Friday, February 19, 2010

Those Who Can't Do

How about these variations: "Those who can't, do." "Those who, can't do." "Those, who can't do . . . " Now let's complete the sentences. "Those who can't, do as they will and consider the rest of us fools for trying." "Those WHO, can't do a thing with their music anymore." "Those, who can't do, should stay over there in the Academy, teaching."

I know it's a silly exercise. Classical Chinese, classically, was never punctuated. They hadn't seen the need for it, plus it made a really good exercise for budding readers. They would follow along with pen while reading, and mark the pauses off to the side. The teacher then could instantly tell which ones knew how to read - which ones were missing essential pieces of context; of background mastery. They could tell which ones were fooled by the subtleties. And the ones who found a new way of reading, which the teacher himself had never noticed, well these ones were taken aside to be browbeaten.

It was an essential part of learning to read. It would be a very very big mistake for a student to be allowed any sense of new with the received classics. You can just imagine the dangers. It would be very much like opening a crack in the cosmic egg. Some light might get in! Or things could fall apart.

Meanwhile, in precisely the same way that childish rhymes rehearse the problems with adulthood, we are fond of reciting the truism that "those who can't do, teach." ("Ashes to ashes, we all fall DOWN" or how about "rockabye baby" or "he bumped his head and he went to bed and he couldn't get up in the morning") For sure, it allows students to get back at their masters. Even, or especially, as the masters themselves take special joy in their students' accomplishment in life after school. Like good parents, they wish only for their children's flight. Or at least marry a doctor, for Chrissakes! You'll never fly, idiot!

Well, not necessarily in China, where your child is still your main insurance policy, which might not be a bad thing for us to emulate, come to think of it. In the Chinese case, the Academy actually was the way in to real-world power. Academic conservatism was extremely functional. And parents figured, hey, if he's gonna fly, he'll do it no matter how strong a cage I build. Chinese parenting has been likened to Jewish parenting by a lot more people than just me. I wonder if Jerry Seinfeld knows about it?

It's pretty much the same way here now, as to ties between the academy and the world beyond. With the big difference being that it doesn't really matter how you score. Here, it's much more important which academy you attended. Our important exams are all entrance exams - entrance to the academy, not entrance to some position beyond the academy. Beyond the academy, it's all just a matter of who you know. Usually, you got to know them inside the academy. Kind of a vicious-circle serpent eating its tail kind of thing, I know.

It is, or at least should be, a commonplace that oppressed people often internalize their oppressors, and become thereby their own jailers. Their own worst enemy. The best evidence for this is how prison trustees are that much crueler toward those under their charge compared to the ones getting paid. This principle has been exploited for eons to great effect.

The question must naturally be begged then, what about the teachers in our academies? These are by and large left-leaning thinkers now, in institutions lavishly funded by the capitalist owner class. Or at least the better the institutions are, the more likely to be so owned and funded. Is the peer review process for tenure simply a handing down of the oppression from the owners of the teachers' minds?

You won't have followed me this far, so I'm going to revert to a bit of shorthand, likely for myself alone. A kind of placeholder to be followed up on later. I actually tried this argument once from the inside of the Academy, and it didn't get me very far there either. In fact, it was the proximate cause of the most recent of my occasions for escape. Oh, I guess I've already reverted to the shorthand, for which I apologize retrospectively, which is what apology should be come to think about it. Sorry!

Some academics are fond of talking about the colonization of their students' minds by various sorts of "grand narratives." They talk about this in language which would not only be utterly uninteresting to those outside the academy walls, but more critically, which would be almost entirely incomprehensible. This "post-modernist" sort of language is utterly impossible to parse. Scientists, of which one famous example would be Edward O. Wilson, the ethnobiologist, try and try sometimes, and can find nothing but circular statements of such occult density that they are certain the scholars themselves have been taken in and made lost by their very own words. Hoist, as it were, by their own petard.

But of course these scientists are denizens of the very same academies, even while being far less likely to lean left. Although still a lot more likely than the population at large. Still, for scientists, the expropriation of their work by the capitalist owner class is pretty much welcome. The feedback loop in that case is fairly direct. You cause our theoretical work to be embodied in the world of better living through chemistry (for instance), continue to fund our research lavishly, and we'll go on being your humble servants, for so long as you let us work on what really turns us on and not just what you think might be useful. Pretty much like artists with a patron.

Be patient and utility will come. It always has. Of course, this implied contract has become strained lately, with universities depending more and more on direct funding from companies expecting tangible and financially rewarding results. There's lots of valid concern now about "motivated" research, as even or maybe especially scientists get in on the take from the great capitalistic economic engine of supposed progress (which ain't looking so great now that the caps are melting, for instance, although the technological fix is surely just around the corner now!!).

Tenure comes to those who pull in grant money. Of course, you have to watch out for the ones with a really tightly wound sense of justice, since they might go on a shooting spree or fly a plane into a building. If the cognitive dissonance becomes too great.

If you're not a scientist, the feedback loop is harder to identify. There are certain routes to political power, to roles inside the government, which, if you're a good player, can be parlayed into power in industry, through that famous revolving door. You might even be able to get away with torture if you rise high enough. And brag about it publicly without worry about the consequences. Which I think is a pretty hopeful sign. Honest! (What, you'd rather have them stay secret about this stuff???!!)

