Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Dark Master of Horace Mann

The Horace Mann School, an elite boarding school in New York, used to be known for its eccentric teachers. Marc Fisher, class of 76, remembers one of them in an extraordinary New Yorker essay:
One group of boys stood apart; they insisted on wearing jackets and ties and shades, and they stuck to themselves, reciting poetry and often sneering at the rest of us. A few of them shaved their heads. We called them Bermanites, after their intellectual and sartorial model, an English teacher named Robert Berman: a small, thin, unsmiling man who papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through.

Assigned to Berman for tenth-grade English, I took a seat one September morning alongside sixteen or seventeen other boys. We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, took a fresh stick of chalk, climbed onto his chair, and reached above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. “This,” he said, after a theatrical pause, “is Milton.” He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, “This is Shakespeare.” Another line, lower, on the blackboard: “This is Mahler.” And, just below, “Here is Browning.” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk onto the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. “And this, gentlemen,” he said, “is you.” . . .

Berman could be mercilessly critical. He called boys “fools” and “peons” and scoffed at their vulgar interests in pop culture, girls, and material things. He was a fastidious reader of students’ work and a tough, sometimes capricious grader. He noted carefully who accepted his authority and who resisted. After he overheard one boy imitating him in the hallway, he covered the boy’s next paper with lacerating comments: “You used to be better.” On the rare occasion when a student earned his praise, he would be celebrated. Now and then, Berman would ask for a copy of a particularly well-wrought paper, which the boys took as the highest compliment; they called it “hitting the wow.”
As you have probably guessed by now, this is all in the news now because several former students have accused Berman of sexually abusing them. According to a counselor involved in these cases, the boys have been very reluctant to come forward because
In each of the Berman cases, he exercised such powerful mind control over them that it took them many years to come to terms with what happened to them. To this day, they feel intimidated by him.
One wrote in his adolescent diary,
My obedience to Mr. B is absolute. If there is a God, and He descended to inform me that to follow B. were false, I would say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ and continue to pursue the path that B. had set for me.
This story fascinates me. Berman was a snob who dragged his teenage charges into high culture, getting them to read and love Milton, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He took them on trips to Europe to see the greatest paintings, all the while condemning popular culture and abusing anyone who admitted to liking it. Tracking down Berman's former students, Fisher finds several ensconced in tenured chairs at top universities, crediting Berman with first awakening their interest in literature or art. His class was a cult, with him as the leader and literature as God. His students made enormous efforts to please him, trembled over whether he would approve their work, made themselves over in his image. They did not do this for a kind or loving man, but for an authoritarian creep.

The basic utilitarian model of psychology, that says we maximize pleasure and minimize pain, is wrong. No, what we value is powerful emotional experiences. To have a mentor who guides us away from the herd and toward something worth attaining is, for many young people, one of the strongest. For others a cold, distant, unloving presence will always enthrall more than one who is close and accessible. For some, even sexual abuse is worth enduring if it gets us membership in an elite club of privileged insiders.

I keep comparing the experience of Berman's students with my own high school English, taught by teachers whose names I cannot even remember, and who made on me all the impact of a mayfly. No doubt they were kind and loving, and no doubt I am actually lucky to have had them instead of an abusive creep. But the dark and twisted way, the Mirkwood path, the hard road under the eye of a stern master, still looms in a way that health and sunshine do not.

10 comments:

David said...

"The basic utilitarian model of psychology, that says we maximize pleasure and minimize pain, is wrong." As I'm sure you'll admit, you're only describing some people here. You're not describing me at all. I remember most (perhaps all--I haven't sat down and tried to find the percentage) of my teachers' names, and the ones that were most influential on me were the ones that were funniest, smartest, and most interesting. They were also quite accessible. The few times I remember having a self-indulgent, mean, posturing teacher like this one, I quit the course within the first week.

John said...

Marc Fisher dropped Berman's class, and he says about half the students did every semester. So, yes, this particular cult only appealed to a minority.

I didn't have any darkly charismatic monsters for teachers, but the ones I remember best are the hard ones. I learned 90% of what I learned in high school from the three teachers who taught me chemistry, German, and physics & calculus. My chemistry teacher was famously hard, and after his class I was able to test out of introductory college chemistry. I loved his class. I don't remember my easy teachers at all. My preparation in science was so much better that it wasn't until my senior year of college that I did as well in humanities classes as in science, even though I was a history major.

Creepiness aside, there is a fascination to the difficult, and a great value in doing the hard rather than the easy.

David said...

Having just read the article--it is a great piece of writing--I don't think Fisher is describing a "tough" teacher. He's describing a cult, and one veteran at least says ultimately Berman wasn't teaching anything academic except a vague sense of awe and mystery, mostly about himself. None of these students is saying he abused them because he made them read a novel a week. Making students memorize valences isn't at all the same as creating a weird worship of the mercurial guru. The polarity in the article isn't between tough and easy--it's clear Berman could be very easy on students who serviced him--but between the pose of dark charisma (and it really is only a pose) and "being just another human being."

David said...

