The New School Convocation
Thursday, September 8, 2005
Id like to begin by clarifying that I dont believe in telling you what the aims of education are. We each of us have our own aims, and sometimes they are not known even to ourselves. It is true, of course, that my aims are probably similar to those of many others. There is, after all, an affinity between us, an affinity that brings us together in the classroom, or on the same side of an ethical issue.
But our differences also attract us and bring us together, and it is sometimes our differences that make us coincide. Indeed, affinities are often transitional, moments of identification or of mimicrythey say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, moments that eventually serve to reaffirm our singularities. Finally, I would not presume to tell you what the aims of education are because I dont always know what my own aims are, or even if they are entirely my own, except in some very transitory sense.
Surely there are enough worthy causes around to provide each of us with inspiration. Last weeks floods in New Orleans could inspire us to work on inventing a political community that doesnt abandon its poor in moments of duress, or to raise consciousness against the sort of selfish, might-makes-right, leadership that we currently have. It could also inspire us to design new levees, to study and understand climate change, or to work on new forms of urban design.
But even without a drama of such daunting proportions, we have more than enough justification for study in our most modest and immediate circumstances: study to understand one another, study to refashion ourselves, study to be able to work productively. There is no point in going on. This is obvious to each of you, and rehearsing each of these aspects is just clap-trap.
So, since I can neither tell you the aims of education, nor simply tour the immediate circumstances that shout out for educated intervention, I am reduced to sharing my thoughts on two pretty basic, but also very current personal concerns. They are a concern with the justification of formal education, on one hand, and a concern with understanding education as a collective enterprise, on the other. These are constantly recurring questions, and I recently had a visitation from each of them.
The question of why we should promote formal education came to me this summer in a book that I happened to be reading, Francisco Bulness El verdadero Díaz. Bulnes was one of Méxicos most remarkable political thinkers. A mining engineer and a newspaper editor, he was a member of congress under Porfirio Díaz, the military dictator that ruled México from 1876 to 1911. Bulnes was also one of the founders of the so-called científico faction of the dictatorship, made up of liberals who, influenced by the ideas of George Herbert Spencer, by the positivist philosophy of August Comte and of the Count of Saint Simon, but also by conservative historians, like Edmund Burke and Hyppolite Taine, turned away from earlier concerns with political freedoms, and sought social and economic progress through scientific means instead. Bulnes was, in other words, one of the vilified antagonists of the Mexican Revolution.
Bulness book on Díaz was published in 1920, toward the end of the armed phase of the Mexican Revolution. It takes the kind of distanced view of events and characters of the period that one might expect from a living relic, from an old man who had been marginalized from political life. Consonant with Bulness long-term emphasis on real-world effects rather than on ideology or on good intentions, his aim was to understand Díazs failure not from an ethical standpoint, but from a political one.
Between epidemics, famine, emigration and violent deaths, México lost close to one million people during its revolutionary decade. To Bulnes, the collective debasement of the revolutionary process was proportional to the ills of Mexican society. Its grotesque excesses were a grim reflection of the human degradation that had prevailed in times of peace.
Close to the top of Bulness list of the societal ills that led to the revolution is a phenomenon that he disdainfully called chancletismo intellectual, which means literally intellectual sandalism, but that I shall translate less colorfully as intellectual pauperism. Díaz, Bulnes argued, had made the mistake of investing in education, while maintaining an economy that was based on agricultural and mining exports, and a political system that was dictatorial. The results were predictable enough: an underemployed intelligentsia that was constantly clamoring for government jobs, and that turned to invidious political ideologies like the coke fiend turns to his drug.
As I read this somewhat shocking rejection of educationshocking because it came from a man that was better educated than most of his peers, and shocking because it is always strange to hear a liberal utter a word against educationit occurred to me that this was not the first Latin American historian to associate formal education with a clamoring for unproductive jobs, and with a penchant for rhetorical entanglements that only got in the way of industry.
