November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
July 25, 2008
Educational reform, like death and taxes, seems to be always upon us, a collective fantasy evoking all kinds of incompatible wish-fulfillments. Nearly everyone is sure that we must improve our educational system, yet almost no one agrees as to how, exactly, that improvement is supposed to come about, or, for that matter, what is wrong with the system to begin with. Consider the following contradictory stock-phrases of “educational reform”: We should require more arts, because creativity will keep America competitive in world markets. We should teach more science and math, because innovation will keep us competitive in world markets. We should reduce the amount of homework students are assigned. We should increase academic rigor at all levels. Kids are becoming criminals due to lack of education. We must keep criminal kids out of our schools. Teachers are demanding too much pay for too little work. Teachers are not paid enough for the work they do. Colleges should decrease tuition. Colleges should accept more students. No child should be left behind. Our entire educational system is falling behind. For every person advocating one solution, there is another calling for its opposite. At this rate, nothing will be solved.
Two causes explain this near-universal tendency to prescribe scholastic change. The first is the simple, instinctual desire that our offspring be secure and healthy. In our highly compartmentalized society, joining a PTA or lobbying for line-items in an educational budget is the equivalent of building a nest that is safe from predators. A half-step away from such contemporary egg-setting is the desire for class stability. Good bourgeois fathers want a bourgeois life for their children, because it confirms them (the fathers) in their social status and validates the hard work, late nights, and induced insomnia of corporate climbing. The second cause behind our reformist tendencies is that public education may be America’s only truly socialized institution. As a result, it becomes an easy target for general social improvement, the space into which all of our anxieties and aspirations can be projected. We cannot really attack the marketplace for some perceived societal ill, nor can we, with our widespread apologetic attitude toward government interference, rely upon the “authorities” to fix our problems directly. Thus, the school system becomes both an easy target and a panacea. With proper education, so our collective fantasies go, we could end AIDS, we could curb global warming, we could secure world peace. Nothing offers us the elusive promise of collective happiness like the schoolhouse in our dreams.
Rarely challenged in the perpetual educational debate are the terms by which we evaluate and justify education in the first place. These words are not merely talking points, but are, instead, the animating principles behind our pedagogical practices; they are the commitments and assumptions that dictate how we act, think, and feel. The way we imagine classrooms, teachers, and students will determine the nature and content of our curricula, the manner in which we conduct our classes, and the skills and knowledge we seek to evaluate and pass on. Thus, a radical critique of education cannot simply focus on specific policies but must turn its gaze on the beliefs and assumptions from which those practices originate.1
Perhaps the most important beliefs or assumptions that one must identify are the implicit and declared goals. At the end of the day, what do we want our education to produce? In an amendment to SB 1108, the Arizona state legislature recently provided some ostensible clarity on this point by providing the following guidelines:
1. A primary purpose of public education is to inculcate values of American citizenship.
2. Public tax dollars used in public schools should not be used to denigrate American values and the teachings of Western civilization.
3. Public tax dollars should not be used to promote political, religious, ideological, or cultural beliefs or values as truth when such values are in conflict with the values of American citizenship and the teachings of Western civilization.2
Clearly, the goals for education in this amendment are based upon a pedagogy of national identity. Public education is designed to properly “inculcate” the young into a system of “values” and “teachings.” The assumption, of course, is that those values and teachings are immediately identifiable and enforceable and that we can deny public funding (as the amendment goes on to threaten) when those values are not being properly affirmed. The definition of educational ends underlying this amendment’s claims is highly expeditious from the perspective of a national politics. The position, advocated by many, is that social and cultural stability can only be cultivated if we provide a coherent and relatively homogenous educational experience, one that sufficiently guarantees a standard of, in this case, Americanness. This pedagogy requires cultural and social imitation in which students become citizens by copying an ideal model of how a citizen should look, act, think, and, in the contentious arena of immigration policy from which this particular bill emerged, speak.3 “Citizen,” in this case, is presented as a universal ideal based upon specific, identifiable criteria which define Americanness. Education, according to this amendment, is no less than ideological indoctrination, converting the other into the citizen.
