Formative Capture and Interpretive Irreducibility
I wanted to respond to our first class, albeit belatedly, and to the class as a whole, or some of its themes, as they emerged in our first discussion. I’m working from my notes. “There is a difference between what we know and how we grow” – I have this in quotes, I think because Robbie said it? Regardless, its rhyme seems to carry that important distinction between education and schooling that shows up again in Robbie’s latest book… I think that we can get a lot of mileage out of unpacking that distinction; what we know is what we can teach, ostensibly, and presumably, we know that we know it as Rumsfeld once opined, because otherwise we wouldn’t know what we were doing when we were teaching ; But of course, we never really do know what we’re doing as teachers, because the student’s experience is his or her own, as irreducible to formulae or protocols as to our own experiences and intuitions. And of course what we don’t know, both as teachers and students, is what ends up changing us, informing us, altering our trajectories, and not just ‘additively’, i.e. when we learn it. Sometimes what we don’t know can change us without our knowledge. This is perhaps a good way to think about the allure of what Robbie calls aspirational works.
Aspiration partakes of that mystery whereby the undetermined future beckons to us, alternately nurturingly and threateningly. If such aspirations are the stuff that education consists of -albeit channeled through the constraints imposed by contingency & necessity- then schooling might rather cynically be defined by its absence; just the contingency & necessity. The necessity would be that of reproducing what’s known; the kids and now the teachers too! have to be prepared for the tests. The contingency would be whatever else went on in the process of adhering to necessity. Where the schooling mindset predominates, aspirations tend to get lumped in with contingency; in this way it is able to work its way into the day to day functioning of the school system deeply enough to prevent it from just failing entirely. Robbie pointed out that aspirational works, the proper objects of education, are usually self-assigned. Most of us, I suspect, who find themselves able to continue along in the school system, have been able to do so by virtue of surreptitious abilities to incorporate aspirational materials with our curricula. We either do this by adding them on, or by trying to drag them in, or most likely by some combination of the two. School really has to relegate the aspirations of its students to its margins, because as an institution, and an industry, it needs to ensure some measure of standardization on the part of its products. This is really a completely dysfunctional pattern, because it puts school up against the only true source of any successes it might be able to achieve; i.e. aspiration/education. For school, the students might as well be little machines with tabulae rasa for memories; our souls are not taken account of. For students, this relatively rigorous principle of negligence is experienced as a systematic war of attrition on the soul. The student is compelled, as if by a sheerly mechanical force which can of course be easily instrumentalized by the hopefully-occasional zealot to abandon his or her unique, nascent and potential modes of engagement in order to accomodate the modes prescribed en masse by the curriculum.
I’m couching this description in a critique of school systems, but in reflection, I’m no longer as certain as I once was that these conditions aren’t in fact ‘natural’; i.e. the necessary conditions of social organization. This possibility changes the outcome somewhat, in what is actually a profound and crucial way. Otherwise, if we remain steadfast in our implicit faith in a simply better alternative a tacit utopianism that underlies most so-called ‘radical’ critique, we are left with no other choice but opposition; our rebellion against what remains an undeniably systematic and devastating oppression becomes mandatory. Rebellion becomes extremism, or fascism. This is merely a matter of this subtle change in emphasis. As Camus puts it in his introduction, “Its preoccupation is to transform. But to transform is to act, and to act will be, tomorrow, to kill, and it still does not know whether murder is legitimate.” p.10
Rebellion’s link with aspiration is crucial, and the direct conversion of aspiration into knowledge is not aspiration’s object. Perhaps we could say that aspiration’s goal is inspiration like the purpopse of exhaling is to again inhale. To retranslate this back into the case of schooling, we might suggest that rather than trying to reverse the troubling relationship between oppression and aspiration which would only serve to reproduce and intensify these conditions, we might look for ways to ameliorate the situation. As teachers, we might look for ways to make more space for self-direction in schools; to expand the margins that are its increasingly endangered habitat. As students, we might try to pay more attention to our own blind spots; the limits and boundaries of our own comprehension; our difficulties and how we compensate for them. Rebellion, because it is such a basic, deeply necessary, and profoundly generative ethical function, is never easy to observe, and rarely presents itself in programmatic terms that one can follow like a lesson plan. Real rebellion just happens when you follow your heart; something captures you; you find yourself, not as you are, but as you want to be, reflected in something, or someone, and you follow that.