On Teaching and Education I: Learning and Coercion

I’ve been in the education industry now, off and on (but mostly on) since 2007, in a range of capacities: substitute teacher in public high schools, teacher’s assistant in a large public research university, an instructor in a tiny historically black private college, and, in a couple months, a grad student and TA at a wealthy private research university. Besides my work as a teacher I have experienced a wide range of educational settings as a student: a small private school (kindergarten, though because of my family moving, I never officially graduated), followed by a couple of years in public school. I disliked school and my parents, thanks be to God, didn’t compel me to continue a compulsory public education, and instead let me be homeschooled. Homeschooled is a bit of a misnomer, since my childhood and adolescent education took place in lots of different settings and with lots of different teachers, besides my day-to-day ‘formal’ curriculum. I learned painting and woodcarving under the relatively informal and very personal tutelage of wonderful, experienced teachers; I spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring and camping; I participated in a (rather disorganized and not very badge-driven) Boy Scout group and in 4H; I joined a railroad history group; sat in on graduate classes in history my father was taking (and used the university library); and so on. That I have turned out a market anarchist is not really a surprise when I reflect on it: had I been forced to spend most of my waking hours in a state institution of mass education, my political, economic, cultural, and religious views would probably be much more ‘mainstream’ and malleable to State and Capital. Which is, I suppose, the point, whether intentional or unintentional. But more on that question later.

Now that I’ve briefly set out the history of my own experience with teaching and education, I’d like to reflect a little on some of the lessons I’ve learned (pun intended) over the past several years, focusing primarily on my experiences as a teacher. First, my experience in public primary-school education, the most limited of my experiences, lasting for a semester plus a few extra weeks in the second semester. I had recently finished my bachelor’s degree and wanted to begin grad school, but knew that I needed to begin learning Arabic. I also wanted to do some more traveling, so I decided to go abroad to study Arabic. In order to pay for said expedition, I took up a couple of jobs and lived with my parents; in addition, my father was deployed to Iraq so I felt a certain imperative to stay at home with my mother and youngest brother. Anyway, I took a job working for a shoestring budget skating rink; once the school year rolled around I signed up for substitute teaching, which in Mississippi at least does not require any rigorous training. I ended up teaching at a couple of schools on a regular basis: a semi-rural, semi-urban high school, and the so-called alternative school, the holding cell for ‘troubled’ students, which as often as not meant the less nasty alternative to jail. I briefly subbed at another high school but lost out on that after pissing off a rabidly militaristic and neocon civics teacher, in my first taste of being blacklisted. But that’s another story.

What follows are some of my observations from this period; none are groundbreaking (as I would later discover, much of what I learned has already been uncovered and discussed by other radical thinkers, Ivan Illich chief among them), yet the entire structure is generally accepted as a given in industrialized Western society, despite the almost blindingly obvious harms inherent in it. I cannot of course hope to list more than fraction of these harms- there are plenty of others I could enumerate. Rather I will stick to those I saw up-close, and even was forced to participate in. Also, do realize that I do not aim to incriminate any one individual, even those who were, even by the standards of the system, particularly atrocious. Rather, it is the system as a whole that I have come to condemn, the structures and procedures whose operation is not dependent upon any one person’s will or intentions.

To preface the particulars: my overall conclusion was that compulsory education is an incredibly anti-social method. Students, far from being encouraged to interact in anything resembling a free environment, find themselves, day after day, in an environment that is at once highly structured and regimented, from arriving on the bus to processing into classrooms to the punctual division of the day into timed blocks, with brief interludes of liberty in between. Students are sorted into age groups, evaluated according to performance on (increasingly centrally directed and evaluated) tests, ranked further within their age groups. Disciplinary figures are everywhere, threatening some form of more direct coercion or another. This does not mean that the students respect these impositions of authority and regimentation: in fact, they tend to resent it, and try to find ways of evading it at all turns, all the while both fearing this authority and internalizing its inevitability (as they see it, as they are drilled to see it). Students organize themselves within the interstices of the regimented day, and they extend these organizations beyond the school day. Sometimes the pent-up aggression at continual coercion bursts into open acts of belligerence, even violence, usually against each other, sometimes directed at teachers. Far from creating order, the system tends towards barely contained disorder. Substitute teachers are soft targets for strategies of evasion, though I was able for the most part to at least keep my classrooms civil, if not exactly engaged in meaningful learning.

Which brings me to another consistent pattern: the amount of ‘busy work’ designed to keep students occupied, and the complete lack of instruction in some classes. The latter reflects what I imagine, though don’t know to be, a regional variation: football and to a lesser extent basketball coaches who also teach are notoriously exempt from any standards. But neither of these problems strikes at one of the central, maybe the central, evil of the entire system, an evil that I dealt with while subbing and one I continue to deal with in colleges and universities. Simply put, students are taught to associate learning with coercion. The things that we in the humanities hold dear- literature, history, philosophy, music- become, for the average student, weapons in the hands of a power structure that operates on them day after day, year after year. I know because I had to yield them as such for this job- certainly, I was able to engage the students voluntarily, more or less, on many occasions; I tried as often as I could to avoid the tactics I saw being employed by full-time faculty. Yet even I, in order to keep things moving through the day, to go from one period to the next, as often as not had to effectively compel students to read their Shakespeare (which most of them did not understand at all, but it was on the day’s schedule) or whatever it was at hand.

