16 February 2017

Returning to Middlemarch Again

I am finding it difficult to talk about school these days because to talk about school I must also talk about the students in attendance there, and I don’t want to make general statements about ‘students’ that apply only to individuals. The same, of course, applies to talk of teachers. But . . .  I have grown weary of hearing students talked about as our ‘clients and customers,’ transforming the role of the teacher to a salesperson whose function is to keep the customer satisfied. It seems to me that the function of the teacher is to do just the opposite: make the student just a bit uneasy, uncomfortable, and strange.
     In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, urges Dorothea, now a young widow, not to remain isolated in the house at Lowick where once she lived with her sophistical, obscurantist husband, Mr. Casaubon. To Dorothea’s good fortune, her dessicated husband, and Dorothea is released from a stultifying marriage and a mission that had imprisoned her. But, after after a suitable period of mourning during which Dorothea resided at her uncle’s home, she returned to Lowick in the environs of Middlemarch where she intended to remain living her solitary life engaged in various liberal and progressive social programs that she hoped would improve the lives of the more oppressed and disadvantaged workers. No one in Middlemarch criticizes her determination though they sometimes express concern for her method. And so on a visit to Dorothea, Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife, cautions Dorothea not so much about her social intent as about the solitude she intends to maintain to accompany her purpose: “You will certainly go mad in this house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by” (Eliot, 537). Mrs. Cadwallader cautions Dorothea that to remain sane in this world takes some effort. The ease of insanity seems so much more appealing, Mrs. Cadwallader admits, and she acknowledges that “for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad.” Dorothea is subject to neither condition. Mrs. Cadwallader urges Dorothea to assume the exact opposite of an antic disposition: Dorothea must, Mrs. Cadwallader says, “get a few people round you who wouldn’t believe you if you told them” when “in your sovereign isolation you come to believe that you rule the weather.” Mrs. Cadwallader urges on Dorothea the company of what might appear not skeptics and ironists but realists
--acquaintances who might with disdain doubt her ideal assumptions and purposes. Mrs. Cadwallader urges on Dorothea an adherence to the social norms that from the beginning--even ironically in her marriage to Casaubon-- Dorothea has rejected. These sane realists of Mrs. Cadwallader are nothing but conformists; she urges that Dorothea must “call things by the same names as others.” But Dorothea responds to Mrs. Cadwallader, “I have never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did,” and when Mrs. Cadwallader nods her head and declares that at least Dorothea now acknowledges her error, Dorothea denies it. “No, I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion.” Alas, not always but that is not reason enough not to continue to not call things by the same name as others.
     Dorothea defines for me the role of the teacher: one who does not call things by the same name as others. This practice will inevitably raise not a few eyebrows and inspire scorn from those others onto the nonconforming teacher, but often the world may come round from its opinion. At least, that is what we in our insane sanity who refuse to call things by the same name as others earnestly hope. Until then, I suppose we keep on keeping on.


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