2013 Winner - Nonfiction
The Great Equalizer
‘Human orders—scientific, artistic, social, economic, and political—are fictions. They are untrue, not because they necessarily are false, but because they necessarily are incomplete” –Wendell Berry
A lifetime commitment to education is a lifetime commitment to paralyzing uncertainty and humility in the face of this uncertainty. Education operates in the dark gaps—the gaps that Wendell Berry draws our attention to—between what we think we know and what we cannot ever know. One who hopes to be educated must venture into these gaps in order to find enlightenment. Simply put, a person must acknowledge that there are things he or she does not know before gaining any knowledge. While this seems obvious, it is an extremely difficult thing for a socialized person to do.
Our society demands repression. A person cannot live without living in darkness, and education offers the promise of enlightenment. Therefore, the best politics classes can only tell us that all governments lie. The best communications classes can only lay out the fundamental premises of propaganda. The best law classes can only tell us that our most supreme court cannot justify its own existence on the American continent. At its very best, an education will leave a student with a million new questions for every one that is answered. This is why the best lectures are questions. This is why our “best and brightest” engage in a conversation that, at best, points a faint beam of light in the direction of a mysterious world they are afraid to inherit.
This educational model is clearly designed for elites. Who else has the time to sit around all day and make references to a world that could be just as easily engaged or not engaged? Who else can make connections between the psyche of the pencil maker and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed? The pencil maker certainly cannot, he must learn to make pencils.This is why education is the enemy of capitalism. If truly educated folk sit around in dark corners of repression looking for ways to confront their psyche, then what good are they to a system that needs them to be producers? Capitalism relies on people figuring out what they want to be in the same way that the price of pencils relies on the availability of lead. So if every scientist learns about the shortcomings of the human order called “science,” and therefore must give up on the notion that science is objective, and therefore must decide if he or she can be a scientist after all, then capitalism fails.
I, as a United States-ian and a liberal, can choose to tell myself a certain story about how the west was won for my own nation. This story involves some shame, as I am a liberal and liberals feel shameful about that which they can’t control. But it also involves pride, as I am a United States-ian, not a traitor who would claim that we have no right to the American continent. The story I would tell myself is one about the forefathers of this country tricking some native people into giving up land. The natives had no concept of land ownership, so when they traded the land they did not understand that they would not be allowed to return to it. This story allows me to be a United States-ian (filled with nationalist pride for my clever forefathers and our rightful ownership of the continent) and it allows me to be a liberal (acknowledging some level of shame stemming from the deception of the native peoples of the land).
But this history only offers truth so much as we are looking for the truthful answer to the question “how do American liberals live with themselves?” Another version of history will tell a story where around 50 million Native Americans were massacred in order for the United States to lay claim to the American continent. In order for me to face this history, in order for me to become educated about the birth of my own nation, I must do more than simply acknowledge that there are things that I do not know. I must face a paralyzing contradiction that is the shadow on my identity. If I accept a history that deems the birth of the United States illegitimate (born in genocide) then I must be a traitor to my own nation. We have no right to be here, and therefore I will have to be the first to find my new place in the world. Frankly, I do not know if I can do that. On the other hand, if I face this history and decide that winning a nation by the sword is legitimate and I have every right to be here, than I must give up another part of my identity—the liberal. How can I be a liberal who feels the weight of compassion for the victims of colonialism while I accept the legitimacy and the comforts afforded to me by my own colonial state?
In this example, a good education has left me with no way to be. My bad education, my own incomplete story of who I am, allows me to be an American and to be a liberal. It does not allow me to sleep particularly well, but it keeps me moving comfortably forward in my waking life. With this education, I can get a degree from a United States institution, pay my taxes to the United States government, and vote for leaders in the name of The United States’ sovereignty. I can be anything I want to be with this education.
The good education, the one that accepts multiple versions of the history of the Americas, does not give me a way to be. It forces me to act. It forces me to ask, in the daylight, the questions that keep me up at night. It forces me to do something. I must learn everything I can possibly learn so that I can live my life doing good in the face of the contradictions that are at the heart of my United States-ness and my liberal-ness.
This means that a good education would ask a scientist to give up on his or her commitment to the objectivity of science. Only then could that scientist become enlightened about the ways that his or her “objective field” justifies the destruction of our planet. A good education would force a humanitarian aid worker to give up his or her commitment to doing good. Only then could he or she be educated about the ways that humanitarian aid supports systems of oppression and maintains a colonial relationship between “the West” and “the Rest.” This is what it takes to live a good, enlightened life. It means potentially giving up “what you are” so that you can do life well.
