BY AARON BARLOW
Sometime around 1970, when I told an aunt and uncle that the FBI was spying on American leftists, they turned to me in outrage and spoke in unison, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” This, from a couple who had just told me I should be willing to go fight in Vietnam because the Chinese were preparing to invade the US. I had tried to explain that the North Vietnamese were not proxies for the Chinese, but to no avail.
On parting, I felt proud of myself, vindicated in my belief and absolutely certain “they” had been in the wrong.
Though history has confirmed my beliefs more than theirs, for all any of us really knew, the opposite could have as easily proved true. We were arguing opinion, not fact. Worse: We were arguing opinion filtered through layers and layers of other opinions, opinion at far remove from “real” knowledge.
In late 1964 and early 1965, there were US Air Force officers living in our building in Bangkok, Thailand. They would disappear for weeks at a time, responding vaguely, when asked, that they had been “up north.” At the same time, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was claiming that no bombings of North Vietnam were originating in Thailand. My parents, my brother and I put two-and-two together and determined that LBJ was lying.
Did we have any real proof for that?
When I teach, I try to respect each opinion presented, but that never means each is of equivalent value—or that any has any value at all, including mine. As a teacher of writing, this is extremely important: Writing, after all, is argument. I want my students to prove their assertions. I want them to do more than just continue the seemingly infinite regression of reference that, in the digital age, seems to have replaced research. Not only do I want them to think about what they are saying but to reach the bedrocks of knowledge on their subjects, something more than simply what someone else said.
The digital age, obviously, puts us at a widening remove from the experiential, material world. In the sixties, we at least had human contact with people who might have direct contact with the realities behind our opinions. The FBI, according to one acquaintance of mine, had visited him, warning him they were watching his anti-draft activities. Of course, I wasn’t there at the time and my friend could have been lying. Still, there was a real connection, just as there had been with the Air Force officers in Thailand. Still, I had no real proof in either case, making my arguments no more viable than those of my aunt and uncle. That gap made our beliefs seem equal—and are the gap contemporary conspiracy theories take advantage of, making them appear possibly as valid as other things we “know” are true.
To counter this, I hope to return research to things—even if those things be “original” documents from another time. My forthcoming book, Doughboys on the Western Front: Memories of American Soldiers in the Great War is an attempt to present the American soldier’s experiences in the First World War through his own words. Yes, I recognize that I filtered the documents, making the view skewed, but a secondary purpose is to give students access (through the bibliography) to the vast trove of documents available from that time—and not simply about it. My last book, The Depression Era: A Historical Exploration of Literature, does something of the same thing, helping students explore a particular time through original documents from that decade. Though chosen (within particular constraints) by me, they are meant to lead to other documents and a reliance on those, not on my commentary.
Moving beyond that, I want to find ways of focusing my students on material artifacts of media, their creation and distribution. I want to develop courses that take advantage of some of the examples of older technology that my college (CUNY’s New York City College of Technology) still has, including a Kluge letterpress and a number of A.B. Dick offset presses. I also want to help colleagues build a course or two around the collection of pulp and digest periodicals (among other volumes) we recently acquired, using both the originals and their digital offshoots to give students a stronger sense of the actuality of the past, not simply its digital representation. My dream is a major that might be called “Media and Material.”
By the same token, I would like to see even greater lab components to our STEM courses, especially for non-STEM students, who really need the exposure the most (they get little enough of it elsewhere). Unfortunately, under CUNY’s current Pathways initiative, colleges have been forced to design non-lab-based courses for non-STEM majors, a major mistake, in my view, for it removes these students more than ever from the actualities of their studies.
The remove to representation, while also often a work of creativity itself, always distances one from the original, making it easier to misrepresent, for discussion becomes based on something that is not “actually” there.
We are in a time, right now, where our national discussions rarely touch back to the realities they are purportedly about. If my aunt and uncle and I were speaking far from real knowledge of our topics, today’s argument are even further removed. Anything we can do to move our students back to a position of arguing from real experience and connection with what they are discussing will be, in my eyes, great public service.