For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"
"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955
Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.
Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.
Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.
Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However, while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality” brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.
I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations. In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?
On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.
I flew back from Germany Friday and sat next to a young woman from Berlin. The young woman was attending Humboldt University and was studying to be a teacher. Like many in Germany, her undergraduate education was a professional one. On another plane between Zürich and Berlin I met a young man in a technical university, studying to be an electrician. This is one of the things that most strikes one about the differences between young people in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. both these young people would be pursuing liberal arts degrees, delaying concerns about a job or a career until after college. In Germany, they are aiming at a technical education preparing them for specific jobs.
The liberal arts can be and often are an extraordinary opportunity for young people to embrace the complexity and richness of human life on earth. A liberal arts education can transform one's life, helping a young man or woman to find meaning in life, in art, and in nature. As someone who dedicates himself to liberal arts writing and teaching, I have an enormous faith in and love for the determination to teach young people broadly and widely.
And yet, as much as I value and believe in the liberal arts, we should not think that it is a necessity for everyone. This has been one of our mistakes, to insist, against all good evidence, that a liberal arts education is the path to being both a good citizen and a successful person. Many have come to think that only someone with a B.A. or a liberal arts degree is educated, a prejudice that defies human history as well as our own experience.
I had a good friend who grew up in Switzerland and learned to build organs. He could walk through a forest and hear the wood play in the wind and pick precisely that tree whose fibrous inners would produce the most vibrant tones demanded of professional organ players. To think such a person uneducated would be folly. He was in tune with the natural world and with music in a way that few musicians ever would be. And yet it is precisely people who are skilled at doing things—from building organs to fixing pipes, from fixing electronics to growing food, and from cooking dinner to building a deck—that are increasingly absent in our modern society.
A number of years ago Matthew B. Crawford wrote a book Shop Class as Soulcraft. The book had two simple theses. First, that skilled work was deeply important. It teaches judgment, mastery, and engagement with the world around us, with the things that in Hannah Arendt's sense, make up our physical world. Second, that American high schools increasingly do not teach shop classes or home economics classes or auto repair classes, classes that used to instruct young people in the art of fixing and understanding the mechanical world around us. Crawford argued that while high schools were ditching shop class in favor of college prep, it was actually the case that more and more of the jobs available in our society were ones that required a physical skill at building and fixing things. Not only were we losing out economically, but also our educated elite was increasingly separated from those who know how to do things.
Crawford is right. And one result of the bias against skilled labor he highlights is the persistent disconnect between sky-high unemployment and increasing job openings. Businesses report a shortage of qualified workers. There is, in other words, a skills gap. Jobs are available, but they are not the jobs young people want to do.
Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, has written open letters to both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama expressing his thoughts on the grounds for the skills gap. (Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds) This skills gap is but a symptom of what Rowe believes to be a fundamental problem facing this country – the growing emotional disconnect between the general American population and skilled labor.
“We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education,” wrote Rowe in his open letter to Governor Romney this past Labor Day."
Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed ‘alternative.’ Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to ‘create’ over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing.
The irony underlying the emotional disconnect with skilled labor is that these jobs are just what they claim to be – skilled – and require diverse education across a number of fields, a far cry from the bleak picture transfixed in the minds of many parents and teachers concerning these careers. In the manufacturing industry, for example, machinists are typically required to be adept at computer programming and geometry. These jobs are not avenues for opting out of an engaged and intelligent lifestyle, rather, they represent in many ways the beautiful symbiosis that may exist between education and practice.
Far from the “alternative” label given careers in skilled trades today, these professions were once described as possessing qualities uniquely apt for democratic peoples. Alexis de Tocqueville has a chapter in Democracy in America dedicated to the question of why Americans are drawn to the practice of science (such as skilled trade jobs), and writes that “In America the purely practical part of the sciences is cultivated admirably, and people attend carefully to the theoretical portion immediately necessary to application; in this way the Americans display a mind that is always clear, free, original, and fertile…” A far cry from the “vocational consolation prizes” these professions are deemed today.
Hannah Arendt also decried the "lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world view." And Arendt understands that it is practical persons—plumbers and technicians—who will better be able to re-establish that lost contact that many educated people and scientists feel in the face of the physical world.
There is no doubt about our disconnect from physical and skilled labor, there is only the question of what to make of it. Mike Rowe writes,
Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded. Somewhere in our economy’s massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic.
Skilled laborer positions are still financially lucrative. Many machinists, for example, make about $60,000 a year and some have the opportunity of making as much as $100,000 a year with overtime, but these jobs are no longer celebrated as worthwhile and honorable positions, and this, Rowe argues, is why so many Americans fail to consider these careers.
Rowe argues that we need to confront the social stigmas and stereotypes attached to skilled-labor so that we may begin to reevaluate the jobs which for years now have been underappreciated despite their necessity. There was “a time when Work was not seen as a thing to avoid,” Rowe wrote in his concluding remarks to President Obama, “When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models, and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment. We need to celebrate, on a bigger scale, the role models right in front of us.”
—RB (with assistance from David Breitenbucher)