So, for instance, Lucas Alamán, the preeminent Mexican conservative of the 19th century, contrasted the thrifty and severe work ethic of Spanish immigrants to New Spain with the dissipated ways of their American-born offspring, the so-called Creoles who, as students of theology or law, were much better educated than their parents, and so felt that they deserved only to receive pensions and salaries, while they looked down on Spanish merchants as miserly and ignorant. Domingo Sarmiento, Argentinas greatest writer of the same period, said something similar when he praised the men of commerce and industry of Buenos Aires in contradistinction to the gowned men of letters of the university at Córdoba.
Of course neither Bulnes nor Alamán nor Sarmiento opposed enlightenment or instruction. Sarmiento, in particular, was a great liberal educator. They all, however, had mixed feelings about formal education, and certainly did not see it as an unqualified good thing. Since my speech today is at least implicitly in support of formal education, it occurred to me that the reservations of these men deserved some attention.
The problems of formal education for Bulnes, for Alamán and for Sarmiento, were relatively simple. The 19th century was the century of revolution and of progress, but universities throughout Spanish America were preparing graduates for traditional pursuits. So, even if graduates found jobs that were suited to their training, they still did not contribute much to the progress of their society.
On the other hand, when educated citizens did not find the government jobs that they hoped for, they swelled the public sphere with ideological proclamations that exacerbated class antagonism, and so contributed to the most dreaded and deplored condition of the time: anarchy.
The connection between unemployed graduates and ideology is also prominent in European history, though it has a different valence there. So, for instance, sociologist Bernhard Giesen argues that there is a connection between the rise of nationalism and intellectuals underemployment in 19th century Germany.
In a related, but distinct, vein, historian Reinhardt Kosseleck argued that the Enlightened philosophy of history in 18th century France, which he feels was utopian, ideologically strident, and tinged with more than a little bad faith, was the result of the disconnect between the lettered middle classes and political power. In each of these cases, the ferment of underemployed intellectuals led eventually to upheaval, to jingoistic nationalism, to bloody revolutions or to reactionary dictatorships.
In each of these perspectives, the role formal education moves between upholding the traditional values of society (and so tends to be conservative) and generating cadres of disaffected intellectuals. Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called these two types of intellectuals ‘traditional and ‘organic. For Francisco Bulnes, Díaz had supported education against his own best interests as a dictator, by producing many graduates in an economy that was not geared to absorbing them.
It is worth recalling all of this because today almost no one will ever speak against education, no matter how much they may neglect it in practice. In the US we have schools that are permeated by such a degree of violence that education is only a secondary consideration, trailing far behind safety. In April of this year, for instance, rumors of an impending confrontation between Black and Mexican gangs in Los Angeles led a whopping 51,000 students to stay at home, rather than risk the violence. But no one openly champions an anti-education position, and officially, no child is supposed to be left behind, so students go ahead and do their high school in these adverse conditions.
The question, then, a very Bulnes kind of question, is whether broad access to formal education is justified in principle and, if it is, then does it need to have specific and special qualities? Having taken this long to pose the problem, and with a second point that I need yet to elaborate, I will be very brief in my response.
Widely available formal education is fundamental because education produces differential abilities to shape the world and to reshape ourselves. Racism hardens at the precise moment when education is closed off to a sector of society. Thus, to give a very early example, in the 1570s, the Spanish colonial clergy abandoned its innovative educational projects for the indigenous nobility in the Americas; their neglect coincided with the reduction of the whole of indigenous society to the status of an under-caste.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Bulnes and Sarmiento both ended up writing pessimistic books on race in Spanish America, and were despondent about races effects on their countries future prospects. Latin Americas inability to incorporate the citizenry through education produced a societal divide that became unfathomable, and that seemed as set and as natural to these men as a coral reef. A sad moment in Latin American history, a genocidal moment, in fact, and a moment that was so overpowering that it led Francisco Bulnes, a man who otherwise had many qualities, to disdain his contemporaries, and to justify this disdain through convoluted ideas about race and nutrition.
