The War Against the Imagination: How to Teach in a System Designed to Fail
by Robert Guffey
(Note from Jon Rappoport: I had to print this article about education by Robert Guffey (his blog here), who teaches at Long Beach State University, and is the author of a brilliant, challenging book, Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form. I had to print this article because it’s so important to the future of what we call education, and because it’s so important to the future of freedom and human consciousness. That’s all I’ll say. I’ll leave the rest to Robert.)
Part I: The War Against Education
There has been much talk lately about the worthless quagmire into which the American educational system has hopelessly sunk. I’ve been teaching English composition at CSU Long Beach for over ten years, and have never seen more hostility directed towards the field of education than now. A recent documentary, The War on Kids directed by Cevin Soling, takes the American educational system to task for all its numerous failings and compares public schools to prisons. This attitude reflects the feelings of many students, and not just high school students. I see a great deal of resistance to learning even at the college level. If students truly believe they’re stuck in a prison, then such resistance is understandable—indeed, maybe even inevitable.
One of the major problems any teacher has to face is resistance from his students. Resistance is a natural response from someone who’s been forced to sit through hours and hours of useless factoids in high school with little reward except smiley faces and various letters of the alphabet. Though it can be frustrating to the teacher, resistance is actually a healthy attitude that indicates students aren’t quite as somnambulant as many people seem to think they are. A beginning teacher would be advised to nurture that resistance (rather than stamp it out), and then channel it into more positive areas, areas that encompass such shopworn concepts as….
Why are these words used so rarely in classrooms these days? It’s as if most teachers have forgotten what inspired their own love of reading. Whether in an English 100 college classroom or a freshman English class on a high school campus, students will inevitably resist studying topics they’re convinced are transient and/or ephemeral. Does this mean they’ve all been brainwashed by far too many zeros and ones, their medullae warped and atrophied due to overdosing on ungrammatical rap music? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a natural reaction to curricula that have come to represent a world with which they have no connection, a world populated by instructors whose major concerns are encapsulated within a solipsistic quantum bubble of their own devising, a world in which the only legitimate reading material consists of staid essays about events that seem to have no relevance to their daily lives. William Burroughs once said, “Language is a virus,” and he was right. The Word is infectious, an insidious virus that goes by many names.
Wonder. Enthusiasm. The imagination.
Are these considered dirty words these days? If so, the universities are no doubt to blame. Of course, academia is an easy whipping boy, a target for politicos on both the left and the right. Right-wingers are constantly accusing the universities of being controlled by a secret cabal of Marxists intent on brainwashing our precious young chil’un into becoming dope-smoking lesbian slaves for (gasp) the Democratic Party—or worse yet, Ralph Nader. On the other hand, left-wingers live in constant fear of right-wingers somehow subverting the true purpose of the university through corporate underwriting and undue political influence. Both are missing the point. The true purpose of the university system is to bland out the culture to such a degree that there will no longer be any extremes on either side,—left or right—just the perpetual drone of academic discourse in which nothing important ever gets said because the entire content is taken up by preparations to say something important.
The perpetrators of this discourse of meaninglessness are the very people in charge of teaching our children today; their essays are the literary equivalent of feather-bedding in the work world. Imagine an incompetent baker desperately attempting to dress up a silver platter full of Twinkies to look like fine French pastry. This is what “academic discourse” has become in America. Students resist taking part in it for the same reason they don’t want to read Jacques Derrida. (Personally, I try to avoid Derrida, as I’m lactose intolerant.) If you’re going to waste your time, you might as well have fun while you’re doing it. So they go to Palm Springs and drink beer and take E and have sex instead. Who can blame them?
The disaffected student has merely fallen for the lie of the Hegelian dialectic process, a systematic method of control in which the status quo is granted perpetual renewal via a delicate balancing act, a global shadow play in which binary opposites are carefully maintained to create a false dichotomy in world consciousness, a dichotomy consisting of left and right, black and white, good and evil, cop and criminal, Communist and Capitalist, Republican and Democrat, Crip and Blood, Staff and Faculty, student and teacher. These divisions, mere illusions, manifest themselves on both the macrocosmic and microcosmic scale. Including the classroom.