For the especially bright students, or the well-connected and favored ones, all of this may not be an especially terrible experience. For them- especially the brighter kids- it is the broader anti-social atmosphere of high school that chafes them: asinine teachers, bullies, the grind of busy work, of confinement to a standardized (industrialized!) curriculum, the creation and clashing of cliques. They manage to disassociate learning with the coercive structure, or discover ways of learning that lie outside of the school’s control. For the rest, learning is physically imprinted in them (through these bodily actions, day after day after day) as an activity imposed from the outside, a method of control, humiliation even. That they reject all semblance of ‘higher culture’ upon escaping from the educational structure is not surprising; even for those who do not reject all learning, their further experiences with educational structure are forever imprinted by their years of experience in school. It is not that they reject the necessity of school: they’ve had it drilled into them, year after year; nor do they reject the authority, which they have also had drilled into them year after year. Rather, they resent it, chafe under it, and, crucially, do not desire learning. The world of learning has little or no wonder available to it; the discipline and tests and ranking and regimentation have crushed it out of them.

It is this crushing of desire and wonder, this awful associate of learning with a system of continual coercion, that I find most destructive. Certainly, for those of us teaching in colleges and universities, we face student bodies that are often times close to functional illiteracy, or who are at the very least incapable of most of the skills necessary for basic humanities courses (I can say nothing of math and science, but I would not be surprised if a similar situation obtains there as well). Opening discussions in class (which is a primary task among teacher’ assistants) is doubly difficult: the students have rarely read the assigned material nor do they especially comprehend it. If one can get them to discuss, it is nearly impossible to engage them, since they will not- in class at least!- counter-say a teacher, not without lots of urging. They do not love the authorities over them, nor do they respect them, but they will not gainsay them. For a teacher’s assistant trying to stimulate a discussion about the Venerable Bede, it’s a depressing scenario, but one repeated over and over again. But for an operator of the authority of state or corporate capital, it’s the perfect scenario: unhappy subservience, but unquestioning subservience.

But before I spin off another tangent, let me return to, and end with, the most troubling environment in which I worked, the alternative school. These were students who had been caught in the teeth of the system, and were being slowly shredded to bits. The threat of actual prison- juvie, then adult- was always over their heads. Many of them- freshmen, sophomores, mind you- had lost count of the number of times that had been hauled in by the cops or disciplinary officers. The roots of their problems were various: most came from deeply troubled homes, nearly all had been caught in the crossfire of the drug war, all, so far as I could tell, were from chronically poor backgrounds. Their lives were chronicles of all the state institutions that wage war on the poor: prisons, judges, schools, welfare programs, the projects, cops, alongside the ugly constant of disordered families and utterly fragmented communities, wracked by drugs, poverty, and violence. None of these programs had ‘helped’ them, nor were they supposed to, of course. The alternative school, as I mentioned above, was for the most part a last stop, a last ditch effort. Certainly, in terms of school structure and daily procedure, it heightened the coercive nature of schooling: pat-downs, metal detectors, locks on everything, constant surveillance. Not that I entirely minded it, mind you- some of these kids had committed violence in the past, and for a skinny white twenty-something guy having backup nearby gave a measure of reassurance. That said, the environment in the actual classrooms was, in some ways, less coercive and oppressive than in ‘normal’ schools. Certainly, some of the teachers seem to have missed out on a career as prison-guards, but they were the exception- the teachers were, for the most part, genuinely kind and decent. Classes were relatively loosely organized, compared to ‘normal’ school, and since classes were (for reasons of security probably more than anything) small I got to know the students and other teachers pretty well. Some of my most enjoyable times of teaching took place there, in large part I think because my class periods gave the students a little glimpse outside of their otherwise deeply disordered lives shuttling between one coercive authority after another, with stops in utter disorder and violence in between. Teaching tended to be relatively informal; sometimes I would just read passages from books to my students, stopping to gloss difficult bits. It was also a heartbreaking experience: here were kids who had already been passed through the larger educational and judicial mills, and- I knew in the back of my head- were almost certainly going to end up behinds bars, or murdered, or dead from an overdose or cop’s bullet or alcohol, or living in cyclical poverty. I could offer my miniscule cup of compassion, but that was it.

To be sure, all is not terrible: I came across plenty of bright spots as well, smart and engaged students, students who refused to simply swallow everything fed them, teachers who genuinely loved to teach and even managed to impart some of their love of learning to their students. Certainly the anti-social and anti-learning tendency of compulsory, centralized education does not always destroy learning and creativity and so on- it’s not an utterly total system, nor an always consistent or homogenized one, thank God. Some components are far more negative than others, and individual teachers, students, and others can make a considerable difference. But for all of the particular and personal examples one can summon the overall system looms supreme and ultimately dominating, operating just as well- perhaps better- with these positive blimps in the radar existing. The system does not need mere reforms, as politicians of both statist parties will content: it needs to be demolished, and teaching and learning need to be re-imagined and re-built from the ground up.

Films & Music in Review

First, the music: if you’ve never heard of Lee Bozeman, well now you have, and you ought to go and listen to his work, all of which you will find linked to on his blog. His project from a few years back All Things Bright and Beautiful is one of the loveliest, lushest art-rock/post-rock albums to have come down the pike in a while. Besides being beautiful to listen to, Bozeman is a skillful lyricist, weaving the malaise of contemporary society, reflections from Western Christian thought and Orthodox theology and liturgy (Bozeman is currently attending St. Vladimir’s). It’s not a combination you get everyday in any genre of music, to be sure.

Next, two films, neither of which are especially recent, but I only lately got a chance to see them. First, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film Offside works through a very straight-forward storyline: several Tehrani girls want to watch the World Cup qualifier game but are barred from the stadium by Iranian law. Their attempts to sneak in and blend into the all-male crowd fail, and they are placed in an impromptu holding pen just out of sight of the game. The rest of the film focuses a tight lens on their interactions with their guards. There is a lot of potential for straight-up propaganda here, and the film does engage in some rather obvious castigation of the quite ridiculous law and the young soldiers’ participation in it. However, what saves the film is its willingness to humanize the soldiers, revealing them to be more or less unwilling agents, drafted and stuck and not wanting to get stuck deeper in. The film’s final scene takes place in a police van with the girls being driven to the Vice Squad headquarters, accompanied by two of the soldiers. The journey is interrupted by the joyful anarchy of the post-victory celebration, and the film ends on a decided high-note.

