This article was popping up on my Facebook feed this morning. Academics that I know are sharing it with one another. What the author of the piece (a retired high school teacher) tells us isn’t news, per se. He’s simply tracing the damage that a generation of No Child Left Behind policies have done to learning in American public schools. There were a few things I didn’t really know: he gave me some insight into how the writing sections of assessments are scored, for instance. If I had questions about whether high school students today had fewer opportunities to learn how to struggle with ideas, or develop their inspired analytic faculties, by using the written word—to think—I feel like I now have answers. But in the end this is what the author calls a “plea” for some kind of help:
If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.
I’m picking up what he’s putting down: stop complaining about the high school teachers and start calling for policy change. Amen. Lamentably, he’s speaking to a class of professionals who (increasingly) are being forced to face the harsh reality that academic labor becomes more and more contingent: brilliant thinkers are unable to secure full-time positions, tenured faculty lose their jobs when their institutions declare “financial exigency.” Granted, there are still a few superstars who moonlight in the New York Times. And, surely, as long as they continue to celebrate the beautiful world of technological, non-institutional possibility that awaits us—as we stumble out of the wreckage of an educational system that never managed to work as well as it should have—there will be a platform for them. There will alway be a platform for the people who believe in the power of new techno-commercial enterprises. The rest of us will vent to one another, in forums like this, simmering in the safe shadows of our relative obscurity. The voices that Bernstein wants to hear may simply become too contingent to contribute to these public discussions.
I’m just past 30, and I’m starting to feel like a bit of a crank. I appreciate the moves that people like Paul Boshears (and Paul Ennis, and Michael Austin) are making, to advance the viability of “para-academic” spaces. This is good work, and I support it. I, too, want to enact world change. I want to make real, material, transformative, safe spaces for thinking. I want art, I want beauty. I don’t aim for some sort of becoming-bureaucrat, some sort of sad and stiff life of bleak institutional confinement. I don’t want to become one of the sad saps in a Tolstoy novel. I realize that the public schools I attended as child, the universities I’ve studied in as an adult, were not the lone crucibles of my education. It was in my mother’s kitchen that I learned to knead bread. It was in the basement of a YMCA that I first learned the practices of focus and discipline that I get from my yoga practice. It was through hours and hours and hours of solitary scribbling, and solitary reading, that I began to understand the power of the written word. It was from my friends and lovers and family—not an educational institution—that I learned how to love. I know that American educational institutions are broken, wheezing. I realize that they’ve never been able to do what they should have done.
But I was having this discussion with a friend, recently. I realized, suddenly, that in spite of my willingness to critique the university I was also a bit of an apologist. I’ve never been “religious”, so even though I’m in theology I’ve never found myself doing apologetics for “the church.” I’ve avoided conversations like this, because I don’t have a place at the table. And I’ve never pretended to want one. I thought I was more nomadic, or free-spirited, than that. Suddenly, however, I feel like one of those people who—against their better judgement—can’t help but do apologetics for the broke-down institution that cultivated them. I feel like I’m on the verge of distressing about “the university” in the way that so many theologians worry about “the church.”
When I think of the bleak future of education, the future of thinking in the U.S., I start to think about a subway ad here in New York that I keep seeing, for The School of Practical Philosophy. They’re promoting what they call a “sustainable happiness” that one can earn through a series of ten week courses, for only $100 a pop. Obviously, I have my issues with this. I have my doubts that the unsettling nature of philosophical thought will ever really give someone a thing like “sustainable happiness” (whatever that might be). I have my issues with the fact that the difficult work of thinking is being streamlined and sold as a kind of happy pill. I have my issues with the fact that philosophy is made to look like some sort of herbal placebo that you might find on the shelves of a Whole Foods superstore.
But here’s one thing that this commercial side-effect of the dissolution of American education has picked up on: there’s something (yes, I’m going to drop that bomb) spiritual about thinking. There’s something of what Joshua Ramey is calling the “spiritual ordeal” in thinking. There’s something about struggling with ideas, learning to understand them, to use them, to make them, that responds to a series of deep aches and yearnings that we can feel, rumbling in our bodies. There’s something about thinking that seeks the sensation of wonder. Or a revelation. Or that seeks the prophetic language of critique. Or seeks practices that generate transformations of the material world. Justifications for the humanities, in recent decades, have studiously avoided using the kind of language that smacks of religiosity, or spirituality. This kind of language threatens to make education appear less of a purely “secular” affair. This is, it seems, the one justification that one cannot use to speak about the importance of education. Realistically, it’s also the kind of language that can easily be very easily co-opted and manipulated on behalf of corporate interests. We see this clearly when we start to examine the shape and development of “New Age” religiosities in American life. But perhaps this repressed knowledge is what actually needs to be—cautiously—clarified today. There are always going to be people who look for spaces (nests, grottos, cave, academies) where they can learn how to think in community, where they can find teachers who can model this. Some of these people will have money to contribute to the building of these nests. And those people will always have their nests. But we lose so much if learning how to think becomes more of an elite affair than it already is. Those of us with nests can afford to share some of the twigs and feathers we don’t really need to help build more nests. But now I’m just preaching to the choir.
Perhaps the university (and other American educational institutions), today, does more to inhibit the work of thinking than generate it. Perhaps it’s true that we’re better off jumping ship and developing para-academic alternatives (would The School of Practical Philosophy qualify?) Perhaps it’s true that the university serves, more, as a space where we’re disciplined and controlled and then stamped with a credential. The same thing could be said (and has been said) about the church. There’s something a little horrifying, grotesque, and inhumane about institutions. They aren’t, after all, human (in spite of the fact that American systems of law may be willing to call some of them “persons”). We may create them. But we’ve all read Frankenstein. We know that creators never really control their creatures, their little monsters. Much as we try to domesticate our institutions, their structures are always just beyond our grasp, never quite in our control.
And yet. I can’t help but feel that there’s something a little beautiful about a very, very large collection of people who come together and pool their resources to create an institution where learning can happen. Where, in the best case, thinking can be learned and practiced as well. An institution that aims, in principle, to be “common”—for everyone. An institution that—in theory—responds to the needs of its messy public, and should be held accountable when it doesn’t.