Friday, June 20, 2014

Playing with Fire by Lewis H. Lapham

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.

“To bring up the subject of education in nearly any sector of the American conversation—after dinner or before breakfast, in print and en blog, via public television or private smartphone—is to invite an argument or endure a sermon. No subject strikes closer to the bone of the democratic idea, and whether standing at the bar or seated on the lawn, all present come armed with two invincible opinions:

1. America’s best, last, and only hope for the future rests with the promise of education. 2. The promise isn’t being kept.

“No respondent is ever at a loss for a telling anecdote or an illuminating statistic—forty million functional illiterates in the country unable to read a road sign or a restaurant menu, one fifth of the adults polled unaware that the earth revolves around the sun, 28 percent of the nation’s college seniors believing that the American Revolution was won at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Oklahoma high school girl who thought that the Holocaust was a Jewish religious holiday.

“Witnesses for the prosecution have been bringing evidence of the crimes against the dream of reason for as long as I can remember, certainly since the National Commission on Excellence in Education noticed, in 1983 (Washington, D.C., page 39), that the country’s classrooms were flooded with ‘a rising tide of mediocrity.’ The waters apparently continue to rise, and it now seems that every six months another committee of alarmed businessmen issues a report complaining of the system’s failure to deliver ‘high-quality product to the infrastructure.’

“The managers of America’s money worry about foreign competition in the global markets, say that unless the kids settle down to their lessons, the United States could lose it all—the ball game and the farm, the Nobel Prizes as well as the aircraft carriers, the hedge funds, the Pizza Huts and the roof-garden real estate in Palm and Pebble Beach. Corroborating testimony appears at least once a week in the dispatches from inner-city school districts as well as in the communiqués from the seats of higher learning…

“Then as now, we hold fast to the ardent but mistaken belief that education is a commodity, the stuff that one pours into empty vessels—skill sets for the large class of persons destined ‘to perform specific manual tasks,’ entry-level connections to Mammon for the much smaller class of persons en route to first-class accommodation in the society’s high-rent districts.

“Students don’t go to school to acquire the wisdom of Solomon. They go to school to acquire a cash value and improve their lot, to pick up the keys to the kingdom stocked with the treasures to be found in a BMW showroom or an Arizona golf resort. Their education bears comparison to the procedure for changing caterpillars into silkworms just prior to their transformation into adult moths. Silkworms can be turned to a profit; moths blow around in the wind, and add nothing to the wealth of the corporation or the power of the state…

“The tide of mediocrity flows into the classroom from the ocean that is the society at large, and if many of our public schools resemble penal institutions, the students herded into overcrowded classrooms where they major in the art of boredom and the science of diminished expectations, how better to accustom them to the design specs of a society geared to the blind and insatiable consumption of mediocrity in all its political declensions and commercial conjugations—cf. the Bush Administration’s geopolitical theory at work in Iraq, the quality of the nation’s airline and fast-food service, corporate executives paid $20 million a year for performing the miracle of an $18 billion write-down.

“Why would any politician in his or her right mind wish to confront an informed citizenry capable of breaking down the campaign speeches into their subsets of supporting lies? Burden the economy with too many customers able to decipher the hospital bills, or see around the corners of the four-color advertising, and the consequences would be terrible to behold. Not even the Federal Reserve Bank could slow down the domino effect likely to shuffle through the entire inventory of the American dream.

“If much of what now passes for American education deadens the desire for learning (in both the down market public schools and the high-end private universities), so does much of what passes for entertainment in the nation’s film and television media. The United States now spends a good part of its fortune on narcotics—for pornography and alcohol as well as for drugs both illicit and prescribed. As a business proposition the war against the American intellect guarantees a more reliable rate of return than the War on Terror.

“To conceive of an education as a commodity (as if it were a polo pony or an Armani suit) is to construe the idea of democracy as the freedom of a market instead of a freedom of the mind. I can understand why the mistake is both easy and convenient to make, but unless we stop telling ourselves that America is best understood as the sum of its gross domestic product, we stand little chance of re-imagining our history or re-engineering our schools.

“The businessmen concerned about the quality of the domestic help might as well be talking about the operation of a fried chicken franchise or the manufacture of automobile tires—impose uniform rules and procedures, cut costs, teach the kitchen staff to speak English, upgrade the dress code, simplify the standardized tests, fry the chicken in whale oil instead of recycled bacon grease. In the uplands of the higher learning the custodians of Western civilization speak of moving Aristotle to the night shift and reconfiguring the library as a day care center. The recommendations don’t hold much promise of finding a phoenix in the ashes.

“Education is a playing with fire, not a taxidermist’s stuffing of dead animals, and until we choose to acknowledge the difference between the two pedagogical techniques, we do ourselves no favors. Awaken the student to the light in his or her own mind, and the rest of it doesn’t matter—neither the curriculum nor the number of seats in the football stadium, neither the names of the American presidents nor the list of English kings.

“In college commencement speeches, as with the handing out of prizes for trendsetting journalism, I often hear it said that the truth shall make men free, but I notice that relatively few people know what the phrase means. The truth isn’t about the receipt of the diploma or acceptance into law school, not even about the thievery in Washington or the late-breaking scandal in Hollywood. It’s synonymous with the courage derived from the habit of not running a con game on the unique and specific temper of one’s own mind.

“What makes men and women free is learning to trust their own thought, possess their own history, and speak in their own voices. It doesn’t matter how or when the mind achieves the spark of ignition—in an old book or a new video game, from a teacher encountered by accident in graduate or grammar school, in the course of dissecting a frog or pruning an apple tree, while looking at a painting by Jan Vermeer or listening to the Beatles sing ‘A Hard Day’s Night…’

“Beyond anything else they could imagine the ancient Greeks admired what Sophocles called the glittering play of ‘wind-swift thought.’ Pericles in his funeral oration boasted not of the weapons or the works of art collected in the city, although these were many and beautiful, but of the character of the Athenian citizen—self-reliant, resourceful, public-spirited, marked by ‘refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy.’

“The term humanist appears in the Italian Renaissance, coined by scholars who rejoiced in both the pride of mind and the pleasures of the flesh. Correctly understood, the humanist ideal connotes ambition tempered with irony, embraces feats of courage as heroic as those to be seen on the playing fields at Ohio State. Humanism is the passion of thought and the will to understand: the voyage of Odysseus, great-hearted and wide-wandering; Charles Darwin sailing for the Galápagos and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in trouble with the police; the Marquis de Condorcet hunted by the agents of the guillotine, at bay in a Paris garret writing his outline of human progress so that he might awaken mankind to the chance of its possible perfection…”

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