I’ve been pondering what it is schools do and what it is I can imagine they might do instead.  So you might gather from that statement that I do not agree with our current educational systems.  But, I might as easily say that this position is easily transferred to ANY institution that has been used to govern humanity.  With this being said, it might be fair to ask if institutions can be useful at all.  Can we reform what seems to have come into existence to serve as a kind of controlling mechanism for social thought and being?  Can we make something different with it?

First, what I consider to be a fairly apt description of calcified brutal systems that are honored and accepted as cultural institutions: Monty Python put it best in “The Life of Brian,” possibly one of the most brilliant pieces of cultural deconstruction ever performed.

The State, arbiter of life and death, condemns dissident minds.  The brilliance of this is NOT that the guard would have let the man go (decisions within bureaucracies) BUT that the man then condemns himself–accepts the judgement of the State as right and just and normative.  Also, it’s funny as hell every step of the way!

So, I suppose I need to work though the proposition that the world is organized badly, or rather, organized to the detriment of all living beings.  Even those of immense wealth are harmed by this organization.

Schools cannot escape this organizational principle; in fact, most of us would agree they serve this organizational principle as a way of promoting those cultural norms.  Schools serve social norms; social norms are hierarchical; social norms privilege the dominant economic class.  We might all agree with that; but why do we settle for it?

A friend recently reminded me that complacence is a cultural tendency as well as a tendency of physical bodies.  Complacence is simply inertia.  Our first thinker, Emerson, offered this in “Circles,” perhaps my favorite of his essays:

…let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

This might be a first tenet of learning.  It would be my first tenet in creating a “counter-school.”

We tend to see the role of education as a transferring of public knowledge, or approved knowledge, and we forget, or perhaps it never enters our minds, that this is a limitation of being.  This is, in a sense, a cultural cage.

Also, we might consider what Schopenhauer has said in the essay “On Thinking for Yourself”:

It may sometimes happen that a truth, an insight, which you have slowly and laboriously puzzled out by thinking for yourself could easily have been found already written in a book; but it is a hundred times more valuable if you have arrived at it by thinking for yourself. For only then will it enter your thought-system as an integral part and living member, be perfectly and firmly consistent with it and in accord with all its other consequences and conclusions, bear the hue, colour and stamp of your whole manner of thinking, and have arrived at just the moment it was needed; thus it will stay firmly and for ever lodged on your mind.’

This imagines a being in time coming to a particular insight in a particular time and in a particular mind–in other words, at the right time.  As I think best in “motion”–I tend to need to talk and talk and talk in order to discover what I mean, but likewise I set book after book against each other (if partially) to find a resonance–I can see that ideas, like feelings, tend to “happen” outside of my conscious control.

And since Arty can’t really be against reading (having read many philosophers himself) we might set Waldo against this in order to show a way of privileging the USE of books as containers of “thinking” (in action).  From “The American Scholar”:

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. [my emphasis]

The reader, the student, is not, should not be, an “empty vessel” awaiting culturally approved ways of thinking and curricular artifacts that augment that way of thinking.

We must promote the rebellious reader and thinker first and foremost.  We must promote the “testing” nature of childhood in all aspects and throughout our whole lives.  We must offer gymnasiums to fill with experiment.

Unsettled minds are ALIVE.

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

2 Responses to “Philosophus Agonistes: Thinking Against the State” Subscribe

  1. Sarah November 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    Our modern school systems, or the school system as we know it, was implemented when? I don’t know if this is correct, but it seems to me a product of industrialization. I think if you asked most people what they believe the purpose of schools to be they would say it’s to provide basic skill for societal involvement? Reading, writing, math. But these skills only take so long to learn, and we school our children well into adulthood. Most people lose interest in learning as an act of self exploration because this is not served by a system of testing. Testing in and of itself creates this culture complacency – if I can pass the test, if I can learn just enough to pass it, I don’t need to know anything more. And, furthermore, once I’ve passed the test I no longer need that knowledge…like a product coming off a conveyor belt, out of sight and out of mind.

    • Douglas Storm November 17, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

      Good points, all. I especially like this one: Reading, writing, math. But these skills only take so long to learn, and we school our children well into adulthood.

      What’s all this “other” schooling for then? A very good question.

      I’ve always wondered about those reading level assessments: what if we simply “polled” 1,000 folks across the country to find out what their reading level is? Or has this been done, I wonder…

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