The reason most students reject the values of the university is because they don’t believe there’s any alternative to the newspeak of academic discourse. Most of them have bought Hegel’s lie (without even knowing who he is or what his theories are). One must, they believe, either learn to speak meaningless gibberish, or reject the university system outright. Many erudite scholars consciously decide to opt out of the system for this very reason.
For the vast majority of students, this decision will be an unconscious (and unnecessary) one. Their resistance is a false dichotomy. If we encourage our students to think “out of the box” (or, better yet, “out of the tetrahedron”), to go beyond the false dichotomies that have been shoved down their throat since they were in kindergarten, then they just might embrace the learning experience a high school or university can offer them; they might very well appropriate the notion of academic discourse and warp it to fit their own aesthetics. Plenty of other “outsiders” have done so in the past, composition instructors like Victor Villanueva being a prime example. It can be done. Sometimes it happens almost by accident, by stumbling upon a sudden epiphany: that the status quo is not inviolate; it can, and will, bend if you push hard enough.
Listen to these words by Victor Villanueva:
For all the wonders I had found in literature—and still find—literature seemed to me self-enveloping. What I would do is read and enjoy. And, when it was time to write, what I would write about would be an explanation of what I had enjoyed […] essentially saying “this is what I saw” or “this is how what I read took on a special meaning for me” (sometimes being told that what I had seen or experienced was nonsense). I could imagine teaching literature—and often I do, within the context of composition—but I knew that at best I’d be imparting or imposing one view: the what I saw or the meaning for me. […] But it did not seem to me that I could somehow make someone enjoy. Enjoyment would be a personal matter: from the self, for the self.
How do we encourage the potential iconoclasts now entering our classrooms to take the lance in hand and start out on their quixotic quest to battle every windmill the system throws at them, to allow their writing to flow from the self, for the self? The first step is a simple one, often overlooked, the successful completion of which requires the use of three basic tools. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Wonder. Enthusiasm. The imagination.
In his 1989 book Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury writes:
[…] if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.
How long has it been since you wrote […] your real love or your real hatred […] onto the paper? When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?
Unfortunately, students aren’t encouraged to either shout or whisper anything. No, that would be considered “extreme” and might unbalance the Hegelian status quo. They’re asked to fill out Scan-Tron sheets instead—imprisoning their individual personalities within those tiny lead-filled bubbles. The Scam-Tron is one of the most basic examples of behavioral programming one can find in the school system. Its intent is to instill in the student the idea that there exists only a limited number of answers for any given question—a closed universe of possibilities.
Zest? Gusto? Bradbury has sound advice for would-be writers in his essays, all of it ignored by the majority of high school and college English instructors. Imagine a high school teacher encouraging his students to write about their most deeply-held prejudices in an open and honest manner. Either some kid’s left-wing parent would complain about fostering racism in a state-funded institution, or some right-wing parent would complain about indoctrinating their Precious One with kooky liberal values about “tolerance.” And instead of protecting the instructor’s right to teach composition in any damn way he pleases, the Principal or the Department Chair or the Dean would no doubt burn the Constitution and sweep the ashy fragments underneath the fax machine for fear of incurring a lawsuit that might attract media attention to the school—not just “unfavorable” media attention, mind you, but any media attention at all.
As any bureaucrat will tell you (if you catch them in an honest and/or inebriated mood), the very last thing they want is to see their name in the newspaper. As proof of this, please note the fact that the only time you ever notice a politician’s name in the newspaper is if they’ve screwed up. All bureaucrats, whether they be Senators or school administrators, live in fear of the day their existence is discovered by the outside world. They’re rather like Bigfoot, truth to tell, constantly hiding behind rocks when civilization encroaches too near their isolated abode. University Deans fear lawsuits as much as Bigfoot fears stoned hikers and forest fires. Which is why so many high school and college teachers are left out to dry when legal action is a possibility; it doesn’t even have to be a real threat, just a possibility. The result? The students learn nothing, and the First Amendment is driven one step further toward extinction (yes, kind of like Bigfoot).
