Lead me, follow me, or get out of the way

I’m on the fence about General George S. Patton, Jr. Do I love him or loathe him?

General George S. Patton, Jr.

I have a crush on him, of course. Just look at the portrait to the right. Honestly, you’d have to be stone not to fall for this man. If I were a man, I’m sure I’d have a man crush. But then, there’s a lot to be wary of–he’s fire, he’s elemental–a man like this can heal or destroy.

But that’s just the visual rhetoric side of me talking, my singular perception based on image only. I recently ran across a reference to him in a book I was reading (several references actually across a few genres–kismet), and I wondered that I’d never seen the iconic film with George C. Scott and that I really didn’t know much about Patton except that he was an important leader in WWII.

I decided to wander around online to see what I could see. What I found: he came from a long line of warriors; he attended Virginia Military Institute and West Point; he was innovative and creative; he wanted to be a hero (like members of his family before him); he was likely traumatized by war (who isn’t?); he survived much drama; he was a good leader; he was a controversial leader; he was not an epic-win poet (but I like that he tried); he was a great orator; he was a cussing-the-air-blue leader. I think it’s the last that I really appreciate. I’ve always found an accomplished cusser to be irresistible.

My conclusions: he was an ass kickin’ prima donna. Just look at him with the ivory handles on his pistols. And below–check out his shiny helmet. He rocked the role of leader. He understood spectacle, the visual rhetoric necessary in an age of only moderate media exposure. He knew people needed something to follow, something they could see, not something they needed to understand. He certainly erred on more than one occasion in public, but he somehow lived through that. Or I could be wrong about him being a mixed bag and retaining his power? I’m not a Patton expert, just a casual observer. But I’m sure he is no different than any of us–an amalgam of good and bad choices, daring and fear, love and loathing. I certainly can’t judge, but what I can do is learn from him–take what I can and give nothing back. (That’s right, this is part of the pirate code from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)

(And to bend the pop cultural references in this post a bit: Could I say he was/is the warrior equivalent of Aretha Franklin? Think about her filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards–in his key, and every other thing she’s ever done? I surely can learn some things from who he was and what he did. So why not explore what’s possible and think about how my thinking on Patton connects to other media, genre, texts, images?)

There’s a lot of Patton online, so I collected several Pattonisms that I like which I’m thinking can smartly inform my thematic-academic-intellectual work for the spring term: all out war. I want to win this semester, I want to vanquish my tasks, I want to defeat my fears, and so I am going to use Patton as my icon… a far cry from MC Hammer who helped me through a spring semester a few years back  and whom inspires me occasionally to consider what I’m doing as a writer. (“U Can’t Touch This”–such a perfect sound track for teaching and learning–but I need more power right now.)

Gen. Patton in all his 4-star finery

Meanwhile, my Spring 2012 Pattonisms are below. These guiding ideas will help me shape what I’m going to do with my life this spring and beyond (perhaps). Each is followed by thoughts on how I will make this semester bend to my superior will.

1. We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.

I only have so much time for nurturing right now. I need people around me to lead me, follow me, or get out of my way because I have a LOT to do, and I intend to do it. I have seven lists of several pages long and nothing will escape my intense scrutiny this term–I will win. I will defeat disorganization. I will “shoot first then ask questions later” (Gen. Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb). Well, metaphorically, you know, I’m on board with this–as a matter of policy Ripper’s philosophy is, perhaps, not always the right one.

2. Always do everything you ask of those you command.

This is my teaching modus operandi for most of my classes–I write with my students. I haven’t always and don’t do everything they do–who has time? But I do write some things, start some projects, show how I might approach a task–be a writer in front of them. I am also a writer with them.

3. Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

Again, more of my teaching m.o. I try to say something like this in most teaching situations: “Over there, see? That’s where I want you to head, down that valley, take that ridge, secure that beachhead. Here are several ways to accomplish this task. Here are ways people have attempted it and succeeded. Here is a sample of a successful operation. Here is how I’d do it.” I explain all the moving parts, and help to focus learning on a process that might work for students in writing anything or reading anything. Then I point students in the direction I want them to go… and they must get there.

4. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by praying.

I like the order of these: planning, working, praying. These three things account for how humans manage to accomplish anything: one must have a plan, and work at it, and then pray that everything goes right. But it won’t. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. So. Mission adaptivity. Gotta happen. I get that. (See Lakoff and Johnson for more on war metaphors–Chap. 24 in Metaphors We Live By–been reading too much lately on war, maybe.) I don’t pray much except for this kind: “coming in on a wing and a prayer.” I do a lot of that. I plan like Henry Gantt, work like Samuel Smiles, and pray like George Eliot–her translation of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus is stunning (1846).

5. Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.

In teaching, what are victories? What are weapons? Words? Is a victory when students pass or when they learn? When they achieve greatness in a single project or class, or when the teacher learns more than the students? How does winning, academically or intellectually, get measured? By grades? By student evaluations?

Learning is a war fought by both students and teachers–time is the enemy. It marches on no matter what else happens. Fighting is the acquisition of knowledge and its dissemination to others–in the classroom and beyond the classroom. Winning the war is being able to say what value the learning experience provided to any and all participants, though the explanation will be different for every single student and the teacher. The articulation of the value of what was learned is the thing, isn’t it? The teacher is responsible for leading the operation, but see number 3 above for who handles the tactical business and gains the objective.

And my last Pattonism for the spring.

6. Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.

I eschew the static and embrace the dynamic–in all things, especially in teaching. I can’t ever step into the same river twice, neither can I teach the same class twice. Perhaps it’s a failing, or maybe it’s my greatest advantage, my best weapon, the way I am–no fixed fortifications, always on the move, bobbing and weaving, wearing down the enemy guerrilla style.

So, am I loving or loathing Gen. Patton? My position couldn’t matter less. I can stay on the fence because I’m learning from him–that’s a bit more appropriate for me, and moderate, too. Wasn’t it Aristotle who said, “moderation in all things”?

Maybe the Spring 2012 should be themed by six Pattonisms and one Aristotelianism.

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