Monday, March 1, 2010

The Educator's Dilemma

Any reasonable teacher understands that not every student is created equal. As regards the heights of academic accomplishment, some seem destined to fall short right out of the gate. Not to believe that would be as absurd as to suppose that every single human may triumph at the Olympics, given the proper nurture and coaching.

Of course, there may be more truth to that than many sour grapes Olympians might credit. But it's also true that to make each of us Olympians be default, at birth, would be nothing short of cruel. Perhaps as cruel as to force a gifted intellect to suffer the slow and plodding training of those around her, who are perhaps gifted in different ways.

We understand now, as educators, the hidden injuries of race and class. We know that sometimes the brightest students are invisible beneath the cover of different cultural and linguistic norms. We even know that we ourselves can be blinded by those things which we hold most dear; our own personal or cultural canon, for instance, or what we think of as proper behavior in the Academy.

You're probably wanting to jump down my throat now, that the problem is the Academy, which must form its own culture and norms which will be necessarily aligned with those of the ruling class, relative to which everyone else must be remediated.

But short of leaving cultures divided, which no longer seems a practical matter given the seemingly inevitable pressures of globalization, there still must be institutional structure to organize our teaching. Short of willy nilly, each to his or her own, which would leave the ruling class that much more fully in charge and distinct from those on its outside.

It would seem that the supposedly universal languages of math and science are what brings us together, ultimately, under a single roof, as it were, to learn. Leaving the elaborations in the realm of what often get called "the humanities" at the fringes, to be sorted out there and suffered.

And how nice it would and must be for educators to have scientific seeming tools, like diagnostic and IQ tests to cut through the large and petty biases and prejudices of the entrance examiners. To give those students who are different from the ruling class a way in, for the benefit of all.

But these tests then become a proxy for the Olympics of life, where everyone else is somehow less than human; protestations about "all men created equal" very much beside the evident truth that some are worth more than others. Just simply because everyone is supposed to go to approximately the same sort of school.

And this process of schooling gets rationalized, of course and naturally, relative to the organization of the economy. So that it is only economic worth which is being graded, and not some sort of core value as a human being. Automatically devaluing the labor of hands and craft and art, unless those appeal, of course, to the ruling class. The class which, according to our Constitution, we weren't even supposed to have.

Why should I be allowed to work out these sophomoric dilemmas so sophomorically? When there is so much written, so much brilliant angst expended on these very questions, dilemmas, and matters. So much well educated debate. Debate whose entrée would and should and must be denied the likes of myself.

Because even this debate is subject to the norms of discourse, which cannot be divided from the norms of the Academy, defined as broadly or as narrowly as you like.

I do call for more slack and less angst. The problems and their resolution can be found only outside the academy. The dignity assigned or allowed to labor which is not schooled. Dignity allowed even to workers in the government, who need not and in most cases should not or must not be elected, as would be their citizen supervisors.

But even there, the civil service exam does as much to prevent as to enforce a meritocracy. Just as has been the case with diagnostic IQ-style tests in education, we now must have a form of academic postmen, firemen and policmen, again defining "academic" as broadly as you please. All to prevent the petty corruptions and prejudices which we still fear would be rampant without these ideally "objective" differentiators.

None of these devices and techniques need be discarded wholesale. But each of them should and must be regarded askance, for the harm they do as well as for the good. How many, drawing on my recent interactions with the health care establishment; how many can retain some humility relative to the certainties of the frames within which they themselves must operate, given that it is their position relative to those frames which defines them? Against whose standards they struggled to gain, first, foothold, and later position and recognition.

It must be as terrifying at any heights, to fear what one would be in free-fall. Frameless.

And yet letting go of our certainties is precisely what must occur if we are to co-inhabit a world which has suddenly gone all one. We must learn to trust and honor one another across all sorts of divides. Of race and class and culture and language and religion. Divides much more extreme than those which divide the ranks in our Academies.

The reason I hold out extravagant hope is that we have filled in all our boundaries now. There are no more frontiers to cross. Science be damned, there are no more fundamental discoveries to be made. It's all about filling in now, as we realize that we have been turned back at every frontier.

You will not credit this. Or very very few of you will, so certain are you that the procedures, at least, of science are what holds out the most and best promise still. And I am as certain as you are that this remains the case. There are massive improvements still to come in the ways that we can harness energy for good, understand our bodies for better health, and even organize the economy for more human distribution of goods.

But as regards the fundamental sense of who we are in the cosmos, I believe there is no further that we can travel. At that frontier, science holds out nothing more. Or rather, what we already have is far more than enough. We are co-creators, participants now, in the processes of evolution and of sense.

Of course, we always have been. But now, via the cutting edge of physics, we have glimpsed the limits of what, in principle, can be known. There are no further procedures according to which we can discover any more of what is "out there" without implicating our mind in the process. We have choices, the most crucial of which is whether, in fact, we will regard each of us as fully human. And the determination of our choice will not be made by what we say. It will be made by what we do.

And even if you are waiting for some superior "intelligence" (such a telling term) to make some kind of contact, you should know ahead of time that without having come to consciousness yourself, He or She or It will only know you as a worm. You will have become just another life form embedded in the struggle for survival, of no meaning or value as an individual.

Making contact, a project of no interest to me, although it might be to some future generation, simply makes no sense prior to some sense of what it means to be human, "intelligent," and worthy of recognition. I'd say drop "intelligent" from the equation, and we might be on our way. The term human alone is enough. Divide off any single quality of humanity, and you lose it, plain and simple.

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