If not for Political Correctness and the nightmare that has grown into state-funded, compulsory education, universities wouldn’t need to foot the bill for so many of these basic composition courses that fruitlessly attempt to make up for twelve years worth of apathy and neglect in a single semester. At the college level, English teachers are just playing catch-up. The best they can do is sew up the bodies and send them back into the battlefield to get shot up some more. This metaphor, of wartime Emergency Rooms and patchwork surgery, is more appropriate than you might imagine, for many instructors perceive their work with remedial students from a rigid, medico-militaristic perspective: as babysitting doomed patients trapped on a terminal ward. Listen to these words from Mike Rose’s article entitled “The Language of Exclusion“:
Such talk reveals an atomistic, mechanistic-medical model of language that few contemporary students of the use of language, from educators to literary theorists, would support. Furthermore, the notion of remediation, carrying with it as it does the etymological wisps and traces of disease, serves to exclude from the academic community those who are so labeled. They sit in scholastic quarantine until their disease can be diagnosed and remedied.
The long-term solution to this problem is to fire everybody in the first and second grades and replace them with teachers who know the meaning of the words zest and gusto, who possess the innate ability to impart wonder and enthusiasm—and above all a love of the imagination—in even the dullest of their students.
But what about the present? What about the barely literate teenagers who are filling up our high schools now, who will soon be sitting in entry level English classes in colleges all across this nation, fully expecting to be passed on to the next level even if they don’t do any work at all—a reasonable expectation given their past experience with social promotion (another insidious phenomenon inspired by the unreasonable fear of lawsuits)? What, you may ask, do we do about these “lost kids” who have fallen between the cracks?
We do the only thing we can do. We assault them with our enthusiasm. We attack them with wonder. We pelt them with a fusillade of bullets packed with enough imaginative power to knock their brains out of their skulls and leave them bleeding and dying on the Pepsi-stained tiled floors of our classrooms. Of course, their death will be a metaphorical one. (Any student of the Tarot knows that death is merely another word for “transformation.”)
In order to accomplish this transformation, the first thing that has to go is Political Correctness. Next, the fear of lawsuits. And finally the Hegelian notion of dialectics.
(Note: Some might argue that this article merely employs Hegelian dialectics in reverse. After all, I identify a thesis (i.e., schools maintain the status quo), then work through various antitheses that lead to some level of synthesis. This argument, however, would be inaccurate. The problem with Hegelian dialectics is its basic assumption that one can never know the whole truth. Within a self-limiting system such as this, it’s impossible to solve any problem, no matter how large or small. Why bother identifying the source of a problem if the paradigm itself prevents it from being dealt with once and for all? The process of Hegelian dialectics merely synthesizes the problem into a strange new form—a mutant hybrid, so to speak. In this article I’m not trying to create a new synthesis; instead, I’m trying to say I know the nature of the game. The reason we haven’t solved the problems facing the world today (including the disintegrating educational system, the tensions in the Middle East, the paucity of fossil fuels, and world hunger) is because everybody is hypnotized by the notion that we can only know so much. That kind of thinking got us into this mess in the first place. As Albert Einstein once said, “Any problem cannot be solved at the same level at which it was created.” I’m not advocating a synthesis of any kind; I’m advocating knocking all the pieces off the game board and starting anew. )
Human thought cannot be divided into thesis and anti-thesis. No significant question has only three or four possible answers. Though the universe might very well be contained within a grain of sand, it cannot be contained within a Scan-Tron bubble. Similarly, the notion of “Good” or “Bad”—“Appropriate” or “Inappropriate”—writing should be tossed out the window along with good ol’ Hegel. Students should be allowed to read whatever interests them. If the student doesn’t know what interests him, the teacher has to take the time to find that out and match him with a book that might appeal to him, that might stoke the fires of his imagination.
I’ve had great success sparking a love of reading in culturally impoverished students since 2002. Year after year students give my English classes glowing reviews, mainly (I suspect) because I’m able to impart to them my passion for the written word. In the past I’ve accomplished this by assigning great works of literature: poems, short stories, novels, even some graphic novels. And yet, despite this consistent success, on April 20, 2012, the English Department at CSULB banned all literature from its composition courses. I’ve been told, for reasons that seem purposely opaque, that I’m threatening the security of the entire English Department if I assign Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (a novel I’ve used with undeniable success in the past). A colleague of mine has been ordered to stop teaching George Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps most disturbing of all, I have another colleague who used to assign Ray Bradbury’s classic anti-censorship novel, Fahrenheit 451, but will now be prevented from doing so as of the Fall 2012 semester. Many of my colleagues, in these difficult economic times, plan to acquiesce to these demands for fear of losing their jobs; meanwhile, classic works of literature are ripped out of the hands of students who desperately need to understand how joyful reading and writing can be.
