Monday, November 14, 2016

Tonsor #16 -- "Give me a real thought!"

I was sitting in Tonsor's office when he returned a short review paper. He had written an "A" on the back page, followed by comments. His handwriting was distinct -- a black, bold, cursive style that was pleasing to the eye.

As I finished reading his mark-ups and comments with satisfaction, he said, "It's a good paper, Mr. Whitney. But it could be better. Your writing is -- precious."

Tonsor was an Aristotelian.
Precious? I had no idea what he meant but my defenses went up. Out of pride I wanted to remind him that I had always earned an "A" in composition classes and rarely got anything less on my history papers; that I had already published a book along with numerous articles; that I had just won a national essay contest that came with a $5,000 prize; that I had been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa; that I had taught expository writing and rhetoric to undergraduates; that I had mastered German well enough to win a Fulbright scholarship to West Germany; and that; and that; and that. Such defensiveness on my part! Such pride! I would not submit easily to his criticism.

Over the next minute or two, Tonsor spelled out several criticisms mostly having to do with diction. His voice had an edge. After each of his statements, I said, "Okay," to register that I heard what he was telling me. But I was not happy with this litany.

After five or six of his statements, each followed by my "Okay," Tonsor all of a sudden blew. "Will you quit saying 'okay'? 'Okay' means nothing. It's just a spasmodic reaction, not a real thought. Give me a real thought, Mr. Whitney!"

I was taken aback by Tonsor's burst of anger, an emotional Blitzkrieg that smacked me without warning. Why this heat? It was the first time he laid into me, and I felt equal measures of humiliation and pique. No teacher had ever spoken to me like that. Gathering myself so as to express a "real thought," I said, "By design I try to write not just as an academic intellectual but also as a public intellectual. It's the only way my work will reach a wider audience. I suppose at this point in my career I am not doing justice to the requirements of either style."

"I understand," Tonsor assured me, his voice straining to express recovered calm. (I wished he had instead said, "Okay," just to give me the pleasure of hearing him say it.) He seemed to want to back off, yet his fingers moved sporadically across his knees and his head jerked erratically. "Good writing does take time to achieve. I, too, had to bridge the chasm between writing for colleagues and writing for the informed lay public. Incidentally, I also used to compose poetry when I was about your age. It was not very good. But trying to get the essence of an image or emotion into a line of iambic pentameter makes one think hard about language."

Then, unexpectedly: "Have you ever written poetry, Gleaves?" He asked the question in a soft register. It was the first time he addressed me by my first name. It was also one of the rare times he asked me about my life -- asked not about a book I'd read or a scholar I'd studied or a method I'd explored, but about my life.

I told him that I had written some verse, most recently in a creative writing class with Loy O. Banks, one of my favorite English professors at Colorado State who had inadvertently introduced me to Tonsor's work by giving me his back copies of Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. I admitted that, looking back, the "poetry" embarrassed me.

"Yes," he said. "Doctors can bury their mistakes. Architects can plant ivy to hide theirs. But writers? Writers have to endure whatever has left the printer's shop."

I welcomed the pivot in the conversation. Tonsor shifted from a high emotional gear into neutral, no doubt to disperse the heat with which he had laid into me. The mood shift had the feel of a guilty parent trying to make up to a child.

Tonsor then launched into a remarkable discourse on rhetoric's place in the liberal arts, signaling that he had left the emotional arena and entered the intellectual one. "No one can use a language well who is estranged from or unacquainted with the poets of the language. What the ancients and the men of the Middle Ages called 'rhetoric' is one of the essential humanistic disciplines. It is essential to the ordinary college students you will someday teach. For them, even though they don't know it, rhetoric is the key to knowledge and understanding, to scientific enquiry and precise description. Without an exact sense of language, without a precise description of things as they are, or as they might be, philosophy, law, and natural science are impossible. Without a poetry which touches the human heart and exactly describes the human condition, religion is dead and the emotions stultified.

"Western men and women have had a 2,000-year training in the greatest 'rhetoric' there is, the language of the Bible, which mankind can avail itself of. As an educational source, one of the most important aspects of the Bible is the fact that it speaks to all men indiscriminately: high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, sophisticated and ignorant, powerful and weak. It does not talk down to them but speaks in the accents of the Divine and in the language of the greatest poetry. The mind of Western man has been shaped by the language of that book. Like the liberal arts, the Bible has been successful in forming a culture because it reaches beyond its ostensible purpose -- in the case of the Bible, conveying the Word of God -- and informs and inspires a whole culture.

"How startling and saddening it is, when one makes a biblical allusion in a lecture and reads the faces of the audience, that one sees a look as barren as the sandy wastes of the Sahara! One has the impression suddenly that the students are two dimensional, that the depth of the Scriptures is not one of their dimensions.

"In the absence of the liberal arts, this happens not only in matters of scriptural and religious language, but also in the richly allusive language of great poetry and literature. I have the experience often, when speaking to undergraduates, of walking into a largely unfurnished or badly furnished room. There is no place there for the soul's ease, no appropriate setting for intellectual or social intercourse, no stove with which to cook the simplest intellectual fare. As Gertrude Stein observed, 'When you get there, there is no there there.'"

I laughed weakly.

"Instead of the exactly right word, instead of the precise and uncolored definition, instead of the poetic utterance, one hears such phrases as 'like,' 'you know,' or 'I mean.' Such substitutes for language are, as my friend the late Martin Diamond said, 'linguistic black holes' into which the meaning of the language is sucked and disappears. One is tempted to ridicule the poor, literally dumb student who uses such meaningless words, or shout as Jesus did when he healed the dumb man, 'Be thou opened.' But, alas, the only way that we can heal them is by teaching the Bible, the poets, the great literature of the state papers, and the philosophers. The great teacher makes the blind see and the dumb speak, but he can only do so because he too has had his tongue unstopped and his eyes opened.

"The first and most important function of a liberal arts education is to give amplitude and width to the human personality and to enable that personality to express itself fully, clearly, precisely, and gracefully. Style is a matter of ultimate importance whether one is writing up the minutes of the school board or pitching softball for one of the local leagues. The good news is, style can be learned."[1]

When I walked away from that first tense encounter with Tonsor, I did not yet know it, but I was embarking on a road that would teach me many things that weren't part of the program. First, the experience confirmed what I had heard, that Tonsor was indeed "a mite prickly," so it was important for me to manage my own emotions when he was not managing his. Second, even when he was acting intemperately, his erudition kept my mind on the stretch -- I could learn from him if I did not let pride get in the way. The bottom line: I had to make my relationship with Tonsor work. After all, when I moved to Ann Arbor, I entirely reordered my life to learn from him.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why Democratic Technocrats Need the Liberal Arts," Freedom, Order, and the University, ed. James R. Wilburn (Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Press, 1982), pp. 22-23.

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