The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.
A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.
Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”
“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”
Google agrees. “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:
A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills.+
The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over time. Graduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf). Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”
We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,
The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.
The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.
It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.
It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.
“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”
We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.
In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence - we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.
Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?
As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science. Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science. And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.
Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.
“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:
…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis. The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.
Empathy is key. But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity. Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.
Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.
What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.
What matters to us most?
In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.
Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.
I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.
To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.
To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?
The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.
Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.
Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.
But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”
Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).
The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.
Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.
Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.
“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”
In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.
This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.
Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.
So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.
Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).
Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.
How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.
Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.
Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.
“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”
We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.
We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.
I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me – a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road – humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe, shunning careerism – no publishing in obscure journals, no writing unreadable books, no clawing up the expected ladder to obscurity. I’ve done none of it. I’ve focused on students instead – and there’s a price to be paid for that.
But the rewards for this focus occupy my office shelves —objects the students have given me over the years. They are testaments to the significance of shared learning moments otherwise muted by the hallowed ivy.
Objects are aesthetic records of the deeply emotional link between the past and the present. Objects say something of our need to regain something of ourselves – something lost, perhaps, what memory is; they’re even about something we yet don’t know we’ve lost, something of a nature we’re yet unsure of. Something needing discovery. Objects point to the past, but to the future as well. And they emphasize how ephemeral time is.
Yet – while these objects are incredibly intimate accolades, they also signify how my dreams were held in check by my sense of responsibility to others, to the commitment one makes to someone else’s desires – a young dreamer’s. In these objects is a teaching life; they are portals into the difficult work of helping young minds integrate into culture – and of how a teacher evolves with students.
Life is Just a Bowl of Varies – Sid was an older gentleman that followed me around from course to course. And one day, when he was done with his schooling pastime to idle away hours in retirement, he handed me a bowl comprised of various dice. LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES was printed on a card – that’s all. He was telling me that life is varied, diverse – and that it might diverge from my plans.
I sensed this. I fell into teaching; it was never planned. Many people don’t plan on becoming teachers – at least none that I knew while at grad school. Some go into it because it’s the final, common denominator; others continue down a path (mine was “the writing life”) unaware that the teaching profession would grab hold of them, a safety net of sorts. I thought I was going elsewhere. Sid must have navigated many divergent paths. He taught me something – something to expect.
Sid sat in the back of the class, usually next to other retirees that came to listen. I had no idea whether they read the material or whether they’d read the material in another life. Seldom did these folks say anything, giving space to the young undergrads that had to take my course. It was after class that one or two of the retirees would come up, thank me for the lecture and tell me whether they liked it or not. It was good today. This is when Sid, one day, came up and said, You’re an iconoclast. I smiled. I wore it like a badge of honor, a purpose for my teaching life.
I started teaching in 1985. I taught at SUNY College at Purchase from 1987 to 1996, two nights a week, three hour classes, and sometimes a three hour day class. I had to work to pay the rent, so SUNY was how I read the texts I needed to complete my PhD (I also taught at Manhattanville College at the time – 1986-1995. The life of the adjunct.). Introduction to American Literature. Literature of the Modern Age. Sexuality, Morality and Aesthetics in English Literature – 1880-1923 (drew a strange crowd, especially at night). Literature of Discipline and Punishment. Poor Sid, looking back, sat through most of these and watched an inexperienced teacher stumble his way through. I suppose Sid saw something, which prompted him to give me the dice – LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES.
It’s turned out to be true. Everything for me has been about change and adaptation. Sid was right. I keep his bowl prominently displayed.
The Compass – Leah, in the picture, now a teacher and a tennis star, too, sent me, most recently, the antique, Stanley London, brass compass. Inscribed inside the top of the compass is Robert Frost‘s The Road Not Taken (1916). You know it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Leah sent me The Compass not long ago. It sits opposite Life is Just a Bowl of Varies. The space between them is a traveled life.
I joked with her and said, “What, you think I need a compass?” We laughed. And she said, “No, you seem to be always finding paths for people.”
I think it’s both: in trying to find paths for students to fulfill dreams, I’ve found my own. We’ve both used the compass. We still need it.
Then there’s Frost. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.
