221: Recollections

Good Friends,

Years ago when I was teaching, each year, the members of our department would sit in a large room around a large table to work out who would be teaching what courses the following academic year. In this process, I always chose to teach “Introduction to Sociology,” the first course students took in my field; sometimes, my enthusiasm for teaching the course being as high as it was, I would offer two sections of it. It was my chance to introduce these newcomers to the wonderment of “the sociological imagination;” to show them, in varied ways, the power, usually unrecognized, of the social in the world in  which they lived to shape and, as often, control, their lives, my central thought being that the truth will set you free, that if they understood how greatly they had been shaped—and were still being shaped—by the social configurations enveloping them, they would be more equipped to see how that social world operated, a perspective which would allow them to live more freely within it or change it if they chose.

During  the first days of the course, I would ask them to answer some questions anonymously, thereby collecting some data that I would analyze and present to them near the end of the course in order that they could see some unambiguous evidence demonstrating  how they themselves had reacted to what had seemed, on the surface, to have been some innocent questions, such subsequent viewing making it possible to drive home my larger point, that they themselves were very deeply socialized creatures, and that that socialization had had profound consequences on their own and others’ lives,

One of these exercises was to ask them to take a blank sheet of paper, indicating on it at the top only whether they were male or female. I next requested that they write a paragraph about what they wanted people to say and think about them after they had died. Most were not a little surprised that I had asked such a question, but in just a few moments, obedient students that they were, they got over their shock and set about writing. Some minutes later, after they were finished, I collected the paragraphs, set them aside, and asked them to take out a second piece of paper, also indicating on it at the top whether they were male or female; I then asked them to number down the left side of the page from 1 to 10. After they had done so, I asked them to list, as best they could  recollect, the 10 Commandments of the Bible and, at the bottom of that list to tell me on another line in what book of the Bible these thousand of years old proscriptions for living could be found. As this transpired, there was more consternation, as this assignment,  like the one previous, had probably been the last thing they had been expecting to be asked in a beginning sociology class. But, once again, they dutifully set to work. Not long after– neither of these assignments took very long –  they laid their pencils down and once more I collected the papers, setting them aside for use later. I Then proceeded with the rest of that day’s classroom session. More on all this below. (If you are at all intrigued by these exercises, you might take a moment to do both of them now, setting aside your own responses until later in this Post.)

Which considerations bring me back to Vida Scudder, an early Ruskinian  about whom and whose Ruskin work, I have become ever more enthusiastic as the last few months have passed.  The quote that follows is taken from the introduction to her  lovely little book – now very difficult to find – An introduction to the Life and Thought of John Ruskin. (For my previous citations and praise of Scudder’s Ruskin  work, see  posts 100: The Master and 115: The Ruskin Compendia). In my estimation, her summary encapsulates what is essential le about Ruskin  almost perfectly.

 Ruskin… defies classification. He can be claimed by no one school of artistic thought, social thought, or religious thought. Yet, the heart of his teaching in all his versatile books, is ever the same. He teaches that all beauty, all art, all work, and all life, are holy things; that through them God manifests himself to man, and that man, and embracing these, draws nearer to God. It is in this referencing of all matters in art and conduct through a  spiritual standard, and the judgment of them all alike by a spiritual motive that we find a steady consistency underlying his seemingly shifting utterances. In that unfaltering, though often sad, devoutness of his spirit, consists the final claim of John Ruskin upon our earnest, faithful, and reverent study. He has summed up for us his own conception of the meaning of his life’s work in a passage from one of the letters of his extended series of missives addressed to the working people of England, Fors Clavigera.

The passage which follows is one of a type which  became ever more frequent in Fors as the years went by, a few paragraphs where Ruskin offers his readers a bit of autobiography. (Indeed, as his years lengthened and his fame continued unabated–whether in a positive or negative sense– many of his  friends urged him to write an autobiography. A memoir which would summarize the evolution of his own life and thought from his own perspective, surmising that among the many who read him would be a substantial number who would be much interested in such reflections. At first he was chary about such an indulgence, but, then, as time passed and the resolution of so many of his plans for bettering the world proved elusive, he started to include some personal recollections in Fors’ monthly numbers.  Ultimately, in the 1880s, these would coalesce in his wonderful autobiography, Praeterita, a volume which all who read it with care have, from the time he first published it to the present, have found deeply pleasurable and charming. I cannot recommend it more highly. But here is Scudder’s excerpt:

Here is a rough approximation [my work, with cognizance given to  the] date nearest to completion of the several [major] pieces of my work, as those pieces  built upon one another. We find that, at 20, I wrote Modern Painters; at 30, The Stones of Venice; at 40, Unto This Last; at 50, the inaugural Oxford lectures; and, if Fors Clavigera  ever finishes I mean it to be finished, it will mark the status of the mind I had at 60,  and leave me, in the seventh day of my life, perhaps, to rest– for the core of all I have taught will then be formed, as it is now at this hour,  its substance having being completed.

