In Terminal, an installation I saw at the entrance of the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, its creator, Subodh Gupta, had arranged a series of spires, the kinds of golden spires seen atop the temples, mosques, and churches of his native New Delhi, but spires shorn of their stars, crescents, and crosses, and joined by barely visible wires. The wires formed a woven arrangement under which one could walk and consider readings as well as, depending on your perspective, misreadings of community and commons. Under it, I saw that it was the barely visible wires that were holding the structure together, and I could guess that if the scaffolding of this city of spires was nearly invisible, perhaps the artist was suggesting that all the essential scaffoldings of the world were likewise barely visible and thus needed not only to be acknowledged but also cared for, lest they get tangled, and the structures they are quietly, modestly, and without fanfare supporting, collapse.
Under them, I also thought of the song lines, likewise invisible, and of another artwork, Judgment by his Peers, painted in prison, and hung in the artist’s, Gordon Syron’s, cell. As our election season has finally ended, the one thing it seems to have become acceptable for all sides to acknowledge, because the insight is sufficiently general, and can be articulated without acknowledging our own part in the problem we are identifying, is that our social fabric is being torn apart. At another Washington D.C. museum, The Phillips Collection, I saw Hrair Sarkissian’s photographs, Execution Squares, which documented, described, and at the same time, lamented the state of the public square in the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Latakia, and though the photographs may have seemed innocuous to the naked eye, the series title created in them the same sort of tension that exists here between what is obvious to all, and the simultaneous refusal of anyone to testify to, or admit to, his or her own part in the creation of a void.
If the kinds of sectarianism Gupta and Sarkissian witnessed are held in check here by rule of law and First Amendment guarantees, we have managed to create new forms of it, not based on religion, but on a different sort of belief, just as toxic, as now, each of us, as individuals, and as part of the groups to which, as if giving a recitation, we congratulate ourselves for choosing to belong, are so convinced that we know better than everyone else, that the insistence itself has become the first principle that bestows the seraphic hatband of certainty around whatever follows, a first principle issued, ridiculously, with an “I believe” at the beginning of what is purported to be fact. “I believe” is indeed the preferred preface to most such statements today, which suggests that, because it seems so obvious to its speaker, it does not require further elucidation, much less proof, but rather, assent, so it is easy to see how, when said speaker is presented with a differing view, but a differing view presented with the same sense of Euclidean certainty, Q.E.D., the jaw-dropping incredulity instantly manufactured, and the hatred and vindictiveness that makes the other side so easy to despise, and which inspires the thought that only elimination, not argument, will win the day because, we believe the other side is an existential threat to the republic, an existential threat, because such “arguments,” like all forms of narcissistic practice, no matter the guise in which they appear, are dead to everything but themselves, and therefore lethal, in ways Gupta and Sarkissian describe, to the commons upon which our republic depends.
Watch news today, and whatever channel, whatever network, after the headlines, around the table sit the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Council of We Know Betters, often referred to as “Our All-Star Panel,” so-called, because while they, too, begin most sentences of purported indisputability with an “I believe,” they often add a codicil, a second sentence of self-inflation, an “I really believe that,” as if they also really believe that when they say it, this time it must be real. But if it is real this time, it is not because of any insight buried inside their histrionics, or the display of one-upmanship that signals the inevitable rejoinder, “I truly believe,” but because of the unbridgeable divides created by both sides’ belief in their own inerrancy, and the damage caused by modeling for all of us not how to think about the issues of the day, but how to feel about them.
Our language of outrage, camouflaged as “speaking out,” or worse, “speaking out for the first time,” is always stupid, because language becomes completely absorbed, whatever the content, in a function, and now that the function is the very othering that we decry in other contexts, we fail to see that our outrage requires sacrifice zones, dumpsters that now dot the country, colored blue if we are colored red, colored red if we are colored blue. In all these places we have created our own versions of Sarkissian’s Execution Squares, places, moreover, where Gupta’s invisible wires are being torn down. Like those invisible wires, our republic exists in the mind; you can’t see it. The things you can see, that pass for a commons for so many of us, like health food stores, or Ted Talks, or gun shows, or Trump rallies, are just as likely the places where the spiritual gluttony and toxicity of a reflexively partisan, monarchist country is being created.
