Thursday, December 15, 2016

Truth, Enlightenment, and ... animality

It's fashionable to say we are post-truth, but falsity and unreason have always lived alongside fact and inquiry -- and not just as their opposites. 

As folks like Nietzsche and Freud have shown, the capacity for truth and reason is often built out of processes of violence, rejection, and resentment. Anyone who has been to school understands this tension. So must anyone who has reckoned with the history of America, beacon both of slavery and of freedom, of both equality and of racism, that most arbitrary and ugly form of inequality.

We are, after all, not minds, but animals. Human animals operate largely outside of processes reason or even self-interest. These are late-arriving achievements, hard won and fragile. 

Yes, we can maintain ourselves in a space of reason; we are capable of operating purely economically, but anyone who has interacted with another human animal intimately knows that all of us also need spaces of irreason and even violence, where we can express our fear, our feelings, our physiological animality. These spaces give us the strength to recover so that we can continue to do the work of enlightened living together.

The fragile institutions of democratic life are built to accentuate our capacity for reason, but as the events of this new century unfold, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, from Trump to Allepo, it's clear that they are not always strong enough. Irreason and violence can be more powerful; they are likely more native to our natures.

This raises a question: What should our expectations for democracy be? How civilized can we expect to be?  In the push for a more perfect union, have we set up unreasonable expectations for our animal selves?  

There is no greater recipe for discord in relationship than to expect your partner in that relationship to be more reasonable than they are -- whether this is your spouse or your 4 year old. How often have we imposed a tyranny of the rational only because we were incapable of empathy, of listening, or of just being with each other without judgment.

One way to understand 2016 is that this is the year that the tyrant within the liberal/moral/democratic/pragmatic social order [the superego] has been knocked off his throne. 

How should we who -- despite and because of our privilege and blindness -- sustain the power of enlightenment culture respond? What do we owe to our animality? What can we expect from it? Can we tolerate its re-emergence? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Letter to a Parent After the Election

I'm publishing this with permission from the parent I sent it to, in the hope it might be helpful to parents and educators in divisive political times.

* * *

Dear XXX,

First off, it's so good to hear from you! I had my eye out for you on Parents' Night as well, and I was sorry I didn't get a chance to at least say hello. I also just want to say that R appears to me to be thriving in all the right ways. We don't connect as often as we did last year, but she's a special one who I keep my eye out for. 

It's exactly students like R who I worry most about -- what will happen to their lovely innocence and naive goodness? An Egyptian friend of mine sent me a note after I sent him a picture of my little one in my arms last night. He said: "It starts from here, and we build outward."

To your email: I think that your instincts are right -- this is a human issue, not a political issue (though of course the two are always deeply connected.) It hits independent schools hard because we work at the human level. Our task is deeply value-laden. We have to have a vision of the good life and be brave and noble in its defense. The alternative is nihilism.

Our responses, therefore, must be human as well and not crassly political. We do what we have always done -- meet our young ones, our parent community, and each other where we are. We speak frankly about our concerns, and we listen earnestly. We model expertise in inquiry and the value of learning patiently. 

We model this "politics of the small" for our students, not just as a way of coping with this unexpected moment, but as the ethos of democracy as a way of life. We have ears and eyes and brains and hearts, and we have each other. These are the raw materials of every community; most of the time they are enough.

For all these reasons, I found myself grateful to be going to a school on Wednesday morning. I was reminded in so many ways to take the long view, and I could see in so many ways the working reality of good people making small change through hard and daily effort.

Thanks so much for reaching out,

Friday, July 8, 2016

Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Heat

It's muggy here in Tennessee. You walk across the asphalt, and it shimmers, and you think you need a snorkel to breathe. It was hot in Dallas yesterday, too -- 97 degrees, and it had been that way all week.

Now there are these murders, which we've seen with our own eyes. And now there are these reactions to these murders. It makes me think of cloth, fabric, shrouds.

America right now is a dark, heavy blanket, and we are all crowded underneath, looking anxiously at each other, sweating, just trying to breathe. All this air we are breathing is filled with the breath of other people. It's like we're pulling for oxygen.