It appears that the main reason the department heads are enforcing this ban on literature is (simply) that they’re frightened. It’s been reported in several newspapers that the CSU system has announced the development of a 24th campus called “CSU Online” that will be entirely virtual. Because of this, there are very real concerns that the CSU system will convert the English Department at CSULB to an online program, thus causing the loss of numerous teaching positions. What’s the easiest and least imaginative way of proving to The Powers That Be that one can make substantial and sweeping changes in a university English Department? Why, get rid of all that “unnecessary stuff” like poetry and novels and short stories.
But the fact is this: The only asset a human teacher has over an online, virtual experience is the ability to transmit genuine passion to his or her students. What better way to share passion than through great literature? Alas, it’s this essential element, this passion, that’s being eliminated through de facto censorship. Without such passion, all need for a non-virtual teaching experience vanishes. Therefore, the changes being implemented to save the department are changes that will most likely lead to the total destruction of the department. I needn’t tell you, of course, that this is called irony… a literary concept I myself learned about in an English class while studying literature.
In the 8-6-08 edition of The Long Beach Press-Telegram, Ray Bradbury wrote a biting op-ed piece entitled “Is Long Beach At War With Books?” in which he protested the forced closure of local bookstores and the cutting of public library funds in Long Beach. When seen in context, it’s clear that this ban on literature at CSULB is merely part of a larger trend that’s been occurring in American cities for some time now. The poet Diane Di Prima once wrote, “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” Though I wish it weren’t so, that war appears to be in full swing in the English Department at CSULB and all across the nation, perhaps best represented by the forced adoption of what is called the “Common Core State Standards Initiative” among American public schools from sea to shining sea.
An editorial published in the 12-27-12 edition of the Los Angeles Times warns:
[T]here’s no getting around it: The curriculum plan […] looks almost certain to diminish exposure to works of literature, from Seuss to Salinger. That goes too far.
The ruckus is over the new common core standards—public school math and English curricula adopted by more than 45 states, including California—that are supposed to raise the level of what students are being taught. In addition, the core standards are intended to make it easier and less expensive for states to devise better lesson plans, develop more meaningful standardized tests and compare notes on how much students are learning.
Scheduled to take effect in the 2014-15 school year, the standards emphasize, as they should, plenty of diverse reading material. But they have become controversial over the requirement that the reading assigned to younger students should be half fiction and half nonfiction, and that by high school the ratio should be 30% fiction and 70% nonfiction. This has led to allegations that T.S. Eliot will make way for Environmental Protection Agency reports and that “Great Expectations” will be dumped in favor of, well, lower expectations. (“What Students Read”)
Now listen to these wise words by educator Susan Ohanian, extracted from her 6-19-12 article entitled “Business Week Revealed Why Common Core Disdains Fiction in 2000”:
[e.e. cummings] is the kind of writing primary graders savor. I speak from first-hand, on-the-spot observation here. Of course, teacher experience, knowledge, and intuition count for nothing. NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English], my professional organization for decades, is deaf to my expertise […].
An oft-repeated assertion of self-proclaimed Common Core architect David Coleman is that nonfiction is where students get information about the world and that’s why schools must stop teaching so much fiction. In this assertion, Coleman is echoing the corporate world which he is hired to serve […].
Downgrading the importance of fiction in our schools, saying that children gain information about the world only through nonfiction, is the Common Core’s role in “educating students” to fill […] in-demand jobs […].
In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle Chris Hedges points out that universities have already accepted their corporate role, and “As universities become glorified vocational schools for corporations they adopt values and operating techniques of the corporations they serve” […].
Local newspapers are filled with stories of teachers “getting ready for the Common Core.” What they mean is teachers are using the summer break to prepare for visitation from bloated, opportunistic blood-sucking Common Core vampire squad inspectors… making sure there’s no fiction glut depriving youngsters of their job skill opportunities […].