But how can one be anything after receiving a good education? It seems that the only skill worth having in the workforce is the ability to rationalize and repress, the ability to tell a story that allows you to be a part of a human order that calls itself complete. In the face of an honest education, the question, “what will you be?” can only be answered with silence. Humility is not a skill that one can list on his or her résumé, and paralysis renders worthless any hopeful cog in the apparatus of “the means of production.” learning only occurs once all familiar beams of light have been shuttered off, for learning happens in the depth of our contradictions, in the darkness of our inadequacies, and in the shadows of our identities. Here, in the darkness, with nothing at all, we get creative and find ways to live our lives.
A rational thinker cannot help but notice how tremendously unappealing this is! An educator asks his or her students to stop (in a world that tells them to stop for nothing) and think (in a world that tells them to think about nothing). Of course, nobody would ever say that an education is a bad thing. I, David H. Koch and Nelson Mandela and my mother and Pat Robertson and Iron Chef Bobby Flay could all sit around and, despite our differences, together we could think of a million different ways to agree with the statement “education is good.” And none of us would be wrong. Education is good. But if we think of education as a slow process that offers nothing but questions, and we think of a global capitalist world that values high speeds and short-sighted answers, then we may find that the statement (education is good), while true, is more controversial than one might think it is.
The modern university has solved this problem that education poses to capitalism, by allowing education to be delivered via capitalism. In order to participate in this system, one must first get an education at a college or university. Therefore, the education, like a car or a house, is nothing more than an investment. A person goes to school not because he or she wants to become an enlightened person who thinks deeply about his or her place in the world, but because he or she needs a job, and a job requires a college degree.
Therefore, the modern university has given up its connection to education. It has become job training, at the request of the students, who need jobs. It has become a tool of rationalization and repression, by teaching not how to think but how not to think. The modern university avoids connections and interdisciplinary learning. A film student need not worry about problematic depictions of otherness or the ethics of ethnographic documentary. A film student must only learn to operate a camera, or learn to be proficient in the latest home editing software (knowledge that will be out of date in two year’s time).
In addition to being trained to be good labor, students are rewarded in college for being good consumers, as well. They will not engage in a fight over academic discourse, but will fight like a shopper with a freshly expired coupon to raise a B to an A-.They will not engage their professors as intellectuals, nor will their professors engage them as such. The student-professor relationship is like the relationship of a spectator and a prizefighter. Entertain me, or I will boo you, I will boo you so hard that you may never get hired to fight again, for I have paid for this seat, and am entitled to a good show.
So here I am, that college student, that consumer, who needs a job. When I am being too honest with myself, I think of how my own education is really job training. I did not seek out a liberal arts degree for the sake of a good liberal arts degree—I did so because somewhere along the line someone told me that good thinkers get good jobs. I desperately need to be a good thinker, not because I value good thought, but because good thought is hopefully my ticket to a good job.
As they stepped onto the American continent in 1910, my Russian great-grandparents knew they would be laborers; that was their ticket to a good job. As laborers, they did not have time to consider the legal justification for the United States’ sovereignty, nor to read political theorists, nor to consider the objectivity of science. They would go to trade school or become an apprentice; they would do enough to get a job. And here I am, three generations later, trying to do enough to get a job, to find out what I will be. Only my quest has taken me through the democratized, liberalized, humanist world of higher education. It is a world that everyone, even the great-grandson of Russian day laborers, has access to.
As a result of the democratization of education, the model of higher education has fundamentally changed. Like so many other humanist programs dreamt up by the generations in between my own generation and my great-grandparent’s generation, idealism has been disillusioned by capital. Somebody had the great idea that everyone should go to college, because if everyone received a good education then we would have a better society. The world is a better place when the people inhabiting it have taken time to consider their role within it.
But capital is the great equalizer in our society, so someone else had the idea that anyone can go to college, as long as they can afford to pay for it. But higher education cannot be the elitist pursuit of paralyzing ambiguity (i.e. education for its own sake, the model discussed in this paper) when its students (customers) rack up twenty years of debt just to be allowed in the door. A good education is for it’s own sake, and nothing in a capitalist system can afford to be for the sake of anything other than capital. So higher education sits in the same contradiction as all pursuits delivered via capitalism. It exists as the vehicle for making its students better thinkers, better members of a better society. At the same time it is forced to answer the question that it’s customers are paying to ask, “what will you be?”