April 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
For Leah and the girls down in Boston today
I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …
Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.
CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:
1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a deluctible bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about social justice, environmentalism, writing and creativity, a healthier future we imagined conceivable.
2. 4:10PM: I learned about Boston — the ugly violence, the havoc and instant suffering, the confusion that turned into a tremendous weight — and disbelief.
3. 5:30PM: On the ride home from school, I learned of the cowardly defeat of the gun bill. A heavier darkness set in. The NRA and Washington cowards intent on keeping power, not saving lives, are more powerful then the voices of American citizens. Washington exists outside our American lives.
4. April 17, two days later: The news of the poison letters sent to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and President Obama. And the darkness reigned supreme, a suffocating feeling.
The winter winds have begun to change in Vermont. Indifferent clouds race across the skies, the air is lighter — you can smell it — the temperature rising ever so slowly, as it does this time of year. Hints of sun remind us that it’s still there laboring to find its way back to us — finally. Something other then death, destruction and callous indifference has to come our way.
5. April 19, Friday: When one suspect is dead and CNN works to fit into every aspect of the unfolding manhunt, a tropical wind is screaming across Vermont. My chickens had a hard time getting across paddocks, pushing against it, literally going airborne and tumbling when the gusts were incredibly harsh. It all felt surreal, confusing. At some point that night, maybe around 11PM, I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston marathon bombing suspect, was apprehended.
During the depressing malay, the chants of Boston Strong, the Red Sox game and Neil Diamond, my brain turned to a movie, The Siege, directed by Edward Zwick. This film is about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells make several attacks in New York City. Despite objections, the US President declares marshal law and the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn. People of Arab descent are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium. New Yorkers stage violent demonstrations against the army and the racial profiling of the Arabs and the Army fights to maintain control.
The Siege, again, a fictional account — I’m compelled to repeat this, just to pinch myself — is not the Boston lock down, but it gave me pause. Is this what we’re facing, our future? Surveillance. Tighter controls, literally and virtually. A military-like presence in our cities. Fiction has been turned into our lives.
Regardless of the ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, they grew up in the United States. In the West, many fundamentalist radicals intent on following terrorist actions are being bread in our communities. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whatever they did to get to that tragic day that colored the Boston marathon with such harshness, had friends in the community. They had family, went to schools like everyone else’s — even excelled. They went to work, too. In other words, they lead American lives in an American community. They were, at one point, normal, as we like to say.
In an interconnected world, everything is possible.
Welcome. This is our world now.
Where do we go from here, knowing what we now know?
I’m a father of 4. I’m a husband. A son. A brother. And I’m a teacher. This Sunday, April 21, my mind is on the Middlebury Women’s Tennis Team: they took the trek to Tufts, in Boston, yesterday, Saturday, because the original trip, a long weekend of matches, first against MIT, then Tufts, was put on hold by the Tsarnaev brothers. Everyone was on tender hooks. With some anxiety, these beautiful, wanting kids took the trip to Boston. They went to do something they love; they went to meet their responsibilities. That’s what we’re called to do. I know they’re safe, but I can’t help thinking of them because they’re young, like my children. Hell, they are my children — they’re all our children. They’re young and innocent working so hard that it sometimes brings me to tears to watch them grapple with our difficult world. Sometimes we cry together.
I feel totally guilty for the world my generation is leaving behind. It’s a world where neighbors can’t trust neighbors; where important people in important positions, graduates of our most elite institutions, can’t be trusted at all. This is the world we’ve given them, the tomorrows colored by a siege scenario. Unacceptable.
All I can say to them, my students, is I love you. I have nothing else, nothing left. How else can you teach any kid anything today? Love and Health are the only curriculum. What we pass along as knowledge and information makes no sense — not to them, not to us. The material I teach, I find almost irrelevant. In the face of Boston — and the Bostons to come — I’m driven to my knees. I’m sorry, yes, I can say that only to them. I know that now. I love you is what I must say to them and show them, let them know that in their time with me, they’ve been loved, unconditionally; that this is love in this heartless universe — so harsh. We’ve become so harsh and reproachful.
Why are we here?
6. April 21, about 1:40: the girls are on the courts at Tufts. Brazilian Girls: Some people want to burn the world with their greed. We just want to have a good time, all the time.
I had to travel some, today, to get to the Brazilian Girls. Given how dark I felt, after morning chores I turned on Al Greene. His Greatest Hits have a way of lifting me — even though my wife, Nina, laughs. You know nothing about music, she says. My son, Devon, agrees. But Nina is in a workshop in NY and I’m a weekend bachelor, left alone with the weight of things. But Love and Happiness — Love will make you do right, make you do wrong, just wasn’t doing anything for me; it existed somewhere else. Love is, Love is walking together, talking together…
Is it? Can it be?
