Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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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 – publishing in obscure journals, writing unreadable books, 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 pay for that. My rewards for this are found in the objects students have given me over the years and that occupy the spare shelves in my office (I’m a minimalist when it comes to office decor). 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.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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.

Stanley London Brass Compass

Stanley London Brass Compass

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.

Abandon – from Getting Lost

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“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”

This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear.  [ read more ... ]

ISSUE 74: Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? by Mark Edmundson

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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.

 

Read more of what Mark Edmundson has to say in the Oxford American …

 

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www...

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www.cityarts.net/n.wiseman.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And, along these lines, Frederick Wiseman‘s new documentary, “At Berkeley,” may prove to be quite interesting.  Here’s tidbit from a review in The New York Times by Stephen Holden:

 

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.

 

 

The Black Atlantic (1500-1800) – Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Explores

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The Black Atlantic explores the earliest Africans, both slave and free, who arrived in the New World. Through stories of individuals caught in the transatlantic slave trade, we trace the emergence of plantation slavery in the American South. The episode also looks at what that Era of Revolutions — American, French and Haitian — would mean for African Americans and for slavery in America.

Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help)

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Age 60 is when it takes a man all night to do what he used to do all night.

At 60 years old, your birthday suit requires regular ironing.

At 60 you can still chase women, but only downhill.

At 60, two of the most important things in life are bowel movements and nose hair.

Everywhere I look – even though it’s customary to say, 60 is the new 50 - there’s the daunting accuracy of Mathematics: Coming to 60 means less time. That’s all. It’s inescapable. Less time it is.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde said that, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” True. I knew everything once, now, somewhere in-between believing and suspecting, I know very little, but I’m sensing that this is how it goes, how everything goes. “Age is a high price to pay for maturity,” said Tom Stoppard.

Maturity is gaining (some) self-knowledge while falling part – a final irony on top of life’s other contradictions.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, writes W.B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium. A tattered coat upon a stick, he is. In The Tower, Yeats tells us that, Everything that man esteems/Endures a moment or a day. Shit. That’s all I can say. A moment or a day - that’s it? Shit.

I’m but a flash. But looking to Yeats again for solace, he says, Whatever flames upon the night/Man’s own resinous heart has fed. So maybe there’s hope that even when 60 candles are being lit on my birthday cake, and by the time the last one is lit, the first twenty have already burned out, the first two thirds of my life may account for something.

I’ve tried to flame upon the night, really I have, passionately so. But it’s that resinous heart I wonder about.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

Did I make enough noise? Has my heart been big enough, resplendent enough to leave even a little bit of residue upon the night? When night comes, what remains? I wonder.

The inherent tension found at 60: there has to be meaning – has to be; but there are no real witnesses to give my meaning its due. Sure there are loved ones. Of course there’s family. Yes. But in the end we travel alone; we face trials alone, even when loved ones say, I’m with you. An end to something is an end. That’s it. Time’s up. And only the person experiencing this end, this coming to, can verify the experience. No one’s seen everything, experienced everything as I have. The final irony is that only glimpses of me will be left – Tweet feeds, moving images here and there, maybe even Facebook pics and news updates, scribblings for posterity, all will hang in a digital limbo until someone needs the space and, well, DELETE.

Recognition for a life lived comes late – if at all. DELETE. The rugosity on my face and hands is known only to me. The scars that tell the story of me will disappear with me, deleted for eternity.

I awaken from this dream with a jerk and find my wife’s nose up to mine.

“You’re asleep. You’ve been asleep. I heard you snoring. You woke me. I was sound as asleep. Let’s go to bed.”

Watching Orange is the New Black, two glasses of wine proved the better of me (it didn’t use to be – I have witnesses, trust me I do for this), even while contemplating opening a second bottle. I was snoring, I guess. I nodded out, I guess. My cell phone read: 8:30PM

“I’m not tired,” I declare.

“You were sound asleep,” says Nina.

“I’m not tired.”

“You’re an idiot. Why would you always do this – deny snoring? You were sound asleep. I watched you. You jerked. You were dreaming, dead asleep.”

She did, she watched me. But I can’t relent. “I’m not tired,” I say and ridiculously keep to my story.

“You’re being stupid.”

“But it’s only eight-thirty. I can’t go to bed. Besides, I’m into the show. I love Alex (Laura Prepon). I love her voice.”

“Oh yeah, what just happened? Tell me. What just happened in the show?” asks Nina, getting up and marching out. “Turn it off and let’s go to bed.”

I can’t even seduce her with a chic flick conversation about Alex – her voice, her looks, her character; couldn’t even get to the relationship between Alex and Piper (Taylor Schilling) – and in a prison for women no less. What fun. I could then exploit my understanding of popular culture, the significance of Orange is the New Black, which some call The Maids in prison. None of that would happen. What I think – what I want, something like stopping time – quickly becomes erased, inconsequential. It must be how everything goes.

I follow Nina to bed. The Golden Retriever, Chief, is already in his ottoman.

Coming to 60, do men turn into chicks? I wonder. Which is fine. At 60 I’ve lost all rights to judge and critique; I can only accept and tolerate.

Maturity must mean abiding by all conditions outside your control; it’s acceptance, a kind of adaptation, I figure.

Coming to 60, whatever that means, is indeed a Math problem. It becomes an organic rather then a mechanical approach; time differs now, no longer tied to industry. Life depends on how poetic I can make it. Its structure resides in the felt relationships I still have.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

As I do sometimes when I’m in a questioning, searching mood, I turn to Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman, right before laying my head down, thinking that this is how it must go – what sleep is, and read:

The soul,

Forever and forever – longer than soil is brown and solid – longer

than water ebbs and flows

It must go like this.