Also hailing from an Iranian director, Majid Majidi’s Baran is in many ways a quite different creature: it is on one level an extended allegory of the path of the Sufi aspirant to the Divine, and is suffused with imagery taken from Rumi and others. The plot revolves around a young Iranian, Lateef, who is presented, ‘pre-repentance,’ as a hot-headed, vindictive kid who deeply resents Rahmat, the young man (or so he initially thinks) who replaces his position as tea-wallah on a Tehran construction site. Upon discovering the young man’s secret- he’s no young man at all, but a girl disguised as such in order to support her family, Afghani refugees from that country’s endless conflicts. Upon the discovery- the initial ‘tasting’ of the divine in the allegory- Lateef is transformed, and the rest of the film is devoted to his devotion to the Beloved, whom he does not truly ‘draw near’ to until the end of the film, and then only briefly. In between, Majidi paints a beautiful picture of the aspirant’s spiritual journey, concluding with Lateef’s losing of his identity for the sake of the Beloved (in this case, selling his precious ID card) and his transformation after the moment of fana’ in meeting the Beloved.

As you might have gathered, a prior knowledge of Sufi themes and practices (and, I ought to add, themes and practices also found in Shi’a Islam, whose relationship with Sufism is long and complicated), especially as revealed in Persian poetry, helps a lot in enjoying this movie. This is a philosophical, ‘mystical’ even film, and much of the pleasure of watching it comes from an awareness of the multiple layers of meaning and significance at work. That said, it is not as philosophically challenging as, say, an Abbas Kiarostami film. The story is straight-forward enough and can be appreciated on the external- zahir- level. Like Majidi’s other films, this one is visually beautiful, especially the scenes shot in the countryside around Tehran. There is also a political undertone- Afghan refugees and their struggle with immigration law (and anti-immigrant sentiments) is central to the film, and will strike American (or European or South African or Mexican or…) viewers as terribly familiar. While Majidi does not assault state power as head-on as Panahi, the critique is certainly still there, and quite effective. But at heart this is a film about something that transcends any particular political situation: the love of man for God, the love of one person for another, (the two having a way of mingling together and overlapping) love that both transforms and consumes, love that is not safe but all-consuming.

On ‘Right-Wing Terror’

The following are a few thoughts, more or less in order but of fairly rough outline, on the looming specter of ‘right-wing terror.’ Comments or corrections welcome.

I am struck by how similar the current establishment left campaign to vilify the entire conservative movement and everyone else on the right and the (on-going) efforts by the right to do the same sort of thing to the Muslim world. Both are preposterous; both are rooted in a desire to see one’s political enemies as one massive, undifferentiated (and hence quite faceless) horde that can then be easily attacked through the worst examples inhering in said horde. Thus, in the current campaign of anti-rightist hysteria (for examples, just take a look at Krugman and Rich in that bastion of rational peace-mongering, cough, the NYT) everyone on the right is placed in the same box of ‘right-wing’: paleoconservatives to Tea Party types to white nationalists to neo-Nazis to pro-life activists. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to notice the vast discrepancies that lie between these different groups, including the fact some of them have nothing more in common than some common enemies and, usually, shared melanin content. A Tea-Party neoconservative sort and a neo-Nazi anti-Semite- come on. Glenn Beck and Stormfront are not the same thing, even if they happen to converge on some points; only through the simplistic device of ‘left and right’ can they be at all grouped together. The same logic would equivocate Hillary Clinton and Murray Bookchin (assuming one could be a convincing case for a Clinton being at all on the left; just barely maybe…), and would be equally flawed. And the same logic, going back to my comparison, has been used to mass all Muslims together as being either outright or secretly violent and just waiting to go crazy, for either inexplicable (‘they hate our freedom’) reasons, or because of religiously inherent animosity towards all non-Muslims and especially America. Salafists become al-Qaeda become Sufis. A similar sort of reckless essentialism and equivocation is going on, if not as deeply or widely- for now- against right-wing and conservative Americans, and with it calls, some explicit and some implicit, for the State to start busting heads.

Particularly gregarious are the attempts, some more obvious than others, to equivocate genuine hard-rightists (in the classic, European sense of the term) of the neo-Nazi variety with the average conservative, or, for slightly more comparative purposes, particularly intense conservatives. Such an attempt is, of course, an attempt to smear the broader right with the charge of antisemitism, which, at first glance, seems a promising venture. After all, much of today’s conservative movement has at least ancestral roots in the old Southern segregationist movement (though this does not necessarily mean much of anything, but that’s another topic), which wasn’t exactly known for being pro-semetic, to say the least. But the present is rather different: the modern South is, if anything, a rabidly prosemitic place. And I don’t just mean pro-Israel- sure, no doubt one of the significant reasons for Southern evangelical (and I suppose evangelicals elsewhere in the US, but my lived knowledge base of American Christianity is mostly limited to the South) support of Israel and hence prosemitism developed out of a very particular interpretation of dispensationalist theology that places a high value on Israel and the Jewish people. But it would be false and unfair to suggest that Southern evangelicals only support Israel and ‘like’ Jews as part of an apocalyptic scheme to bring Jesus back. Growing up evangelical in the South, I was taught- both explicitly and implicitly- to value not just Israel but Jewish people and Judaism in general, even as the distinction was maintained between the two. Say what you will of groups like Jews for Jesus, but having Jewish people in rural Southern churches acting out Jewish ritual- that’s pretty significant. And it’s pervasive- I’ve encountered a fair amount of anti-African American sentiment in the South, and some anti-Latino sentiment, but I can recall having witnessed only a couple instances of antisemitism. Maybe some of my readers have encountered more, maybe it’s lurking out there somewhere- if so, probably outside the orbit of Southern evangelicalism. But therein lies part of my point- right-wing conservative evangelicals are, if anything, rabidly prosemitic; advocating limits on Jewish settlement expansion borders on the blasphemous. Yet we’re supposed to imagine them and neo-Nazis on the same scale, as somehow being part of the same movement?