When I’ve traveled down a path a frightened student puts forth, this has been a road that diverges. I’ve gone down many a scary road with students; we held on. Eventually I’ve tried doubling back. But that’s been impossible. “Back” is never a return; it’s a moving away, sometimes with regret and sorrow, always with something new in the horizon. It’s good to have a compass.
Heraclitus said, “Things keep their secrets.” The challenge with objects. Dice are small throwable objects with multiple resting positions. Like us, humans. Only we seem to land in random places, occupying arbitrary positions. We need navigational instruments that show directions and give a frame of reference.
Heraclitus also said that, “Whoever cannot seek/the unforeseen sees nothing,/for the known way/is an impasse.”
Object lesson 1: the objects of my teaching life represent a rejection of the “known way,” an understanding that we are always in “an impasse” – but that at least two are needed to break through the gridlock, the predicament, the jam. The hats and scarfs from Afghanistan, the elephant from Sri Lanka, Chinese objects, cards from all over the world – Thank You! Professor – all of these objects hold time. They speak of the impossible. Scary journeys taken side-by-side when no one was watching. These objects are symbols of always diverting plans that asked for different commitments, and once the commitments were made, as Frost says, I doubt if I should ever come back.
Well, well, well … seem to be on the same page with Edmundson – great.
Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will give them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school. And how can we blame them? America values power and money, big players with big bucks. When we raise our children, we tell them in multiple ways that what we want most for them is success—material success. To be poor in America is to be a failure—it’s to be without decent health care, without basic necessities, often without dignity. Then there are those back-breaking student loans—people leave school as servants, indentured to pay massive bills, so that first job better be a good one. Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them.
In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me, but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.
Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”
In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care. The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.
Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”
We can learn quite a lot about ourselves by examining a single word: work. Our sense of this very simple word has undergone a tectonic shift – and we’ve changed right along with it.
In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good.” Thus we have work’s dialectical structure: art and investigation – a study, the creation of a thing, a building or a bridle, a poem, music, and so on – and the moral action that binds these in relation to a justification. This is a covenant between the pre-knowledge or desire that motivates one to an art or an investigation, the art/investigation itself and the result, some good, which is a moral bind. Skills are good; nurturing the “faculties,” as Aristotle calls medical science, military science, arts and sciences – our academic disciplines today – is good.
For Aristotle, the responsibility in maintaining a healthy, meaningful covenant resides in the individual. S/he must never neglect her/his work; doing so will hinder one’s journey toward self-fulfillment and a more complete self. Neglect would also hurt the community because, says Aristotle, “For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.”
Sublime: elevated or lofty in thought, language, etc.; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.. That’s the supreme goal, the ultimate good.
But we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a covenant with work to the detriment of our communities and ourselves. We’re not in control of our destiny, which is key to Aristotle – and later to Aquinas.
The major shift in our appreciation of work is this: we have moved far from work as sublime, something finer for the greater good of the community that, in turn, would elevate each and everyone one of us towards a higher, more enlightened sense of self, to the sense that work is practical, for survival, for riches and comforts – something we have to do, earn a living. Work is subjugated by earning.
Work has moved away from its more philosophical, moral origins and presently complies with the needs of individuals, first. Understood this way, work cannibalizes rather then nurtures; it pits one against the other in fierce competition; and it undermines, ironically, the actual legitimacy of the individual because the worker must comply, not with dreams, aspirations and creativity, but with ruling ideologies. Ideologies have redefined work by colonizing consciousness. “The result,” says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, “…is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good.”
Work is exhausting, drudgery, uninspiring. College students choose courses that will pay off, not spiritually, not even intellectually, but rather financially, complying with some imagined future full of material possessions. Despair reigns among those seeking employment: far too many young people are either not employed or under employed. “I’ll take just about anything right now,” we hear. Current unemployment is at 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Take a tour of vacation advertisements, too. Three days here, there; 5 cities in 7 days; bungee jumping, scaling mountains in a day; Hawaii today, Alaska tomorrow – see nature’s wonders, run past a bear feeding on salmon. A quick picture with a cell phone. Onto Facebook. These vacations, meant to release stress, create it and openly promote the conveyor belt psychology that privileges “growing adoration of self-interest.” It’s solely about me.
If we think clearly, we shouldn’t need – or want – a vacation from work that’s sublime, should we? We wouldn’t want to leave it, rather we’d want to take it with us wherever we go because we’re nurtured by it, we grow with it.