We are re-discovering a truth that is never lost completely, but is occasionally widely forgotten. The social cloth, like Penelope's burial shroud, is constantly woven and unwoven. At some moments we find ourselves wrapped too tightly together, and at other moments we grasp and clutch towards each other, coming away only with fists of threads and torn fabric. Feels today like we're all wrapped up too tight in a tangle. I've got other people's torn and bleeding bodies all up in my business.

The thing about weather is that you gotta live with it. We gotta live with these murders, we gotta live with the heat. We're gonna have to sweat. I keep thinking of Radio Raheem and Sal's Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing, and how on that hot day they didn't make it to sundown. Something had to be set on fire, as if we could out-hot the heat.

The best I can think right now is that we're just gonna have to sweat. This heavy summer heat's gonna pass. July's going to find its way to August. Right now, there's some cool air that's gathered in some place up in the Yukon that is untouched by all of this. I'm just holding in my mind's eye to a mountaintop far away from all this stuff, in some place where murder hasn't even happened, and where justice is just a word spoken to rocks who aren't interested in understanding.

I wonder what Tina thinks of the Yukon.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Politics and Schools: on educating in a toxic atmosphere

We talk about the political climate as if it were not the very air of community. As social beings, we have no choice whether or not to participate in politics. In this deep sense, politics is not about voting; it's about the way in which our very presence trails along all sorts of political issues: our whiteness, our gender, our Americanness, our class, etc. Though we are individuals, we also always already (and sometimes unwittingly) represent groups. It is in this sense that politics is necessary. It names the fact that communities of people are forced to interact. This interaction of peoples is the air of community life, and we must breathe it, polluted or not.

The mark of politics today is that it is strangely both all-encompassing and difficult to internalize.  Let me see if I can explain. 

First, politics is everywhere. It's not just that it shows up on our twitter feeds or is constantly blaring on some screen at the peripheries of our vision. It's also that its mines and possible mis-steps threaten so many of our interactions. The fatigue surrounding the notion of political correctness is a mark of this ever-presence of politics. Communicating today bears not just the burden of individual representation, but we are all always already speaking on behalf of liberals or conservatives or white people or our gender or religion. Politics mediates all of our relationships, and all of our relationships are threatened by politics. It is all-encompassing.

Second, politics is difficult to internalize. This is in the nature of politics; it is fundamentally alienating. To speak politically is always to forgo our individual sense of self. When we speak politically, we do not just say what we think, but we speak "as" a group or "for" a group; we measure the possible effects of our speech. We negotiate and compromise. We are forced to encounter people who at least think we are wrong and may even think that we are dangerous. To speak politically is to move out of a space of individual integrity or wholeness and move into a negotiated, fragmented, hostile space that is always open and being refigured -- subject to events and outcomes and forces far beyond our individual control. It's unsettling. It can also be thrilling -- as war by other means.

Neither of these characteristics are bad in themselves. They are consequences of the fact that we are social animals. However, it is important to note that if we live purely politically, if we breathe only this air, we will find ourselves constantly unsettled. So, we need sometimes to escape from politics. We need private spaces in which we can be less measured, where we can speak without fear of reprisal, where we can recover from the stinging hail of the public sphere, where we can experience the calm of home, or the intimacy of being understood.

We know that a primary function of schools is to prepare students for citizenship -- so that they can weather the storms of public opinion at best or even steer communities towards the public good. However, schools also work as a shelter from politics. Young people need quieter spaces where they can hone their participation in the public life. A school is a place that is not fully public, but not fully private either. In an ideal school politics exists, but it exists as ideal politics: as simple the interaction of different community interests.

Schools must work harder today to create this original sense of political participation. This is of course something that schools have always done imperfectly -- they are too weak and too imperfectly realized not to be buffeted about by the political winds that affect wider society. Racism, money, hatred, and fear remain fundamental obstacles to democratic education today. But there are two ways that this can at least be addressed by students and teachers:

1. Give students a sense of ownership of in the school community. It's only through a sense that schools are vital centers of community life that students have access to politics in its best form. If we cannot give students a sense of autonomy as they grow, how then are they to express it fully as adults?

