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Won’t Get Fooled Again

May 14, 2009

[This one’s for Flanigan, as some sort of explanation; and for Michele L., as a warning.]

When I look at a problem, my usual method is to search for the function. What does a thing do? Back when I still worked on my car, I began by looking at function – or specifically what was not functioning. When the car didn’t turn over, I knew to look at three things first: the battery, the starter, and the alternator. Beyond that, I dreaded looking at the master cylinder. Beyond that, there was wiring and the damn CPU to consider – that little brain box that no modern car can run without.

The same is true when I consider philosophical or theoretical issues. I begin with a quest for function. I’ve always loved philosophy, and I struggle with my tendency to get lost in theory (because it’s always safer inside my head than outside my door.)  I spent most of my time my senior year of high school locked away in the library muddling my way through the Great Books of the Western World in the Reference section. The first one I read was the volume on Descartes and Spinoza. Not because it was the first, but because I remembered a bad joke from some sit com – I think it was MASH – in which the punch line was a warning not to put “de cart before de horse.”  Ok. So I wasn’t an intellectual. But Descartes was a good place to start – if only because it in reading Descartes that I started to understand the Scientific Method. And an important part of Method is to begin with the most common denominator.  The most obvious thing. And for me, that thing tends to be process. How a thing works. You know a bicycle is a bicycle by how it works, and that’s the difference between a Schwinn and Harley Davidson. So you follow process back to method… you look at how a thing works (or doesn’t work) and back track… which is what mechanics and intellectuals do most of the time.

The best definition I’ve ever seen that describes an intellectual comes from Bill Cosby: “An intellectual is somebody who studies what normal people do everyday.” An intellectual begins with process – for example, what ants do when they’re marching in a row carrying back food that’s a hundred times their weight – and follow it back to function. Ants, and most insects, are function based.  Each one has a job in relation to group, and each one is ultimately easy to replace. Except the queen, of course. But then, every pyramid has its top. This is true of insects, the tombs of Pharaohs, and corporate America. By studying the process, eventually you get to understand the function. And when you understand how a thing functions, you understand the essence of the thing. Yes, there are variables. Yes, there are the unaccounted for bubbles of oddness and maybe even unexplained random behavior. But variation is part of the natural order – and if we can pull nothing else from Darwin, we can pull that truism. A variation only becomes part of the long term natural order if it continues to serve a specific function.

Ok. To the point. If you’ve read this far, you deserve that, at least. If you go back and look through all my rants about higher education, there is a consistent theme – a disagreement over function. This is due in part to the role that education has played in my life. But the things that piss me off the most – those behaviors I view as unwelcome variables – are, I now realize, not just temporary variations. They are part of the natural progression of higher education that has had nothing to do with me or my purposes.  

Originally, public education came into existence because literacy was considered imperative to the success of the Democratic Experiment. Higher Education was a gift (as much as I hate to admit it) from the Catholic Church, which sequestered its neophytes and taught them all the skills they would need – including literacy – so they could lead illiterate parishioners. (Coincidentally, it was the early Catholic Church that opposed both public education and the printing press.) The process was not at all touchy feely, but the function was clear. At certain points in American history, education has been used to either forcibly assimilate groups (in the case of Native Americans as well as every immigrant population that filtered through Ellis Island) or maliciously misinform and mislead chosen groups (in the case of African slaves, post Civil War African-Americans, and women in general) to advantage of some other group (white guys like me.)

The same is true of modern universities. I do like to think there was a time when colleges and universities focused on enabling individual and collective enlightenment and self-knowledge, as well as the preservation of collective knowledge.  But I am beginning to accept that this was never the case. Maybe that was the intention; I suppose there’s no way of really knowing what anyone’s real intentions were.  But a university, like a car, can’t function outside or beyond its original intended function.  There was a time – not all that far off – when I went to school because I wanted to be a smarter, better version of me. I wasn’t worried about getting a better job or finding the entrance to a comfortable middle-class American life. Actually, if I’m being honest, part of my attraction to the academic world was that it was a perfect reflection of my interior life. When I got tired of bullshit monkey work (white collar and blue collar) I could always go back school, take out student loans, and live outside my head the way I preferred to live inside my head.

My mistake, I think, was in hoping I could make a living at it and be content.