Of course, there are the genuine out-and-out white nationalists and the members of the paleoconservative right who tend in that direction- and some of these people probably are genuinely racist and possibly even antisemitic. But again, lumping them together, first of all part of some cognent unified movement of- what, paleoconservatives?- is artificial and inaccurate, and become even more gregarious when trying to bring the ‘mainstream’ conservative movement into it. Trust me, the average right-winger in America has probably never heard of V-DARE and probably hates Patrick Buchanan almost as much as he hates Barack Obama. But again, we’re expected to group them altogether and be sufficiently afraid of all of them.

Ditto on the pro-life movement: we’re supposed to imagine pro-lifers all being rabidly waiting to blow up or shoot (God knows those people are armed to the teeth, not like civilized White people) saintly abortionists like the Martyr Till. It’s not a huge leap, of course, to move from such hysterical diatribe to demanding the prosecution of all ‘radical’ pro-life activists, with the parameters of ‘radical’ being stretched further and further. First rosaries, then firebombs, right?

In the end much of comes down to a simple fear of especially, though not exclusively, a certain sort of American, usually rural or perhaps suburban (but imagined no doubt as rural), evangelical, possibly Pentecostal (the scariest sort), likely Southern and white (but not White, naturally), uneducated (or at least in the right way), and heavily armed. God, the guns- nothing is as frightening as their guns. Crackers with guns. They have ideology- ideologies if you’re being slightly fairer and not entirely collapsing them into one mass- which makes them even more frightening; they have grievances, they listen to idiots on the radio, like the wrong music, and read the Bible far too much and take it far too seriously.

Maybe I exagerate a little, but not too much, I think. And let me add the caveat- certainly, I can’t stand much of what goes on and is accepted and advocated in various corners of the right. I find the near and outright xenophobia and racism of the paleoconservative right disgusting and destructive, along with similar manifestations elsewhere in the more mainstream right; the warmongering of the neoconservative right is equally repulsive. Certainly, elements all along the right have engaged in ugly tactics and advocated awful things; they have also and continue to advocate many good things, whether on behalf of the unborn or against aggresive foreign policy or in favour of free markets (though one rarely finds all three of these in one place on the right…). There is nothing dangerous or particularly wrong about pointing out the sins of the right. But the tone and intentions that seem to lie behind the ongoing campaign against an undifferentiated right-wing in general- from Stormfront to Bill O’Reilly- is deeply troubling and dangerous. Letterman’s recent crass jokes at Sarah Palin’s expense- a politician, it should be obvious, I have some serious issues with myself- are a snapshot of the prevailing attitude in America’s elite and in much of the centre-left. There is a hatred for conseratives, in particular, because they are the wrong sort of people. They vote the wrong way, they have outdated notions, they can’t accept change. They’re like natives in a colonial state, they’re like the image of Muslims that right-wingers had crafted as part of the ‘war on terror’: ignorant, different, dangerous, a horde. Sure, maybe they feel threatened by Federal policies, by changing culture- that’s because they’re natives, uneducated, different, violent.

And like natives in any good colonial state, they must be controlled before they lash out. For their own good, of course. We’ll see how far the current hysteria carries- it may well die down and things chug along with mutual hatred and miscomprehension, which would be better than a ramped-up police state and random acts of terrorism. For if you treat people like colonials they’re likely to respond; and one should not forget that Ghandi was something of an exception in anti-colonial struggle. The possibility for xenophobia and outright racism certainly exists all along the right; persecuting and vilifying people isn’t going to help things. The average right-wing American is not violent, even if some folks get hot on internet forums; indeed, not unlike with the Muslim world, if even a small percentage of right-wingers were willing to carry out mass violence, we’d be in trouble.

In closing, one of the things that has for some time struck me as both ironic and tragic is the way in which both Islamic societies and Southern white culture are so often construed in similar ways, even as Southern whites enlist and are enlisted into campaigns against Muslim peoples (I doubt whether most Muslims have any awarness of the South or Southern whites as distinct but if they did no doubt perceptions would be equally bad). The Southern white and the traditional Muslim are both cast as backwards, inherently violent, religion-bound, incapable of dealing with change or ‘progress,’ wedded to their traditions, and in need of paternalistic (or perhaps not so paternalistic) care. In both cases, one can easily enough find examples to flesh out the stereotype, and thus enforce the faceless image of a foreign, deadly threat. And sure, if one looks one can find unsavory views and attitudes in both the average Southern white and the average traditional Muslim (along with views and attitudes you’re not taught to expect in either); but this does not prove in either case that average Bubba or Ahmed is out to wreck and kill, and it certainly does not justify dehumanizing reduction to a faceless other.

