April 6, 2015

What will you put your mind to?

For the last four years I have put my mind to a thing (urban education) so intently that I forgot how to operate a motorcycle. I don't mean I forgot to go out on the bike, I mean that I got on the bike last summer and could not remember how it worked. My brain was too full of every possible thing I could stuff in there about my chosen subject.

Stuffed in there too were all the rules and confines of academic study and research rigor, and all the subtle cues one picks up in graduate school, those constant small pushes toward conformity in thought and process. Which was painful, as conforming has never resulted in anything fruitful, or connected to joy or possibility, for me. But I think I was as free as I was allowed to be in my research approach, and the result is a completed and defended dissertation about the experiences of a group of urban charter school teachers navigating compromise, constraint, and the mental juxtaposition of their student-centered pedagogical training against the market forces that now define their profession.

I will graduate in May, as a PhD in Urban Education. And as someone who knows perhaps much more than I ever wanted to about the forces at work in the contemporary "school reform" movement; I have now to turn the burden of that sad knowledge into good work. And maybe remember how to twist the throttle again.

July 16, 2013

Visiting Hours

Distortion is an aspect of violence, right up there with coercion, infringement, deprivation, constraint. These terms can and do apply in sudden physical altercations, or in long-lasting situations that are physically harmful, but such terms are applicable as well to acts of violence where persons operate upon others in non-physical ways. Where violence is done to one's ethics, for example. Or where violence is done to one's free will, in the guise of benevolence. Or where violence is done to one's conscience. I've been thinking a lot on these last three lately, because of a recent trek -- down to North Carolina and back up to Pennsylvania -- and a specific museum stop we made on the way. And because the trip took place as the Zimmerman trial was unfolding, and swirling, and distorting.
The Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, NC is a celebration of its evangelical founder and his belief system; he had a mission to bring alphabets and the written word to what he saw as immature cultures -- "the alphabet-less peoples of the world" -- so that they could all know and read the Bible. The museum was designed to show all the countries in which the vast number of Bible translators/alphabet linguists, supported by his religious organization, have worked over the past 80 years, and all the ways in which their work has
transformed "savages" to "saints." The museum consists of dozens of dioramas that trace the entirety of evangelical-sanctioned human history -- from the Greeks to the "Semitics" to "Far Eastern areas" to Latin American "jungle peoples" -- and how each was shaped by the use of or introduction of an alphabet, and more importantly, by access to "God's word in their own language." The last display area in the museum, the one nearest to the front desk, contains examples of the wonder and the civilizing progress that the translators/Bible promoters have brought to the immature cultures they have encountered, turning peoples with no concepts of faith or forgiveness (or possibly even the ability to think) into peoples with the ability to pray and read the Bible and spread Christianity.

