Professor Henry Giroux writes in Counterpunch about “Academic Labor in Dark Times”. He refers to the present as ‘dark times’, and there’s a lot to that.
It’s always going to be a job of work, truly ‘educating’ a human mind. The frontal lobes – those indispensable engines of human consciousness and awareness – don’t fully develop until the early or mid-twenties. The later years of high school and the college years offer far more ‘freedom’ to make your own schedule as well as your own priorities, and a ‘world’ of alternatives to study and thought provide stiff competition to the tasks of getting ‘educated’; sex and the pursuit (however fumbling) of it, relationships, and just plain ‘hanging out’ (which once used to be called, more aptly, ‘killing time’) are only a few of the more familiar. And those are just the perennial problems, the one that have always been around and are sort of guaranteed by the nature of human growth and the way society had structured the timelines of ‘education’.
You can toss in the challenges that modern students bring to a campus and a classroom: distractions, sometimes misclassified as ‘necessities’ offered by the ‘virtual’ world of portable electronics, the mistake of thinking that ‘googling’ is a quick and sufficient substitute for ‘reading’ and ‘thinking’ and assessing the ‘documents’ that one can so easily access or download. And all of this “booming, buzzing confusion” confronts students who have not often been raised to ‘think critically’, except within the rather limited range of figuring out who is somehow trying to ‘victimize’ you or who is in disagreement with you (and can thus be safely ignored or hooted-down).
Temptations, temptations. Although that’s a situation that humans have faced for quite a long time.
At the outset Giroux quotes Zygmunt Bauman: “I do not believe that a student of human reality may be ethically neutral”. It sounds good, and it is a good point.
But like an automobile, a gun, or a bunch of chemicals on a lab bench, it has to be deployed and handled properly or it can get you into a world of troublesome consequences. Sex, actually, will do the same thing too, though most kids nowadays seem to regard that awesome capability with as little seriousness as they will let several tons of steel go racing along while their mind, impaired or not, is occupied with something else. Why the results are still called ‘accidents’ constitutes a book in itself.
Bauman goes on nicely to explain a bit what he means: “The sole choice we face is one between loyalty to the humiliated and to beauty, and indifference to both”. And there’s a good point here. There is indeed an ethical urgency to ‘getting an education’: you as a human being are responsible for doing everything you can to move yourself into the higher levels of your personal spectrum of capabilities; it is a responsibility to yourself and to others. As such, it can be called a ‘moral’ responsibility (though modern academia has put that concept up on blocks for the indefinite future). If you sense that there is some Higher Power or Being in the cosmos that seeks to assist in this, then it’s a ‘spiritual’ responsibility as well.
Bauman, again nicely: “it is like any other choice a moral being confronts: between taking and refusing to take responsibility for one’s responsibility”. Just so. If a human being’s great first task is to Master & Command the remarkable but complex and dynamically multivalent vessel that is the human self, then like any commanding officer, you first-off have to accept your responsibility for the vessel; if you haven’t done that, then your motivation for Mastering and Commanding your self is going to be intermittent bordering on unsustainable. And then the consequences for your own life, the lives of everyone with whom you come into contact, and the species in general will be ‘unhelpful’ at the very least.
The trouble is that as an educator you don’t want to get ahead of the process. And the manner of it, I think, is on this wise.
As John Patrick Diggins (just recently passed on) points out in his excellent “The Rise and Fall of the American Left”, written in 1973 and updated in 1992: each of the several incarnations of the American Left in the 20th century all sought to bring education quickly into conformity with ‘programs’ and ‘agendas’ for actualizing its own ‘vision’ of what ‘good’ must be achieved in America. Education was quickly enlisted in the grand purpose of achieving social hopes and dreams and goals.
The goals may have been ‘good’, the intentions certainly were, but they wound up ‘abusing’ Education by ignoring its first purpose: to provide the individual student with the best possible chance to actualize his or her best possibilities, especially by exposing the student to the great thought and discourse of humanity of its several civilizations, and getting the student to develop the ability to critically understand and then analyze and then draw conclusions from that remarkable interplay between prior thought, the student’s own developing thought, and the current situation of the world and of humanity in the student’s own era.
That dance between student and the corpus of prior human thought and experience cannot be ignored in the ‘urgency’ to set the student marching towards some predetermined agenda as quickly as possible. (which is, I would say, the worst form of ‘abuse’ that can be inflicted on a student).