[…] NCTE, IRA [International Reading Association], and NCTM [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] are too busy churning out […] books and teacher training videos on how to use the Common Core. Yes, the complicity of our professional organizations plus the complicity of the unions has made Common Core a done deal. But if you believe in heaven and hell, you know where the Standardistos who rob children of imagination and dreams will end up.
When a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. This includes teachers. There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt against corporate power or you lose your profession.
Part II: The War Against the Imagination
And after your profession, your imagination? Your independence? Your life?
According to the ancient teachings of Zen Buddhism, love and fear are the two primary emotions that motivate the daily actions of human beings. My personal teaching style is motivated by an intense love of the imagination and the freedom of both speech and thought. The emotion that motivates the “Standardistos” is fear and fear alone: the fear of taking a stand, the fear of losing their precarious positions in a crumbling system, the fear of teachers losing control of their students’ souls, the fear of students becoming independent and self-sufficient at long last.
I myself first learned independent thought from Lewis Carroll and Alice, from Kenneth Graham and Mr. Toad, from L. Frank Baum and Dorothy Gale, from Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, from Edgar Allan Poe and C. Auguste Dupin. So many children first learn to interact with the world around them—in a questioning way—at the inception of an imagination in their developing brains, an imagination most often introduced to them through the endless worlds of fiction and poetry and song.
I recently heard a radio interview with the actor/musician Ice T (whose best album, appropriately enough, is called Freedom of Speech—Just Watch What You Say) in which he talked about his love of reading fiction as a boy. Though he grew up in a poverty-stricken environment in which reading was not encouraged (not by his school teachers, not by his parents, and certainly not by his friends), he somehow managed to stumble across a series of urban novels by a black writer named Iceberg Slim. The first novel he discovered was called Pimp. Slim is a well-known writer in some circles. His novels are violent, racist, and unapologetically realistic. He writes about what he knows and he does it well. This gritty mimeticism struck a chord in the young Ice T. He proceeded to read all of Slim’s novel at a fast clip, and went on from there to discover an even broader world of literature. But he wouldn’t have been able to do so if he hadn’t been inspired by the in-your-face realistic novels of Iceberg Slim.
Are Iceberg Slim’s novels “literature”? Are they “appropriate” reading material for high school kids? Who cares? Many of these same high school kids are shooting each other with automatic rifles. Is that appropriate? Why aren’t Iceberg Slim’s novels made available to high school students? Why not allow them to read literature they can identify with instead of the mawkish sentimentalism of staid essays extracted from the Reader’s Digest? If the purpose of school was really to teach, this (or something like it) would already have happened. The fact that it hasn’t happened can mean only one thing: The purpose of school is not to teach; the purpose of school is to maintain the status quo.
Listen to the words of Antony Sutton, a former economics professor at California State University, Los Angeles:
A tragic failure of American education in this century has been a failure to teach children how to read and write and how to express themselves in a literary form. For the educational system this may not be too distressing. As we shall see later, their prime purpose is not to teach subject matter but to condition children to live as socially integrated citizen units in an organic society—a real life enactment of the Hegelian absolute State. In this State the individual finds freedom only in obedience to the State, consequently the function of education is to prepare the individual citizen unit for smooth entry into the organic whole.
However, it is puzzling that the educational system allowed reading to deteriorate so markedly. It could be that [they want] the citizen components of the organic State to be little more than automated order takers; after all a citizen who cannot read and write is not going to challenge The Order […]. This author spent five years teaching at a State University in the early 1960s and was appalled by the general inability to write coherent English, yet gratified that some students had not only evaded the system, acquired vocabulary and writing skills, but these exceptions had the most skepticism about The Establishment.
This is no coincidence. Any child or adult whose consciousness has been forged by media imagery, who has no experience with literacy whatsoever, will inevitably begin to mimic the cliches of popular entertainment. Their vision of the world and the people in it will be filtered through the Seurat-like pointillist dots of a television screen. Their goals will be based on a corporate-owned nightmare manufactured in a Hollywood studio or an office on Madison Avenue or a think tank in Washington, D.C.