The problem, of course, is that it is unclear who determines and identifies the ideological criteria. The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s were waged on exactly these grounds: each side argued for the superiority of its particular reading list and, in effect, the kind of citizen its canon would produce. Indeed, both the classically educated product of “Western Civ” and the happy multiculturalist are cultivated according to an idealized norm: these are the books students should read, these are the thoughts students should think, these are the terms students should use. A paper based on a reading of Shakespeare is good whereas a paper that dallies in the revolutionary poetics of Amiri Baraka is bad, or vice versa. Thus, what often gets missed is that although the culture wars had (or have, in their dying throes) two sides, there was essentially only one form of educational reasoning at work.4 And unless that reasoning changes, the debate will be endless and inevitable, one loud and morally self-justified screaming match after another, the continual substitution of one idealized student-product for another.
The Arizona state legislature’s attempt to mandate citizen-making is one example of an implicit (or, more properly speaking, fairly explicit) educational goal, but there is another scholastic end that is equally popular in our age of globalized economic expansion, namely the production of the capitalist technocrat. This educational end is subtly operative in the recent story of Dartmouth instructor Priya Venkatesan, who received national attention when she threatened to sue her students for creating what she called a discriminatory work environment.5 Venkatesan claimed that her students were aggressive bullies who challenged her authority and caused her psychological and emotional anxiety. Setting aside the real actions of the students and of the instructor, the threat of a workplace lawsuit in such a scenario is, in and of itself, revelatory. Suing one’s students for on the job harassment suggests that the classroom has become primarily an economic transaction, a business deal in which students pay for goods and services rendered and, in turn, an instructor has every right to guarantee that she receives proper working conditions. No longer is the classroom seen as a space for shared intellectual inquiry; instead, it is treated as a site of capitalist exchange.6
The capitalist thinking embedded in many of our contemporary pedagogical debates are thinly camouflaged, if at all, and remarkably pervasive. One of the most common defenses of education in the last century is that it is a doorway to economic security, that it provides opportunities for students to attain jobs and careers. Education, in this case, is merely and only valued as preparation for the marketplace. In such an environment, suing one’s teacher or students makes perfect sense. If a course’s ultimate goal is to make me more marketable, than I have the right to demand that the course produce economic results, that the conditions of the contract, as it were, are met. In this case, the student is treated as a consumer with a certain amount of purchasing power and a right to use that power however he or she chooses. Supplementing the student’s consumer status is the practical fact that the student is treated as a capitalist employee-in-training. Two of our more common pedagogical tools, less used then they once were, to be sure, but still present, are the worksheet and, especially, the standardized test, which do not look much different from the form-filing and performance reviews required by bureaucratic corporate culture. Similarly, educational institutions at all levels are not only evaluated by successful graduation rates but also by the subsequent placement of those graduates within the workforce. High schools are judged according to the number of graduates who go off to college, and colleges, in turn, are ranked by U.S News and World Report largely (though not exclusively) due to the quality of jobs that their graduates attain. Thus, it seems that in both student-teacher interactions and overall institutional performance, the logic of the marketplace is inescapable.
These are just two examples of the goals most commonly prescribed for education today: the production of the citizen and the production of the capitalistic consumer. Indeed, these two “products” are often interchangeable. For example, as we slide toward a recession, our politicians have passed stimulus packages to coax us into consumption-capitalism; we are taught that spending is the premier form of civic duty. However, although a stable citizenry and a healthy economy are good things, I contend that if we found our education on these goals alone, we will achieve neither. Instead, as Wendell Berry puts it in his essay “The Loss of the University,” the mandate for education is “to make or to help to make [. . .] human beings in the fullest sense of those words—not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture.”7 To produce the worker or the citizen is to reduce our full humanity to merely one cultural element or activity and to thereby damage or destroy our remaining mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties. It is, of course, both dangerous and wrongheaded to say that a person is not a citizen or an employee, or that the ability to enter into the political and economic processes is insignificant. But it is also foolish to evaluate pedagogical outcomes by these criteria alone. The resulting cultural condition is simply unsustainable: A homogeneous army of color-by-number employees may represent an easily controlled body politic, but the other human practices and creative actions that ultimately give capitalism and politics their meaning will be diminished, degraded, or otherwise starved—the necessary cultural contraries (in William Blake’s sense of the term) which keep society in line will disappear.
