Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

"Mending Wall": The Case for the Humanities Classroom

by Daniel Morris

For the past sixteen years I have served as a professor at Purdue, a land grant research university in Indiana. Known for engineering, agriculture, business, and the sciences, it is most famous because twenty-six astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Gus Grissom, were Boilermakers. In this "real world" context, I teach courses in the eccentric and decidedly unprofitable area of poetry analysis. Under the gun from financially strapped parents and irate state legislators who demand concrete evidence of the economic value of a college degree, administrators want humanists to increase "efficiencies" and to provide scientific-style metrics to verify their worth. How to quiet the chorus of criticisms that the humanities are a luxury that most students -- except those at elite private colleges and the Ivy Leagues -- can ill afford?

Tenured humanists are an endangered species, possibly the last of a dying breed. Even now, adjunct instructors and graduate assistants teach most of the courses. Further, the ubiquitous presence of for-profit and online universities has increased pressure on brick-and-mortar universities to offer students more options for taking courses via the computer screen. Online "chat rooms" are replacing the face-to-face relationship fostered by a traditional classroom experience. A Luddite whose most advanced pedagogic tools consist of the occasional xeroxed handout and a paperback anthology of poems from Chaucer to Billy Collins, I find myself under siege. Has the time for what I do with passion, and what I believe to be of such fundamental cultural and pedagogic significance, come to an end? I am here lobbying for the support and tenure of experienced full-time humanities professors, whose work belongs primarily in a small classroom setting, not a chat room.

Given Tikkun's mission of tikkun olam, let me concentrate on how I teach "Mending Wall" (1914), concerned as it is with repairing a piece of traditional culture. One reason I teach Robert Frost's allegedly well-known work is that I want to contest a sound-byte media that discourages the attention to detail that I foster in the classroom. The authoritative speaker of "Mending Wall" is not responsible for the oft-quoted proverb "Good fences make good neighbors." Rather, this line is repeated twice by the neighbor, whom the speaker mocks as "an old-stone savage armed" who will "not go behind his father's saying." Attending to tone and perspective, we notice that the main speaker -- the "I" whom Frost imagines as if he were the neighbor's instructor -- challenges what has become, ironically, the poem's best-known phrase.

A progressive might at first glance critique the speaker's act of calling the neighbor to mend the wall after the harsh New England winter has sent the stones tumbling to the ground. Such wall building, the progressive might argue, merely reasserts borders that signify property ownership, and consolidates private, rather than communal, identity: "He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines." But consider the speaker's motivations for remaking that wall with his neighbor as helpmate and student. In the process of wall making, the speaker, ironically, challenges the neighbor's understanding that "spring mending time" enforces the Law of the Fathers to keep tradition going for its own sake. By reinterpreting wall mending as "just another outdoor game," the speaker demystifies the custom's aura of inevitability and grandeur. Wall making, like the poem itself, and like my approach to it in class, becomes a scene of instruction. Like a wise classroom teacher, the speaker allows the neighbor, through questioning, to arrive at a new definition of the meaning of his activity. "Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / Why do they make good neighbors?" The dialogue between the "I" and his neighbor reflects my sense that an experienced classroom teacher, through a bit of prodding, can offer his charges not definitive answers, but rather, as Frost's speaker says, a conversational setting in which "I'd rather / He said it for himself." I strongly disagree with the speaker's condescending tone when he addresses the neighbor, but the important point to make is that he has invited the neighbor, and, implicitly, the reader, to engage in an instructive debate about how culture represents a complex admixture of continuity and change.

"Mending Wall" encourages the airing of many viewpoints. Frost's language is marked by a plurality of value-laden perspectives that exist in challenging contact with one another. The symbolic gesture of rebuilding the wall after the winter's ravages and the hunter's violence holds a different meaning for the speaker and for the "savage" neighbor. As with Clifford Geertz's "thick" reading of the public meaning of a wink as, potentially, an involuntary tick, a secret code, a paranoid's belief in intrigue, or a parodist's mockery of paranoia, Frost admits many interpretations of the wall's history of deterioration and reconstruction. For the "I," rebuilding the wall is not a material necessity ("there where it is we do not need the wall"), but an occasion to meet "the neighbor and walk the line" on an annual basis. The speaker challenges paternal lore -- what scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls the "governing patterns of culture" -- by way of the mindful attitude he brings to the ritual.

There is a resonance between Frost's decision to work in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) and the speaker's ambivalent statement of cultural reconstruction through wall mending. As with Frost's analysis of wall mending as, potentially, a mindless return to the father's saying and as a witty gesture that subverts the highly restrained form, Frost troubles the regularity of the blank verse line through enjambment and metrical substitution. Improvising within the restraints of an established measure, Frost challenges the conception of iambic pentameter as a hegemonic construct.

Frost composed "Mending Wall" as World War I approached, when other poets he knew well such as Ezra Pound were contesting the value of traditional verse forms. By working with the line of ten in a period when other poets wanted to break away from it, Frost, like his speaker, symbolically "mends" this sign of civic discourse, but does so in a way that suggests his openness to play, dialogue, and revision of its purposes.

"Mending Wall" demonstrates the educational worth of face-to-face exchanges between a knowing teacher and a student, who together engage in a conversation about culture and tradition. "Mending Wall" illustrates the merit of the humanities classroom at its best, even at lunch bucket schools better known for exploration of the outer cosmos than for probing the complex and often ambiguous contours of the inner cosmos of the human mind and heart.

Daniel Morris is professor of English at Purdue University and editor of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.

Source Citation: Morris, Daniel. 2011. “Mending Wall”: The Case for the Humanities Classroom. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.


tags: Culture, Education  
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