2. Directly address the political atmosphere of the times. Students must be sheltered from the worst forms of politics, but that sheltering must be explicit. We have to point out the forms of intolerance, unhealthy anger, and indeed death and war to students; we have to let them know that we see them, and that we are protecting them from these things so that they can eventually have the strength to change them. By not being explicit about the need to protect students from politics, we teach them either to be blind to politics or to be unwitting victims of it.

In other words, we need to both protect students from the bad air of contemporary politics and give them good air to breathe. It's only by performing these two functions that the school can keep alive the ideal of politics and shelter our most vulnerable people from the toxicity of the contemporary atmosphere.

Friday, February 26, 2016

More Thoughts on Anxious High School Students

School leaders and teachers across the country are seeing rates of teenage anxiety and depression skyrocket. The school where I work is not immune from these trends, and it's something that faculty and administrators alike are wrestling with -- and honestly without great answers. When we approach these problems, sometimes we forget to ask the question from the other side -- why is it that the very same experiences that used to prepare students for life now seem not to be effective anymore? Maybe it's not that we are creating more miseducational experience for students, but that something has happened that has made great education less effective.

In "Flow" by Csikszentmihalyi, he talks about a strange paradox in which people actually report undergoing more optimal experience at work than in leisure, but still do not like or identify with their work. 

He thinks that this is because of pernicious myths about the relationship between the modern worker and his job that undermine and distract people from the actual positive experiences they are having. These myths tell us that work is something that we are forced to do, rather than a positive force in our lives... and actually distract us from the positive experiences that we are having, causing unnecessary resentment and angst. 

I believe that our students are also subject to a lot of mythology that is causing them to see their education as something that "happens to them" or that they "must do" against their will, thus sapping their energies. 

Csikszentmihalyi explains:

"When we feel that we are investing attention in a task against our will, it is as if our psychic energy is being wasted. Instead of reaching our own goals, it is called upon to make someone else's come true. The time channeled into such a task is perceived as time subtracted from the total available for our life. Many people consider their jobs as something they have to do, a burden imposed from the outside, and effort that takes life away from the ledger of their existence."

Administrators, parents, and teachers are always concerned we are not doing enough to teach independence. We tend to be self-critical in this; blaming our intents to help students learn as creating dependency. However, teachers and administrators helping students as individuals is something every great school has done for years and years, long before this current wave of student stress and anxiety. That support attempts to match challenges with actual student skills so that students can experience the positive experience of control and independence. We don't always get it right, but I do think that's the goal of good administrators and teachers, whether we articulate it or do it intuitively. 

Maybe the problem is not the teachers and administrators who work hard alongside students to empower them to do their best, but the persistent and pernicious mythology that school exists for purposes that are not the students' own: their future selves, social prestige, their parents' dreams, or even the school's own sense of prestige. 

In the classroom every day and also after school every day I see students who are engaged, challenged, and interactive with peers and teachers. In the moment, things look good. But I worry that despite all of this positive evidence, students still don't perceive that their education is going well. They are mis-judging their own experience, and don't apprehend the positive moments as crucial to their journey. They understand them as pleasant distraction from the larger task, rather than fundamental to the task. Instead of judging the quality of their education by the quality of the experiences they are undergoing, they are judging it according to a future that they cannot imagine, according to criteria that are not their own.

This false mode of judgment doesn't allow the students themselves to recognize the beauty of what we see every day in schools that work -- students engaged and vivacious, learning at tremendous rates, and being great friends to each other. Although they are succeeding, they feel they are failing because the wider culture (and we ourselves) have failed to direct their judgment of what counts for success in the educational experience to the right place. We depend on 'external markers' such as college admissions, test scores, etc., instead of pointing out the excellence, rich experience, powerful mentorship, and positive friendship that we wiser people see all around us, and which draws us every day back to work.

