Contrasts in Our World

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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:

A Picture of Our World

A Picture of Our World

What can we say?

What Matters in Education? Part 1

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Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.

Epicurus

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”:

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. 

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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 timeGraduates 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.”

Rather than leading the culture, imagining new and different ways to enable reciprocity and renewal, education has chosen to follow; it has chosen to adhere to a false narrative and promote a stark hierarchy – pay is what matters in education. The problem with this model is that all of us become commodities; we are objects, like consumer products. It’s not a sustainable model. It’s broken – and we can see it by simply looking under the hood.

 

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.

Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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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.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

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.”

Yes.

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.

I’ll leave you with this – sage words from E.O.Wilson, found in his The Social Conquest of the Earth:

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.

Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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.

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

“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

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.

 

 

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.”

Facebook?

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.

Writing as a Transformative Experience

Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I’d address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I’ve chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead.

My reasoning is simple: the teaching of writing allows for a particular way into a student; it’s a way of seeing a student quite differently and through language— the student’s language. Language is a gateway to the soul, one of just a couple, which requires that I too change my language in order to address you, an audience quite different from that found in the journals about the “craft,” more inclined to “theorize” and conjure the ghosts of Bahtin and Vygotsky ad nauseam.

– See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vilaonwritingoct13.html#sthash.DCtnNV74.dpuf

 

The Conveyor Belt to Happiness

I write because I’m confused. I turn to writing because it’s a way for me to undo the confusion.

A young student sitting in my office says, “I’m tired of competing for grades in school. I’ve been doing it for years. And I’m tired. I was once a creative person and now I feel as if education has sucked it all out of me. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

In a writing class, in front of everyone, yet another student, lazily leaning his head in the palm of his hand, declares for all to hear: “I hate reading. I really, really hate reading.”

I’m flummoxed – scared too – because I sense that these two students’ assertions are connected and point to a systematic, institutionalized process of disturbing the natural inclination to express one’s sense of self creatively; and that this systemization has replaced the instinct to imagine with an illusion – that competition and material gain are the road to success and happiness.

I am writing because I want to see if my imagination can go inside these students’ statements to discover if, indeed, these young minds, these innocent minds see themselves as they do because they were placed on this conveyor belt to happiness and left to their own devices to fend for themselves in a world that has been constructed vertically, competitively.

I’m wondering whether somewhere along their respective journeys, these students – many are like them – have intuitively felt that they were somehow conceived as just more raw material, inert and indifferent, and ready to be used for anything at all?

If student “A” is tired, then her education has never focused on her needs. On what though? Student “B”, in his exclamation, which was met with smiles, nods of agreement and some laughs, fails to see that his statement (1) comes from a position of incredible privilege, (2) that it disrespects his fellow classmates, many of whom don’t have the social safety net that enables him to feel that reading and thus education are a chore, something to be tolerated, and (3) that he’s giving us a snapshot of his family, which he also disrespects since they are the ones affording him the luxury of an elite education – to say nothing of the fact that he’s providing for us a sense of the values that have been instilled in him by family, community and education.

Both students are being groomed to be stalwart contributors to our systems of power and production. Each

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represents two sides of a singular problem: their fate has been decided, as Wendell Berry says in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, “by a gigantic politics, economics, and technology.”

“For a long time now,” continues Berry, “we have understood ourselves as travelers toward some industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity. And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise.”

We have mobilized great support for this enterprise – and in the process insinuated a certain category of human existence: surplus people. Student “A” and student “B” are two extremes of this existence: “A” is reluctant, tired, looking for answers that the system can’t provide; “B” is cynical, completely, but held up by wealth, which gives him the impression that he just has to get through this impasse – reading, writing, schooling – and he’ll get to a better (meaning: richer, brighter, wealthier) future. Both students are bored, though student “A” understands that there may be a more creative approached.

We have accepted these conditions as life itself. That these two student types exist is warranted by an ideology held together by a mythology that promises an illusory, gilded future while concealing the powerful monopoly behind the myth-making apparatus. Students – perhaps all of us – are helpless here.

Since 1990, a wave of massive deals and rapid globalization have left the media industries further centralized in nine transnational conglomerates – Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom (owner of CBS), New Corporation, Bertelsman, General Electric (own her of NBC), Sony, AT&T – Liberty Media, and Vivendi Universal. These giants own all the world’s major film studios, TV networks, and music companies, and a sizable fraction of the most important cable channels, cable systems, magazines, major-market TV stations, and book publishers.

As Herman and Chomsky tell us in Manufacturing Consent (2002 edition), this massive control of media experience enables easy transmission of a ruling ideology; it’s a constant barrage of the same. The original text, by Herman and Chomsky, was published in 1988 ; since, their description of the Propaganda Model has held up (perfect proof here). In 1999, approximately ten years later, Robert W. McChesney publishes Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. McChesney argues that “media have become a significant anti-democratic force in the United States and, to varying degrees, world-wide. The wealthier and more powerful the corporate media giants have become, the poorer the prospects for participatory democracy.”

This intense concentration of the myth-making apparatus affects all areas of our culture, not least of which education. If we add the Internet and ubiquitous computing, we have a distributive model whereby a ruling ideology is delivered unimpeded through almost infinite numbers of portals. In other words, it’s relentless. And the message is clear, as McChesney points out: “the bulk of the population is depoliticized.” Thus student “A,” dispirited and not sure why, and student “B,” indifferent, uncaring, bored, are born.

By 2004, Robert W. McChesney produces yet another look at our dependencies on media, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century.

“The political nature of the problem of the media in democratic societies is well-known; virtually all theories of self-

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government are premised on having an informed citizenry, and the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media’s providence.” The problem, however, is that, “The crucial tension lies between the role of the media as profit-maximimizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government.” This tension is what concerns citizens; it is also what produces an exhausting, dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, particularly in its use of people and nature, reinforcing the inevitable creation of student “A” and student “B,” both of whom see themselves as trapped.

What is being sacrificed is health for productivity. Where we need atonement, we have moved – and continue to do so – far from any appropriate measures that might in fact produce a more exceptional human being that is at one with his and her immediate world. This requires a greater concentration on where one is now, the space each person occupies – and an examination of the problems existing in that space. Countering this very basic, human need is the world Herman, Chomsky and McChesney describe because it is always already focused on the future, an illusion of course, but nevertheless fabricated for us as real. The focus on an illusory future breeds competition since this future is consistently challenged by dwindling resources. So there is a future somewhere out there in the distance – but the message is clear: not all will make it.

This is supported by a competitive, vertically structured educational system comprised of elite schools that are buttressed by elite communities. Not everyone can play. Students “A” and “B” are rebelling, primarily because they intuitively feel that they’re not the special interests that ruling elites require to survive.

Thus I write because I’m confused. I am totally confused by this idea of surplus people that, indeed, is divided along socio-economic lines but also includes the children of the elite themselves because the narratives of our time that give us a sense of the world we inhabit have categorically removed the free exercise of the imagination, particularly when this is tied to will. We have taken away will, which is why kids – all of us – feel exhausted; we have taken away our natural need for atonement.

“In a conversation,” says Wendell Berry, “you always expect a reply. And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or a reply that you will like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.”

Conversation like this, faith and mystery, responses one may not like, all these things Berry points out are antithetical to the parasitic nature of the corporation; in turn, the corporation, which today includes education, particularly higher education, has removed conversation from the equation, thus students “A” and “B” wallow and serve – a life of servitude is what scares them. Servitude as a way of life requires the removal of imagination from the culture. You can find this happening in Education.

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

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.