Feeling so alone, I took to cooking. And somewhere between the chili con carne and the lamb (White Dorper, our own) with lentils, and Bonnie Raitt, Used to Rule the World began to lift the veil of darkness. I began to see, slowly, a bit. Brother lovejoy. Yeah, Raitt’s raspy voice, that guitar — she touched my soul, showed me the way, aching. With her cover of Right Down the Line — You know that I need your love, you got that hold on me – I had 3 dishes going simultaneously — the lamb, the chili and a kale and potato soup. And I was moving to Raitt. She was moving me towards light.
Lucidity. The agony of lucidity.
Lucidity is both a gift and a punishment. Lucid comes from Lucifer, the rebellious angel, the Devil. But Lucifer is also the morning star, the first star, the brightest, the last to fade. Lucid comes from Lucifer, Lucifer from Lux and Ferous, meaning that he who has light, who generates light, who brings the light allowing inner vision. Good and Evil together. Pain and pleasure. Lucidity is agony, and the only pleasure we can know, the only pleasure, remotely like joy, is that of being aware of our own lucidity. “The silence of understanding, the silence of merely being. There, the years go by. There, beautiful animal joy went,” said Pizarnik. Brilliant. (Lugares Comunes, Adolfo Aristrain, Director, 2002)
Lucidity is agony. This morning I sent my students a note, just a quote, something to ponder in this extraordinarily blinding world:
Academics who act as ambassadors of the oppressed are no substitute for enduring arrangements that might enable the oppressed to explain themselves and pursue their own interests as they wish … When humanists claim to set aside crude, worldly, practical concerns for the sake of purely ‘philosophical’ inquiry, they actually fall prey to the optical illusion of a pure thinker somehow separate from the world. (Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century, Kurt Spellmeyer, 2003).
I blame myself for the world we have. Us professors, in our elite institutions, have presumed a position that is an illusion: the world is out there, we are somehow living in loftier terrain separate from the world. We have separated people; we have separated ourselves from feeling the world. This false position has created the world we’re in. We’ve failed to describe a world that Don DeLillo gives us in Underworld (1997) where everything is interconnected: the guy making toothpaste and light bulbs is also making nuclear warheads. How do we tell the good from the bad? asks DeLillo.
Our way of life has consequences. Our leisure, our comforts — and discomforts — come at a price; we can’t have what we have unless someone pays. This is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; 2011). Struggles for existence, for human rights, are extraordinarily symbolic — as well as physical (banking; military) and intellectual (ideologies; academia). Thus, the overwhelming force of the West has created cultures of doubt coupled to systems burdened by national debt. It’s not a stretch to imagine the rise of terrorism from here.
Now it’s come home; it comes from us. If we are to enter into this age with meaning — to try to understand our complicity, first, then find a way through — the agony of lucidity must be central, and it begins by recognizing that everything is interconnected, as DeLillo would say; that what happened in Boston is not because of some foreign force, rather it’s, in part, due to our own force, our own blindness in our uses of force, the cataclysmic development of structural violence worldwide.
December 9, 2012 § Leave a Comment
for Heather and Cheswayo
He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”
He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.
“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.
Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.
I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.
The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.
Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.
If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.
Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.
I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.
I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.
When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.
The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.
Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.
I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.
Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”
As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”
I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).
The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?
Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?
Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?
My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.
The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …
Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?
Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught. Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.
I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.
Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.
Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep? Hands always know the answer.
November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices
and for Jon
I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.
Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?
My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.
My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.
My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in steaming water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this gentile country life at my back urging me along.
But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.
I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.
Who directed whom to what?
I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.
Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)
Answer: I don’t know. It just is.
Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.
Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country. But we may have forgotten this.
I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.
A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.
No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live. They depend on me — I them.
My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.
We had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).
Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.
My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one. My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.
I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations. Adaptation is how we all evolve.
In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”
Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?
The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard. ”Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved, “Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”
Almost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.
The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.
That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?
These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.
Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?
The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.
On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.
In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.
I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.
I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.
September 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Scenarios for Teaching Writing is a one semester long (12 wks) course in the Education Studies Program at Middlebury. It is supported by Middlebury’s Education in Action, The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Dean of the College. It is also supported by Middlebury alumni and parents of current Middlebury students, all of whom reside in New York and provide housing for Middlebury students. And it’s supported by Media and Communications High School. What makes this collaboration possible is the idea that education requires responsibility; that what we learn and how we learn have to be shared, particularly with K-12 partners; and that education has to be thought of as a K-16 continuum since the challenges we face as a society – early education, on one end, and an ongoing commitment to continue an education, on the other – have to guide us towards creative solutions. Scenarios for Teaching Writing is one small step in this direction, modeling a living classroom struggling to create byways for self-actualization.