However, if a broad-based program of formal education is an ethical imperative, it needs to have special qualities. Formal education is concerned with imparting a close understanding of various intellectual traditions and disciplines. But the usefulness of traditions has to be questioned, proved, or discarded, and not just asserted and imposed. If disciplines and traditions are merely upheld, university titles quickly become a pretext for entitlement, a way of making claims on society because of an individuals purchase on its traditions, rather than because of her or his contribution to the immediate and to the future surroundings. This, too, is the reason why schools should not try to dictate the aims of their students educationits professors have vested interests in upholding traditions, and although these traditions have their value, they cannot simply be upheld without question, and without question from the students, who are in this respect less invested in tradition. For ultimately, it is invention, and not orthodoxy, that is educations ultimate value. This, I believe, is a creed that brings us together at the New School.
The second troubling experience that I had this summer occurred in the midst of an overpowering impulse to organize my life. A good friend finally explained my condition: Saturn, apparently, has moved into the constellation Leo, which is my astrological ascendant. So, I decided to organize my files.
In the fervor of the occasion, I began to throw out all of the photocopies of classical and not-so-classical articles that I had kept since I was a graduate student. For a moment, I was a brown-shirt, burning the booksa feeling that was pacified only by a soft inner voice that nervously repeated the words ‘World Wide Web as a kind of mantra.
But there was a feeling that ran deeper than the momentary self-loathing of Lomnitz, the fascist organizer. (I knew, after all, that just as Saturn came, he would surely go soon enough). It was the melancholy of obsolescence, the suspicion that I might not download those articles ever again; the suspicion that they already were the dust of history.
The implications for my own writing were pretty clear. In fact, the discolored waste-paper basket in my hand was practically crying out its message: ‘To write, or not to write…, it seemed to say.
If Bulnes confronted me with the relevance of formal education, my wastepaper basket brought me face to face with the existential futility of learning.
I have to admit, though, that the shuddering feeling that came over me as I dumped paper in the basket also passed, and that it was followed by a rather soothing feeling, that made me recall an essay that Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, once wrote on immortality.
In that piece, Borges rejected the idea of personal immortality, of the transcendence of the subject. Paraphrasing David Hume, Borges recalled that …we should not say I think, because ‘I is a subject; one should say instead ‘it is thinking in the same way that we say, ‘it is raining.
Borges goes on to contrast personal immortality, the hope that we will continue as ourselves for everin an afterlife or in our workswith another, more interesting, form of immortality, which is the transmigration of the soul.
We have many desiresBorges tells usamong them is the desire to live, the desire to be forever. But then there is also the desire to cease; in addition to fear, and to its reverse, to hope. All of these things can come to be without personal immortality. We dont really need it. I personally do not desire personal immortality, and I fear it: it would be horrible for me to know that I will continue, frightful to think that I will remain Borges. I am fed up with myself, with my name and with my fame. I want to be free of all of that.
The idea of a kind of lateral or transversal transcendence, which resonates in some respects with Hindu reincarnation, is nicely complemented by W.J.T.Mitchells recent work on images. Images, for Mitchell, are a life form, comparable in some ways to viruses, which need a host in order to reproduce. Thus, what Borges calls the transmigration of souls in fact occurs every time that an individual becomes a host for an image or an idea.
At the same time, ideas dont just take possession of people without any prior activity on their part. In order to be fertile ground for a fragment of anothers soul, we need to have lived enough to meld with it. We need, as the philosopher, educator and founder of the New School John Dewey said, readiness. We need, in other words, to live in order to learn, and to learn in order to live. And here, again, is Borges: …every time that someone loves an enemy, the immortality of Christ appears. He is Christ in that moment. Every time that we repeat a verse from Dante or Shakespeare we are, in some way, the instant when Shakespeare or Dante created that verse.
Education expands and enriches the way in which we live, but only by living can we truly inherit from the collective and live on in it. This convocation speech is therefore also necessarily an invocation and an incantation, and so, remembering John Dewey and Jorge Luis Borges I say: Live and Learn! Thank you.