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

 

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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.

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

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

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 Real PRISM Story: The Silencing of Dissent

DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.

There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:

  1. The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
  2. The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.

DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.

The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.

Who is a trader to whom?

Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.

Where are we?

In Chatter:  Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:

The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.

Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.

In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.

What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.

Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.

The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.

Adaptation One. Hands.

for Heather and Cheswayo

He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”

He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.

“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.

Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.

I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.

The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.

Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.

If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.

Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.

I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.

I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.

When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.

The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.

Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.

I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.

Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”

As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”

I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).

The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?

Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?

Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?

My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.

The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …

Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?

Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught.  Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.

I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.

Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?   Hands always know the answer.