So how do we escape these limited notions of educational ends and the reductionist anthropologies they presume? Taking Berry’s point in a slightly different direction, I propose that our educational goal should be to produce a human subject. To put it in even more radical terms, education should seek to cultivate the “universal subject.” There are a number of ideas tied up in this phrase, but as a simple definition, “universal” implies accessibility to everyone, not simply the peculiar members of a nation-state or class. And by “subject,” I am seeking to evoke “subjectivity” as an ongoing, interactive, and personal relationship to the world in which one participates, a relationship with a world that is made up of innumerable and yet particular things, words, events, and persons. In this way, the two terms complement one another: universality allows us to speak of an education offered to all, while subjectivity implies a changeable and historically sensitive selfhood. If we ground our pedagogy on the desire to cultivate the universal subject, we will be on the road to a full-bodied culture, one that is economically and politically viable yet also reflects the entire range of human activity and creativity.
But we must be careful—talk of the subject, particularly the universal one, may evoke ghosts of Enlightenment thinking, systems of thought which were often reductive and were even used as tools for exclusion and oppression. I am by no means advocating the return of a corrosive metaphysics that pushes ethnocentrism, patriarchy, and environmental imperialism as the basis for our pedagogy. But I do contend that there is still powerful merit in the notion of the subject, not as a node in a system or a moment of pure intellect, nor as a research participant or a state of being, but as a process, as a practice.8 Universal subjectivity is not something we are but something we do. This is not to say that it is separate from our sense of identity, our thoughts, desires, and histories, but that it is performed on and in those identities, and in that process of performance, it recreates our identities, changes them, reveals, challenges, and actualizes their possibilities. The universality of this practice comes from the fact that as an action it is available to everyone, even as it takes many different forms in its manifestation. We are all born into history, into language, and into culture—perhaps the only thing universal in our experience is the possibility that those histories do not fully determine who we are. Thus, universality emerges as this break in history, a promise, not a presence.
And it is here that Christian thinking becomes a crucial resource: the universal subject can be understood as a practice of discipleship, as a transformation available to everyone yet responsive to each person’s unique circumstances, and Christian theology can provide one of the more compelling examples of what that discipleship looks like. In doing so, it cuts the knots of a pedagogy based on nationalist codification, capitalist replication, or any other idealist abstraction that might serve as an educational end. Furthermore, if we read discipleship as a refusal to rely upon an ideal that must be imitated, Christian notions of discipleship can be applied to a secular environment, in the sense that these practices can be an approach to all education, not merely the upbringing of Christian youth. To be sure, secularization of theologically based practice always comes at a modification of that practice and includes some sort of loss. Nevertheless, efforts to articulate theological practices within a secular framework can be a powerful act of cultural exchange and a reaffirmation of the resources available to both believer and non-believer in theological thinking.9
To argue that Christian discipleship produces the universal subject may seem strange in light of the fact that the New Testament writers continually declare this subjectivity.10 On one level, universality is presented as a fact in the divine economy, first in that, after Adam, all are born under sin and second, that Christ provides a means for all to be brought into a state of grace.11 This first order of universality is best expressed in Paul’s famous declaration to the Galatians: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”12 Our unity with Christ effectively ruptures all other markers of identity, re-forming cultural, economic, and gendered differences into a single community. Or perhaps more accurately, the Christian identity so changes all other historic identities that they cease to be themselves, even though their remainders are still visible and not entirely escapable.
But what about the passages in the New Testament that rely upon these particular identities and offer specific guidelines for how these identities are to be worked out? For example, the New Testament includes explicit teaching directed to wives, to husbands, to children, to fathers, to slaves, to masters, to those who keep the dietary commands, and to those who reject them. Perhaps this is simply cultural baggage; perhaps this is an example of the apostles tainting their message of universality by recreating their ideological climates. Or alternatively, perhaps it supplants the gospel of grace with a doctrine of works. Does Paul’s command that the Christian ought to work out his or her salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) contradict his earlier declaration of universal subjectivity?