Modern Painters taught of the claim of a lower nature on the hearts of men–of the rock, and wave, and herb, as part of their necessary spirit life. In all that I now bid you to do–to dress the earth and keep it [Genesis 2:15]–I am fulfilling what I then began. The Stones of Venice taught the laws of constructive art and the dependence of all human work or edifice for its beauty on the happy life of the workman. Unto This Last taught the laws of that life itself and its dependence on the Sun of Justice. The inaugural Oxford lectures taught the necessity that life should be led [amidst] beauty and its labors recognized by the upper no less than the lower classes of England. And lastly, Fors Clavigera, declares the relation of all these to each other, and argues that such strictures are the only possible conditions of peace and honor for low and high, rich and poor– in the holiness of that First Estate, under the only despot, God, [away from] whoso falls, angel or man, is kept, not mythically nor disputably, here under the invisible horror of chains under darkness until the judgment of the great day; and shows that living in such service results in perfect freedom and inheritance of all that a loving Creator can give to his creatures, and an immortal father to his children.

This then, is the message which, knowing no more as I unfolded the scroll of what next would be next written than a blade of grass knows what the form of its fruit will be, I have been led on, year-by-year,  to speak, even to this, its end.

Which brings us back to that first question I asked my students. At some point in our lives, often later in our traverse, I believe that all of us find ourselves confronted with a desire to reflect back on our lives  and recollect  what we have accomplished over our course.   This is certainly what Ruskin was doing in the passage above (would that we could all detail such accomplishments!) and, in essence, this is what I was asking my students to reflect upon, quite young even as they were then. What, I asked was, when your days are done–giving them a sort of “projective recollection” exercise–do you want those who survive to  think about you and what you have done during the time you were with us? And so it happened that, every year, near the end of my introductory course, when I had finished reading all of the the  paragraphs they dad written and had coded and summarized them, I  presented the results to the class. (I would read a goodly sample of paragraphs aloud – all anonymously.). And, I am very happy to report here that,  over the years,  the consistency of their responses to this imaginative exercise was stunningly similar.

Ruskin always believed in the nobleness of human nature; was convinced at, in our innermost hearts, all of us wanted to be remembered for our noble acts, to be remembered for our accomplishing  things that helped  others along their way, things which, after having accomplished them, we could rest easy in the thought  that, in this at least, we had used our powers and time admirably.  Virtually to a one, every year I asked this question of my students (more than 25 years), their written paragraphs were records of what he would’ve called “the noble aspirations of human nature.” Virtually no one ever wrote that they wanted to be remembered for having been rich, powerful, or famous; but almost all reported that they wanted to be remembered for having done helpful things, for having found a cure to a previously incurable disease, for having been a good parent to their children, for having done commenable acts for their communities. It really was most gratifying to read such the responses and the consistency of the results seemed to me to underscore Ruskin’s enduring faith in the essential nobleness of our dprcies. (73: The Nobleness of Human Nature (A Post in the Wake of 11/9/2016) (I have lost touch with almost all these students in the years that have transpired since I asked him to write their paragraphs; and so, whether or not they have, as adults, adhered to their own wishes in this regard I do not know, but I do know that, from time to time, a number of them, when back in touch,  have made it a point of telling me (I handed the paragraphs back after sharing the results with the class) that they kept their paragraphs and that they had referred back to them on various occasions as beacons to linking to kind of person they wanted to become.

One  of my other heroes is Stephen Sondheim (even if hardly on a par with Mr. Ruskin), the brilliant composer and lyricist who is credited,  over the course of the past half-century,  with transforming, all to the good, the theatrical genre known as “the American musical.”  One of the greatest influences on Sondheim’s career was Oscar Hammerstein, the genius lyricist of the famous musical comedy team in history,  Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sondheim was always quick to say,  when asked, that Hammerstein had been like a father figure for him. In one interview he was asked what he would want Hammerstein to think of his own work when they met in the afterlife, a question to which he  responded–as he flashed an exceptionally lovely smile: “aren’t you proud of me?”  On another occasion,  during his later years (he died, at age 91, last year), Sondheim, never the most overtly religious of men, was asked what he hoped would happen after he had passed through the proverbial pearly gates. Again he smiled broadly and said, “I would hope that they would say, ”You are most welcome here!’ ”The Nobility Impulse!”