September 16, 2012 § 6 Comments
The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.
The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.
The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.
We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.
In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.
Here’s how it can be done:
- Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
- Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
- The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
- What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
- And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?
This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.
What are the outcomes of this model?
- Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
- Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
- Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online. My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this. For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
- Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed. For the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
- The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
- The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
- Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
- And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.
This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?
This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological. Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.
The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.
If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.
Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.
June 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers
There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.
The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.
This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.
So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.
The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.
Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.
Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.
For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?
May 25, 2012 § 5 Comments
Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”
I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …
I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.
I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.
Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold – a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.
For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?
I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).
In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.
The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.
Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.
It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.
So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4′s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.
In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”
The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.
DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).
In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.
DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:
It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)
There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).
DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).
When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.
Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”
No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.
So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”
In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”
The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.
I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”
Just about every single student raised her/his hand.
“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”
Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)
“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”
“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. “
“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”
Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.
There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.
We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.
I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.
A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.
In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”
But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.
Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.
I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.
I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”
I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”
I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.
We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.
So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”
May 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
Hyper-Interface Culture and the New Age of Education: A Critical Look Under the Hood of the Harvard – MIT Partnership
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
Since Harvard and MIT announced a partnership that will invest $60 million into a new platform to deliver free online courses, the academic world has been a flutter. But criticisms and critiques have it all wrong. The joint venture points to a narrower, more stringent future for higher education in America, the furthering of a class system that furtively divides and signals a crisis in education that we’re not debating, namely that our current (analog) models are unsustainable.
Comments and opinions about the Harvard – MIT venture range from those in the business of online education, best exemplified by George Siemens, of Athabasca University’s Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, that sees the Harvard-MIT partnership as merely the elites re-capturing an online presence in a growing and lucrative market, to David Brooks, of The New York Times, who, comparing this move to how newspapers and magazines retooled themselves around the web, worries about students that do not have “the intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptops hour after hour” but suggests that, likewise, “Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world,” though he is not won over by the partnership, wondering, as did Sven Birkerts 18 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies, “Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”
This is all wrong. We’re not seeing the obvious, the massive shift that’s already present in higher education.
The critiques of the Harvard-MIT venture assume that the world of technology exists — and grows — outside of ourselves, outside of who we are and, thus, as Martin Heidegger suggests in The Question of Technology (1954), we fail to understand technology as “human activity” This is something. I said, in 2008, at the MIT sponsored conference on Federating Resources Through Open Operability, the early stages of this move, on MIT’s part.
The Harvard-MIT venture is a sign that functions as a map of our current state in education, our American education crisis and as a distinct model for future power and control over delivery systems that, in turn, will certify one’s value in a world that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet, requiring that we re-tool on a continuous basis. Current education models cannot sustain the re-tooling of workers, at any level.
The Harvard-MIT partnership is an agreement to exert massive control over how education will be experienced in the near future — and who will gain. There are several reasons why this is viable — and why this has been brought on by the conditions in our culture.
In 1997, Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, describing our relationship with technology, said that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp.” This has created an ongoing drama as we try to (re)imagine — and understand — ourselves in this shifting cultural landscape propelled forward technologically and economically.
The great drama of the next few decades will unfold under the crossed stars of the analog and the digital. Like the chorus of Greek tragedy, information filters will guide us through this transition, translating the zeros and ones of digital language into the more familiar, analog images of every day life. These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.
Interface, for Johnson, is where the old, analog world is transformed into the message; it comes with culture–altering methods and processes, as we now see as we integrate Facebook and Twitter into our lives. There’s the iPad, the iPhone, the Android and the Kindle. The interface alters perceptions, yet as Johnson rightly asserts, “the form itself will be the same”; that is, the reasoning behind the nature of the interface is still analog, the same. It’s control.
The $60 million investment must be paid back; it must be profitable. Why, then, such a magnanimous offering from 2 of our most distinguished academic institutions?
Answer: it’s about the interface.
Harvard and MIT are offering a free online service, not because they’re investing in the romantic ideals of higher education, but rather because they will learn a tremendous amount about our interactions with their online interface, providing volumes of data about our likes and dislikes, our methods of engagement, the relationships between social networks and, now, academic ones. It’s a harsh economic strategy, winner take all.
Harvard and MIT will have a robust system, behind the scenes where we can’t see it, much as Amazon does when it suggests books to you, that will gather information about our behavior. In turn, this will help Harvard and MIT retool their tool because “clients” will not be able to keep away from the significance of this venture. In other words, given the label, Harvard-MIT, it’s expected that millions will access this portal; these millions will give Harvard and MIT the data they need to fashion a learning portal to fit our behavior.
Education has turned a corner; it’s a synthesis of old analog learning with market realities.
