Class Notes

Historical Foundations of Education — sixth meeting

The readings for last week were Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. We began with the exercise that flopped on Moday: a comparison of animated mini-lectures by Sir Ken Robinson and Slavoj Zizek. The class seemed interested in it as more than an exercise, so we used Zizek’s call for a “soft apocalyptic” voice within the anti-capitalist discussion — a very overt critique of Leftist piety — to begin to understand the poverty of the present state of educational research.

I was basically critiquing the shallow, popular books that Peter Lang is always publishing. You know what I mean: Mexicans CAN!: A Critical Approach to Teaching Brown People How to Find Their Inner Aztec Komodo Dragon in the Marginal Diaspora — a critical approach. If you don’t know what I mean, go to a conference book display; they’re everywhere. Then try to talk to the poor, numb souls, oooing and ahhhing and looking devout, and you’ll figure out what I mean.

How did those wretched books get written? (Sometimes I suspect there is a machine that writes them. Their could be. They’re all perfectly predictable.) What did their authors do to write such empty books? Or, better yet, what didn’t they do that got them to their clone-like state?

Dead White Guys. Never read them. Or only read about them, “critically,” in some sanctimonious textbook. That what they’re missing: dead Europeans; and mostly men. At least that was my argument in class last night. I’ll try to rehearse it here, again:

The argument was personal and ethnographic. I was raised a wild, poor, Mexican-American boy, first-generation college student; itinerate and bright, raised in the Church, full of pious ideas and wet dreams and, thanks to the philanthropy of Bill and Melinda Gates, landed in the arms of a devout Catholic college to study the great books, philosophy and all that jazz. At the time of my high school graduation I was the true embodiment of minority educational empowerment. I was asked to pray at a LULAC event, as an emblem of the Latin@ community.

I probably overstated how hard I worked during the undergrad years to my class yesterday, but I really did read and study and learn far more than I should have, given how hard I partied and all the other things I was doing. The point remains that I left Franciscan University of Steubenville with a serious foundation in the Western canon.

I matriculated to the University of St. Thomas, where I learned on my first day how awful St. Augustine (a North AFRICAN) was, and what a waste of time it was to read books by European, white men. So we read more white, European men, beginning with Marx and Weber. Then we got to critical race theory: bell hooks, Cornel West’s Democracy Matters had just been published, and all that “Can the subaltern speak?” kind of stuff. I learned what a wretched thing my newly-acquired Western canon was. And how disempowered I had been at the hands of Homer, Augustine, and Dante. Doing the very thing I once thought was the path to emancipation and socio-political empowerment, I came to find out, was a total waste of time. I had sinned and was in need of redemption. I was a miserable wretch who needed to wallow in the mud of injustice to be cleansed of bathing with Don Quixote, with bubbles.

I was to abandon it all and start anew with fresh, critical ideas. But then, when it came time to select a Ph.D. program, I went to study with this crazy, old Deweyian progressivist because he called me out at a conference, whilst wearing a guayabera, for implicitly referring to myself as “underprivileged.” He told me to feel privelaged for being intelligent. (Yes, I know, “privilege” isn’t about that really, but his point was more serious to me then.) I went to Ohio State and found more white dudes: Foucault, Nietzsche, and most of all: William James.

More white men.

Now I feel more suited than ever to register an argument against the West within the western institution par excellance, the university. And for much bigger, serious reasons that their demographic identity. The way out to folklore, to real life, into the flux of the commons, cannot be done by importing the folkloric into this space, like a museum or mausoleum  — heavens no! — nor by easily walking out the front door. The only way out is like Hugo’s mad priest of The Count of Monte Cristo: digging one’s way out through the Western canon, with passionate fidelity.

R.R. Reno published an article in First Things a while back that was very influential to me titled “Theology After the Revolution.” The gist was that today’s critical theologians, unlike the nouvelle theologie, had lost their footing in the object of their own critique. In class I drew a comparison between serious, intentional disobedience to accidental disobeying. An “I reject you” and an “Oops!”. If one is serious about being critical, in the tradition of (post)Enlightenment critique, then one cannot dissent clumsily or by accident. One must understand the object of one’s distain as much as possible.

You’ve got to do your fucking homework. Period. Here we find the core of these critiques: they are sentimental, and EASY. I could write these books in my sleep and stay awake because I know I am just using my poor, Mexicanhood to rake in the cheap rewards of my non-labor.

This is why, so I argued, today’s pedagogical literature is so vapid. Unlike theology, however, I am not sure that there ever was a sure-footed critique made in educational theory. (Of course there was: Peter McClaren seems to get Marx and Hegel pretty well. Michael Apple too. But my point here is to exaggerate.)

This brought us to Emerson and, after defending him from accusations of narcissism and relativism, I gave a reading of Melville’s Bartleby, rooted in an Emersonian understanding of Jesus and Pontious Pilate, where the suffering servant is the only folkloric testament to humanity left in the post-apocalyptic world. The only route to redemption, then, is through the re-telling of Bartleby’s story by Melville, the Gospel’s narrator. In this sense, Bartleby the Scrivener becomes the most truly historical text we’ve thus far encountered.

That’s all.


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