Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Uncut Pages: Three Parables of Credibility and Credulity in Contemporary Education By Katherine Kearney MaynardGo Back to the Table of Contents
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There is a delicious scene in The Great Gatsby that throws more light on the subject of humanistic education than any warehouse of position papers churned out by Beltway think tanks. Among those gathered at Gatsby’s East Egg mansion, one guest idly removes a volume from a nearby bookshelf. The guest is shocked to find that he is handling a real book.

“It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter...” he exclaims, confessing he had expected find “nice durable cardboard.” Seeing that the books on the shelf have “pages and everything,” he registers his respect. “It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too-didn’t cut the pages.”

Cutting the pages-a privilege formerly enjoyed by those commencing to read a new volume-would have suggested that the book was something more than a showpiece; a pretense far too outrageous even for the likes of the smart set to swallow.

Master of the exquisite gesture, Gatsby has carried off an extraordinary effect by simply acquiring and properly displaying a certifiable article of taste. It is, of course, solely in the ability to carry off the gesture that all Gatsby’s “greatness” lies.

Gatsby was linked to a racketeer who purportedly “fixed” the 1919World Series; a man who was given to sporting a ring on which was mounted a human molar. Gatsby’s academic credentials-including a sojourn at Oxford (”Oggs-ford” to the gangster acquaintance)-are a useful prop for the wealthy but uncouth mobster in search of a respectable front man. The academic trappings of Gatsby’s education serve, much like the books lining his shelves, as an effect: there to lend taste and weight to the distracting and superficial pursuit of glamour and gaiety.

* * *

For a time, a friend of mine worked in social services, providing housing grants to residents in an inner city neighborhood in upstate News York. He and his colleagues (college graduates all, some with post-graduate credits) promoted and administered several programs and advised people about home repair and rehabilitation. This labor seemed to them to be the fruit of their humanistic education: what they should be doing. Long hours, many frustrations, and salaries in the mid-teens.

The program guidelines, however, were a cause for some chagrin. Only exterior repairs could be authorized, the logic being that of Gatsby’s bookshelf: as long as the neighborhoods “looked” better from the outside, the programs were “succeeding.

” Programs were set up for property owners who fell into two categories: occupants and outside investors. The simple economics of home ownership placed my friend in a situation where he was routinely processing grants and subsidies to person whose income was fifty to one hundred percent greater than his own-even higher in the case of some investors who needed “incentives” to re-invest in property they had let deteriorate.

“It was a real education,” he would say, “learning to make yourself useful to richer men.”

My friend had become a student in the “Street-Smart Gatsby School of Uncut Pages.” Now he’s in advertising.

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