At the galleries I could also see how the focus has moved from the work of art to the viewer. At The Phillips, I wasn’t the only one checking my phone in front of a rendering of the Buddha. The art, we seemed to be saying, should be looking at us. One hundred years ago, Eliot wrote, each man fixed his eyes before his feet, but now the wasteland comes through our phones, and through our phones not only to the galleries, but, like the Trojan Horse, is invited in through our wired classrooms, so that before our students have a free relationship with technology, we further the colonization of their inner lives with the profit-making algorithms that have created the conditions necessary for the rise of demagoguery in our country.
This gravamen of creation, which has moved, with spectacular silliness, from the creator to the spectator, is a phenomenon that has coincided with the rise of “Prestige TV,” so-called to sanctify our binge-watching. If this TV were really so serious, it would have to reconcile that seriousness with the reality its overlords have created and have each character portrayed head down on his or her phone, to mimic, in variation, those of us who are watching, transfixed by our own unwatery images, the journey to a more perfect union hijacked midcourse by algorithms. Don’t leave it up to us to figure out that it is our own faces we are looking at when staring at our TVs or our devices, our outrage does not allow for introspection. Whatever council of We Know Betters that we belong to in the Twitterverse, we are much more likely lamenting the “evil” of a Netflix spoiler, and since the “new” season is based on a template we already know, our outrage must appear even more explosive.
Echo, pining for our attention, is now the world itself. The rivers into which we Narcissi stare—better, more improved rivers, no doubt, because tailored to make even our opinions appear beautiful, still continually threaten to dissolve them, requiring therefore our constant vigilance. The world has become My world, and outside, the light in the trees is going unseen, except by the dogs at the end of our leashes. We will be quick to point out that the world is dying from climate change and coronavirus and Donald Trump, but whatever spirits abound, we are the ones killing them. And if no spirits abound, if the world does not need our attention, the barely visible wires that hold together our commons are being unstrung by profiteers who, with all their ads about “connectedness,” engineer their videos not to foster connection between disparate groups, but to separate them even further. And as far as fostering intellectual curiosity among students, as their ads claim, I can say that that is an atrocious lie.
I can report firsthand the damage done: The alliance of big tech, big business, and big education sits before my eyes in the “wired” classroom, where the wiring is not only the medium, but the message, and unsuspecting students go further and further into our benighted realm of knowing better, while knowing nothing. One example: While we prattle on about our worries about the election, we have already ceded the next generation’s education by assuming citizenship is self-executing, and sensibility, instead of something shaped, is something googled. Students don’t yet know what to google, but instead of hiking up the mountain of ideas to figure that out, they are being airlifted to its summit and being encouraged to believe that they can see.
Now all of us are heads down on our devices of “connection,” which use the invisible wires of electricity, not to, as the device mongers, in their advertisements, like to claim, “connect” us, but to do the opposite, encourage us to define the world by our likes and dislikes, connect us to our own prejudices, and with the invisible money-making magic of algorithmic nudging, foster the whataboutism that not only infects our national dialogue these days, but is replicating so furiously because it is being produced in the classroom, where most arguments—from students, who don’t know better, and professors, who do—are variations of now let me beat you over the head with what I think, and that tangle up and tear down Guptas’s invisible wires, and result in the emptiness Sarkissian tries to capture in his seemingly innocuous Execution Squares. A rough beast that neither side saw coming is being born out of the behavior in which both sides are engaging. It may already be too late, but because the invisible wires Gupta tried to make plain to the naked eye hold up both sides, it just might require both sides coming together, if it is not already too late, to forestall the mortal threat to each of their self-glorifying but separate kingdoms.
