The Territory: West Point; The Guide: An English Professor

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Review of Elizabeth Samet’s Soldier’s Heart: Teaching Literature in Peace and War at West Point

Permission to Speak, Sir.

I want to tell you about an important book, a book that should be of value to all university educators, especially those teaching literature and the other humanities subjects in mission-driven institutions with vocationally-minded students. It’s a book that should be of interest to all citizens concerned about the unmooring of the military from the rest of American life.

Samet’s work was published in 2004, after she had been a civilian professor at the United States Military Academy for eight years. Though widely praised, this book about the values of literature was overshadowed by another an equally engaging book,  Azir Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which had come out a few months earlier and remained near the top of the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year . Nafisi’s book documents her heroic efforts to lead a group of diverse Iranian young women in the forbidden activity of reading Western classics like The Portrait of a Lady and The Great Gatsby in the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although Nafisi’s Tehran apartment is a worlds away from Samet’s peaceful classrooms on the bluffs of the Hudson, these books combine serious examinations of the importance of exposure to literature and the challenges faced by gifted teachers who are working with special populations with particular goals – whether those goals be a temporary escape from the morals police in Tehran or the preparation to serve in Army leadership positions in Iraq.

I selected this work as a way of looking backwards and forwards. We had just finished a semester-long series called The Celebration of the Humanities, a series in which we tried to help students understand the purpose of the humanities in a university curriculum. We did so in a number of ways; for instance, we marked important anniversaries like the publication of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and explained their enduring impact. During this semester the newspapers were filled with articles about the current status of the humanities and various remedies for their restoration to central positions in college curriculums. At such a time, Samet’s book has helped to crystalize the various thoughts that I have had about the opportunity for and responsibility of teaching literature.

The book has also been a stimulus to thinking about future theme-based literature courses that I might offer. The plan to offer during the 2014-2015 semester a thematic series on Violence has got me thinking about a course that is tentatively called Images of War in 20th Century American Literature and Film. Samet’s book has been a wonderful source for content and approaches.

Like many liberal academics, I have some deep-seated reservations about the claims of American Exceptionalism and one of its offsprings,  American Militarism. I usually wince at the opportunistic and simple-minded patriotism of the NFL when it puts on display a returning vet as part of its halftime spectacles. When thinking about the role of the military in contemporary society I have been influenced by Rachel Maddow’s Drift and the provocative works of West Point graduate and Viet Nam War veteran Andrew Bacevich, especially his The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. Like many of my fellow citizens on the left I am dismayed by what Samet calls “messianism,” the efforts on the part of fundamentalist officers to return to the world of the crusades when Christian armies attempted to vanquish foreign infidels. Samet profiles some of her student cadets who are foot-soldiers in this army within the Army.

And so I came to this book hopeful that not all of the blame for these cultural ills could be laid at the feet of this two-centuries old institution. I came to this book hopeful that I would read about how bright young men and women can emerge from this preparation for military leadership with the capacity for critical thinking and dissent, with the ability to provide an effect counterpoint to feckless and hawkish lawmakers for whom military power – the more of it the better – is the solution to all problems. And, captivated by the title, I came to the book eager to see how a Harvard-trained Ph.D. operates in an academic culture that most of her academic colleagues would never choose as a place to teach. I certainly didn’t think that I would be able to do so.

Samet has allayed many of my fears and addressed many of my misconceptions. Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, West Point has found a place in its curriculum for the humanities and has, in general, followed the prevailing trends for departmental organization and curricular content that is observed at hundreds of colleges and universities. Employing civilian professors as well as military personnel with doctorates in literature and history and sociology, the Academy has remained receptive to these new trends in higher education and has adjusted them to serve its characteristic mission. Samet taught before and after 9/11 and describes the shift in tenor at the academy. Her senior-level students in 2002 were very much aware that after graduation they were heading not for peaceful assignments in Japan or Houston but for high-stress assignments in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the academy made no move to scrap “irrelevant” humanities courses in light of new contingencies. Though it did offer more courses in “Regional Studies.”

In her first years she is assigned the entry-level composition courses and has to deal in the first semester with plebes who are coming off of a summer of heavy acculturation where respectful silence and trusting obedience are the rule. The challenge is to turn these robotized cadets into sentient creatures capable of critical thinking. She makes the forceful case that literature is a powerful elixir, enabling these young men and women to develop a flexibility of mind, a capacity to know more than one truth, and a courageous approach to the world. And the challenge is to get her students to see that literature is not, as many in the military and throughout the culture believe, an upper-class, effete pastime or a luxury that can be jettisoned in times of crisis. The lessons of the past, embodied in literary classics, are highly applicable. The stories of the Trojan Wars tell us, among other things, that a monoculture like the militaristic Sparta will fail.

As she moves up through the professorial ranks, she has the opportunity to teach upper-division courses to English majors (yes, there are English majors at West Point) and senior seminars, often on topics recommended by students. Thus she documents her experiences teaching a course on The City of London at a time when Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year provides illuminating parallels to the Katrina catastrophe. And she writes enthusiastically how a course on dissent, recommended by one of her students, had the cadets pouring over Antigone and Prometheus Bound and the journal of a young leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Throughout the book are portraits of serious-minded young cadets who are interested in the life of the mind and who see equal value in reading Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mystic, as in learning how to operate a grenade launcher. These are students who come to realize that the ability to paraphrase a difficult Shakespeare passage about the mysterious powers of the moon is far more important than knowing the moon’s diameter. Samet tells powerful stories about former students who correspond with her from frontier outposts in Afganistan and share with her the fruits of their voracious reading. No doubt Samet has cherry-picked these case studies in highly receptive students who discover the liberating powers of literature, but it is gratifying to knowing that there are teachers like Samet and students like Scott, who proposed the course on dissent, who can be found at West Point.

Another point of interest for me is the author’s ruminations about her civilian place in such a historically-rich, mission-driven institution. It’s fair to say that although her skepticism is always in place, she is seduced my military culture, despite not coming out of a family with a strong history of military participation. Living eight miles away from campus, she frequently spends seven days of the week on campus, preparing and teaching her courses, staying physically fit, attending sporting contest and lectures, and meeting with students who have academic and personal questions.

She thrives on being a member of the Army Family and enjoys the sense of mutual concern that it provides. Leadership’s responsibility for the welfare of all in the platoon is palpable. She feels that she has something that her contemporaries teaching at “secular” institutions don’t have: the gift of community. When away at a conference, she is eager to get back home. Yet, eventually her equally strong yearning for freedom and solitude, to be away from a small town in which everyone knows your business, leads her to relocate to New York City. Perhaps she will move back up the Hudson someday.

By the end of this insightful book [part autobiographical journey, part institutional history, part discourse on pedagogy], I came to the conclusion that I might have been happy teaching at West Point, especially if it meant having an office down the hall from this wise teacher. Her wisdom is that of a person who has learned to embrace the contradictions of military life and to understand the military’s failures to live up to its ideals.

Over and Out.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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