion, violence, brutality, perversion, lies, however, the darkness lightens, and these worlds become first tangible, then more realistic. Moreover, the sensational or otherwise exaggerated can be cast into a more credible dynamic via a counter-balancing world modeled on equally popular lyrics by Sheryl Crow or Diana Krall, tales from Rowling or Grisham, episodes of Law and Order, worlds more positive in their realism and rendered palpable in words like self-awareness, self-discipline, sensitivity, spirituality, camaraderie, courage, honor, justice, truthfulness.
How grave are these matters? For you? At this time? It’s your call.
Language unlocks our collective heritage. Recorded testaments from the past inform our aspirations and define our fears–both as individuals and as citizens. Humanities class discussions should analyze historical and contemporary issues through close readings of words both in key historical documents and in thoughtful general texts critiquing both the immediate past and the present: e.g., in the words of Hemingway, Kennedy, King, Updike; Sontag, Didion, Morrison–even Oprah. Their carefully chosen words distill the personal experience of a sensitive intellect and express a comprehensive vision.
An example. As a language exercise to stimulate interest in how simple words connect us to general verities, I often use Faulkner’s Nobel Prize address (see handout) before introducing his fiction. I read the speech aloud and ask students to reflect upon how the words move and motivate, make one yearn to act positively, to reach beyond self. We examine word choice, syntax, rhythm and repetition--words as words and words rhetorically arranged. Note that this text would send no one here to a dictionary.
Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech: “. . . the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. ”
Powerful words. A sensitive intellect with a comprehensive vision expresses a cultural critique.
The handout records classic examples of powerful words. Their meanings continue open to debate, and such classroom exchanges empower the university as an activist institution, humanizing the culture that is our subject and the readers who are our students.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” does not appear on the handout. It might have. Composed by Phi Beta Kappa and Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson, it is a syllable or two short of haiku and distractingly raspy in Joplin ’s rendition. But unpacked, it reveals the triumph and tragedy of the human spirit. Discovered in an often rude and vulgar medium, it is a linguistic pearl of great price.
To understand and value our heritage as recorded in printed texts (a breadth that includes Kristofferson and Joplin), we must develop linguistic skills capable of accessing that inheritance–highbrow and low, linguistic skills enabling us to sympathize with the human and to cherish the humane therein. As part of your rededication to the printed word, I urge that you focus on comprehension but also on appreciation of words as words and words deliberately arranged for meaning into specific rhetorical patterns, on how words so patterned unlock the dreams and record the accomplishments of the countless shapers of our cultural history.
I conclude with the hope that my words and images today, rather than those of our contemporary technological culture, will linger a brief while before your mind’s eye, then settle into your consciousness, memorializing our mutual rededications, yours and mine--
For me, to render access to the humane content in the printed words of our respective cultures, and, in every class, to make continuously viable and consistently meaningful that stirring maxim: “great wits whet and cultivate one another.”
For you, armed with perspective on the past and present and with language skills and research tools for further inquiry, the joyous obligation to create for yourselves new ideas, realistically grounded, regarding the intellectual and ethical dimensions of the natural, social, and technological future facing you as Americans and facing our culture broadly. Degree in hand, you will possess a quiver full of "life skills," not least among them facility with your mother tongue. Remember, as the bumper sticker exhorts: “Love Your Mother.” So armed, you should be able both to find meaningful happiness for yourselves and to interact in the broader social community as informed citizens.
With your permission, a moment in closing for a few words touching the season: “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself.” Moving words from A Christmas Carol, the best known Christmas tale in the world, save for the story of the first Christmas. Dickens’s slim volume, expressing a humane and comprehensive vision, constitutes perhaps the finest homage in the language to the common man and the common man’s family. I began today’s homily on words with St. John’s complex metaphorical conflation of the word (Word) and God. I conclude sharing the irrepressible Tiny Tim’s momentous effusion, more famous and much simpler than St. John’s , albeit equally extraordinary in its yoking of all humankind--“God bless Us, Every One!”
Shalom! Every One. Have a wonderful holiday.