Too much of the Marxist ‘revolutionary’ sensibility has always informed the American Left , and it has seeped increasingly (not decreasingly) into the methodology and ideology of American education, especially in its upper levels. This is not to say that the conformist demands of a rightist nationalism or a religious fundamentalism are not also lethal in their effort to indoctrinate students. It is simply to point out that ‘revolutionism’ – its assumptions and methodology – demands as much unthinking conformity and ‘loyalty’ (under the guise of the ‘liberation’ always and decently espoused by the Left) as anything that the Right seeks to impose. And, as it happens, it’s the Left (and that toxic ‘revolutionism’) that has taken over university-level education here now. While you may snicker ruefully if you read the cant-ridden writings left by the hives of Communist apparatchiks, it is deeply disturbing to encounter the same levels of mindless ‘correct’ cant in current university ‘discourse’.
So when Giroux urges that students be trained for “democracy”, I can support that statement fully. The goal of forming a competent democratic Citizen constitutes the highest fulfillment of the University’s responsibility.
The ‘skills set’ – and it’s actually a lot more than simply ‘skills’ – required for a student to discharge the responsibilities of Citizen in this Republic include a solid grounding in the conceptual treasures of human and especially Western civilization, a capacity to analyze and critically evaluate events and ideas in the past and the present, and the confidence and the courage and independence of mind and the courage (both character skills, if you wish) and the sense of obligation to ‘identify truth and speak truth to power on behalf of the common weal. And that ‘common weal’, complex as it may be, includes the well-being of the nation but also of other people and peoples.
The goals of what might be called a Liberal education and the goals of forming graduates capable of discharging the task of Citizen are not at all incompatible. In fact, as the Framers and generations of educators after them understood, the two goals are interdependent.
This, of course, is not at all the current ‘doctrine’ of American Academia, by and large. And surely no small contribution to Our present mess has been made by the actual incompetence and even anti-intellectual ‘indoctrination’ that has been substituted for genuine formative education of Citizens by far too many of the faculty members around the country.
‘Revolutions’, let it be recalled, do not take kindly to ‘independence of mind’, however much lip-service they officially pay to a more grandiose and abstract ‘liberation’. The ‘revolutionism’ of the American variety by which We are now lethally bethump’t is not, and cannot be, as overt as Bolshevik or Fascist manipulation of education. But that has actually worked to a disadvantage: since We don’t see ‘guns’ and ‘street-fighting’ We assume there is no ‘revolution’ and no ‘revolutionism’ in the land. And that ain’t necessarily so. Not hardly.
Stalin, even more than Lenin or Marx, required a ‘proletariat’ – uncomprehending, docile lumps. Hitler required ‘good Germans’. None of them required Citizens. Indeed, as he demonstrated in the Katyn Forest, Stalin’s method was to eradicate anybody who might think independently and ‘obstruct’ his plans: throughout Poland and wherever else his power extended Stalin, and Hitler, sought to eradicate those who could think, those who might ‘speak up’ – educators, priests, decent politicians, anybody of intelligence and integrity. The ‘people’ who were left would thus be robbed of any inspiration and would be far more pliable, more docile under the imposition of whatever laws and ‘visions’ were laid upon them. They could be ‘aligned’ to the already lethal alignment of the revolution-birthed State, the corporation, and the unsleeping power of cash.
This, We must always assert, is not the American way. Hitler, more than Stalin, had to effect his fatal revolution ‘legally’ – although as the 1930s went on, ‘legality’ came to mean less and less since Hitler brought under the Party’s control the executive, legislative, judicial agencies of the government. And the police and the military. All with the help of the brilliantly ruthless propaganda methods of Goebbels; that Poison Dwarf could take any new imposition and make it seem not only like ‘a good thing’ but like ‘the only thing that could work in the emergency’.
And life in the Third Reich was one ‘emergency’ after the other, domestic and then foreign. Until after Stalingrad there was the permanent emergency of ‘totaller Krieg’. But by then, the forces unleashed were now entering their ‘recoil’ phase and Germany found itself not behind the omnipotent trigger but rather in the center of everybody else’s bullseye. And the end came.
When Giroux says that “it is the responsibility of faculty who inhabit the university can no longer downplay or abandon the idea that life’s most important questions are an appropriate subject for the classroom” he is spot-on. But those “most important questions” cannot be arbitrarily reduced to questions of how to achieve this or that agenda of this or that revolutionary menu.
Students must be grounded in the Great Questions in their entirety, as human civilizations, and especially that of the West, have wrestled with them through the few millennia during which our species has made such a spectacular splash in the ocean of Time.
A student must be familiar with all that, because a Citizen has to be familiar with all that, in order to judge wisely what might be the best course that he/she can support in the forum of a democratic politics.
If you don’t have Citizens, you don’t really need a Republic or a democracy, no?
See the problem?