Suzanne Fields

Changes on campus remind us all that change happens everywhere. Most of us don't expect the old neighborhood or the old college campus or even our parents to change, but they do. A lot of boomers who liked the revolutions they used to blow up society when they were young are considerably less keen to have their children and grandchildren blow up everything now.

Elizabeth Samet is a professor at West Point who teaches poetry to the cadets being trained to run the engines of war. She says poetry helps them think through the answers to questions hidden deep in the consciousness. This is particularly interesting because poetry has come on hard times on campuses, despite the folk wisdom that recitation of disciplined language, like the sound of music, illuminates both the romance of the struggle and the grim reality of the battlefield.

Samet feeds the imagination of her students with fresh words for understanding the verities of military life. The cadets, for one example, can be transported into the mind of Thomas Hardy, who wrote the poem "Man He Killed." A soldier, facing an enemy he has just shot, contemplates how in other circumstances he might have stood that same fellow to a convivial drink.

Death in battle is never far from the minds of cadets, even in training. Poetry offers sound and sight to offer sustenance. Fine literature enables them to ask crucial questions when they go to war, as many of them will, and how to compare themselves to the heroes of Homer's Iliad or to the cynics of Tolstoy's "War and Peace."

Writes Samet: "They know their lives may contain a share of necessary violence, but, at their best, they have the courage to meet brutality with imagination as well as ammunition to engage ambiguity rather than running away from it." That's still the point of a college education, even when we forget.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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