The great Bill Kauffman has often articulated a vision of society in which the ‘wrong sort of white people,’ like our much-maligned crackers with guns, can join forces or at least stop sniping at other ‘wrong sorts of people,’ whether commune hippies growing their own food or Latinos in the rural barrios of the South. These various groups- for so long played off and playing themselves off against each other- could then work for their genuine interests, united in so many things that they share in common. It’s a beautiful, humanistic vision, and Mr Kauffman remains fairly optimistic about it. Mass lumping of conservative Americans, of all stripes, into the category of the violent irrational Other does not move us any closer to a humane goal like Kauffman’s; it only serves to perpetuate the divisions and excaberate the already existing hatred and mistrust. Add in the sorts of police-state measures some people are advocating and it will only grow far worse. If we try, on the other hand- all of us, whether conservative or socialist or libertarian- to see our neighbors as genuine human beings who carry concerns and harbour fears like the rest of us, we move much closer to a more humane and livable future. God knows it can be hard- God knows I’ve felt some pretty nasty sentiments towards people in my native South, I’ve gotten frustrated and angry, I’ve failed miserably at loving my closest neighbors, much less my more distant ones. I’ve shot back with all but bullets, and being a contrarian libertarian sort, I usually end up shooting in all directions… But it remains that, as cliche as it sounds, fighting fire with fire, xenophobia with xenophobia, is only a recipe for more pain, for more violence, from all sides.

God have mercy on us and teach us to love our neighbors, or at least to stop shooting, with bullets or otherwise, at them.

Rising From the Ashes

I spent part of this week in and around Atlanta, the ever-expanding capital of the ‘New South.’ I’d not been to Atlanta in years, other than in passing while traveling; this week I wandered around the city some, both intentionally and unintentionally, since I didn’t get a hold of a decent map until the last day of my visit. It’s a big city; most of my experience in urban navigation has been in ‘Old World’ cities where my means of transport was my own two feet, and in New Orleans, a city set apart from pretty much every other North American city I’ve visited. Atlanta is, I suppose, the South’s paradigmatic example of the modern city- big, ever-expanding, new and shiny (in the up-scale parts anyway, never mind the poor parts for the moment), with precious little of any considerable age, even for North America. Of course, General Sherman bears some blame for that, but not very much; there wasn’t a whole lot there back when my unfortunate ancestors were getting shot up at Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek.

There are of course some sections of the city that are fairly old and historic, and feel it. Auburn Avenue, which was the center of African-American life and commerce after the imposition of segregation in the early twentieth century, has some wonderful old and funky buildings; the Episcopal Methodist Church with its hodge-podgy neo-Gothic and big blue neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple is singularly wonderful, and is still in good shape. Further up the street, the Park Service has purchased and renovated a whole neighborhood worth of old buildings associated with Martin Luther King Jr., who was born and spent his boyhood in one of the old houses. But the stretch of street running back from the historic site is, with all its lovely old structures and venerable history, pretty decrepit. As my friend and I walked up from downtown towards the MLK site, we were approached by a homeless man offering an impromptu tour, followed by a request for donations. The whole area is now run-down, boarded up buildings and heavily armoured likker and mini grocery stores here and there; our homeless tour-guide told us he lived back up under an overpass of the interstate which now dissects the area.

The historic site is quite nice itself however, a sudden imposition in the immediate landscape, neatly trimmed shrubs, a rose garden, a fairly new looking museum, as well as a new Ebeneezer Baptist Church (the old one is still there, though it is at present closed up for renovations). There are signs up in the National Historic Site warning visitors against giving anything to ‘panhandlers,’ reminding one of signs in less urban Park Service sites prohibiting the feeding of bears.

The area went down, as we say, in the late sixties; before it had been a thriving center of African-American businesses, churches, and residences, with it’s own economy and tradition of mutual aid. If the segregationist regime rejected their money, the entrepreneurs of Auburn Avenue reasoned, it was their loss- so they built up their own economy, and thrived. Dr. King’s family came out of this milieu, and the determination and communal (but deeply personalist) sense of mutual aid and support would go a long ways towards the successful challenging of the segregationist regime and its systematic but ultimately untenable oppression. This was one of the things that struck me most as I looked at the exhibits in the museum, and has always struck me about the civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages- it was community-based, and broad-based, with people of many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and standings coming together in a truly powerful movement. The men and women who challenged the segregationist State did not have to resort to bombs and guns; they had built up lives and communities powerful enough to take on even a violent and deeply entrenched regime and succeed, without turning to violence and oppression themselves.

Returning to the gritty shot-up feeling streets of which Auburn Avenue is only one, one has to ask- what happened, and what can anybody do about it? Auburn Avenue itself is an icon of what has been happening in our cities and towns for years now, what is happening right now as I write. Desegregation had its part, of course- African-Americans were no longer restricted to their own self-contained economy, and could take part in the wider economy and succeed there- leaving behind in many cases places like Auburn Avenue. But this is hardly the only explanation, or even the primary one. At the same time as desegregation was going into affect other programs, Federal and otherwise, were coming on-line, many under the title ‘urban renewal.’ As one line was erased new ones were laid down, often with the best of intentions, but often resulting in Federally-supported ghettos. The drug war has only escalated and grown more violent and more deeply entrenched; the ever expanding field of operations of the Mexican drug cartels only harbours more violence and destruction, and it’s not up-scale gated communities suffering the brunt of the violence and the corruption and rot.

There are other problems as well- job losses, poor education, and so on- but they all share the quality that few of them are exactly intentional. Much ‘urban renewal’ was meant to help the poor, at least ostensibly, or was at least supported by people who wanted to do good. Of course, plenty of it was deliberate in partionining off the poor, especially but not exclusively minority poor, from the elite enclaves. There is ridiculous highway a few blocks from my neighborhood here in Knoxville that, I am pretty sure, was built primarily to separate downtown from the much poorer, and darker-skinned, east-side neighborhoods; maybe there were no such intentions, but the effect is the same. The drug war is supported by well-meaning people, and I am sure at least some of those carrying it out have only good intentions and genuinely desire to do good. The damage is the same though.