I suggest that the apparent contradiction between universality and particularity in the New Testament epistles is, in fact, a radical unification of the two terms in such a way that it produces a second order of universality, one which, as impossible as it sounds, can only be manifested within particularity. Although, according to Paul, unity in Christ is the Christian’s state of being, we are also individually caught up in a historically evolving, and historically produced identity, complete with a whole series of unique demands, expectations, material conditions, and practical challenges. The first order of universality which comes through being clothed in Christ changes our received identities and opens a space within them so that they can be comprehended and, most powerfully, changed. The resulting break is a second order of universality: because all are one in Christ, all have experienced this rupture and all are now in the condition of having to comprehend, as if for the first time, their historical particularity. Thus, the universal subject is also simultaneously male, female, Jew, or Greek, albeit a person becoming other in time, a becoming caught up in, yet never fully ruled by, particularity. In this way, we can read the apostolic commands regarding individual identities as a mandate for disciples to take their history seriously, to comprehend it, and in doing so, to shape their histories in such a way that they reflect that ultimate condition of unity in Christ. Universality within Christ is the promise that we are not entirely determined by that historical conditioning, and yet Christian doctrine clearly implies that historical identities are not entirely escapable.
The practice of discipleship in Christian thought, then, is the active mediation of these two simultaneous and apparently contradictory elements of existence; discipleship is an enactment of the universal process of making historical identity visible, and in doing so, making it open for something new. One cannot bring this newness about on one’s own, a Cartesian cogito uncovering universality in a dark and lonely corner. Nor can one achieve newness by imitating someone else’s interactions with the world. Instead, discipleship is a communal and dialogical practice in which we enable one another to both comprehend our individual backgrounds and, in that comprehension, to shape the present according to our equally real but not always visible unity in Christ. In other words, discipleship as a collaborative process of self-comprehension both characterizes and produces the truly universal subject. Unity in Christ provides the ontological possibility for that freedom through thoughtful self-comprehension, while discipleship is the never-ending process, in time, which brings that thinking about.
The promise of Christian universality is that this process is available to anyone and everyone—whether a bourgeois Manhattanite or a veiled woman in Dubai, a Texan or a Tamil—even though in each instance, within the dynamics of each communal and social setting, the manifestations of this process will look very different. The unforeseen outcome that is at the heart of every true act of discipleship or education makes this a practice that is both terrifying and thrilling. We are talking, after all, about transformation without a model, a scandal of freedom that cuts at the heart of both nationalist idealizations and capitalist reductions. Because it lacks a model, this freedom must be continually produced; it exists only in that flickering instance that Slavoj Žižek has called “the fragile Absolute.”13
So what does this have to do with secular education? And how might it provide an alternative to the pedagogy of national identity or the consumer? A pedagogy of discipleship argues that the fundamental result of education is not a product at all but a person who is working out freedom through self-comprehension, or more properly, a person who is becoming free in self-comprehension.14 This process, as I’ve already said, is not individualistic, even though it manifests itself in individual lives—indeed, it may best be understood, in the broadest sense, as ecological. Only by continually attempting to understand all of the forces (aesthetic, religious, political, economic, biological, chemical, genetic . . .) that have produced and are producing my historical identity, that is, by attempting to understand the ecology in which I am embedded, will I be able to comprehend myself and, in turn, be able to act, to become other than I currently am. I cannot achieve such knowledge on my own; I can only do that through the dynamics of a community. The (pedagogical-discipling) community both enables and modifies my freedom; it gives it a place to grow while forcing it to take responsibility for itself.
The need for real subjects, for Wendell Berry’s “human beings in the fullest sense,” has always been with us, regardless of how much we want to disavow that need by covering it over with easy substitutions and false promises. Our education system cannot continue to justify itself by either the production of the citizen or the production of the capitalist worker. To do so is to ensure cultural emaciation in the name of economic or political expediency by reducing all social production to a single and potentially dubious form. Politics and economies matter, and by no means should we abandon our students to the marketplace without preparation. But economic and political freedom is a product, not producer, of human freedom, and to confuse the two is to risk destroying them both.