As much as I would like to enforce my idea of this perfect function on the all-mighty institution of higher education, I am coming to understand that this is impossible. Not because it’s an impossible task – but because it was never intended in the first place. A car can never be an airplane, and a bureaucratic institution will never really care about individual experience. Some people may point to the move to open universities in the 60’s and 70’s – the so-called Open University – but this is proving to be nothing more than a naturally occurring evolutionary variation with no staying power. Most universities are too expensive, and the possibility of loans looming over head scare people from ever trying. Technical schools fill the void, but the function of these institutions is to train a person for a specific job rather than educate them to embrace all possibilities. With the digital revolution, online education has taken off to the point that traditional institutions are now have to openly compete with online providers – and for most people cost and convenience outweigh any prestige factor that comes from attending a major university.  The traditional university, logically, focuses on the most important thing. Survival. This means getting rid of all the high falutin’ ideas and sticking to hardnosed pragmatism. This means raising tuition and fees. This means cutting programs and treating faculty like replaceable cogs and rewarding PR achievements over solid classroom performance. This means streamlining and allowing tenure to go the way of the dinosaur. The truth is, universities were always intended to be exclusive – and by function, anti-democratic – and that’s how they function with exponentially increasing precision.

And I don’t like it. Not one fucking bit. I work with people who call this perspective – an acceptance of How Things Are – realism. They are content to work within these  constraints, if only to have the occasional glimmer of that elusive ideal purpose. They are  worker ants content to haul food back to the queen. They are bugs who could be gods if they only stopped assuming that Spinoza was correct in Ethics.

This has given me no end of aggravation, since it’s always been my assertion that educated people know enough to know how to act when they’re being screwed over.  But as I struggle with my own idealism – an idealism I insist on cleaving to in spite of all the available evidence – I am beginning to understand that maybe one of those evolutionary variations – like the Open University, dinosaurs, and, potentially western civilization – is looking back at me on those mornings I take the trouble to shave.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2009 10:22 am

    Erm, but- thing is; we do, we do – “…won’t get fooled again…” (I’m old enough to recognize that as a musical lyric quote). It’s the human dilemma, seemingly humans can’t help it, however much they struggle and curse and think they know better.

    Maybe one day the idealism of which you spoke will catch up with us and zoom on ahead. Alright, I know it’s unlikely, but until then we’ll have to keep looking over our collective shoulder, checking and re-checking, rationalizing and quantifying – making the best of an inadequate system, wasn’t it really ever thus? You just have to learn to love the cracks and the madnesses I suppose.

    (Sadly, that’s the best I can do by way of profundity, but I enjoyed seeing/reading your blog for the first time :)) Thanks

    • May 14, 2009 1:19 pm

      I’m glad you caught the music reference… I was sort of worried that people would think immediately of CSI: Miami instead of The Who.

      As for the cracks… I think I keep tripping over them. ;-)

      thanks for responding…

      Mick

  2. May 14, 2009 3:19 pm

    Whatever your politics – Gotta love that old Who track:) http://tinyurl.com/5c4amb

    I did think of something else I really should have added Mick …That’s the business of “Idealism” – it’s often seen as something purely postive… Of course this is not necessarily the case.

    http://dictionary.die.net/idealism

    • May 15, 2009 7:13 am

      Thanks for the links… the point about idealism is well taken. I think my favorite def, though, had to be the first one… the doctrine that ideas are the only reality. If only that were the case.

  3. Matt permalink
    May 15, 2009 9:23 am

    Sometimes things can function outside their original purpose. Any system that produces someone that can be so upset by the vagaries… the limitations… the very nature of that same system has a glimmer of hope.

    It’s these prototypes that somewhat redeem the whole thing.

    • May 15, 2009 11:12 am

      I can’t help feeling like I’m just a glitch in the system… and not a very effective glitch at that. The only thing that really propels me forward is the hope (though it may be a bitter hope) that I actually have something to say, something to offer. Even if all I have to offer is confusion and discontent.

      How are things in your world, man? how’s Peggy?

  4. Matt permalink
    May 18, 2009 6:54 am

    Going along nicely. In less than two months, we’ll have our first kid. First childbirth class is tonight.

    …and I thought my part was done.

    • May 20, 2009 1:24 pm

      Nope… you still have years of midnight diaper changes, trips to doctors, recitals, and parent-teacher conferences to look forward to.

  5. May 19, 2009 5:18 pm

    Process. Bureaucracy. These two things aren’t antithetical to each other. In fact, a bureaucracy is a very large process designed to propagate itself.

    for most people cost and convenience outweigh any prestige factor that comes from attending a major university. The traditional university, logically, focuses on the most important thing. Survival. This means getting rid of all the high falutin’ ideas and sticking to hardnosed pragmatism. This means raising tuition and fees. This means cutting programs and treating faculty like replaceable cogs and rewarding PR achievements over solid classroom performance. This means streamlining and allowing tenure to go the way of the dinosaur. The truth is, universities were always intended to be exclusive – and by function, anti-democratic – and that’s how they function with exponentially increasing precision.