The problem is further presented though- the evils and problems afflicting places like Auburn Avenue are so various that they are hard to fight against. There is no segregationist regime that we can unite against and battle; there are no straight-forward targets, as much as we would like for there to be. There is less ground, too, for people to stand on, as so many urban- and otherwise- communities are shot-up and worn out. The work that is needed- and here I start to really preach to myself as much as anyone else- is personal, is on the ground, and is probably not going to yeild immediate or impressive results any time soon, maybe ever. The great failing of the American elite- who are often very well-intentioned people- is to generally stay safely away from the poor and the decimated places, while sympathizing for them, in the abstract, and proposing solutions that are sure to work in theory, in principal. But while there are some genuine general policy solutions no doubt- the drug war comes to mind- they are only a part of the solution, probably not a terribly important part.

When it comes down to it we have to stop thinking in terms of helping the poor, or saving the inner city, as if the poor were a different species or something (albeit an endangered and valorized one), capable of being saved through the right policy enactments or a sufficiently large charity pay-out. In the end, working to end the violence and destruction of our cities is a struggle for ourselves; it is not a case of our aiding the poor and downtrodden in their struggle; we are all in this together, my struggle is your struggle. I cannot cut myself off from the rest of the world; my sin afflicts my neighbor and it afflicts me, just as the violence and deprivation of endless war and seeping poverty are part of my struggle, against the violence and evil in my heart and the violence and evil that come from outside my heart.

Our Auburn Avenues are not going to be magically transformed overnight; if there is going to be change, it must begin in our hearts- my heart- and work outward, person by person, community by community, in knowledge of each person and place’s particulars, and with love for them, love that, in imitation of the love of God, offers itself in becoming one with the sufferer, by becoming a co-sufferer, from the inside, with all the danger and dirt and darkness that comes with being inside of a suffering world, a suffering humanity.

On Student Expectations and Grades, And Other Things

A rather brief article in the New York Times today addresses something my fellow graduate assistants and I have been learning this year: our students genuinely expect to receive a good grade (by which they mean an A), and are sometimes simply shocked when you assign them anything less. One common refrain we hear is, “But I get As in all my other classes!” Or the if-I-don’t-do-well-I’ll-lose-my-scholarship (or law school/medical school/etc chances) refrain. Or, as I’ve run into already a few times this semester, the pity card- everything from random tough luck to dead cell phone battery to terrible home life. That, and the complaint that the work is too much and the grading scale is too difficult.

What do I do about it? I’m a first year graduate student; I did a stint last school year subbing in high schools, and had the prerequisite half-day seminar our department requires. That, plus the teaching and mentoring I received last semester, is the extent of my teaching experience and training, so I can’t offer myself as any sort of expert on pedagogical techniques.

Instead, here are some things that I try to keep in mind when dealing with students: first, I genuinely want them to learn and do well. I wish I could do more, I wish I had greater control over things, but I don’t- I’m a teaching assistant. My jurisdiction in many ways ends as soon as it begins. But I do largely control the one thing my students care most about: their grade. That a lowly first-year M. A. student with his own heavy load of work outside of teaching responsibilities is the one in charge of determining whether the nearly sixty students under his tutelage pass or fail is itself somewhat disconcerting, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and are considering attending a large research university/have children you want to send to a large research university, well, caveat lector. But anyway, the possibilities open to me for assigning material and teaching style are very limited. I must follow the guidelines laid down by the professor; I cannot go off and do my own thing. This means I must follow the guidelines- this semester, very strict guidelines- for grading. And therein lies the struggle.

When my students complain of the difficulty of the work or protest for a better grade, part of me thinks: I never did this when I was an undergraduate. Granted, I usually made good grades, but when I made a poor one, I didn’t whine to the professor and demand a better one. I am terribly sorry if you worked hard and still came up short. I really am. But I am not grading you on how hard you worked- I am grading you on performance, on whether you apprehended the material, not just whether you read it.Yeah, I know everyone’s been telling you how special you are and how you deserve the best etc etc- it’s not true, ok? Be glad I didn’t grade you on your real merits.

That’s the nastier, be-glad-you-don’t-have-to-read-850-page-economic-history-tomes side of my internal dialogue. It has its merits, I suppose- it’s true that we’re faced with a culture that teaches our students that they deserve a good grade, that they deserve a college education, and that they are exceptionally smart, and so on. But at the same time, I feel- maybe dirty is the best word?- when I assign a bad grade to a student I know has in fact worked fairly hard, yet is still lagging far behind. I don’t want to assign him a bad grade. I know that the reason this student is probably in college is not because he wants to learn all about the Byzantines and Clovis and the rise of modern capitalism, but because he knows that the minimum benchmark for a decent job is a college degree- that’s the minimum benchmark. He’s been fed the absolute necessity of going to college his entire life, and he really does need to go to college- not because anyone cares about the values of a liberal education (it’s hard to type that phrase without an ironic snicker), but because a degree has become the function equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s the least an employer looks for so as to eliminate other applicants. My hard-working student needs good grades and a diploma because it’s just one more necessary marker in the system. He’s probably taking out loans, because the bait-and-hook “scholarship” he was awarded his freshman year ran out when he couldn’t pull a 3.5. Chances are he’ll end up dropping out, still carrying those loans, but without the degree- just debt. Here I am, a nice quiet cog in the system, happy to have my little stipend and my library card, knowing that I have neither the authority or the time and ability to change anything. It’s one of the most insidious things about the academic system- you very quickly learn your place and the advantages of not rocking the boat.