Orchard Grass Farm

Orchard Grass Farm
New Haven, VT

Overpopulation and the Anthropocene

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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.”

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

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The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky's talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability - meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability - in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

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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, languageetc.; 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?

Love’s Labor: The Long View in Education

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for Katie, who brought me this essay

My relationship with students has changed dramatically over time and is determined less by my knowledge of disciplines and more by how sensitive I am to their emotional and psychological needs.

Students have changed over time, as our culture has changed, requiring that I rely more on my intuition, my sense of things, keeping faith that my ongoing study can be conjured instantly and give me the knowledge of content I need at a moment’s notice. This requires constant preparation on my part. I taught before the Internet, and now with it; I taught when it was only paper and pencil, and I teach now when technology is ubiquitous, sometimes even distracting. And, let’s not forget that in these last 28 years, we’ve experienced huge socioeconomic, global shifts that have affected students and teachers, as well higher education itself.

My relationship with students is determined less by the constraints of a 12 week semester (Middlebury has a 12 week term, with a January “J”term) and more by my sense of the long view; that is, my relationship with 18 – 22 year olds is defined by how well I foster the sense that what we’re developing together in the classroom and in my office is long term and made to last because we need to face the world together. It’s too harrowing to do otherwise. I see this as the essence of the liberal arts education, the most vital responsibility for today’s professor. Anything else is window dressing – the business of education, not teaching meaningfully.

We have crossed over to a different time, forced upon us by how students and their families are reacting to the confusing stresses of our times: globalization and the compression of time and space, and the narrowing of opportunity; the breakdown of institutions that we were accustomed to relying on, including education; the cracks and falsehoods of ideologies; the ongoing secularization of society; the dysfunction of governments – and fundamentalism running amuck; climate change and the challenges to our environment that, consequently, raise concerns about food and health care. These are all huge pressures that make everyone that is even remotely paying attention anxious; students, more so, since they are all experiencing incredibly complex forms of vulnerability.

Students are demanding a different academic experience, something that is more complete and holistic, and determined less by the recklessness of departmentalization and the privileging of idiosyncrasies that have lead to overspecialization and underemployment, our current problem. Students are demanding acknowledgement; they demand to be seen and heard – and to be understood. Students need to have their anxieties taken seriously – and for the curriculum to react and change accordingly. Thus, the word relevant has become a measure: is this course relevant? is this school? this technology? this pedagogy?

In other words, students are challenging what has been a rather passive approach to education, particularly among colleges and universities, not least of which are the elites with tuition approximating 60K a year. What is the relevance? You can hear students and families asking.

Students, families, teachers – all of us share a desire to learn, and to do so actively. It’s ironic, actually, that today’s conditions have forced us academics to move towards more active representations of knowledge, pushing us, even unwittingly, towards Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene and bell hooks, just to name a few who have advocated a deeper, richer meaning for the teaching and learning experience. These are the thinkers that have always believed that the process of learning is a mutual experience, a creative exchange between students, teachers, the institution and its place in society.

So I smiled the other day when a student with which I have a very long standing relationship with – as well as with her older sister and her family – sent me a passionate text about Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. She attended Tuck and she was beside herself after Govindarajan’s talk. “We have to bring him to Middlebury,” she texted. His central idea, found in Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, is simply that “reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” Thus the developing world benefits, as then does the world from which, traditionally, innovation occurs first because of wealth and technology. Creativity and innovation flow upward, from the poorest countries to the riches; this is new, says Govindarajan, because rich countries can afford to innovate – they demand it and people have grown to expect it. But what works for the rich doesn’t necessarily work for the developing. (What works for the classically trained, elite professor, doesn’t necessarily work for even the best of students in today’s world.) This is creating huge adjustments in the world of innovation, technology and business.

There are several reasons for my smile, my glee, when I got this text and launched into my reading of Reverse Innovation:

  1. A student reached out – she took the time – and taught me something; her view of learning is active, new, fresh, believing that we – she and I – can and must learn together;
  2. She’s trusting that I will move forward with this; in turn, this means that in the two years we’ve shared, and the time we have together at Middlebury, she can rely on me, trust me – I in her. This is monumental in the development of the long view, and she has it; she’s looking for deep, abiding meaning and significance; she’s looking to push aside anxieties about the future by creating a view for herself, a way through;
  3. Reverse innovation is unique to business, which she understands; however, it should not be new to her since she’s been deeply engaged in education issues, working with me on these Freirean ideas: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(italics mine);
  4. We always learn from each other and, today, the point is to acknowledge this reality – and for teachers to open up to student innovation, a kind of reverse innovation, which sounds counterintuitive but, as Govindarajan would argue, defies gravity. We know this to be true since this student’s experience with me has been exactly Govindarajan’s definition of reverse innovation. She, in fact, motivated this small essay, my first acknowledgement that, professionally and intimately, I hear her, I see her and I care for what she has to say. She is teaching me.

Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation may be new to business; it’s not new to educators that have been working assiduously, to use bell hooks here, to teach to transgress. As engaged education thinkers say, education is, indeed, the practice of freedom. Govindarajan, in reverse innovation, sees, in business, a practice to freedom as well.

The tragic irony is that as globalization and new markets see this need – innovation floating uphill, rather then the more intuitive downhill – education is moving in the opposite direction, working to eliminate innovation, squash creativity, and squelch the very important relationship that must exist between a teacher and a student; this relationship defies standardization, rather it requires that more time be given close, innovative, encounters that can begin to define – and design – meaningful pathways through the complexities we find today. For me, these gateways happen in the classroom, during long hours in my office, and online. Academics must learn to use all the tools available to us so as to create the sense that education is wed to a long view held together by deep relationships where empathy, understanding and love are the guiding lights.

The Meaning of LeBron James

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There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama – has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.