Is it possible that the answer to student stress is right in front of our faces, if we had the eyes to see it and the values by which to appreciate it? Maybe we need to remind the students in large and small ways that schools exists for them, and that the positive moments when they happen, when challenge and skill align and students solve their own problems, are not distractions from larger goals or means to larger ends, but the very meaning and function itself of an educational community.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Runner's View of the Elliptical

I haven't really told the story of my running over the last couple of years, and that's because there's no running story to tell. The story is of an achilles tendon on my right heel that over the course of 6 years and 15,000 or so miles of running and racing [and generally feeling FREE] through achilles tendonitis/tendinosis/bursitis/haglunds deformity (it felt alright after it warmed up, for the most part!), the achilles decided really that enough was enough. I couldn't run without limping, and when I ran, I got these sharp pains that felt like the tendon was tearing, one strand at a time. Which, turns out, it was.

I got an MRI. The Dx was rupture/necrosis/general death of achilles tendon over about 1.5 inches or so. Kind of like the achilles tendon equivalent of a frayed rope.

I had surgery. They cut out the necrotic inch-and-a-half and then took my flexor hallus longus (which apparently is not all that useful,  or at least much less useful than an achilles tendon, though now I can't flex my big toe) and somehow used it to rebuild an achilles tendon on my right side. This was last June.

The first three months, I was in a cast, then a boot and spent a lot of time on the couch. I watched the Sopranos from Episode 1 all the way through. Spoiler: therapy doesn't do the trick with mobsters, or maybe with anyone.

After three months or so, my wound finally healed up enough and everything was strong enough to start limping around in shoes. Now, finally, after another 3 months and a startling amount of rehab, I can hammer out an hour on the elliptical, which I do more or less daily. This brings me to my point: the elliptical.

It turns out that there are a number of people who are elliptical users. Instead of running or cycling or hiking, their exercise of choice is the elliptical. I must have known this subconsciously because otherwise why would there be so many elliptical machines in the gym? But now that I am one of the daily elliptical users, this fact has slowly worked itself into my mind through experience. As you are a runner, you also may not know this fact, or like me, find it difficult to accept.

I ruminate on this fact while I am on the elliptical. Why are these people here with me? There are definitely benefits to the elliptical, and all of the benefits of the elliptical boil down to one thing. The elliptical is predictable. It does the same thing, every day.  You show up, the elliptical is there, you get on it, set it up, plug in the earphones, turn the channel to what you want to see, grasp the handles, place feet on the foot-thingies and it's like you enter a soft tunnel of exercise that is there waiting for you every day. Nothing is too jarring. Nothing really hurts. The heartrate rises, but not too high. The muscles work, but they don't get sore. The joints bend and flex, but they don't pound. It's sustainable, predictable, always there -- really like nothing else in the world.

It's got to be really freaking healthy. No one ever necrotized their achilles on an elliptical, that's for sure. That's because the elliptical was designed for the body, which is very strange and soul-sucking if you think about it (and especially if you think about it on the elliptical.) It's actually the inverse of activity -- to be active is to move your body over and through terrain. We use our body to play in, with, through, and against our environment. The body is a partner with the environment, and really it only comes into its own through a type of oppositional relationship with the environment. This is why, for example, runners love hills.

Meb, undermining my thesis on the ElliptiGO.
The elliptical is very strange because being built for the body, it undoes the whole notion of the body actually doing something. It takes an object, namely flesh and arms and legs and pulsing heart, and straps it to a machine that imitates movement. Yes, the blood still flows. Yes, the muscles contract and expand. Yes, the heart rate can be monitored and seen to rise to 120, 130, 140, etc., but despite all of that, what happens? Nothing.

The elliptical is exercise purified, or health purified. It's exercise for its own sake. Seems to me, though, that unlike something like Beauty or The Grand Canyon or an April Butterfly, exercise doesn't really justify itself. The elliptical is like the bodily form of narcissism -- it's like a weird body-mirror through which the body relates only to itself, and gets caught up in its own gaze.

I mean, certainly it is better than sitting on the couch. I am so happy that I can do it, and every now and then, I can even conjure up a faded image of how it felt to be running when I was fit. There is part of it though that feels too much like the rest of this strange modern life, where humans have finally figured out how to turn the environment into a thing that exists for them, rather than something they live in and through. Running was one way I escaped that.

