Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lewd and unsupervised laddies

David Brooks just keeps hitting them out of the park. This time it's a Shorter Bill Shakespeare!
Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older.
But wait, there's more!
But suppose Henry went to an American school.
You might just want to pause and try to picture that, especially if you remember those early 15th-century haircuts. How would the Mean Girls react to this?
Judi Dench and Robert Hardy in Henry V, BBC, 1960
What Brooks has in mind is the old complaint about how our schools are designed for the "nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious," i.e., girls, so that boys naturally do badly. Brooks figures they'd be diagnosing young Harry with ADHD at an early age and no doubt pumping him full of Ritalin, and he'd end up rebelling, playing violent video games, or worse:
he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.
Which is hilarious, of course, because that's exactly what Hal did, without benefit of Ritalin. I mean of course not his ambitions, which were entirely specific and realistic, with him being the king's oldest son and all, but the lewd and unsupervised part. At sixteen or seventeen, he is spending all his time with the gang of Sir John Falstaff, drinking and whoring and occasionally participating in violent crime (highway robbery!*), a crushing disappointment to his dad. How does Brooks not know this? [jump]
Marin Shakespeare Company, 2007.
*We don't know that he actually commits highway robbery, or rather we only see him robbing Falstaff, for a prank, but it's money that Falstaff stole in the first place, his victims still tied up onstage.

It really does spoil the whole argument, too, because while we don't quite know what kind of school he went to, you can bet there weren't any issues about hands-on experience or competitiveness. Or girls, for that matter. And he doesn't present an alternative anyway, because he represents both sides of the Brooksian dialectic: he's rambunctious and courageous at the same time, and while he falls all the way into lewdness and subculture, he also rises all the way to "mirror of all Christian kings." Whichever upbringing led to one in his case, it led to the other as well.

Hal's youthful acting out is surely connected to the play's backstory, the subject matter of Richard II, which recounts how Henry IV originally attained the throne, through usurpation and murder. As 1 Henry IV opens, the king suffers from guilt and the fear of his own illegitimacy, and longs to take a Crusader army to the Holy Land to assuage his conscience; but he can't spare the time, because his erstwhile co-conspirators, particularly the Earl of Northumberland, are now conspiring against him.

Northumberland has a son, Harry Percy, who is presented as Hal's opposite, a son who devotes himself to the family business of conspiracy and civil war. Hal (Harry Monmouth) doesn't think much of him:
I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the North, he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, "Fie upon this quiet life! I want work!" "Oh my sweet Harry," says she, "how many hast thou killed to-day?" "Give my roan horse a drench," says he, and answers, "Some fourteen..." (1 Henry IV II:iv)
And yet Hal himself has no place better to go than the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, with his ill-bred companions, while his brother John attends the councils of war in his place. He offers a kind of explanation, in a rather chilly address to the companions after they've left the stage:
I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at...
But this isn't the real reason: he loves hanging out with these people, though he also treats them pretty contemptuously, and this strategy sounds like rationalization—suits me to live with you pigs for the time being, because I'll look so much better when I move out.

I think (and I'm sure it's not an original idea, though I don't know whom to cite) that he is rebelling, and what he is rebelling against is the guilt and corruption of his father's court, and his father in particular, the haunted old regicide, the original one whose head lies uneasy—and then if you read the soliloquy a little more broadly, taking the "you" to be not only the ill-bred companions but the whole kingdom, what he is really doing in his inglorious retirement is dissociating himself from his father and purifying himself, in this corruption rather than that one, for the day when he must be king after all—he has no intention, of course, of not being king.

What had absolutely nothing to do with it, in any case, was whether he made good choices at Circle Time or remembered to raise his hand before speaking to the teacher. And then when the call comes he shows up at the Battle of Shrewsbury, saves his father's life, kills Harry Hotspur, and generally covers himself with glory. He's a good kid in spite of everything!

Which brings me back to the boy crisis of our own time. When we look at the phenomenon—which is real enough, composed of real numbers in grades and graduation rates and college entrances—we always think of it as a technical problem, some flaw in our teaching technique, something missing from the classroom, something with a direct and mechanical kind of solution.

And no doubt there are problems at that level. Certainly the shrinkage in the time devoted to recess and gym over the years has made it harder for boys physically to bear being in school than it used to be; and the empowerment of girls has made it in a sense more threatening to boys, since they no longer feel any need to be inferior or subservient to boys in any way—not even to be afraid of math!

But mechanically school is hardly different from what it was 50-odd years ago. It was boring then and it's boring now. Only there's also a moral aspect, as with young Henry V, to which boys may actually be somewhat more sensitive than girls, which is that of the end to which we are forced to go there. It's in the gradual shrinkage of the curriculum to the math test and the English test, plus a little window dressing.

It's getting clear that school in America is no longer meant to broaden you out but to narrow you in; no longer to open us up to all the enormous variety of possible destinies but to bend us down to the small range of careers that remain available to most of us, at least the majority who can't go to those  nurturing-and-networking private schools. Forget the Crusades or whatever quest you have in mind: heed, and obey.

Maybe the boys can't concentrate because they've seen their beaten-down fathers and they know what's around the corner—the BS in accountancy and the 40 years in a cubicle, if they're smart, and sensible, and lucky; and the lewd and unsupervised if they're not. They will reveal themselves if they can like Prince Harry, at a time of their own choosing, or not at all. If you want them to perform the way they did in your generation you need to offer them an education worth having.

But you should have learned in college, if not high school, that when you bring out Shakespeare to make some dumb conservative point for you ("neither a borrower nor a lender be"), Shakespeare has a way of getting the best of it.

This is what I call Burkean minimalism and self-control.

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