Th’expense of Spirit
And since now only a mortal threat would bring together two sides so dedicated to the principle of we know better, and migrating to their individual lives, its most toxic form, I know better, that has threatened even this hope, because it has given license, in educational settings, to the translation of all kinds of pathologies into classroom policy, we can only offer pity to the poor soul seeking refuge from the mindless shouting, who, seeking a solution, perhaps, for example, a post-secular one, one, that is, not created in isolation from the great religious and philosophical traditions of the past, finds, instead of the one and only place for an unbiased removal from the shouting, the very place it is being created, being created if only because, with the sidelining of the humanities, both by its elimination, and, when it is taught, its acceptance of the now-dominant political trope of “you’re either for me or against me,” which, when migrating into the realm of ideas, becomes the black hole that is sucking in the country.
Students buy it and in twenty years will be just like us. And because we told them what to think, not how to think; what to write, not how to write; they will find out, sooner or later, the emptiness of it all when they show up somewhere and discover their mere presence is not an argument, and that they cannot control thought by controlling language. Martyrdom and murder are the only professions where mere willingness is the qualifying credential. Education is about building, if not a soul, at least a citizen. Neither are self-executing.
All forms of manipulation would be countermanded if students started college with a single well-taught humanities course, instead of what we have them begin with, a class about how to use the computers. We insist on this kind of “orientation,” because the one thing professors count on these days is that their assignments be turned in using the right program, and having put all our faith in our belief in technology in the classroom, thus washing our hands of real teaching, which is hard, we also get the added benefit of throwing up our hands at the state of the country, even though we were the ones who, in the classroom, sold it out to the imperatives of an industry.
If we must set it up in such a way that financial aid will only pay for one humanities class, and if, at the same time, we must satisfy our desire that that class be “politically engaged,” we might at least offer a grounding for whatever side-taking we are engaging in, one that can’t be found, for example, on cable news, or on our favorite podcasts, and thus might include classical political philosophy, with readings in Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Thomas Aquinas, not to read dead white men, but to understand natural law and human law, and following that, modern political philosophy, with its visions of early liberalism, republicanism, and natural rights, followed by readings and discussions in the American experiment, with the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, Tocqueville, and the progressivism of Dewey, Merriam, and W.E.B. DuBois and following that, a grounding, if we must satisfy our desire that that class include sexual identity and gender identity—to pick just one possibility, of many—with the poems of Hopkins, Whitman, Housman, and Auden, or excerpts from the novels of Collette, Woolf, Sackville-West, Baldwin, and Barnes because literature defamiliarizes language while political speech straightens it.
I know this appears crazy, especially to the PhDs who make our students’ curricula, but PhDs themselves are now advertised and understood as not to be obtained or desired for themselves, but transactionally, as what can be gotten out of them, reflecting a civic life where what we can put over each other is all that matters. Only the sophists are in teaching to make money off it, but we are all sophists now.
Is it no wonder then that we have to advertise to get students to attend our humanities classes? We present them as consumer goods, because that is how we see them. The real subject, for which we will dock a grade, or sometimes fail a paper, sight unseen, if not properly addressed, is whether or not the paper is properly uploaded, or written using the wrong program, or with the wrong margins, or two minutes late on a platform sold to the college by an educational technology company as a panacea, so the one thing students learn they need to learn in college is not the benefit of life-long curiosity—the one thing that will, by the way, deepen their lives—but instead the life-or-death importance of a technological skill set. How often will I have to hear about “the benefits of using technology in the composition classroom,” which, boiled down, come mostly to less time spent on grading, and, can you believe this, I’m getting it down to seven minutes of grading per day per class!
Funny how our tech lord and masters, who can send their children anywhere they want, to the most elite private schools, insist on sending them to schools where computers, as well as any of the devices from which they themselves are making billions, are not allowed in the classroom. They are smart people. They do not want those alien presences in their own children’s learning lives, do not want anything to steal the essential and precious moments of shared attention on the commons of their classrooms, or to impede the view that that commons bestows on the topics and themes that a real education provides. Everyone else gets to hear from their administrators that a tweet of Romeo and Juliet is more effective than the play itself, gets to hear about the beauty of being able to move text around, when real writing and real learning comes under the aegis of a presiding spirit for which there is no such freedom, and can be accomplished just as well in crayon.