And then I think about what my students’ educational background is- I’ve done a little time in public high schools, I’ve an idea of things. I was privileged- I was homeschooled, then went to a nice little liberal arts college where I knew my professors and hung out in their offices talking history and politics and life. My average student here probably went to a ho-hum high school, maybe was able to get a few minutes in with his adviser, possibly spoke to the instructor of the present course once because he had a technical problem- that’s it. He’s only other point of contact with the discipline of history is a graduate student with fifty-plus other students he only sees once a week. I will assume a fairly similar experience in other classes- maybe I’m wrong. Still, where in all of this is he supposed to receive hands-on, intensive instruction in the life of the mind, in the skills necessary for really learning in the humanities? I expect my students to be able to read well enough to grasp the material and think about it- how do I know they have ever acquired that skill? What am I to do if they haven’t? Sure, it’s partially their fault- no one held my hand and made me learn- but I wasn’t continually in an anonymous, ho-hum educational environment either.

So. I make no claims in the above thoughts to originallity or great subtletly- nor do I pretend to have any particular answers. I didn’t come into academia expecting roses and candy, to be sure, and I had struggled with the whole idea of getting into academia at all- for the reasons above, and others. I still do. I wonder- should I get out while I can? Is this whole thing right? Is it worth it? I don’t spend much time thinking about these things- Friday evenings are a decent time, I suppose, but one tends to stay occupied (I guess that’s part of the genuis of the system…) with other things filling one’s mind. But those questions shall wait- I’ve ranted long enough as is.

O Tempora

Two articles with contents one would be hard pressed to make up, and both of which I could image being the content of Wendell Berry’s nightmares.

First, the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to take out lots of old, good, pleasant-sounding words having to do with God, the countryside, and history, and replace them with horrible nasty words having to do with technology, pop culture, and colourless academic/policy hack speak. One need hardly look further for a snapshot of the destructiveness of post-industrial capitalist culture, really.

Some of the words removed: mistletoe, goblin, altar, bishop, monastery, monk, psalm, saint, sin, duchess, duke, decade, heron, kingfisher, lark, ox, oyster, thrush, weasel, apricot, ash, county, cowslip, fern, hazelnut, primrose, sheaf, walnut, willow.

And some included: Blog, voicemail, attachment, database, cut and paste, celebrity, creep, citizenship, EU, brainy, boisterous, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, biodegradable, dyslexic, food chain, trapezium, alliteration, curriculum, classify, block graph.

Of course, I doubt very much the editors have any particular animosity towards God or saint or trees or countryside. Rather, for them, those things, being impractical, have no place in a child’s vocabulary. They defend the removals by arguing that Britain is now a multifaith, multiculture society- but then why not include words having to do with other faiths and cultures? And why remove the countryside words? No, rather, what they meant is Britain is a society in which either no goes to church or into the countrside, or rather, they ought not, and they certainly aren’t to be expected to read or write about it.

Second, it turns out that big government ‘conservatism’ (what are we conserving, again? Oh, right, big capital!) is a jolly fine idea, really, writes Bill Kristol. Small isn’t beautiful– it’s not very practical nor very likely, not unlike those outdated words the wise Oxford editors jettisoned.  Of course, not just any big-government is meant- no, while silly ‘liberals’ want to repair roads and bridges and schools, what we need are bigger and better bombs and bullets. Why bother about building bridges when you could be blowing up bridges in other people’s countries? Yes, Mr Kristol tells us, government should be limited- limited to war, destroying domestic freedom, and saving corporate capitalism.

Change We Can Believe In

From Spiked: Under Obama No Child Left Unmonitored. Don’t like No Child Left Behind? Notice that Federal intervention in education is producing less than admirable results? Question the validity of subjecting education to the dictates of State and Big Capital? The solution of the statist-left: make it bigger! Upsize! Increase funding! Greater federal control! If the Federalization of all education isn’t working, it needs to be intensified. We must increase the devotion of all levels of education to the needs of capital, er, the business sector. We must make sure poor parents are doing their bit to raise good wards for State and Capital- and remember, there’s no way Federal policy could ever be racist or classist- remember, we did that whole making history thing, right?

This is just one small aspect of the sort of leftist imperialism (external and internal) that in insiduousness and long-term viability is probably more destructive and dangerous than rightist sorts. Rightist statism has lately tended to manifest itself in spectacular and very public outbursts of violence and programs of mass control, though in the past couple of years even the Bush administration has toned down much of its action (probably out of sheer necessity). The left, on the other hand, is rather more clever about things in that much of its systems of violence and control are more hidden. Education is a useful example; abortion is another example of systematic violence that lies beneath the surface (literally in some respects) of society and even political discourse: “choice,” “reproductive health,” and so on are used to avoid the stark implications of reality. Likewise, we call our wars “missions to spread democracy,” “humanitarian interventions,” disguising the actual horrific nature of war.

Both sides also insiduously exploit religion to advance their causes, whether it’s the latest war as a crusade from God or abortion as a “spiritual sacrament.” The left tends to be in denial about its religious aspect, since part of its campaign against the right is “separation of church and state,” by which of course nothing more is meant that separation of rightist religion from the state; statist-leftist religion, whether in the guises of protected Christianities, bourgouis environmentalism, or the whole smorgasboard of liberal pieties used to advance the agenda of the day- none of these forms of religiosity are ever envisioned as being separated from the State. Instead, religion- and the same attitude exists on the statist-right- is perfectly acceptable so long as it remains in the service of a greater mission, that of the statist-left.

This is ultimately my problem also of course and I fall under the label of hypocrite too: I like my religion, just let’s not take this too seriously, eh? Sure, some of that exoticly-flavoured Orthodoxy can show through here and there, since it’s possibly advantageous out here in the academy. But let too much through, and you’re courting danger. That’s the message that is continually broadcast, and my internalization of it is hardly only from external forces- in tandem with my own passions, the desire to keep my “religion” nicely compartmentalized is terribly strong. Only the radical action of God can really ever break me, or anyone else, left or right or sideways, out of it.

Why I Am Not Voting In This Election

(Disclaimer: the following may offend you, and if it does, and you find yourself vehemently angry at me, forgive me. Pray for me a sinner.)

