Detachment, Education and Looking for Love

Detachment and Education go hand-in-hand. Education breeds detachment and detachment is what students feel. And teachers, we increase the feeling of separation and disengagement, of being disunited.

In the Symposium, Plato argues that “you cannot harmonize that which disagrees.” If we look closely at education’s physical plant, from the most downtrodden of examples to the most luxurious – the top of the heap – a kind of disinterestedness,aloofness, permeates the environment, as does loneliness. We can of course see this in the architecture, from the most modern and advanced along the romantic Charles to the very old and decrepit alongside industrial sites; we see this is in the efficient militarism of classrooms – the neat rows that force innocent eyes to look up at intimidating images of poets and scientists, famous quotes that dictate accepted understandings of knowledge and culture, and discredit others. These settings that on the surface inspire accord and pleasing arrangements are in fact focused on the law of competition which is, in short, the law of war.

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The environmental oversimplification of an extremely complex and subtle experience – teaching and learning – requiring safer, more open spaces, is determined by economic determinism, a harsh, modern version of oligarchy.

“One does not do the work that one chooses to do because one is called to it by Heaven or by one’s natural abilities,” Wendell Berry tells us in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,”but does instead the work that is determined and imposed by the economy…Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human characters and culture from the inside.”

A vocation is a calling, a strong inclination, which is very difficult to find in an environment that inspires competition and detachment through discipline. Learning requires a soft touch because the learner is always vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a strength but it is, in the educational architecture of detachment, taught as weakness.

The most recent, horrific incidents involving hazing in our schools are examples of how our culture promotes the violent extraction of vulnerability from anyone that is perceived as different. Thus Detachment and Education have effectively eradicated Love from teaching and learning, which is, ironically, the foundation for collaboration and cooperation.

Let’s listen to Plato’s wisdom, again …

Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, in as much as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is lifelong, for it becomes one with the everlasting things.

Economic determinism requires that we concentrate solely on the short term, not the “noble disposition” that is “lifelong”; we don’t want to imagine “everlasting things,” waging that immediate profit is more beneficial, though in Western Culture, since Plato, we’ve known that “being overcome with the love of money, or of wealth, or of political power, whether a man is frightened into surrender by the loss of them, or, having experienced the benefits of money and political corruption, is unable to rise above the seductions of them,” and a rejection of the soul’s calling for permanence.

In essence, the exclusion of Love from the educational endeavor ensures that we’re not teaching for everlasting things; rather, we are teaching for the short term. And in the short term, there is only “love of money, or of wealth, or of political power.”

How’s that working out for us?

Wendell Berry calls this “limitless selfishness.” He says that, “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom,’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But … ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Germanic and Sanskrit roots, which carry the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. This suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”


No, not Facebook – though students tell me that We know what we mean by friend. We don’t need to know a word’s roots. Words are not that important – not like that.

Love, in this world, has gone by way of the Internet, though, and has metamorphosed into an “illusion,” as Chris Hedges notes in Empire of Illusion. In Hedges’ hands the illusion of love is best expressed in porn, which “reflects,” he says, “the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan…The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”

Empathy, community, cooperation and collaboration are the hallmarks of a healthy society; these are likewise the essential qualities that must be at the heart of any educational endeavor. If Education is not healthy, society can’t be either. But in order to get at empathy, we have to get at vulnerability; in order to get at vulnerability we have to connect our brains to our hearts and souls – an endeavor antithetical to education that privileges only Reason, not sense, not sensibility, not, essentially, Love.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman‘s 1985 book, he concludes that,

Today we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot high card-board picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.

In this world, Detachment is the consequence of an Education guided by economic determinism; in turn, lust, not love, sits center stage so that a work of art, say, such as one makes of one’s life, has no purpose but to itself. It should be of no surprise, then, that what we are experiencing today is a gross example of the violence that competition breeds since, by definition, we are laying out the conditions of war; unfortunately, this war now exists among ourselves, between us.

7 thoughts on “Detachment, Education and Looking for Love

  1. I love the direction in which you bring this subject—with all the debate’s current prominence, different voices, and its numerous points of view, yours is the only one I’ve read that remembers and champions the relation between human wholeness and love . . . and to point to the ways we can gain (re-gain?) this union. As you say: <> A loving cri de coeur for our damaged species, it seems to me.

    • Thank you Karen – but it’s depressing to think that “[mine] is the only one … that remembers and champions the relationship between human wholeness and love…” Along these lines, I’ve been thinking of the place our new Pope Francis occupies in the culture and I find it interesting – if not tragically ironic – that we are so attracted to and want kiss the hem of someone that is simply advocating for human decency – community, selflessness, justice and love. Are we that far gone from any of these concepts that we have to kiss the ring of someone that embodies these because these ideas/principals are not recognizable anywhere – least of which in the vituperative climate of education?

      I just saw two students, one after the other, each bemoaning the competitive nature of education and how they see our culture unable to move away from its hierarchical structures that condemn those at the bottom and privilege those at the top. Very sad coming from a 20 year old. Very sad. They don’t want the world they’re in – and the world they’re heading towards. And, frankly, I’m tired of giving them yet another book to read, author to critique, mindless paper to write when they see their world as cold and foreboding.

      Sorry for the rant – it’s windy, cold, and gray, AGAIN. And after a week off … well …

    • Sounds more like wisdom than a rant. So, like, why don’t you give them a book to read and/or paper to write about the cold and forboding. What’s “Positive Dissidence”? Ahem, I hate to mention it, but there’ s . . . well, at this moment I’m in a rush, so I’ll just leave myself wide open to scorn and disgust, I guess. But David Foster Wallace has some killer essays that the college student cohort (admirably) likes. . . . Gotta go!—after mentioning the tennis and the media essays in particular

  2. (Sorry. There is no depth to which I will not sink to get you to like DFW—your “soft Pynchon.” Here I have made an attempt to infiltrate your courses’ reading lists. I apologize. My next move will be far subtler.

    • Yes, dear Karen, I actually do have some expertise in the area of teaching – a wee bit. And, yes, the kids are reading and working on material that compels them to hold up a mirror – to themselves and others, to say nothing of their writing. They love to write for me because of this, but they struggle with the notion of freedom and its relationship to democracy and creativity.

      As for “Positive Dissidence,” it’s like “creative disruption.” Both are engaged in ‘disruption’ but of a creative type that enables the (a) removal of something perhaps nasty and the (b) bringing forth of something to be considered that’s – again perhaps – creative and that might be more enduring. Both, again, are about attempts to open up the ground – or the journey – to “difference,” the benefits of including and working with “difference” on a larger scale.

      And as for DFW, don’t worry – I will return to him at some point, just not now when I’m working and considering our dear Mr. Gaddis. And I’m writing…And I’m farming … And I’m in the middle of the final push in the semester … And the weather still sucks.

    • When’s your birthday? Your present, wrapped in iridescent metallic tissue and French silk ribbons, with a birthday card so movingly lovelily inscribed it will transfix you, will be a copy of Infinite Jest. . . .

      You need not be at pains to assure me of your teaching capacities. Clearly you have The Gift. (apropos of nothing, perhaps, but I recall teaching as something so gratifying and nourishing for all concerned—“teacher” and “students”—that it was joyful. Your articulations of this go deep.

      I will not be trite and say the obvious about these writings. . . .

    • Oh good… I can wait a year to read Jest … Thank goodness!
      Q: when you said you were off to edit 2 chapters of a novel, is that YOUR novel or are you editing someone else’s?

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