Instead, for the rest of us, the mind(less) control alliance of cell phones and psych meds, big tech and pharmaceuticals, is now offered as “rescue” from what is now proven, by medical research, to be making young people, who lack executive function, more isolated, more prone to anxiety. It is gaslighting. And with respect to pedagogy, it is indefensible. Students, forget about absorption in the world and join us in the formulaic, scripted, algorithmically generated existence that is woven into everything but the common good.
A few years ago I was inspired by my community college’s mission and its vision of offering a quality education to the widest possible range of aspirants and was given the greatest honor—the role of teacher, and found at the same time that I had been given the incredible windfall of learning from students who are traditionally underrepresented in post-secondary education. It is from them that I have witnessed the damage that can be caused by a misplaced emphasis on technology as essential to learning. As a professor, I have taught at many levels—English composition and honors; working with interns on Potomac Review; and tutoring developmental students, those with disabilities, and first generation, Pathways and ESL students for the TRiO Grant Program. At all levels, I have loved providing feedback, and I was profiled in “Breaking Through the Prison Walls of Feedback: The View from the Shed,” which was distributed to faculty on all three of our campuses and published in Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. In these roles I have learned that personal, individualized feedback can help students find their voices, connect, and become more engaged in general discussion topics. Once there, they can build upon one another’s ideas, and make meaningful connections. Having found their private voices, they then look for their public ones. It can be magical when the learning experience becomes communal and everyone in the classroom participates in the teaching process. A misplaced emphasis on technology as essential to learning would instead have had my students finding their “voices” on Twitter, and, no plagiarism please, except, of course, of the kind that implies they can select their sensibilities from a drop-down menu of acceptable choices and plagiarize their lives.
The outrage in the academy for our former, disgraced president’s lack of care for fact and argument is entirely legitimate but also especially ironic when philosophically, the notion that words align with the world is dismissed as logocentric, and the notion of shared truth, much less, universal truth, is now seen as a vestige of colonialism, and worse, privilege. When our students learn to believe speaking out is coequal with truth itself, then our former president is in no way out of step, and there is nothing out of step in his behavior with respect to his relationship to the truth when he insists on his own definition of it. Humanities departments bought the relativity of truth a few decades ago, fine. But now we all live in and for our separate truths. For both sides, the 2020 election was a base turnout election; what else could it be when each side presents the other as a mortal threat?
More generally, we lament that the campaign never ends. It doesn’t, but not for the reasons we credit ourselves with. Shared truth requires the capacity to articulate truth, and without that capacity everything becomes political, not just political campaigns, not just the humanities, and culture, but personal relationships; everyone looking side-eyed, head on a swivel, because when all of us are engaging in the same behavior, the only thing that matters, captured best in the Klee’s drawing, Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to be of Higher Rank, is sizing each other up, wondering friend or foe?
The Twitter Truth
Now that the truth is coequal to my truth, with respect to any discussion, say, of the great thinkers, our classrooms are also versions of Sarkissian’s Execution Squares. The truth disappears, and in the final trench of the Malebolge, we sowers of schism, crying, please look at me, seed the ground with the faction Madison warned about. If our students are being led to believe that their finding their voice simply means, when it comes to the realm of ideas, just another case of finding their place in yet another in group/out group fallacy, then rather than encouraging the individuation process, and the attempt at shared truth—in the classroom, the community, the country—we are separating them from themselves for something that is everywhere and nowhere, and valorizing altering the truth for their own benefit, not for the good of all. Whether or not that universal truth could ever be found is irrelevant, searching for it would reinstill the now-missing habits of the democratic spirit, and create the modesty necessary, not only for scholarship, but for a pluralistic society. Instead, when every second is dedicated to “speaking out for the first time”, and outrage is its ground, that commons is filled with shit, because nature is continuously calling. In the exigencies of the present, time itself disappears, and all that’s left is the present moment, so what use history, literature, philosophy?