All of this is to say that the elliptical people will remain strangers to me. I am all for predictability, but give me the predictable routine of the runner -- the routine that gets me out the door, in the wind, to feel habitually the sting of rain, the jarring of asphalt, the wild whirl of the sky, the horizon that draws the eye outward, so that we feel small and simultaneously real and in the world, and the world also feels a bit like it is inside of us.

Maybe this spring, pending the slow return of life to my heel. In the meantime, the rest of you have to carry the torch of the body's utility, perhaps this weekend on a quiet run as snow falls, and you leave traces that fill in behind you while everyone else stays inside, their warmth not quite of their own making.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On Trying to Be a Person: some thoughts after reading Knausgaard

A few quick notes after reading the first two volumes of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. 

Why it works: even though My Struggle is personal and autobiographical, it is not confessional. It's personal narrative without guilt or its close brother: aspiration. The other reason it works is that the writing is full of detail, description, not just of inner life, but also of objects and ideas and landscapes. Knausgaard gives us a full picture of experience. His writing is neither subjective nor objective; or maybe better put, Knausgaard's writing makes that distinction irrelevant. While the content of the book is personal: family life, adolescence, work, play, etc., these things are also universal to human experience. 

More than that, Knausgaard's resurrection of the person is also a crushing criticism of the way in which 21st century life has destroyed the personal as a source of meaning. It's done this in two ways: 1) through the culture of sameness, in which we learn to obsessively narrate our lives through cultural memes and tropes, e.g. Facebook. It's not that our lives are really the same, it's that we are limited in our expression of life, even (especially?) as we express it to ourselves. 2) Through liberalism and socialist thinking, which encourages us all to understand ourselves and what it means to be alive in terms of an affectively impoverished and overly analytical set of concepts like class, race, etc. None of these concepts give us a handle on feeling or family or death or work--the personal universals that make up life in its immediate forms. So we end up lacking much sense of immediacy,* empty and out of touch with ourselves, uselessly trying to fill the void with filtered selfies (hollow subjectivity) an equally hollow politics (hollow objectivity).

*followers of the blog will recognize that the main argument linking all of these posts together is that running is valuable and we are drawn to it because it tunes us in to the immediacies of experience [while running, too, is also subject to all the various mediations that alienate us from immediacy (joy, pain, meaning, love) -- social media, $$, shallow, status driven goals and practices, etc.]*

Reading 1000 pages of Knausgaard has led me to this thought: contemporary life only gives us two primary ways of relating to ourselves: through guilt or through self improvement. Neither of these are actual self relation; they both reject the self. Guilt makes this rejection negatively through resentment and self loathing, self improvement positively, through the actions of self-sacrifice. They both substitute relation with an ideal for relation with the actuality of the self -- hence mediation and the lack of immediacy. 

Knausgaard's prose reminds us that we can be with ourselves--our memories, our present--without the impulse to hate ourselves or improve ourselves. In this way, he is a Nietzschean or a stoic. The authorial voice in My Struggle does not struggle to improve or to analyze or to understand the self, but to be a person, to practice selfhood. 

We sort of follow Knausgaard through his life as he learns and re-learns how to be a person. While you'd think that 6 volumes of words about one's life would be narcissistic, it turns out to be quite the opposite. The text bites the bullet we must all bite; which is that we all have a duty to practice self-hood, to become a person. Knausgaard sort of sets himself out into the world, attempting and failing at this task again and again, and thereby succeeding I think, more than most.

By inviting us into the struggle, Knausgaard does the opposite of what social media does: he figures his personhood intimately and honestly and factually. His self is not written as a cultivated object, but almost painted, as an artist would render an object in a natural and social world. Knausgaard teaches us something that we already know, but too often forget: practicing selfhood and self care is the only genuine way to be with the world and with others. 

Nietzsche's concept for this was amor fati, love of who one is, his highest ethical principle. Narcissus neither knew himself, much less practiced himself; his self relation was empty, a mere image--what these days we call a status, a meme, a selfie. 

Who would have thought that what 21st century life needed was more self-examination, not less!
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