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Opinion

Lives of Reason Review

Former MU Professors Collaborate To Write An Enjoyable Play


Kenneth Stunkel and Robert Rechnitz, both retired Monmouth University history and literature professors, respectively, have lent their refined sensibilities to spoofing the intellectual scene in a witty and humorous play.

The play, which is titled Lives of Reason, is set at a party thrown by the English Department of the fictional Livingston College (though several of the fictitious professors eerily mirror Monmouth scholars) amid a power struggle between professors to be dean of the school. The intellectuals are all too representative. The old scholar, the Marxist poet, and the post-modern deconstructionist all serve as the targets of the play’s acerb witticisms. The real heart of the show is the tempestuous Ilona who is unhappily married to one of the English teachers yet in love with an old flame, Matthew Livingston, whose father happened to have founded the college. Ilona represents riotous affairs and all the enflamed sexual power and insatiable lusts (“I’m on fire,” Ilona says, “It feels like there’s fire under my skin”) the English professors cannot fathom.

The only character to appreciate David Hume’s “Reason is a slave of the passions” maxim, Ilona punctures Ivory Tower pompousness with ease. The post-modern English professor is quickly dismissed: “it takes a semester or two to explain what he does.” Unfortunately, not all of her lines are so barbed. Self-pity and indulgence mixed with men, liquor, and firearms hasten Ilona’s downfall, but the most unpardonable sin is her stilted dialogue. The Ilona character is also overwrought, swiftly lapsing into maudlin speech where profound insights were probably intended. The difference between brazen hussy and alluring femme fatale is perhaps a matter of degree if not sensibility, (male sensibility that is) but this writer was leaning toward the former by the end of the show.

The playwrights have sought to divorce the themes of the play from their experiences at Monmouth. Rechnitz says “It’s nothing at all that ever took place at Monmouth.” This doesn’t exactly add up. While “academia has a lot of warts” (Stunkel’s words) they are also distinct warts. The experiences of at least one of the playwrights bears closer examination. Stunkel was Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University and “knows the game extremely well,” according to Rechnitz. While the themes of the play suggests a spoof on the excesses of the academy, Stunkel produced a number of scathing criticisms of higher education throughout his career. These writings indicate that his concerns are deeper than the play’s style may reveal.

Some graduate courses at Monmouth, for instance, are run like super-expensive book clubs, while the showcase of Monmouth’s Psychology Department exhibits a study on giving girls pink Legos. Other cutting edge research laments the gendered style of cheesesteak eating. Of course, this is not to say Monmouth is unusual in this regard. The fish truly rots from the head down, especially if the rubbish can be tied to an activist-style program. The play, in this vein, has one of the professors resignedly read the work of his students. “Paul preached to the genitals” goes uncorrected, caricaturing the steep decline of standards in higher education. The shrill leftist insistence on equality and relativity has only accelerated the deterioration. Even more common in the typical Monmouth classroom are presentations by students followed by a subsequent class discussion largely driven by – surprise surprise - student participation. Stunkel, in a lively piece defending the lecture, notes: “Students may be full of themselves for an instant, but are likely to find in the context of subject matter how little of consequence they have to exchange.”

A well-rounded education requires hierarchy, and, as Stunkel observes, “In these egalitarian times, hierarchy is a dirty word.” Any meaningful reformation of the academy must begin by attacking the dogmas surrounding student participation. Consequently, educational theories like constructivism, where the lecturer serves as a “guide on the side” as opposed to a “sage on the stage” ought to be recognized as a license for professorial sloth. Stunkel writes:

“At its best, a lecture is a critical, structured, skillful, thoughtful discourse on questions and findings within a discipline, delivered by a person who knows what he or she is talking about. Virtually by definition, students are incapable on their own of exploring the topic at the same level.”

The play excels in lampooning the explosive multiplication of specializations in the academy, which Stunkel and others argue has fostered a Tower of Babel like atmosphere. In the play, would-be dean Andrew Hedman and his infatuation with Swinburne expresses the silliness underpinning specialization.

The satire here stemmed from the personal experiences of the playwrights. Professor Emeritus Stunkel did his doctoral work at the University of Maryland and writes disparagingly of ever-increasing specialization in the humanities: “there were 35 specialized historians who rarely knew what a colleague in the office next door was working on. Targets of inquiry have become increasingly esoteric. Recently we have histories of beans, shoes, and shoplifting.”

This problem is widespread at Monmouth, where a student may hear something in one classroom contradicting the arguments put forward in another. Lives deservedly ridicules impermanent and fashionable subject matter, (in vogue at Monmouth) like sexuality, alluding to a course at Livingston called “Clitoral Images in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” Though Monmouth has an American history track, it is impossible to find a course on the early U.S. republic (presumably too phallocentric) or discern any elements of coherence in the courses a student must take prior to graduation. The “cafeteria” style of choosing classes hurts students, making superficial insights more likely to be acquired than the valuable knowledge a rigorous program of study imparts.

Lives of Reason is not totally immersed in the despicable facets of human existence, but also features characters with considerable charm. The protagonist of the play is the honorable Matthew Livingston, who finds the petty wrangling and backstabbing of the English professors loathsome. A reproach to the awe surrounding degrees, Livingston doesn’t even have a BA and maintains his roots. Like Stunkel favorite Lewis Mumford (he only finished high school but was an intellectual-humanist of the first class and said the Ph.D. was a badge of mediocrity) his character interrogates the commonly held belief of degrees and increased knowledge as handmaidens to increased humanism and decency. It is Livingston’s humanistic approach to literature – he speaks of his introduction to Shakespeare romantically – which creates the widest gulf between the English professors and himself. Livingston, unlike the English scholars, is content to enjoy literature on its own merits without searching for a post-modern “deconstruction” of texts. The humanist spirit Livingston illustrates is in retreat in the post-modern academy, an unfortunate fact the play strongly condemns.

The tone of this article is obviously pessimistic. Some think the academy is cyclical by nature, with a reaction setting in after unhinged theorists go too far. But optimism in this case is tantamount to dishonesty. As standards continue to decline (and tuition continues to rise) the humanities will have to eventually justify their worth and value to society. Let this defense be taken up, then, not by the philistine post-modernists, but rather by the Lewis Mumfords, Kenneth Stunkels, Matthew Livingstons, and, above all, the humanists of the world.

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