Perhaps this is why it is not colleges that are on the cutting edge of social change anymore. We can’t grow a Cincinnatus, and as for a Niebuhr, college is no longer seen, or advertised, as relevant to spiritual journeys. Having jettisoned the humanities, we offer no guidance on how to live in the world except for what’s in it for me, as if moral sentiment need not ground a market, and as if the bourgeois virtues of enterprise, thrift, and prudence were not behind the success of so many of us. But maybe that is because now doing the level best to meet the customer’s needs means meeting the needs of just the people for whom we click “like.” In that kind of world, the library, once the beating heart of an academic institution, is no longer needed. When one cares only for half the population, public relations and communications become the humanities, so one can find better support staff.
We have withdrawn from the world of ideas in ways the ivory tower was never meant to signify. That tower, like a lighthouse, or a campanile, still offered a view on the world. But when the world of ideas is no longer our field of study, the world itself disappears. The segregation of the humanities from our concept of education loads the weapons that, later in life, for our students, will bring, eventually, if they live that long, the hopelessness and despair that dependence on entertainment and consumerism, the industries that offer an answer for everything, always brings, an “education” that, by sidelining the humanities, sidelines the one answer that promises meaning, and that, over a lifetime, delivers it, love of learning.
The complete segregation of character and leadership that so many of us lament today, lamented without making the connection, in the one realm over which we have control, that responsible leadership in a self-governing democracy cannot be created ex nihilo, calls to mind Greek tragedy. If we do attempt to articulate the issue, we lack the strength to resist, because there is no longer any ignominy in answering a reasonable question with anger, anger that can’t get words out, anger that presents only as the water bubbles on the surface, or subliminal anger, and therefore likewise transmitted, as at any public place in this country it is transmitted, each of us walking with our head down, or if walking with our head up, only because of our omnipresent and stupid-looking ear piece, tuning in to our algorithmically designed reality that just as stupidly, for each of us, because everyone else is becoming easier and easier to despise, is all we can tolerate.
For the nation, the argument for the humanities defaults to the past, to people like Bobby Kennedy, whose death, now over 50 years ago, during another period of profound national division, might call back to us in the wake of another election season. He was seen as the last best hope to bind the country back together by those who mourned him as his funeral train passed, a procession that brought out, before they returned to their respective silos, never to come back out again, blacks, whites, Hispanics, rich and poor, because, as he admitted to them, when he was alive, he went from being a hothead who wanted to keep Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail for a traffic violation, to someone capable of empathy for all of his fellow citizens. How? He never stopped learning. By reading Aeschylus, for one, and because he never did stop learning, he could bring healing. He calls back to us because he asks whether the understanding of civic engagement that colleges have today, with civics stripped of everything but what’s in it for me, have made the rough beast that has come in the form of the coronavirus the only way two Americas can become one again?
If so, the fact that coronavirus has to be the deus ex machina responsible for telling the larger American story, responsible, because obviously not invested in our partisan divide, finally “teaching” us that taking a shortcut to citizenship, laying the ground for the kind of citizenry that cannot resist titillation, a citizenry, therefore, easy to control, and in thrall to what Melville implies, in Bannadonna’s “vision” of technological hegemony, leads to the disappearance of that citizenry. The soul craft necessary for a self-governing democracy cannot be sacrificed to the notion that citizenship can be delivered by an exclusive focus on wired classrooms and STEM. It has resulted in our functional illiteracy: If we read, we do so by scrolling through our “feeds,” under the heading of “two-minute reads,” a definition of literacy that has resulted in an age of polarization.
The coronavirus does uniquely threaten this sort of citizenship, citizenship that could be characterized as merely biological, that allows industry to be able to say, in their ads, that they are capable of meeting our every need. Yes, they can, if visitations of grace, and transcendence, the adventures of the spiritual life, don’t matter. But they do. Having washed our hands of them, we find ourselves at a loss now. But as literature teaches, we will learn how to think, but only after we see what we have done.