But if you're out of that loop, then you're pretty much relegated to talking about how your own mind has been colonized, even as you browbeat your students into learning how to read and write and talk the way that you do. Jews for Israel and damn the Palestinians who could never know the oppression we have felt. Is it any mistake that so many scholars and writers have been Jewish? Oh, I know, I'm just jealous. Well, sure, and I admit it!

OK, so you don't really browbeat if you're a teacher. It's way more subtle than that. But if you were to be honest, you would have to admit that without that academy you never would have the freedom to indulge this thing which feels like flying. This flight of words which feels very much as though it was approaching some sort of sun, whose existence the words themselves deny. You could do it forever. Admit it. You've never had to work a day in your lives.

That may sound like a taunt or a complaint, but it's not. Honest. I, for one, don't believe that work has to be oppressive to count as work. The forces of the economy would like you to think so for sure, to preserve the economic value of play, for instance, but not me. I know very much what it's like to be penalized for liking work too much. So do those pilots for the regional airlines, who could easily get more for driving a bus.

Still you do have to wonder who owns your mind, according to the little compromises you make each and every day for the sake of peace in the valley. And for most oppressed classes, it's not the things you already know about which are the problems. You can probably identify and make peace with yourself about the paper chase, and the tenure compromises, and the shilling for the admissions or development office.

The things you really have to monitor though, are those things which make you the most exercised, and you don't even know how to identify where the oppression really is. What is it that really bothers you most about your students? What would you really like to slap them down about. That would be the cue to the internal oppression. When the students get uppity, and it really bothers you, and you're wondering if it should.

Sometimes you are just concerned that they are being misled by their own enthusiasm. Usually, you already understand that this particular student, based on a pretty good background check from other assignments, just simply is not equipped for the territory he is heading into, and you want to keep him from embarrassment or worse.

But sometimes they really do find the weak spot in your presentation, and you just want them to shut up. I know a thing or two about how hard it is to stand up in front of a class, exposed, and still to try to resist the temptation to pull rank and bolster the pretense that you really do know exactly what you're talking about. It's a really scary position.

Really, you should just accept the fact that the University owns your mind. That by accepting the credential, you implicitly accepted the need for such a credential to distinguish you from those who don't or won't or can't get it. You recognize that a few of those are just plain too smart to need it or want it or to waste their time getting it, and these become the artists; who produce the actual objects of your teaching. It is and will and should be strange if and why any of them, these objectifiers, become colleagues in the Academy itself, except, perhaps, as "Artists in Residence" who are known to know as little about their own work as it is possible to know. Just in the sense that no-one can really know himself, or why he does or says what he does. That's the magic lacuna in each of us, and it's a good thing as both Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver happened to have figured out, magically, and the very same time. For instance. The University is their Patron then, and as distinguished from you, the Big U. is not their employer.

And that's just the way it is. So get used to it. Unless you want to own your own damned mind, in which case you'd better be pretty proof against crazy. Which if you were you wouldn't require the reassurance of peer review about it in the first place. And just because nobody gets what I'm saying doesn't make me crazy. You know? Right? Hey!!!

Still, I really don't think it's true that 'those who can't do teach.' Teaching is surely doing. You're standing up there in front of a bunch of eager and earnest learners (so long as you don't give them objective measures for feedback, which will only encourage them to game it and become your adversaries) and maintaining this potential fiction that you can lead them someplace valuable, which they could never reach alone. You do it because you love them, more even than you would love to be where they might go yourself. And you take a meta look askance at the work of the real producers in the world beyond the academy. Which, if it had any sense, that world, it would prize this meta-looking in you beyond all reason. It's what a University is for! I have seen the mountain and I can't make it myself, but I can ease your efforts by taking you to my jump off point. What, that's not doing?

Which, speaking of, reason, is how come I have turned almost all of my attacks against the Left. As non-believers in absolute anything, as people who understand that the word truth, while grammatically possible, cannot possibly mean anything at all, except as reification of what originally meant just simply comparison against a standard, in the absence of which, the standard, there is no possible meaning at all, unless you believe that the abstract can be real, and measurable, and something to be trued against. Which just comes right back to that jealous of Jews thing again, now, doesn't it? Because they seem to be able to true things without some actual objectification of that thing against which what they know is being trued. Which was what was so great about that recent Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man, which I'm not, in case you were wondering. I'm not a serious man.

I ramble. And I'm pretty sure I'm right about this stuff, but in the end, those who can't do write, and are almost never actually right, right? I just wish we'd all stop being so shrill and certain about stuff. It doesn't do any good to want people's heads, no matter which side you're on. The problems are all on the fringes, at the extremes, and the solution is about finding some dialog, some truing which can happen among the reasonable people in the middle, not against a standard, but against each other. And it's not that the extremists are wrong. They're just dug in. Trench warfare gets nowhere. Just watch history. Just watch Congress. Well, if you can stand it.

I, for one, just wish that they would let the Olympics play out on their own, competition by competition, and not keep trying to make a story about it, which makes one Olympics look just like any other and not even worth watching. Because I've seen that story and that announcer, and that little heart-wrenching vignette about the struggle to the podium at least a million times. I just want to watch the race!

And what if there are no more mountains left to climb? What if the struggles now are all inside our heads? Would that really be so terrible? Really? We'd have to make the important choices now, instead of kicking them down the road, for instance . . . .

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