I would add that I don't think it's simply a matter of "this particular cult only appealed to a minority." I'm saying that I don't buy it that most people are *that* attracted to dark charisma. Most folks may find it attractive temporarily, and many in their ambivalence find it interesting to look at. But I suspect that many dark gurus get as far as they do--as far as Berman did--not because all people are deeply attracted to that sort of thing and fall under the charismatic leader's spell, but because going along is easier than challenging the leader. To that extent, I do think most people seek pleasure, and often the best pleasure available is the comfort of avoiding conflict.

John said...

Ok, I am eliding two separate issues here, demanding instruction and dark charisma, and thinking beyond just this story. But if they don't go together here very well, they certainly can. I was very impressed by Fisher's description of how hard some students worked to please Berman, and how much they valued his praise. I can't imagine that any of my students ever cared that much about pleasing me.

There was a karate instructor in Williamsburg, VA in the 80s who was notorious for how tough he was, and especially for a winter boot camp he ran on the Outer Banks that involved a lot of exercising in freezing, knee deep water. He was sort of a cult figure with a following of young people who copied his mannerisms.

There was a professor at Lawrence, a sort of hippie guy, who led a winter camping trip in the Wisconsin woods that involved much frozen suffering, but which some people spoke of as a very profound experience.

Obviously not everyone is into this, but plenty of people are.

I am also wondering how this relates to political Fascism, and to the cult of a ruler who will lead his nation down the hard road to greatness.

David said...

As our discussion proceeded, I too was thinking about Fascism, and charismatic leadership in general. My hunch is that movements of that sort can go far if they mobilize a sufficient number of the sort of people who are attracted to dark charisma; the majority, who may be somewhat but not deeply attracted, will go along in order to avoid conflict, or for a host of other reasons. But I think one is on shaky ground with claims about what "we," meaning we humans, like. I've learned this in part from your able critique of anthropological theory of the "the Yanomamo are violent, so humans are violent" sort. Along the same lines, it is important that many brownshirts said they liked being in the SA because they liked fighting for its own sake, but this does not tell us what people in general or even most young men want. It tells us about an important, mobilizable minority.

In any case, one may overestimate the success of the darkly charismatic leader as a type. Plenty of dictators and prophets have tried to lead folks down the hard road, and turned around and found not many were willing to follow them very far. A lot of these guys remain in power, posturing and preening, only as long as they don't ask that much. ("The hard road to greatness" is what some neocons wanted to lead us down in this country, and it's been a complete flop.)

John said...

Yes, many Italians liked Mussolini's speeches but few wanted to make the sacrifices necessary to help him build an empire. That WW II book I reviewed last year included a great letter from a Fascist officer horrified by the slackness and corruption he saw around him in the army in Libya. Had there been more Italians like him, the war might have gone differently.

Indeed the diversity of humanity is one of my constant themes. We, as in humanity, vary greatly in how strongly we respond to dark charisma, how much we love a challenge, what sort of challenges we love, and so on.

But I do think that a model of humanity based on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain misses something fundamental about all of us. It misses the evolutionary drives toward sacrificing for our young; the will to social power; the complexity of emotions; the widely shared sense that things are not valued unless we have to struggle and sacrifice to get them; and so on.

David said...

I would say that any model based on one thing, including maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, is going to be flawed. A necessary corollary of this is that even so, one can't help emphasizing one thing or another, and what one emphasizes says something about oneself as a person. I'm not surprised you would emphasize the idea that "things are not valued unless we have to struggle and sacrifice to get them." That seems to me a very John stance, and one related to your deep, deep hostility to hereditary status. I don't feel that way about hard work--I actually find my pleasure in rewards seems to diminish in direct proportion to the work I have to do to achieve them. Almost always, if I promise myself a reward for some piece of hard work (usually grading), I either do the work and then decide I didn't want the reward that much anyway, or I slack on the work and take the reward regardless. (I actually also find strong hostility to hereditary status rather puzzling, though I recognize mine is a minority position, and though I also recognize that the best I could hope for from most possessors of hereditary status is a patronizing contempt.)

Katya said...

Coming in late here--

I think conflating "expedition" style experiences (suffering together at a winter camp, pushing oneself physically, &c) with the attractions (whatever they are) of "dark charisma" is a mistake, or, perhaps, a common confusion. Or, perhaps, the first has an obvious appeal, because hard work of the former kind often has a direct pay off.

Leigh Hunt's poem catches something of the distinction:


The Glove and the Lions
By Leigh Hunt
King Francis was a hearty king, and loved a royal sport,
And one day as his lions fought, sat looking on the court;
The nobles filled the benches, and the ladies in their pride,
And 'mongst them sat the Count de Lorge, with one for whom he sighed:
And truly 'twas a gallant thing to see that crowning show,
Valour and love, and a king above, and the royal beasts below.

Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;
They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;
With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another;
Till all the pit with sand and mane was in a thunderous smother;
The bloody foam above the bars came whisking through the air;
Said Francis then, "Faith, gentlemen, we're better here than there."

De Lorge's love o'erheard the King, a beauteous lively dame
With smiling lips and sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same;
She thought, the Count my lover is brave as brave can be;
He surely would do wondrous things to show his love of me;
King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;
I'll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.

She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady's face.
"By God!" said Francis, "rightly done!" and he rose from where he sat:
"No love," quoth he, "but vanity, sets love a task like that."

There's a version which James Thurber illustrated which is an absolute classic.



David said...

What a wonderful poem!