Undoubtedly, it is much easier to critique theoretical presuppositions than to advocate for practical policies. And yet, the fundamental presuppositions we bring to our educational practices have dramatic consequences. If nothing else, our beliefs about the purpose and goal of education determine what we imagine to be possible, and this is then passed on to our students. If we think of them as no more than citizens or consumers, then that is all they will ever become. The affirmation of universal subjectivity through a pedagogy of discipleship cuts through those derivative and limiting identities. Universal subjectivity guarantees nothing—freedom, after all, is traumatic, not safe or comforting. Yet to abandon the possibility of cultivating and teaching that subject, to neglect the reimagination of our educational ends—such lapses ignore the needs of our own time and place; they deny our freedom and our very own humanity.
1. And the consequences of such a reevaluation can be dramatic. After all, the philosophic tradition of the West received a great deal of energy from Socrates, a self-proclaimed gadfly who spent much of his time undermining the educators of his day, the Sophists. These teachers focused largely, although not exclusively, on rhetoric, the art of persuasion. According to Socrates, such an education privileged manipulation over truth, appearance over reality, and opinion over knowledge. The scandal of Socrates was not that he beat the Sophists at their own game but that he changed the rules by unearthing the suppressed or unacknowledged consequences of a sophistic education. One could argue, then, that philosophical dialectics was born in the name of educational reform.
2. The entire amendment can be read at the Arizona state legislature’s webpage, “Committee on Appropriations House of Representatives Amendments to SB 1108,” http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc=/legtext/48leg/2R/adopted/H.1108-SE-APPROP.DOC.htm.
3. The use of imitation as an educational tool has a long and valuable tradition and is perhaps the foundation for much of our learning (think of a mother, addressing her as yet speechless infant, by repeating the phrase “mama”). Nevertheless, there are serious limitations to an educational system that proposes that the ends of education should be imitation of an imaginary ideal.
4. One of the better, though somewhat technical, assessments of this conflict can be found in John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
5. For a brief write-up, see Helen Kennedy, “Dartmouth Professor Threatens Students with Discrimination Lawsuit,” New York Daily News, April 30, 2008, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2008/04/30/2008-04-30_dartmouth_professor_threatens_students_w.html. The supposed lawsuit, as of this writing, has been dropped.
6. Teachers are not the only ones taking legal action. David Horowitz has famously been peddling an “Academic Bill of Rights” to state legislatures, which uses a similar logic to the logic used by Venkatesan in her threatened lawsuit. See, for instance, “Students for Academic Freedom” http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/.
7. Home Economics (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 77.
8. The philosophical tradition surrounding the notion of subject and universality is far too vast to consider in any detail for the purposes of this manifesto, and yet it is one upon which I rely, even as I resist or am troubled by it. I owe a debt to Jon Stanley for calling attention to potentially complimentary strains of thought in Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault. More directly influential to me is someone like Alain Badiou, whose call for universality I find provocative. Jacques Lacan’s reading of the Freudian unconscious as linked to the symbolic order always haunts my writing. From a completely different tradition, my emphasis on practice is indebted to William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Herman Melville.
9. In this sense, I am trying to blur the line between a “Christian” and a “secular” pedagogy, even as I am relying heavily upon the conceptual resources of the former. Whether this is secularizing the Christian or Christianizing the secular, I will leave for others to decide. If pressed, I would argue that in some respects the distinction is invalid. But that is the subject for a different essay.
10. My interest here is in identifying tendencies and principles within Christian teachings that can offer us equally valuable tools for thinking about the role of education. In doing so, I brush up against highly contentious and debated doctrines and passages. I am not chiming in on those controversies. Thus, this section of my argument is marked by some very selective sidestepping, perhaps even theological naiveté, but I hope that what I have to say about education will be of interest to people on all sides of the theological controversies.
11. See, for instance, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 as a commonly cited example of this universality.
12. Galatians 3:26-28. All references are to the New International Version.
13. In The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2000), a book which influences my thinking here but from which I depart strongly.
14. The oracle of Delphi set Socrates on his quest by commanding him to “know himself,” and self-knowledge as a philosophical practice also marked modern thought from Descartes through Kant and Hegel. In modernity, this process often achieved absolute status, whether as a place to begin (the cogito) or as a place to end (Absolute Knowledge). For this reason, I choose the term “comprehension” to suggest an ongoing and active process, not an absolute and abstract one.
Paul Jaussen is a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. He rides a motorcycle.