Our understanding of work, in part, has lead to the existential crisis we’re experiencing as Americans – who are we? where are we going? why?
What is happiness today?
And where should work fit into a sublime journey of self-discovery, which is, after all, what life is – a journey in which each stage moves us deeper into an understanding of our relationships with the world around us – and prepares us for a dignified death, our final life experience? It’s suppose to lead us to greater empathy, rather then away from it. Work like this is spiritual in nature. But there are many obstacles.
We can date this change, and begin to see the obstacles, by looking at three seminal texts that mark a societal transformation towards hyper-individualism, away from the greater good and towards a more intense – and systemic – narcissism: Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899, published in seriel fashion in the 1000th issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; in 1902, included in the book Youth: A Narrative, and Two Stories), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the text that opens the floodgates, Sigmund Freud‘s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) .
These three crucial texts, at the doorstep of World War I, announce the individual’s retrieval from a sense of the public good – even from the public sphere – and towards a perverse solipsism that pushes aside any notion that work is somehow linked to sublimity.
Truth is hard to come by as we transition into industrialization, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Conrad, James and Freud chronicle a veering in our understanding of work and point to an increasing need for reclusive spaces to rest, think and create. Even in Freud we see that the artist, for instance, retreats, leaves society, the community, to create. And we see the need to work through objects in order to get a better sense of the world, some grounding – be it Marlow in Conrad or multiple storytellers speaking simultaneously in James so as to highlight the artificiality of the world.
It’s important to understand that as these texts are acclaimed and debated publicly we are marching towards the first mechanized war, a terrifying thought that was held only in the imagination then. But we now know better. From World War I to the present, we transition from tanks and mustard gas to drones and satellites, post-modern prophylactics for killing, a more nuanced, perhaps, repression of the moral conditions of our times. Besides cultural, political and financial unrest throughout Europe signaling the encroaching storm of war, also bringing this period to the forefront is the Paris Exposition – Exposition Universelle – of 1900, which celebrated the achievements of the past century and ushered in the new – escalators, the Eiffel Tower, diesel engines, film and telegraphones.
The individual finds himself in nebulous times at the turn of the century; insecurity is made even more pronounced by experimentation in art and music, as well. Think Stravinksy‘s Rise of Spring, which premiers in Paris in 1913; Baudelaire is tried for obscenity for certain poems in Le Fleurs du mal (1857); the transition from the Impressionists and van Gogh to Picasso, who says that, “through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” This a very confusing challenge to one’s sense of self – another turn of the screw, we might say. The artificial becomes the norm, even a religion. Composer Hans Pfitzner describes “the international a-tonal movement” as the “artistic parallel of the Bolshevism which is menacing political Europe.” The avantegarde assault on the senses is confusing because art is based on structures, order, not disorder – yet the individual, aesthetically, politically, and spiritually is being dislodged, asked to re-think “the Order of Things.”
“In our dreams,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance.”
It is this sense of reality as illusion that parallels our own age; it taints one’s journey towards an understanding of the self; and it skews the philosophical, moral and spiritual classical understanding of work, since the purpose of work, in 1900 and now, is for something outside the self. The individual is expendable.
Heart of Darkness can be accepted as a journey into the bleakest of recesses of the human condition – but only on the surface; it is the illusion of historical documentation. Anti-colonialism, the idea of individual freedom and a fidelity to the work ethic as salvation are traditional readings of Heart of Darkness. But if we approach the text as Marlow, our narrator, does, we find that blindness “is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad speculates that in a mechanical universe what is flesh or body, no less soul? All seems already lost. Hard things, resistant things – metal, mechanization – have superseded softness, flexibility, humanity itself. The individual, in Conrad, is tempted to become unfeeling, tough and durable in order to survive. Work, tough work, keeping a distance from any emotional connection to one’s work, is a part of it all – and a violent turn from Aristotle. In Conrad’s story, therefore, human waste is pervasive, the ivory being the central symbol here. The ivory – men work and die for it – is solely for the rich, a luxury, like art. The world of work and who benefits from the means of production have been successfully established.