 The results from my second question– the one where I asked  students to compose a list of the 10 Commandments– was not, however, as uplifting. Once again, as the semester’s end approached, I read and coded their  responses, and presented what I learned  to the class – usually doing so on the day following my report on their paragraphs about what they wanted people to think about them after they had died. Once again, I found, over the years, that the responses to be remarkably similar in all classes. Year in and year out, the typical student in my Introductory class was able to list only  4.2 Commandments accurately. The result was consistent whether I was considering men’s or women’s responses.  Only a very  few students ever completed a list of all 10 Commandments and a few students, perhaps in frustration or perhaps in an attempt to be sardonic or  cute, would invent fictional Commandments  to pad the gaps in their lists – things on the order of “thou shall not eat too much pepperoni pizza, “or  “thou shall not drink too much beer, or at least not regularly!” One of my favorite responses came from by a woman who wrote, after only being able to put down three Commandments (and two of these inaccurately), “my mother would kill me!”

On the positive  side, most students recollected that they had been enjoined by the Bible not to kill other human beings (#6) and were not  supposed to steal (#8) or lie to them (#9) but, after these three,, things typically got very vague. Few recalled  that there was a Sabbath day to keep holy (#4), or that they were expected to love this one God above all others (#1), or that they were not to take this God’s name in vain (#3),  or worship any graven images that were intended to substitute for that God (#2), and, somewhat surprisingly few recalled that they had been instructed to honor their mothers and fathers (#5). A small percentage recalled  that they were not to covet their neighbors’ goods or spouses (#10) or commit adultery (#7)  but most did not include such strictures on their lists. At the end of the lists, almost no one was able to bring into awareness the name of the book of the Bible in which the 10 Commandments could be found, and a few students even invented “sacred” books  of their own to mask their ignorance – such as “Plato’s Republic” or The Collected Wisdom of David Letterman. All in all it was, every year, a dispiriting class. Once again, at the end of the session, I handed back to the students their lists; but, in all the years that have vanished since, no former student has ever approached me voicing any sort of pride in the list they created. I believe that, overall, they had been embarrassed by their (lack of) performance.

Facsimile of the tablets containing the 10 Commandments, in Hebrew

Together, however,  the exercises powerfully demonstrated my principal points: first, that, whether we are aware of it or not (and most of the time we are not), we are all—students, professors, friends, family, or…(you name it) deeply socialized beings and, second, that in most cases within a given cultural setting, that socialization process is astonishingly uniform. Were it not so uniform,  how could we possibly account for  the consistency of the results just summarized, results that varied hardly a smidgen over more than two decades of data collection? Virtually none of my students knew each other before they came to our two small colleges in Upstate New York, and few of them lived with or knew each other before they took my Introduction to Sociology course. In other words, there was virtually no way they could have influenced each other’s responses to the questions I  asked. Hence, the only explanation of my results had to be that, however it had happened, they had all been influenced to respond as they had by the subtle but effective effects of a force outside themselves, a force which, over the course of its influencing, had shaped them almost identically regarding certain patterns of thought. And, since there exists no force outside of them (our)selves that could affect them simultaneously except the social world in which they lived, that force had to have been the force responsible for this all but identical shaping, whether that shaping was regarding how they wanted to be remembered after their deaths, or how many of the Holy Bible’s 10 Commandments they could recall spontaneously. Thus, the subject matter of my course–to unveil the existence, and power of the social in all our lives. (100 years ago-not long after Ruskin’s time–most young people brought up in middle, upper middle, or upper-class homes, would have been able to list the 10 Commandments almost perfectly when asked. In other words, there has been a cognitive sea change in this matter of recollecting the fundamental rules for living together well. For, when you think about them sociologically, only the first four Commandments are religious in nature. The rest are but simple rules for living together, if we wish to live together well. Break these, they collectively say. and trouble will result. And all we have to do is turn on our televisions or read our books and newspapers for verification of the claim. The truth, in short, will set you free, or, at the very least, help you to spend your days more reflectively.

Recollections. Ruskin’s. Mine. My students’. Recollections which, on the surface, appear relatively innocuous or unimportant, but, which, when looked at more carefully through the wonderful lens of the sociological imagination, assume far greater significance.

Until next time!

 please be well out there and may, in the interim between this Post and the next,  your own recollections go swimmingly well.

All my best wishes,



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