I occasionally mention to people that I do not plan on voting in the much-vaulted upcoming election, and could really care less which candidate wins- a proposition usually taken with curiosity, at the least. I suppose I owe an explanation of sorts for this shockingly heretical attitude- no, I’m not a full-fledged anarchist, though perhaps of the Dorothy Day sort… Rather, in appraising the two candidates, I cannot support either one, for reasons of the deepest importance. One may ask, why not vote third-party? For one thing, I am not all jazzed about anyone running- Chuck Baldwin is apparently a moral majoritarian sort, the Libertarians have fielded what seems like a Republican-lite candidate, and so on. Besides, let’s be quite honest, voting for anyone apart from the two is quite pointless no matter where you live. As it is, a vote for either McCain or Obama would probably be pretty pointless here, Tennessee being a state pretty well placed in McCain’s column. But regardless. Why then can I not support either candidate?

Both men represent systems of doing things that are rooted in fundamental violence and oppression; they both reflect and do not question in their own way- alike though not identical- the culture of death that both supports and informs that American State (not that it’s unusual in that). A vote for either one is a vote for continuing systematic, intense, State-funded and supported violence and aggression. They only differ in their preferred targets, and that is all. Obama, to begin with, is not and has never been the “peace candidate,” even excepting his undiminished support for abortion-on-demand. While his early rhetoric sounded anti-war and even slightly radical, he has long since obediently and probably willingly shifted into the usual centre-right position, an advocate of American exceptionalism- one supported only part of the time, in certain places, by bombs and bullets, you understand. Mr. Obama would have us leave off one war- that in Iraq (though not too quickly!)- in order to escalate another, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That even more civilians are being slaughtered by American “smart” bombs in the latter places seems to be of little importance; it is the good war, after all, and that no one disputes. Besides those stated objectives, Mr. Obama would have us continue to proselytize the world for democracy etc etc, and in those promises the threat of force is never far behind, even if the Democrats at the moment prefer to not emphasize it.

As far as Mr. McCain’s approach to foreign policy goes, one hardly need say anything. Obama at least wraps his imperialism in lofty rhetoric and sometimes anti-war sounding evasions; McCain stands on a stage and sings about obliterating brown people with his bombs. He fully and unapologetically embraces the war machine; hatred of the enemy and mass violence are necessary for his campaign’s success after all.

But that is not the only issue in which the two candidates embrace systems of brutal violence and oppression. Obama is an unapologetic, if not particularly outspoken, proponent of industrialized abortion, the systematic violence against unborn child and mother. Not only are we asked to tolerate this subculture of death and violence, but we are asked (well, with the State there isn’t “asking,” only telling) to support it. This violence is in fact made sacrosanct, in one of the great perversions of modern life: the “right” to destroy is not only important, but essential, the underpinning of the all-holy human (well, the right sort of human that is) ability to control all things, from unwanted children to unwanted nations. “Consumer choice” invades the womb and bombs the world.

Neither candidate has seriously challenged or even discussed the ongoing violence and destruction propagated in the name of the “war on drugs.” Its victims do not enter the national discourse; Obama has given vague soundbites about “reforming” in some vague way the war, but just as in his foreign policy, this only means a shifting a resources, the dropping of bombs on a different group of the poor. As for McCain, again, there is nothing hidden here. Both candidates leave unquestioned the pervasive evils of the drug war; neither can imagine or desire to imagine alternatives to this great projection of deeply violent State power. Why should they? Again, State violence becomes virtually sacrosanct: the drug war, the war on terror, are all holy wars, the fight of noble Civilization against its dark, murderous enemies.

McCain, despite having once sought immigration reform of a sort, is now parroting the xenophobic lines of the hard right, endorsing yet another system of dehumanization and violence, yet another front for creating enemies and targets. Racist tactics are, as politicians have long known, particularly in my part of the world, one of the most effective ways for stirring human passions and fears, and directing them into creating you more power.

Knowing all this- that to endorse either candidate is to endorse systematic violence against my neighbor- how can I in good conscience vote for either? How can I listen to the words of Christ, how can I claim citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, and give my assent to these sorts of things? Do not suggest to me the lesser of two evils- am I too choose which forms of violence and evil I reject less strongly?

Am I suggesting running away from the world because it’s messy? No- instead of voting, do something that matters, go get messy, stand up against the currents of violence and despair, rebel against the culture of death: go find a homeless person and buy him lunch. Befriend a lonely person. Plant a garden. Go to church. Go find your neighbor, talk to her, love her. Go find the closest nursing home and visit the elderly. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy centre. Treat the immigrant like a human being. Pray. Forgive your enemy. Love him, however you can. Don’t vote for his annihilation.

You Think the Police State Only Targets Brown People?

Think again, comrade. And you thought it was bad when they stuck political dissenters in “free speech” zones- ie cages. Now, at least in St. Paul, they’re not even bothering to give lip-service to such out-moded concepts as free speech- just bust down the doors and arrest the dissenters. I mean, it’s worked for other states, why not here? Don’t you know there’s a war on, comrade?

From Glen Greenwald’s article:

Jane Hamsher and I were at two of those homes this morning — one which had just been raided and one which was in the process of being raided. Each of the raided houses is known by neighbors as a “hippie house,” where 5-10 college-aged individuals live in a communal setting, and everyone we spoke with said that there had never been any problems of any kind in those houses, that they were filled with “peaceful kids” who are politically active but entirely unthreatening and friendly.

In the house that had just been raided, those inside described how a team of roughly 25 officers had barged into their homes with masks and black swat gear, holding large semi-automatic rifles, and ordered them to lie on the floor, where they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The officers refused to state why they were there and, until the very end, refused to show whether they had a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away the laptops, computers, individual journals, and political materials kept in the house.