In Heart of Darkness we transition into the dark side of Modernism and point to our post-modern narcissism. Where else can we go after such terrifying emotional conditions? But before we get to us, we must pass through Hitler and his most radical and unacceptable way of getting rid of Modernism – vehemence, hatred, and violence – mindless persecution. The world, post World War II, then, is forever tainted, having experienced the “daemonization,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of all academic conditioning and the pervasive evil leveled against anyone who supported Modernism. The world after World War II struggles to become more homogenized, more hierarchical and conservative.
For this to succeed, the individual has to be effectively removed from the self. Nowhere is this more evident then in James’s The Turn of the Screw, which begins with a confusing narrative, voice over voice trying to pierce the artificiality of the tale. The story is, ironically, an “apparition,” doubling as a mirror of reality, the Nietzschean sense of “the sensation of mere appearance.” Only this “mere appearance” has repercussions; a “ghost of a dreadful kind” alters the sense of what’s real and what’s not. All known systems of knowledge – reason especially – have broken down.
In Modern and Modernism, my mentor (NYU), Frederick Karl, sees this as a history that exists in the seams of the text, “a secondary apparatus”: ” a way of suggesting how uncertain and discontinuous evidence is; which is another way of saying irony undercuts not only our views of characters but the every day world.”
God is dead. Science is to be questioned – a suspect. Social structures are breaking down. And institutions, though formidable, cannot be trusted. But more importantly for us, the Aristotelian meaning of work is completely lost. We’re looking for the spiritual in artificiality – reality tv, the Kardashians, mediated sports, etc..
Enter Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. Where else could we be but in a place whereby, as Freud says, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life”?
Peter Gay, in Freud: A Life for Our Time, suggests that The Interpretation of Dreams is, “in short,” he writes, “undefinable.” In keeping with the times, Freud’s Dreams is an autobiography, a survey of psychoanalytic fundamentals, “sharply etched vignettes of the Viennese medical world, rife with rivalries and the hunt for status, and of an Austrian society, infected with anti-Semitism and at the end of its liberal decades.”
But key to our discussion on work is what Freud says about “resistance”: “Whatever disturbs the progress of the work is a resistance.” In some ways, Freud returns, through psychoanalysis, to Aristotle’s dialectic [on work]; here, it is both the work of psychoanalysis – patient and analyst working together – and the resistance evident in the patient when attempting to work at defining – or approximating – the repression proper, the first instance that began the reason for the need for analysis.
What is also critical in Freud is the picture we get of psychoanalysis: an affluent client on a leather couch, reclining in a room amidst classic pictures and sculptures (Freud kept these objects on his desk), seeking to find herself or himself; Freud sitting just off the shoulder, unseen by the patient, pipe and pen and pad in hand, scribbling his notes. This is spiritual work removed from the church, by now dead. Here, we also see Conrad’s hard, mechanized world, as well as James’s layered structure of the world – elusive, and an illusion. This is not work in the traditional sense, though I’m aware that I’ve said that Freud returns us to a sort of neo-Aristotlean sense of work. This is heady stuff, the work of the soul in an increasingly secular world.
For Freud, being that Dreams is his most significant work – not just in psychoanalytic terms, but also in terms of style, literature – it is important to understand that professionally – the world of work – he is trying to “normalize” psychoanalysis. In other words, he is trying to mainstream the work of psychoanalysis. Our collective acceptance of “therapy” as legitimate work begins here.
Peter Gay: “One irresistible discovery, which forms a central theme in The Interpretation of Dreams and of psychoanalysis in general, was that the most persistent human wishes are infantile in origin, impermissible in society, and for the most part so adroitly concealed that they remain virtually inaccessible to conscious scrutiny.”
Thus work is mired somewhere between “persistent human wishes” that “are infintile in origin,” (we need only think about Anthony Weiner here, and Eliot Spitzer), mechanization/technological speed, progress and alienation (we need only think about a couple having dinner while looking into their cell phones), and the chasm between the sublime nature of work and its current, materialistic driven nature (and, here, we need only look at our current political climate to note the disconnect between service for the good of the community vs service to me and my own).
Here we have the nature of work today – nothing we educate people about; we just put our heads down, nose to the grindstone, and persist to the detriment of ourselves and others – and the future. In this example, the story is 115 years old, approximately.
Where will it go, I wonder? Do you know? Can you guess?