Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on Consumerocracies: Commodifying Truth

Bear with me. I am about to wax philosophical.

From Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation, p.96:

"Learning itself…is now defined increasingly not as a process or preoccupation that holds satisfaction of its own in propreitary terms. "Taking ownership" is the accepted term…children are encouraged to believe they "own" the book, the concept, the idea. They don't engage with knowledge; they possess it."

Every teacher has had that explosive epiphanic moment when a great concept dawns fresh in his or her mind, allowing each one of us to glance at the truth of human existence; from our most poetic literature to our most elegant mathematics, we seek to understand our world and discover a bit of Truth in our short, yet important, existences. From the most experienced professor to the most down-trodden of poor and homeless, we have no claim to the common Truth that binds us. We seek instead to kill, to steal, to swindle, and to shop our way to a counterfeit feeling of purpose that can never satisfy. How dare we, we teachers who are meant to guide our students in a quest for Truth, pretend that anyone can own any part of our great human Truth, our great lives.

Anymore, we acknowledge the Truth with our lips, and then betray it in the face of real need, love, and understanding: the children and teens of tomorrow's world. These young trustees, for they are as entrusted to us as they attempt to place trust in us, expect a world of market-readiness in school. The truth is that not all subjects supply "McKnowledge" on a sesame seed bun (with or without the special sauce); they shouldn't and they have no business trying. Find the business application of Coltrane, seek the bottom line in Orff, delve for the cold equations of life in Proust--I am an English teacher and I'm still seeking my slice of Truth in Proust--these things simply do not exist in parcel form within these great human works. They will not and they cannot exist in the humanities. The humanities exist as a counterpoint to the almost deific experience of finding natural truth in a science lab or abstract truth in an imaginary number.

When Roman emperors would ride into Rome victorious, they used to have slaves that would stand next to them in their chariots and whisper into their ears one phrase over-and-over again: "You're only human." The humanities, and forgive my subservient metaphor, are the slave to the mathematics and sciences in our schools and in our worlds. Where science may think it has found truth, literature finds a way to remind it of the humans that helped it discover that truth. Where mathematicians believe they have "found" golden ratios and numerical patterns in the natural world, musicians have known how to apply these ratios and patterns to the notes that please and inspire us. The sciences and mathematics may deal in more tangible truths, but only the humanities can interpret their worth; they are both necessary in the "educated" person's life, the yin and yang of our schooling.

Science and math are important, but they are only human inventions, not the keys to apotheosis. Trump and his millions be damned, but there is more satisfaction in the sublime realization of glanced-at truth than in all the dollars I've ever earned or spent; yet, we tell our trustees, our charges who place their intellectual faith is us, that the bottom line matters and the larger Truths are irrelevant. That may be our greatest failure as teachers and as people: missing an opportunity to awaken our students to the beauty of human life so that they may see, engage in, and learn some form of Truth.

In the Purgatorio, Dante's pilgrim is branded with seven P's by the angel who guards the gates of purgatory. The angel says to the pilgrim "When thou art within, see thou wash away these wounds." As he climbs each of the levels of Mount Purgatory, an angel confronts the pilgrim before he passes to the next consecutive level. The angel wipes away one of the P's as he speaks the beatitude that cures the particular sin of that level (e.g., pride's opposite is the beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit" or the humble). School is the purgatory of life. Our students come to us and we are supposed to give them the knowledge not just to live, but to live good lives. I have no space here for a discussion of moral definitions or religious apologetics, but I find it interesting that a lot of what we say is "wrong" in our hearts and minds seems to match up across the board (at least when it seems to really matter). The point is that unless we present humanity at its weakest and at its strongest, we are letting a golden opportunity slip through our fingers. We are playing at becoming Satan, directing students to consume the fruit of knowledge without showing them its proper and improper uses, without showing them how to make critical judgments. We show them the sin and we present to them the beatitude; then we, mistakenly, tell them that both have equal value.

We don't own knowledge. We don't own Truth. We do occasionally get a privileged glance at it. We want our students to come to the Truth as it can be seen, to engage with it, and to have it leave its mark on them; however, most of all, we want them to leave their indelible mark upon it. We wonder why our students misbehave: they know what we are cheating them out of, holding out in front of them. We are dangling the ability to interpret and appreciate Truth in front of them like a carrot before an ass. I wouldn't like the metaphor either.

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