"…that energy to make the leap off the raised closed surface."

pedagogy

essays

Sam Eisenstein
Free Will and Present Day Students

eisenAsked to provide West with a brief autobiography, the writer sends West this requisite bare bones synopsis of what is and has been a busy and fulfilling life: “I've been in the English Dept. at LACC since 1961, 50 years! I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in comparative literature, another Master’s in Psychology from Goddard, and I am an MFT, marriage and family counselor licensed in California. My daughter Chana is a veterinarian in Willets, California; my stepson David is an ophthalmologist in West Los Angeles; my wife Bettyrae is an interior decorator. Green Integer and Red Hen have published six of my novels with several more under consideration. I have had stories or poems in such publications as Penthouse, Seventeen, and many small magazines. My plays have been done by La Mama, Odyssey Theatre Group, KPFK and others. Reading and writing occupy my leisure time away from the classroom, where my favorite class is creative writing, Writers Roundtable, English 127.”

Other Works:


Thornton Wilder's play, The Long Christmas Dinner, spans three generations of an upper-middle-class white Eastern Seaboard family. Each generation repeats the homilies of the one preceding, as well as enlarging on the family myths. I showed the Encyclopedia Britannica version of the play to a lower-division literature class, believing that the students would find it moving as well as informative. Instead, many of them commented out loud about the players' dated clothing, their stiff speech patterns and severely out-of-date attitudes, while I, as usual even after multiple viewings, was choked-up.

I have taught generations of the same ethnic students in this very same classroom. I myself am first-generation American, lower middle class, the first in my family to attend a university. How are we so different, except for the electronics in every student's pocket or handbag? No money, few jobs paying a decent wage, uncertainty because Republicans may really take over and decimate even more unions, a sense that the country cares little for our welfare? Just like the students I couldn't be farther from the people on the screen. Yet, the concerns of people are not so different, regardless of economic status. Husbands and wives differ over the upbringing of the kids, slack or firm. Children rebel against the strictures of parents, what they consider important or sacred. People get sick and to their own surprise grow weak and unable to control things as they are used to doing. Eternal verities like shoeing horses or putting fins on cars, turn out to be gone in what seems like a flash.

Some students laugh, but I guess that they are really uncomfortable with the truth that is there in their faces: they are not so different from mid-century rich Americans. Do they really control their destinies? The next writing assigned in this class is Oedipus. Right smack into the argument between free will and predestination. The students are young. They believe they decide what they are going to do. Recent real-time MRI and MRA show that the brain decides a larger percentage of our acts than we even imagine. The autonomous breathing mechanism is just one of those things. But more actions we consider voluntary are at the very least influenced by what we have done in the past. And what our ancestors before us have always done. All the way back to our arboreal days. Without these automatic responses we would be helpless. So Oedipus' folks, told by the Orphic voice that their son would kill his father and marry and reproduce with his mother, naturally took the only way out they could: they tried to kill the child. Oedipus was innocent but predestined to a horrible fate.

I would have liked to be six feet tall, with blue eyes and yellow hair. Not a chance. I was destined by my genes to be short, squat and dark. And what else? My father was a small businessman who sold, variously, old furniture, shabby war surplus, dismal toys. Always a mixture of old and new. That's what I do also, in what passes in my corner of the universe as academe: I mix things up, I try to connect ideas that live far from each other. I am my father's son and heir in that way.

When I relate these things to the class some of whose members have laughed at Wilder's play, which is assuredly not in 3-D, doesn't include car chases or tricky shots, whose quiet humanity doesn't shout or insist, a few speak out their having been moved as well, speaking of inter-generational strife not so different from the ones on the screen. Some had tears in their eyes or their voices.

In their class papers written on another day I read confessions of fear and trepidation about their own free will or lack of it, recalling incidents in which they felt helpless before their training or instant inclinations. Some of them recalled my speaking about Henri Fabre, the intuitive Nineteenth Century French biologist, who among other creatures, studied a worm that, if you placed it front to back on a raised surface could only follow around and around until it died. Some of them were haunted by the thought that they could be like that worm unless something snapped them out of it. And some of the students ascribed to this literature class that energy to make the leap off the raised closed surface.

Thinkers like Fabre and Wilder are everlastingly relevant to our lives. The hard part is to be able to convince our students of that fact.


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