In light of the increasing amount of darkly surreal political scandals emerging from the White House these days (i.e., “Benghazi-gate,” “AP-gate,” “IRS-gate”), one can’t help but wonder if the real reason Those In Power wish to eradicate fiction from American education is to make the next generation of voters unfamiliar with the very concept of fiction itself, thus rendering the citizenry incapable of recognizing pure fiction when it appears on the nightly news or—more specifically—when it comes pouring out of the mouth of a duplicitous President on a regular basis. Distinguishing between lies and truth requires the skill to think independently, a skill best reinforced by the imagination itself, the ability to consider possibilities.
One day many years ago, back when I was in middle school, my Civics teacher became ill all of a sudden. A substitute teacher came to take his place. I think he was in his early to mid-twenties. He was a handsome blond gentleman, fairly athletic looking. He didn’t seem like your normal kind of teacher at all. He ignored the instructions our regular teacher had left for him and instead launched into a monologue that went something like this: “Everything you know is a lie. Everything you’ve been taught is a lie. History? It’s just a pack of fairy tales. Hey, you, kid!” He pointed at a popular boy sitting in the front row. “Who’s George Washington?”
The boy laughed nervously, sensing a trick question in the air. “Uh… well, uh, the first President of America?”
“Wrong. The first President of the United States was a man named John Hanson. So what’s George Washington most famous for? What’d he do?”
“Uh… he… well, he chopped down a cherry tree, right?”
“Yeah? And then what he’d do?”
The kid couldn’t answer, so somebody else jumped in: “He told his mom about it, ‘cause he couldn’t tell a lie!”
The substitute replied, “Bullshit, man! Just more bullshit, never happened! None of this ever fucking happened!”
An uncomfortable silence fell upon the room. The most disruptive class clowns weren’t even making funny noises with their armpits. Nobody knew what to do. Abruptly, everybody had been teleported to an alternate dimension where everything seemed a lot more uncertain—and a lot more serious—than ever before.
He suggested to us that if we wanted to understand “true” history, we should read a novel entitled Illuminatus!, a three-volume work of psychedelic fabulism by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Needless to say, we never saw that particular teacher again. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Nor should I have been surprised when I discovered, ten years later, while doing research among the stacks of the CSU Long Beach library, that John Hanson was “elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled on November 5, 1781, the first of seven such one-year termed presidents,” whereas George Washington wasn’t elected President until 1789. My source for that little-known factoid is an obscure 1978 book entitled The Illuminoids. Is it possible that that weird substitute had read the same book? Maybe he’d even read the same exact copy! I wish I could ask him. I often wonder if he’s still in the teaching biz. Somehow I doubt it.
By the way, I’ve since read almost every single book (fiction and nonfiction) written by Robert Anton Wilson.
The reason students resist us is because they know, at some subconscious level, that they’re not getting the whole story. They know they’re being lied to. When they begin to hear even a small dollop of the truth or at least some facsimile thereof—as I did that day in middle school twenty-seven years ago—they’ll sit up and take notice. And they’ll never forget the experience. They’ll hunger for more.
Why not combine creativity with honesty in our writing assignments? Why not begin to teach critical thinking skills? This needn’t be done in a boring, perfunctory manner. It can be fun. Indeed, how can it not be fun? I suggest photocopying choice articles from the most recent Fortean Times (purveyor of such classic headlines as “POPOBAWA!: In Search of Zanzibar’s Bat-winged Terror” or, a personal favorite, “HELL HOUND OF THE TRENCHES: THE DEVIL DOG WITH A MADMAN’S BRAIN!”) and distributing them to the class with the following directions: “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, I want you to take this home, glance through it, read the articles that interest you, then pick a particular article and write a four-page essay explaining why you think it’s either true or not true. Now let me warn you, this isn’t a straw man argument. Just because it’s in Fortean Times doesn’t mean it’s not true. That’s the beauty of it all. There’s a clever mixture of truth and untruth in here. It’s your job to separate the wheat from the chaff. Think you can do it?”
I guarantee you every single one of those students would find that assignment a hell of a lot more intriguing than writing about the use of the semi-colon in Das Kapital. Not only will I be strengthening my students’ skills in philosophy, logic, and composition, but I’ll also be doing my basic civic duty; after all, the skills they’ll be honing from this assignment will be the same ones they’ll need to exercise during the next Presidential election. And no doubt the one after that.
