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Writing at the End of the World

Writing at the End of the World

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    Writing at the End of the World
    Book Description:

    What do the humanities have to offer in the twenty-first century? Are there compelling reasons to go on teaching the literate arts when the schools themselves have become battlefields? Does it make sense to go on writing when the world itself is overrun with books that no one reads? In these simultaneously personal and erudite reflections on the future of higher education, Richard E. Miller moves from the headlines to the classroom, focusing in on how teachers and students alike confront the existential challenge of making life meaningful. In meditating on the violent events that now dominate our daily lives-school shootings, suicide bombings, terrorist attacks, contemporary warfare-Miller prompts a reconsideration of the role that institutions of higher education play in shaping our daily experiences, and asks us to reimagine the humanities as centrally important to the maintenance of a compassionate, secular society. By concentrating on those moments when individuals and institutions meet and violence results, Writing at the End of the World provides the framework that students and teachers require to engage in the work of building a better future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7284-6
    Subjects: Education, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 1-27)

    Though they may already have faded from memory, driven off by more recent and yet more spectacular horrors, for a few short weeks in 1999, the events at Columbine High School mesmerized the nation. There was the live footage of students fleeing in terror across the green, the boy with the bleeding head being dropped from the window, the SWAT teams moving in. There was the discovery of what lay beyond the eye of the camera: fifteen dead, a cache of weapons, a large homemade bomb made with two propane tanks and a gasoline canister, the eventual disclosure of an...

    (pp. 28-50)

    For his second attempt, my father selected a set of kitchen knives and, when he got to the garage, a hammer from his toolbox. Shortly after my mother found him, the emergency crew rushed him to the hospital and the neighbors and the parish priest arrived to offer what services they could. Then, amidst the frenzied activity in the intensive care unit, my father struggled to explain the presence of the hammer. At a loss for words, he could only say that he had felt at the time that it “might have been of some use.” There is a dark...

    (pp. 51-84)

    What does it mean to be smart? Is this something acquired at conception or something learned over time? Is it possible to teach oneself or to teach others to be smart? There is, it is safe to say, no more highly valued commodity in the academic marketplace today than “smartness”: in conference corridors, behind closed office doors, and in faculty meetings governing hiring and promotion, the activity of assessing the smartness of others is ceaseless. In the classroom, teachers seek out “the smart ones,” joyously celebrate having “a smart class,” gush over their “A” students. Now, at my university, thanks...

    (pp. 85-113)

    Everyone has a story now.

    Nine-eleven wasn’t the first time Time stopped. Time stops all the time. In the past, we’d sit, hands clasped, watching the flickering newsreels. Assassinations, surprise attacks, mushroom clouds, concentration camps. Paying homage to other people’s stories. But now, after all the waiting, the racing from one place to the next, the putting of this thing here and that thing there, it seems Time has finally stopped for us and our own lives have been marked as important.

    We can all say we were alive when. We were there when. We were together when.

    And we...

    (pp. 114-141)

    The year is 1996 and, unbelievably, James A. Hogue is up to his old tricks again. Back in 1988, Hogue had wormed his way into Princeton by posing as “Alexi Indris-Santana,” a self-educated orphan with a hard-luck story and remarkably high SAT scores. For obvious reasons, university officials were not amused when they discovered that the nineteen-year-old “Alexi” they had admitted was not, in fact, a ranch hand who read Plato under the stars while herding cattle in a canyon called “Little Purgatory,” but was, rather, a twenty-nineyear-old bicycle thief who had delayed his entry into Princeton for a year,...

    (pp. 142-169)

    When I was a student at St. John’s College in the early 1980s, one joke making the rounds went like this: name the three most famous people to graduate from the college since it was founded in 1696. After a suitable pause, which the respondent dutifully filled by staring blankly into space, the punch line was delivered: Francis Scott Key, Francis Scott Key, and … Francis Scott Key.

    Even at the time, this was considered a poor attempt at humor. But for the small community of students who attended the college, telling the joke was less about being funny than...

    (pp. 170-198)

    In the room where my father is lying on what will shortly turn out to be his deathbed, the attending respiratory technician asks me what I do for a living. Unable to hear over the sounds of the percussive massage she is giving my father, I have her repeat the question. Upon learning that I am an English teacher, she giggles and says, “Uh-oh, I better watch my language.”

    Believe it or not, I think my father would have enjoyed this incongruous scene. On one hand, you have the well-educated son who is powerless to ease his father’s physical torment....