A Conversation With
This conversation launched a friendship that would encourage, challenge, entertain, and enlighten me for the next four decades.
Dick Ainsworth: As assistant professor of English at Georgia Tech, do you find any particular difficulties in teaching a non-technical subject to the science-technology orientated student?
Bud Foote: English is, in many respects, no more non-technical than mathematics. Skill in reading efficiency and composition is not only useful but essential to the engineer.
Ainsworth: Does this usefulness apply to English literature as well?
Foote: Most people try, I think, to find practical reasons for studying literature -- it will give you culture, it will give you something to talk about at cocktail parties, it will make you socially acceptable -- but these are no more reasons for studying literature than there are for studying art or music. The principle here is one of enjoyment. You read Shakespeare because Shakespeare is a winner and it would be a shame to live one's life and never be exposed to this man.
Ainsworth: How do you make Shakespeare interesting to a student whose major concern is in the sciences?
Foote: The purpose of the humanities is to educate people and I believe, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, that engineers are people. It takes a long time to make an engineer into something that is completely inhuman. The problems that are dealt with in Shakespeare are not the problems that are dealt with every day -- we do not all kill the king to become king and fulfill some prophecy -- yet there is a bit of throat cutting in any profession.
In Shakespeare you have the basic human problem, which is interesting because it is a part of the twentieth century; and you have the way Shakespeare develops this problem, which is interesting because he is a great artist.
Ainsworth: You are well known on the Tech campus as "that interesting professor who takes a banjo to class." How does this fit your concept of the arts?
Foote: The arts are not reserved for the artists, although they may be better at it than the rest of us. I no longer use a banjo in class because it is -- the way I use it -- a rather vicious instrument and the other teachers in the building come running down the hall like wounded bulls and bang on my door to complain about the racket. I now use a Martin guitar.
Foote: I may sing a ballad like "The Wreck of the Old Ninety-Seven" and ask, "Which is the best verse?" Invariably they will pick one of the better verses, and, as we ask "Why," certain basic principles for evaluating poetry in general are reached. Applying these principles to more conventional poetry, we begin to see rhythms and ideas which were not entirely apparent at first glance.
For example, if a student reads something by Dylan Thomas, he may wonder, "What in the name of God is going on? Why can't the man talk straight?" After hearing folk ballads which use similar techniques -- sort of a college of words -- on a less sophisticated scale, he will find (as I have so carefully planned in advance) that as you see how the ballad works, you will see a little better how Thomas works, as well.
Ainsworth: How would you define your major objective in teaching English literature?
Foote: First, it is important to understand the continuity of ideas which underlay your own civilization. Holy poverty, which was taken for granted in the Middle Ages, is a concept which if applied by a person in our society would immediately brand him a nut. Not only that but despicable, vile, evil, nasty, mean, and rotten. If you prefer not to clutter up your life with things, then you're a beatnik.
Reading Dante helps us to understand this period not only in a historical sense but in a philosophical sense and tends to bring our twentieth century into better focus.
Secondly, since I find literature enjoyable, I try to pass this form of enjoyment on to the student. When a student tells me that a book or poem is difficult and boring, I try to show him how it works, how the ideas fit together, and I ask him to look again. After all, nobody likes martinis the first time he tackles one. Learning to enjoy literature -- or martinis -- puts another source of pleasure in your life you didn't have before.
In this sense, I too am a student.
I've been trying to enjoy ballet for some time with no success. As a Louis Armstrong fan of many years, my first impression of modern jazz was so much noise. Through much time and patience I have developed an understanding which has given me another area of the arts which I now enjoy -- but I still prefer Louis.
Ainsworth: What is the ideal teaching-learning situation at the university level?
Foote: Talking about ideals is worthwhile because if you have no concept of what you would do if you could, you won't have any idea of where to start on a practical level. At the beginning, if you wanted to set up a university, the first thing you did was collect as many books as you could, then found people who knew what was in the books, and finally you added people who wanted to find out what the books had to say.