Hey, Wait, I Got a New Complaint
The technological castles we go home to every night belie our present reality as one of quarantine. We lifted up our drawbridges long before coronavirus, so the only thing that could really change would be if most of us spent less, not more time on our devices of “connection,” devices that blot out the world, not to mention, for academics, the slow accumulation of attention paid to the world that is necessary for disclosure of the world. For all our talk about meeting a new reality, for most of us, our online classes are much like our on-campus ones. After spending all morning in our offices, on our computers, we went to class, asked the students to turn on their computers, and pretended our collective digital literacy had something to do with learning how to think, when what was really happening was that before students had a free relationship with technology, like we do, we were foisting technology upon them.
I have said students don’t know what to google yet, because rather than hiking through the woods and up the mountain to the mountain’s summit, they get airlifted in, and believe they have the same view as the hikers. What I mean is that by the time they reach our classrooms they already are in danger of handing themselves over to a negative authenticity, so what we must do is point them back to what is most their own, and only then will the paradox—the one that we see in the greatest of artists—of a completely individual style connecting to nearly everyone, be rendered possible. In whatever level the student is capable of reaching, we are solely responsible for tracing that process of individuation until it stops.
We know that the only thing an artist can have, in the end, is his or her individual style, and just as an artist’s opinions are secondary, when it comes to enriching their medium, whatever medium that might be, a student’s opinions are likewise secondary to the necessary outcome of learning how, not what, to think. And here, too, is the paradox: the art that tries to include, excludes; the individual, idiosyncratic style, fully achieved, includes everyone, connects to everyone; Biden and Trump voters; just like the coronavirus and just like a vaccine for the coronavirus. And education, guess what! it is for everyone, too! But today, just when students need to develop the habits of attention upon which scholarship, and citizenship, is based, we are great only in what we ignore. Citizenship is based on attention to the commons, is not self-executing, and so must be resurrected in each American generation, but we are abandoning our rhetorical responsibilities, encouraging the fallacy that belief or identity is proof of argument, therefore depriving the student of the character-building that a search for truth, whether or not that truth is there—the habits of discipline, modesty, and self-reflection that will deepen their lives—instills.
Class is also moral, but we confuse our students about the purpose of education by insisting that their social class must also determine their worldview, and ending it there, creating the culture of demagoguery that makes demagogues possible, taking thinking out of the humanities by teaching not how to think, but what to think, so we can rush home to our Netflix. We had a president who did not respect truth because we have created the conditions where the search for truth has been devalued and replaced by eyes glued on him, which can only really mean, as literature teaches, glued on him because we cannot look away at our perfected selves.
The humanities should benefit the community, and the country, not the ideologues who offer technology as a substitute for thinking and character building. I teach writing, and the idea that technology has anything to do with learning how to think, much less learning how to write, stripped of the hype, comes down to Because, an argument akin to claiming the Constitution, because it is the oldest written Constitution still consulted, needs to be replaced because it was written in ink. In the humanities today, ideas are offered only to broaden the other sides’ perspective, not our own; and are therefore, by definition, content free. In Sarkissian’s Execution Squares, like in Gupta’s Terminal, the not seen, or barely seen, is the point, and as in the commons, so as in art, and in literature, where metaphor gains strength by the distance travelled between seeming dissimilarities, its power comes in disclosing what a culture is hiding from itself.
Today we are great now only in what we ignore, while measuring ourselves by how often and how frequently our ox is gored, how many times someone else’s inattention has us floored; everyone complaining about the same thing while sharing the same disorder, the same disease.
When we insist on our screens, of whatever kind, we enframe the world, and so push it aside. Insisting on ourselves, in an educational context, we are like Jane Eyre’s relatives at Gateshead, pushing learning as exclusively a symbol representing wealth and privilege. If education today were to include a different vision of that education of desire, not desire that most analogizes to the kind that Mr. Collins, in his marriage proposal, sells to Elizabeth Bennet, and is of the kind sold to most students today, a vision of its “transformative” value that is time-serving and mercenary, and where the poor student, who, unlike Ms. Bennet, knows no better, buys it hook, line and sinker, so that soon enough he is Collins’ obnoxious vision come to life, but if we instead model curiosity about the world, we could save her. If the classroom cannot itself become just another version of the war of us against them, a “commons” of measuring ourselves by how frequently we are at odds with everyone else, and which, because it rusts the invisible wires that connect us, the invisible wires that Gupta, in an installation in Washington D.C., tried to make plain, represents the attention each of us owes affairs other than our own, then it, too, resembles an execution square. As Collins’ ring is slipped onto the student’s finger, and the classroom, rather than being the one last place left for shared attention on the commons, and on the world, becomes, instead, the 21st century version of Thus much for my general intention in favor of matrimony, an offer that sees the student’s interest just as Collins sees Elizabeth’s, only so much as it aligns with his own.