One of the most informative and entertaining writing assignments I ever worked on in college was given to me not in an English class, oddly enough, but in a logic class. We were asked to learn all the various categories of fallacies, then—over the course of a month—comb through books, magazines, newspapers, and TV shows to find examples of each. I found ad hominem arguments in The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, examples of reductio ad absurdum in Awake (the newspaper published by the Jehovah’s Witness), and a panoply of red herrings in no less a scholarly source than Alice in Wonderland. I’ve never forgotten that assignment, and the knowledge I drew from it has come in quite handy in my everyday life. Composition students could benefit from writing projects such as this, assignments that blur the distinctions between curricula. I’m convinced such distinctions will become less and less tenable in the holistic world we now find ourselves entering.
Just as the CIA never pulls off a covert operation unless it has a good chance of scratching a number of itches at once, I would never think of assigning an essay topic that wasn’t holistic to some degree. As our post-quantum milieu grows more and more complex, people will be forced to adopt a holistic perspective toward life out of pure necessity, just to get through the day. It’s no longer sufficient to become an expert in a single task, chained to an assembly line going nowhere. As technology grows more and more baroque and bizarre, as boundaries dissolve and paradigms shift, as old religions fade and new ones rise to take their place, people must learn to become what Marshall McLuhan called “Menippeans”: media ecologists who can slip in and out of various artificial environments at will, as if said environments were nothing more than cheap clothing.
The confusing advent of virtual reality and nanotechnology machines will demand that people either learn to exercise skills of perception and logic and discernment or be left out in the cold. If you can change your bedroom into an African veldt and your gender twice before lunch, you damn well better embrace a holistic approach to life. The first years of the twenty-first century will be nothing like what’s gone before, and by the time we reach 2050 we will have arrived in a world wholly unrecognizable from the last decade of the 20th century. As with most change, people will resist it kicking and screaming. There will be political coups, religious autos-da-fe, and violence galore. Nonetheless, the old paradigm will inevitably wilt away. It always does. If we as English teachers can use our influence to help soften the transition by subtly encouraging a multidisciplinary approach toward life via the essays (or “thought experiments”) we assign, then so be it. If we’re going to have their porous little brains in the palms of our hands anyway, why waste the opportunity?
In his 1985 article “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae presents a rather unelastic and rigid view of teaching language, rhetoric, and art. He writes, “Teaching students to revise for readers, then, will better prepare them to write initially with a reader in mind. The success of this pedagogy depends on the degree to which a writer can imagine and conform [emphasis mine] to a reader’s goals”. Bartholomae has everything ass-backwards. In order to make the system succeed, the writer needn’t conform to the audience; the audience must conform to the writer. Similarly, in the educational system, the student needn’t conform to the teacher; the teacher needs to conform to the student. Why teach if you’re not willing to adapt yourself to the needs of the student?
Allow me to make myself clear: Finding out what the student needs doesn’t necessarily mean giving the student what he wants. Indeed, the answer will often be quite the opposite. When Marshall McLuhan began teaching composition at the University of Wisconsin, he soon realized that his students couldn’t care less about writers long dead. He began assigning them such odd tasks as writing about commercials, TV shows, popular rock bands, and movie stars, but had them do so in the same serious, scholarly manner that would be expected of them if they were writing about Percy Shelley. By the end of the semester, they were so sick of pop culture they went back to writing about Shakespeare and/or Francis Bacon with glee. This is an example of reverse psychology par excellence (and another good example of what happens when a teacher embraces resistance rather than attempting to stamp it out).
McLuhan recognized that his students needed to be shocked out of their media-controlled mindset, so he adapted his skills to their situation. But he had to be totally free, emphasizing a holistic approach, in order to even begin accomplishing the difficult goal of bridging the vast divide between teacher and student. One way this can be done is by embracing their resistance through the language of Art.
In a 1981 book entitled The Making of Meaning, Ann E. Berthoff published a fascinating article entitled “The Intelligent Eye and the Thinking Hand.” Berthoff’s views on Art and Language are far more compelling than Bartholomae’s. Berthoff is a champion of the imagination over the mechanistic. She writes, “I believe that for teachers of composition, such a philosophy of mind is best thought of as a theory of imagination. If we reclaim imagination as the forming power of mind, we will have the theoretical wherewithal for teaching composition as a mode of thinking and a way of learning”.