“The ability to rapidly form and reform intelligent communities will become the decisive weapon of regional skill centers competing within a globalized economic space,” says Pierre Lévy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). “The emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities,” says Lévy, “will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace.”
Lévy said this 15 years ago. Some of us paid attention. Colleges and Universities did not — until now.
One of the greatest costs of running a university is technology. This is because higher education has had a distinct analog model they’ve been following, the kind of blindness Heidegger warned us about 63 years ago when he first lectured on The Question of Technology, in a series of 4 lectures, in the Club at Bremen. Heidegger talked about the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”; that is, the “means” and the “human activity.” In higher education we’ve always allowed both the means and the human activity to be determined by forces outside the academy — think Apple and Microsoft, for instance, both in terms of hardware and software. Then came the emergence of blogs and course management systems, for profit online universities — and education still following, never taking the bull by the horns, defining the uses of technology on its own terms. We’ve always tried to fit into whatever technologies were given to us at the highest cost, in the meantime enabling a change in higher education determined by software companies. The engineers that create the code have been our cultural and pedagogical gurus for the past twenty years. Until now, until Harvard and MIT have drawn attention to their aggressive attack on pedagogy and interface — or, perhaps better said, their definition of pedagogy gathered from data we provide for their interface that, in turn, will alter the face of higher education, propelling us into an unknown future.
But the high cost of technology is only part of the story, the other chapter is about the high cost of labor in higher education. Next to technology, labor is the biggest drain on colleges and universities. Talent, the professor, is handsomely paid; in public institutions, the professor earns less then at prestigious universities. Academia works on a star model — luminaries with crossover books get paid the best, appear on TED and on the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and so on. Media tends to follow the most prized in an unforgiving system that talks a great deal about the need for excellent teaching but rewards the stars that bring notoriety to the campus, the company label. This system, as Harvard and MIT are aware, is not sustainable.
How much will families be willing to pay for a high – grade education? 60K? 100K? This is where we’re heading with our current analog model. It can’t happen — unless we change things around a bit. Most of the Ivies have changed their financial aid, accordingly; however, labor is still a number one concern: it’s too high. So what if we changed the model?
TED, for instance, is extraordinarily popular. The 15 minute lectures are almost de rigueur these days, having spawned TEDx across campuses. I find myself giving student TED lectures and things I find on YouTube, from lectures to appearances to animation and film clips to highlight ideas. I find myself giving students up – to – the – minute news from around the world, adding to the analog aspects of my syllabus. I correct all student work online. I use MOODLE and WordPress as course management tools. I have students create digital stories, when appropriate.
If a professor is working in these ways, already breaking the analog stranglehold, why not push a bit further and change the role of the professor to be more of a coach: if ready-made lectures, by luminaries, are delivered online and questions, essay prompts, designed work is likewise delivered, then the teacher can simply be one who urges, prods, encourages, and gives students more resources, online, to round off a given subject, which is pretty much what we’re doing these days anyway. Then the professor/teacher doesn’t need a PhD, of which there are too many anyhow. The system then doesn’t need things such as tenure. And the luminary professor doesn’t have to be paid $200K, but rather much less, the rest of his worth determined by “hits” and advertisements to a course, public appearances, digital books sold, etc. Then we really have a star system that mirrors all others in our economic system.
Most big universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have 100 + students attending lectures for approximately 2 years. We know from the analog model that we can deliver education one – to – many. Why not take this online? We can leave the last two years for residency, if we want, reducing energy costs and labor costs since, we also know, graduate students can critique work. We’re heading this way.
But of course this will make our education crisis worse because, already, way too many kids are being left behind in the analog model. These kids don’t have access to good teachers, technology and relevant books. For example, in one of my current courses we’re working with high school students in Washington Heights, New York City. These kids don’t have access to adequate technology, and what they do have access to is highly filtered. Teachers are not instructed on how to capitalize on the technology we have. In a survey I sent to these students, one of the kids said, “I really thank you for having me learn how to use Google.” Can you imagine? Expertise with Google is a sign of an education gap! Though many will have access to the Harvard – MIT online venture, ultimately, these institutions will reap all the rewards and bring along those that already gain from attending them. Nothing much will change unless we address the inadequacies of online learning K-16 and we, in education, start to take greater responsibility and control for what we’re charged to do.
May 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
1. Finding the Artes Liberales
What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:
- How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
- How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?
Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.
In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.
Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)
So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:
The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.
And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.
Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.
2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts
This raises other questions, of course:
- What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
- What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
- And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?
These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.
Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”
Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?
Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?
My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.
“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.
But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?
A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.
The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.
In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.
3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?
In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”
The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.
“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.
“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.
“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.
What are we doing? Do we even know?
We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.
The humanities — the artes liberales – should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.
We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.
Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?
In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”
There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.