I find myself, as a community college first-year composition instructor, on the front lines of a battle against communication infrastructure that has colonized the classroom in such a way that students cannot release their phones, can’t see the classroom as a commons, and have been led to believe that their mirror image is the world itself, when the screen they can’t help staring at is, in an educational context, creating in them Melville’s mechanical, manacled man, and the “commons” that the cell phone companies and college administrators celebrate in their ads, when the college commons now is nothing more than students walking heads down, ear buds in, is a place being ruined, just as Bannadonna was by his machine. The students desperately need guidance on an orderly relationship between their vulnerability to “the mechanician’s powerful art” to save them from a life of superficial engagement with the world, a life all the better only for mindless jobs meant to stock the earth with a new serf.
Deep down we know a student’s value, in whatever profession they choose, will be measured by the extent to which they will be able to meet unknowns, like the coronavirus outbreak. Because of this, instead of encouraging them to rush “home” to an algorithmically tailored reality, each of us could find an example of someone from the student’s field of study who met a novel situation and meditate on the creative ways he or she met that crisis. Then we could encourage the student to engage their own creativity, which, combined with the scholarly tools they are acquiring, might prompt them to consider how they might rise to meet an unsolved problem impacting the world. But to begin to do this requires quarrels with oneself, not quarrels with others, quarrels begun in school, because a self-governing country requires regeneration, needs citizens capable of confrontation with the unexpected.
The “I” of scholarship is an achievement, not a given, not, that is, merely biological. It can only be measured by the extent to which it is capable of meeting an unknown, not to the extent that it is capable of reciting talking points or putting a moral qualification on a category of human being. The test of finding one’s voice is whether it connects to the entire community, everyone, not just a community of favor. Citizens need to be bred to a harder thing than triumph, and to do this it helps to have cultivated, in college, the soil upon which arguments from all sides can land.
The great works of the humanities have always disclosed what cultures hides from themselves. If we are only talking about the cultural background of such a text, we are blind to what our own culture is hiding from itself, which is that we don’t know how to think, because we think knowing what we want and who we like is who we are, consumer choice absurdly identified with character, so that consumer choice, now an ethical category, necessitates earbuds at the ready, Netflix fired up, just so that we drab, listless consumers, can define everything by what we like, or don’t like. When we speak, we don’t realize that we are being spoken by the algorithms that have colonized our inner lives, and that absurdly become the infrastructure of our being. Still, trauma reaches us, trauma that can only be confronted with the language of titillation and snapshots and flashes from our media feeds, and therefore can only be rescued by pharmaceutical companies suggesting that as consumers we cannot afford a sad day.
As the 2020 campaign demonstrated, the capacity to transcend self-interest, to exercise the faculty of moral imagination, the kind of imagination for reality required in a self-governing democracy, the imagination, for example, of a Melville, who told the story of Gupta’s invisible wires with fable and symbol, requires an education that attaches to that inward muse of each American, a muse that needs to be nourished in every generation. To see those wires, which were built in our capitol by an Indian artist from a fellow democracy, was a reminder to us that we, too, must build them, build them with shared values, not ever-narrowing, algorithmically manufactured ones, which can only lead to their disappearance. Just as the Aboriginal disappearance was brought into greater Australian awareness by Gordon Syron, as Gupta’s installation suggests, separate spires are connected, are commonspires, and holy sites can be compatible with a secular foundation, even empower it, so that our commons need not be the places of Sarkissian’s Execution Squares, but places to see once more the stars.