    The American university system is built on the German model. Even at its most idealistic, that model was never about “education”, but more about the pursuit of “knowledge.” If some proved themselves talented enough to pursue, cataglogue, define, and implement that knowlege — well, so be it.

    Educating the masses? Pipe dream. And a comparatively recent one built on the back of liberal democratic idealism — one at odds in may ways (though not totally) with capitalism. One wants to uphold the nobility and capability of humankind, positing that everyone has the ability to contribute, discover, and thrive. The other is fundamentally premised upon that idea that some must fail: “the market will correct itself.”

    So, how to “succeed”, or “survive, to use your wording? Strip what’s taught down to the bare necessities. Which of course presumes that we know what those necessities are in the first place. We don’t. That’s why we still predominantly use a 2-semester cycle of courses to teach writing to students who don’t even think it relevant in their world, much less care about it enough to write well after 2 semesters.

    The hitch? According to what they are told outside the university, writing actually doesn’t matter as much as we tell them it does.

    • May 20, 2009 1:22 pm

      If they borrowed from the German model, it must have been one of those light borrowings… like the way Taco Bell borrows from mexican food.

      In terms of surviving, the powers at be are already at work… they raise tuition and fees and focus on competing in the digital marketplace. The back to basics attitude isn’t so much about the courses that are offered… it’s about the manner in which they are offered and the wording of Mission Statements that are long on words and short on actual content.

      And, not for nothing… most students are told WITHIN the university that writing doesn’t matter as much as we tell them it does. It’s a hoop they have to go through… and that includes writing across the curriculum. You’ve seen that look in their eyes before… that “I’m getting a degree in Business Administration. I don’t need a composition class.”

  6. May 19, 2009 5:48 pm

    Oh, I forgot earlier:

    You need a killer pose and an expensive pair of sunglasses. That way you can turn toward the camera and utter some inane line all David Carusso-style!

    “We won’t get fooled again! Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

    • May 22, 2009 9:05 am

      Maybe Hank is misunderstood. He’s not trying to kill you… he just wants you to do his evil bidding.

      Hey, he’s not a dog is he?

      Go get ’em Son of Hank!

  7. Thanantos permalink
    May 20, 2009 6:30 pm

    College is a process that you perform that gives you a piece of paper that says “Hey y’all I can learn things and I can learn how to work for you”. It is a driver’s license to employment if you will. It is not a guarantee, it is not a how to, it is simply a process by which you can exhibit to people that you can be a functioning person in the work force.

    As such the college is not so much a gathering of intellectuals who sit around pondering the universe in order to learn and then share that knowledge, so much as a DMV. If you learn how to cure cancer it rarely benefits the college that you went to except that they can put that attended their college in their literature.

    What benefits the college is that people keep showing up and paying money to say they got an education. It is a business at it’s core. Caring, insightful teachers may be a good thing for the education of the students, but will not keep the electric bill paid.

    That all being said, if you want to be caring, insightful teacher well then snap to it. If a student doesn’t appreciate it, well poke them with a sharpened stick….wait on second thought skip that part.

    Students are not going to appreciate you. Administrators are going to treat you like shit. These are sad truths of the system. These are sad truths that exist in most system, but in your system you have a chance to positively influence someone. Someone is probably going to come along and think you are the bee’s knees. I work a desk, no one is going to think I am the bee’s knees except my imaginary cubicle buddy Hank.

    And to be honest…..well……I think Hank may be trying to kill me.

    • May 21, 2009 2:56 pm

      Hank’s a commie bastard! We believe in the doctrine of pre-emptive strike! Kill him with an imaginary smart-bomb! A 2000 pounder! We’re Americans; that’s how we do things!

  8. Matt permalink
    May 21, 2009 8:03 am

    Hey, I resemble that Business Administration degree shot. Because of my BBA, I’m a more well-rounded, thoughtful…

    No, you’re absolutely right.

    • May 21, 2009 2:58 pm

      Hey, you are more rounded and thoughtful — because you can afford it… Kind of…

    • May 22, 2009 9:07 am

      I have to say I feel pretty well-rounded… the older I get the rounder I become.

      Or maybe that’s the beer….

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