In his 1980 essay “Concepts of Art and the Teaching of Writing,” Richard E. Young advocates a more systematic approach. At one point in the essay he quotes John Genung as saying, “It is as mechanism that [rhetoric] must be taught; the rest must be left to the student himself”. But if we approach the teaching of grammar or rhetoric or art or literature as a mere mechanistic process, if we don’t emphasize creativity and inspiration and imagination and the sheer aesthetic WOW that comes from reading an excellent piece of literature or seeing a brilliant film or experiencing a well-acted play, then what is teaching for? Do we really instill the love of reading in students by analyzing nonfiction articles about possible racism in Internal Revenue Service hiring statistics, or do we demonstrate the sheer LOVE of great art by allowing them to take part in the process themselves, by letting them know that artists aren’t exotic silver-haired creatures living atop mist-enshrouded mountains in some far away land, writing on ancient parchments with fingers made of glass? Artists started out (and still are, in most cases) the same exact grubby people as the students. There’s no difference, except that one has learned to translate experience into an aesthetic product for the enjoyment of everyone. Anyone can do the same, even the dullest of us, if the love of reading is instilled at the earliest age possible.
Marshall McLuhan once said, “I don’t explain, I explore”. If they want to connect with their students, teachers must encourage exploration over explanation. Robert Smithson, the brilliant sculptor who created the breathtaking “Spiral Getty” in Utah, once wrote, “Establish enigmas, not explanations.” If teachers can somehow learn how to instill a love of enigmas over explanations in their students—even if they succeed with only one student in a class of twenty or forty—then progress will have been made. The language of Art is one of discovery. The teacher is merely the guide, taking the student by the hand—without the student ever noticing, ideally, since he or she should be too busy enjoying the ride—through a maze that isn’t so intimidating at all once the student begins to love the journey more than the destination.
The Reluctant Hero is a common trope in literature and mythology. Joseph Campbell writes extensively about this pattern in his numerous books on the power of myth. Whether in a fairy tale, a religious parable, an epic poem, a literary masterpiece, a blockbuster summer movie, or a mere comic book, the Hero very rarely embraces the call to adventure. He resists it to the bitter end. Only a pre-programmed machine could be expected to do as it’s instructed—to do “what’s best for it” without questioning the wisdom of the programmer. Any reaction other than resistance would be somewhat less than human. What well-read teacher, versed in the strange idiosyncrasies of human behavior and history, could be surprised by such resistance?
As former high school teacher John Taylor Gatto wrote in his September 2003 Harper’s Magazine article entitled “Against School”:
First […] we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
Alas, I suspect many years will pass before the American educational system endorses such a simple and glorious solution. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “Human beings will always do the intelligent thing, after they’ve exhausted all the stupid alternatives.” I believe an intelligent course correction is inevitable; however, in the meantime teachers needn’t sit around waiting for an official endorsement from the State. All they have to do is exploit the most valuable asset in their classroom, one that requires no funding from the government.
All they have to do is exercise the imaginations of their students, as well as their own, by offering a panoply of choices and then getting the hell out of the way.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” 1985. Composition in Four Keys. Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1996. 460-79. Print.
Berthoff, Ann. “The Intelligent Eye and the Thinking Hand.” 1981. Composition in Four Keys. Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1996. 40-44. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Capra P., 1989. Print.
Gatto, John Taylor. “Against School.” Harper’s Magazine (September 2003): 33-38. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. McLuhan: Hot & Cool. New York: Signet, 1967. Print.
Ohanian, Susan. “Business Week Revealed Why Common Core Disdains Fiction in 2000.” Susanohanian.org. Web. 19 June 2012.
Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion.” 1985. Composition in Four Keys. Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1996. 445-59. Print.
Sutton, Antony. America’s Secret Establishment. Billings: Liberty House P, 1986. Print.
Villanueva, Victor. “Ingles in the Colleges.” 1993. Composition in Four Keys. Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1996. 503-19. Print.
“What Students Read.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 27 Dec. 2012: A16. Print.
Wilgus, Neal. The Illuminoids. Albuquerque: Sun Publishing Co., 1981. Print.
Young, Richard. “Concepts of Art and the Teaching of Writing.” 1980. Composition in Four Keys. Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1996. 176-83. Print.