The Last Human Freedoms and the University

The University did see me once. It was in 1985 and I had just finished my first of two Masters on my merry way to the PhD at NYU. I had just gotten off an airplane. I spent a couple of weeks in the UK visiting all the “hot spots” I learned about in my English studies — Oxford and Cambridge, where I thought of Hardy, Rye where I visited my dissertation topic, Henry James. My Master’s Thesis was on the “Structure of the Universe and Paradise Lost.” I was convinced that John Milton saw what physicists would later discover about our universe, so I conflated poetry, science and semiotics for Professor Anthony Low, one of the great Renaissance Scholars of our time.

I was eager to do as he and other professors were doing, namely teach what they loved — Literature. So when I was handed my roster of students, all freshman, at St. Peter’s College, in Jersey City, New Jersey, I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned about the Renaissance and Literature writ large.

But I was fooled. On the way to the class, the department chair at St. Peter’s put his arm around me and said, “Look, your mission is to try to get as many of these students to pass the end of term writing exam because without it, they can’t take any of the upper level courses they need in the majors. They need to learn how to write, and do it well.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Learning to write? What does that mean? I come from a generation of students that never took “freshman composition,” a course in the modern University used to help students learn to write in the academy. My generation of college students simply went into courses, whether these were in literature or the sciences; we came from our high schools prepared with all the skills required to research a subject (we used card catalogs then), cite sources, come up with a thesis and argue a point. Things had changed. But what really changed in the University is far beyond “freshman composition” — the entire nature of the University has changed.

My first class would not receive any literary wisdom; instead, we would concentrate on skills — but I wasn’t sure whether I could deliver. How do I write? I thought. Can I translate what I do into something practical — and in 14 weeks? I was very insecure but I knew that I couldn’t show that to students.

Thirty or so kids sat staring at me frozen before them. I did the next best thing — read out names, all of which, to their surprise, I read perfectly because they were all Latinos, all Spanish names. There was an immediate bond — we were not of the same color, but we shared a language. Then suddenly it occurred to me: I was hired because of my name, Héctor Vila, is a Spanish name. I was like my students — that’s what the chair of the department must have thought. I could relate to them. Inspire them to pass. But was inspiration sufficient?

I wasn’t hired because I went to NYU. I wasn’t hired because I just completed a thesis on John Milton and the science of the English Renaissance. I was hired because I’m Spanish. That was the only criteria. What else I knew was not essential, except that being a grad student at NYU determined a degree of intelligence, I suppose. Or is it simply that, as a grad student, I was a good soldier, someone who understood what it means to be “a student” who accepts the authority of the professor?

This was the beginning. The first story of how the University saw me — and it would see me like this for the rest of my career. At another school, years later, after I received my PhD and I was working towards tenure, another form of discipline that I’ll speak about later, I was trotted out every time the administration wanted to prove diversity. “You’re perfect for this,” I recall the chair of this department saying to me. “You’re white, articulate, you know what we know — and we can say you’re Hispanic, too.”

So I’ve lived on the boundaries behind the luxusious ivy, never mainstream.

I’ve learned that Education conflates two models: (1) the medieval Abbey, the authority at the center, the Abbot, and the accolades, working diligently and (especially) painfully at their craft in scriptoriums, the margins off center, but eventually retreating to cells to work on their own — it’s an efficient model that keeps everyone in line; and (2) the post-modern corporation meant to manufacture consent, as Chomsky would say, through illusion, subterfuge, manipulations. The bait and switch I experienced at St. Peter’s College is case in point.

The modern University, not unlike General Electric and Dupont and Ford Motor Company, is in the business of raising capital; this is the main task of any viable educational institution, to raise capital. Learning is at least in third or fourth place after research, usually comprised of raising funds from the US Government (defense) and corporations (pharmaceuticals, new technologies, and companies also in the business of defense), writing and publishing, by faculty, in obscure, idiosyncratic journals, and then comes teaching. And how good the teaching is depends on the luck of the drawer since faculty  are never trained in teaching. Teaching is never mentioned in graduate school. A new graduate, such as myself, is simply thrown into the classroom by virtue of having a degree. In my own case, I was thrown into an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom — and I didn’t even know such a “thing” existed. I learned by doing; and I learned by making a lot of mistakes.

At my first job, St. Peter’s College, the Jesuits had apparently figured out how to ensure their future be admitting the new generation of immigrants into their school. Only this generation couldn’t write Standard American English; some had trouble speaking it. And the system placed a very difficult essay exam at the end, a gatekeeper exam.

I decided right there and then not to teach writing, but rather, to teach how to take the test. I told the class that if I could have each and every student learn how to write a sentence — John ran to the store. — I could teach them how to turn this into a paragraph and, eventually, an essay. The structure of the simple sentence — subject + verb + object = an idea — can be used to create a paragraph, of the same structure, and an essay, also of the same structure. A complete formula students could understand. And it was a successful formula — all passed. Every year, for about 3 years when I was at St. Peter’s, just about all students, 90%, passed.

But I was left wondering what I had done? What I represented? What did the University represent that it placed us, students and teachers, in such a bind? I wasn’t teaching. I was merely an antidote to a bad situation, showing students survival skills, a way through a laborious essay exam. I wasn’t teaching them to write. As a representative of the system, I was teaching students how to negotiate the system, how to navigate through its many troubling dark holes.

In the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, a victim of Nazi concentration camps and from which the source of much of his teachings comes from, wonders,

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors — be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstance?…

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (86)

The University has long given up these questions; these exist, if they do at all, on the margins of the institution. Long have we given up wondering about human liberty, proof is in the world we’ve created. Take a close look.

I wondered then and I wonder now whether the “last of the human freedoms” is still an opportunity for me. I know now that given the bleak production model of the modern University, the only thing I can offer, the only thing I can teach is how to navigate the disciplines in such a way as to ensure that students are able to choose an attitude because only then can one find one’s own way. But as I’ve said earlier, (here, too) I’m losing what has become a battle for the human heart.

It’s as if we’ve gone from teaching Literature and matters of the heart, say in my case, to teaching surviving an intense system, made more intense by the lack of material promise at the end. The modern University has become its own subject.  But it affords us an opportunity to question the idea of justice, the idea of learning, the idea of knowledge. Do students and faculty want to work that hard? The answer to this question will determine whether or not we have a viable future.

How institutions behave and how institutions affect our perception of our world and ourselves is probably one of the most profound reasons I stay “in the battle.” It’s the last and only remaining “field of study,” only because it is here where we can come to understand how we’ve polluted the world with ignominious actions. It is also the only means towards a re-investment in human liberty achievable by choosing one’s attitude towards the conditions of our world.


6 thoughts on “The Last Human Freedoms and the University

  1. The first page of The Seekers Guide states that life is hard, get over it. But what is “hard”? Last night we saw a documentary about a tiny Greenwich Village restaurant, with a tiny, messy kitchen and a large following. The owner/cook/working class philsopher remarked on how he felt after the lunch rush. Hours in the straight jacket, without a choice to make, without a stray thought. If you don’t find your center, you won’t make it. He would emerge calm and cleansed. A meditation? Having been there, Kate said “Yes!” I replied “I don’t get to do that anymore”. It’s our reaction to whatever would beat us down that matters, can it be an opportunity welcomed?
    Watching your students cross Rt 125 without looking up, always texting or talking, generating the white noise that they use to avoid a moment of the silence so badly needed, I think I see what you are up against. They are free and enabled, but are they really? How are they to chose a considered attitude when they submit so willingly to what Neil Stephenson calls “the spew”? We flee tedium and embrace distraction. Don

  2. Pingback: Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election « The Uncanny

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