To this basic pattern we soon add degrees and requirements for obtaining them and with this we make these degrees prerequisites for certain jobs.
As we move into the world of IBM cards, student numbers, grade curves, and other necessary elements of modern education, it is increasingly difficult for the student and the teacher to keep the basic ideal in mind. It is discouraging to encounter the student who thinks our major purpose is to hand out union cards.
Ainsworth: How do you maintain enthusiasm for teaching?
Foote: Frequently I'm not enthusiastic at all. In teaching freshman composition at 8:00 in the morning -- or doing anything else at that hour -- I may get bored. When this happens, the students know and you might as well go home.
If you can manage to look at the world as if it were new all the time -- as if you were a kid -- and occasionally step back and say "Wow", this will keep you fresh, alert, alive, interested in what you are doing.
Ainsworth: How can this interest be found in a useless job designing pop-open beer cans for example?
Foote: As a long time user of auto bumpers, porch steps, teeth, and other emergency measures, I think the pop-open beer can is a worthwhile cultural advance.
Some jobs in our society today are absolutely pernicious and I can do without the guy who figures out where to put the fins on next year's cars. If you were building automobiles in 1920, on the other hand, you could see the whole society being changed and you could see the possible future for what you were doing.
The relative significance of your work isn't strictly a function of the job you happen to be doing. There is a wonderful story about Sir Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul's cathedral in London. He is reported to have walked up to three men who were cutting stone for the cathedral and asked them what they were doing. The first said that he was earning a living, the second said he was cutting stone, and the third said, "I am helping Sir Christopher Wren to build this great cathedral."
It is nice to know enough about the society in which you live so that you can see how your work fits, what it does, and what it will do in the future.
Ainsworth: How specifically, do the humanities give a man the background of seeing how his work fits?
Foote: The humanities are those studies which are centered around the human animal and his reaction to the world as opposed to his technology which is used to a given end.
In terms of course work, English composition is a technical subject. Chemistry may be either a technical subject (how do we make plastic banjo keys that don't break) or a humanitarian subject (how does the world work) and each approach is valuable. Literature can give you an understanding about what the human animal is both through the author's characters and through the author's apprehension of those characters. Within the framework of this understanding, our vocation takes on greater perspective.
Ainsworth: Can't we gain similar knowledge by meeting people -- through practical experience?
Foote: In practical experience, you are using people for the majority of time as tools. We tend to think of people in terms of the job they can perform or the product they will use -- oblivious to the person behind the producer or the consumer. The humanities are concerned with him. Literature and all the arts in general take it for granted that the person is an end in himself.
Ainsworth: What is the humanitarian concept of value as opposed to usefulness?
Foote: A person can be valuable not for what he does but for what he thinks. It is not necessary that a person be useful to be valuable and this is wherein people and their products are different from many other things. What is the use of a concerto? None. What is the use of a man who spends his whole life making concerti? None (and don't tell me background music). There is no use for these things, yet they are valuable. There is a legitimate distinction between value and use which has to be made, for they are both important.
It is a mistake to say that those things that are just useful are no good. I like central heating. I like modern plumbing. I like the convenience of the automobile. I like electricity. And I like all these things that usefulness gives me. That means that I must respect the engineer who makes these things. The problem is that you can get swamped with all this stuff. Under the influence of our technical environment, there is a tendency to ignore the other things that are valuable without being useful; and this is not simply a tendency of engineers, this is a tendency of our whole society.
Ainsworth: Does a study of the humanities combat this tendency?
Foote: This is one of the basic functions of the humanities. We could also look at basic research in this light. The excuse you always hear for studying, say, theoretical mathematics is "Some day they will find a use for it". But even if this is not true, theoretical mathematics is valuable as a product of the human mind.
Ultimately, a concept of value instead of just use induces respect for your fellow man. It brings tolerance. It encourages love. It tends to make people happier both in themselves and with other people.
Copyright © 1964. The Village Press, Athens, GA. Reprinted with permission.