Thursday, February 01, 2007

Literature Classes versus Police Corruption

My friend K had the most interesting post on his blog yesterday. It was about an article in the Christian Science Monitor on Mexican police using literature as an innoculation against corruption. Here's some of what K said about the story:
"In a city in Mexico, unknown to many Americans, the police are using radical tactics. They are reading classic literature to help them to be more humane and less prone to graft. It seems appropriate to ask those who enforce the rules of society to broaden their views on society and human interaction."
The city is Nezahualcoyotl, and the program is more than a voluntary book club. The Monitor: "It is all part of a 'professionalization plan' launched in 2005 that spans the usual courses like police technique and physical training, but includes 'culture' classes, too." The cops are reading everything from Bertolt Brecht to Juan Rulfo.

It was interesting to me that to K, the story brought to mind a religious ideal:
"Consideration for others is necessary for all professions. But, appealing to the mindset of another goes beyond simple appeasement. To me, it asks the reader to love another as oneself in the Christian tradition, to understand their personal state on multiple levels."
He isn't wrong, but it was ironic to me because the first thing I thought of was how the study of literature replaced religion as a moralizing force in Victorian England.

We all take English classes for granted, but as Terry Eagleton points out in his book Literary Theory: An Introduction, the study of English literature came to being in the 19th century as a sort of secular replacement for religion after the industrial revolution created a large middle class.

Eagleton quotes George Gordon, an Oxford literature professor: "England is sick, and . . . English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State."

That quote was from the twentieth century, but the attitude, Eagleton says, is very Victorian. Isn't this exactly what Mexico is trying? And isn't this the classic liberal response to social problems? More education!

The implication is that educated people don't commit as many crimes; as the Monitor put it: "A thinking cop, the theory goes, is a better cop," or, to put it more bluntly, it will make cops "become more 'enlightened' -- and thus both less devious and less derided."

So the idea is that the unifying moral and cultural standard of a canon of great books will give the masses an example of how to be good.

The English did this in India. They learned that a good substitute for converting millions of people to Christianity, something that seemed to be losing sway anyway, was to give them Jane Austen and the like. English literature basically showed India how to be English. (And so did cricket, incidentally; sports can function similarly.)

It's interesting to me that the "classics" as we know them now were once though of as a dumbed-down canon for the lower classes. Eagleton again:
"It is significant, then, that 'English' as an academic subject was first institutionalized not in the Universities, but in the Mechanics' Institutes, working men's colleges and extension lecturing circuits. English was literally the poor man's Classics -- a way of providing a cheapish liberal education for those beyond the charmed circles of public school and Oxbridge."
To bring the story full circle, this Mexican police department's literature regimen has attracted the attention of Scotland Yard.

[Read more Eagleton here]

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