In the past few weeks thousands of young first year college students gathered for convocations across the US — the beginning of a new academic year. A convocation is a calling forth to assembly by summons. It’s a long standing tradition inherited from the culture we fought against, Great Britain. In Hymn, ‘O Day of Rest, Wordsworth writes, “To holy convocations The silver trumpet calls.” This past week students marched quietly and obediently into sanctuaries of learning because they’ve heard the call from higher education: come forth to your future — here is your future. In the Church of England, a convocation is a provincial synod or assembly of the clergy, constituted by statue and called together to deliberate on ecclesiastical matters. Despite faculty regalia (very Harry Potter — no wonder Quidditch is played on some of our campuses!), and the convocation usually taking form in hallowed ground in colleges and universities, in the secular world, first years are called forth to deliberate matters of conscious, moral matters that can be questioned in the disciplines. First years are called forth by the faculty, the representatives of knowledge, the bearers, we like to think, of wisdom; we call forth young minds eager to confront the ideas that have created our civilization, to learn.
But to what exactly are we calling first year college students?
In Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha C. Nussbaum suggests that in our pursuits — and allegiance to traditions and their concomitant ideals — “we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.” We have failed here. We are thus calling forth our first years to a world that defines human relationships, Nussbaum contends, as being “of mere use and manipulation,” rather than comprised of “faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships.”
Two provocative New Yorker covers show the confusing world our knowledge making has created for our first years. We are calling our first years to Barry Blitt’s August 30 cover, “Pause,” and Peter de Sève’s “Beasts of Burden,” September 13.
[p]In Blitt we find a relaxed middle aged man, his slight paunch of satisfaction and complacency, staring at a vast ocean and murky sky, a world that’s wide and foreboding, aiming a remote control to pause it — or to change it. Peter de Sève gives us a city street, in the foreground a child bent over from the heavy backpack, pulling a donkey that is likewise burdened by all the belongings of her master; across the street, kids carry books as they hurry to school. Access and social mobility separated by a street — Main Street — where we find promise and hope on one side, the hopeless “beasts of burden” on the other.
Socrates advised that the citizens of The Republic should be educated and assigned by merit to three classes: rulers, auxiliaries, and craftsmen. This is the world we’ve defined for our first years. But Socrates, unable to devise a logical argument for this social construction of power, fabricates a method, and tells Glaucon:
I will speak, although I really know not how to look in your face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction … They [the citizens] are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth…
Glaucon, in his reply, utters a prophesy: “Not in the present generation; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their son’s sons, and posterity after them.”
Indeed, “Pause” and “Beasts of Burden” share in their conviction that we’re living proof of Gloucon’s prophecy. Blitt and de Sève point to a society “addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism,” says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization. “The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy,” says Saul. “The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”
In Blitt’s “Pause,” man is tragically convinced that he can “pause” the rate of change — be it climate change, political change, a change in how we perceive justice. In this cover cartoon, Blitt’s middle aged man still sees himself as the center of the world, now holding forth with a technology he falsely believes can save us. Our students have been raised with this conviction — technology can solve everything. De Séve shows us how blind we are, unable to see suffering at the hands of a vituperative, vertical socioeconomic system that relegates positions we can’t get out of, so we justify these with even more ideals — they must be lazy, if they only worked as hard as we do. What can I do to change this? our young minds wonder, succumbing to the wild and negative distributions of power. In both cartoons we see a society that scorns knowledge. “To know — that is, to have knowledge — is to instinctively understand the relationship between what you know and what you do,” says Saul. In Blitt and de Sève, knowledge is totally absent — gone, lost. We, the faculty, have lost our wisdom and we’re about to impart this sense of loss to our students.
These past few weeks, we called forth our first year college students to a world confused, upside down. Then we ask our new students to step into our classrooms where our wisdom will show that we have enabled a harrowing world to emerge from our regalia and our ceremonies, our traditions. In the September 4th Economist, in “Decline by degree,” Schumpeter, wonders whether America’s universities will go the way of its car companies. The American “luxury model is unlikely to survive what is turning into a prolonged economic downturn. Parents are much less willing to take on debt than they were and much more willing to look abroad for better deals … America’s universities lost their way badly in the era of easy money. If they do not find it again, they may go by way of GM.”
So while our young minds struggle to understand just how perverse the world we’ve created really is, they also must confront the notion that colleges and universities have been constructing a decorous world of illusion that cannot go on, if for no other reason than how we’ve been going to school and what we have been turning out as our future leaders have given us the world we now inhabit. We can’t “pause” this world — and in it, there is no Main Street, we are all “beasts of burdens” separated only by degrees.
Welcome to your first year!