While we were there, the ladies at the front desk were visited by one of their own tribe -- a fellow white evangelical, who started and ended the encounter with blessings. He came to the museum to give the ladies some "artifacts" they might want to put in the other museum this organization runs, a museum of Mexican culture, also in Waxhaw. Mexican culture as acquired and interpreted by guys like him, who did missionary work in a small village somewhere in southern Mexico for a time.
What to make of this? The ladies at the front desk were enthused that we were visiting, and hopeful that we shared their worldview. They were both so gregarious They had such respect for the work of the founder of the organization which runs the museums, and a Bible translation business, and a summer language institute, among other things, and respect for the museum contents as well. I have no doubt they feel and think they do good works, and that they see the history on display all around them as the history of reality, the one reality, the God-driven reality. Because to them, savages will always need saving. Because anyone who does not have access to the Bible does not have access to culture, to improvement, to the essence of life itself. Because all those outside of Bible access are only waiting to be made whole.
So, this is not a museum about the alphabet or the Bible or some white guy from North Carolina's dream of saving the "jungle peoples," really. This is a museum of modern day epistemic closure -- or rather, an awesome resource for those who want to know how to shape an entirely closed thought system that is not impinged upon by change, evidence, history, cultural ethics, sociology, biology, secular linguistics, what have you. Feel free to add your own. Each diorama adheres rigidly to the rules of the closed system. Each description adheres to the acceptable language people of this faith use to describe everything in the world that has ever or will ever exist. I thought as well that this is not a museum, but actually just a map of the inside of the founder's fantastically narcissistic mind -- with a small room partitioned off inside for each of the needy and God-less cultures he helped to save. And nowhere on display is there any evidence that any of this work did violence of any kind to anyone; no cultures were harmed in the making of these Christian converts, apparently. Quite the opposite. It is a remarkable, deeply disturbing place.
A few days later we drove up near Antrim Township, PA, by the Virginia and Maryland borders, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, an area with multiple stops on the Underground Railroad, where a whole different kind of saving was going on at one point in our actual cultural history.
The weight of things, the energy it takes to sustain a closed system, and the energy it takes to break that system, who is allowed a voice, whose alphabet actually matters, which system wins -- all things on my mind as well this past weekend while we were at a family celebration in another sort of dioramic display of epistemic closure (wealth-as-the-religion style) in my girlhood hometown of Greenwich, CT, and the Zimmerman verdict came in. But this was a very familiar museum, one of extreme white privilege, the one that I was born into. And on display on this visit were values and ideas that do violence both to reason and to my own conscience and ethics, but expressed just as sweetly as those two ladies at the front desk of the Museum of the Alphabet expressed theirs.
I know I have failed to adequately and calmly steel myself to the requests I get, on every visit home, in ways obvious and subtle, to join with or at least affirm the ideals embodied in that manner of living, in that gated community of self-preserving and other-excluding power, the haven of hedge fund guys. It is so obvious to them that life is good this way, that the excesses and inequality embraced as normal have no distorting effects on anyone that matters, so, why wouldn't I affirm such things? Or, in the loving parlance of my family, why am I such an argumentative pain in the ass? Coercion, infringement, racism, status-seeking, prosthelytizing -- acquiring power over others demands violence, even invisible forms of the stuff. When it comes to a good conversation about opposing views, I am as game as the next gal, but I strive to not actually violate other human beings, or to support thinking that does, or to engage with folks who do so in the guise of benevolence, or religion, or charity, or even parenthood. I don't want to persuade, only to be unconstrained by others' need to persuade. But I don't think there is a museum for that.

May 30, 2013

Where You Come To

Working my way through the clutter of the last two years of grad school paperwork, I came across a favored quote (which I have noted before) from a book on how we see and how we create what we want to be seen. The author frames this around abstract artists who step away from the rules of convention that govern representational painting, but it's applicable to many forms of thought. He describes the process of stepping away from those rules and into abstraction as going down a ladder, letting go rung by rung, subtracting, until you find yourself in a place where you can be fully skeptical of the visible world. As he states it: "The ladder of disorder leaves conventional representation behind, in favor of images that explore inadequate representation." I love that sentence, and the notion that this sort of descent allows one to more freely act on what one favors -- because this sort of descent allows one to see beyond certain structures, and beyond the need for certain structures.

This is not a way of living, not some form of enlightenment or whatever. It is rather a forging of new connections in the brain, using vision as the tool do so...a sort of un-training while also rewiring. The author is addressing the mesmerizing idea of encountering abstraction or content of any kind that can't adequately be pictured. He positions you at the top of the ladder encountering something incomprehensible; do you climb down, subtracting as you go? And what does the world look like to you when you reach the last rung?

When one is fully skeptical of the visible world, skepticism about other things comes fairly naturally. For if you can see (without the aid of super-special They Live glasses) the difference between what the author James Elkins calls "the machinery of realism" and whatever else there is, you kind of train your brain to hear the difference too. Meaning you become better attuned not simply to hypocrisy but to how people actively construct ideas about and identities for themselves. And what becomes remarkable (at least to me, and I am maybe late to this game) is the sort of oddly beautiful, reliable, limited rhythms that people use to reify their identities. Like the beautiful, reliable, cirumscribed brush strokes representational artists use to show us the known and knowable. (Possibly this is also on my mind because of the imminent arrival of cicadas on the scene; listening to their sound is like listening to the earth thinking.)

This is something I realize is probably an after-effect of going back to graduate school at my age. I have emerged halfway through the process very far down the ladder, having let go of more rungs than I can count, but with a much better ability to assess constructions of any kind. This is especially true of theories, which are rampant in education -- theories of teacher motivation, student identity, knowledge acquisition, brain development, learning styles, affect in the classroom, etc. I see why they are rampant, see the comfort that comes from descriptions of the structures in the visible world, like the comfort we all find in our descriptions of ourselves. These are the rules of representation in my field; these are the familiar rhythms. Having now climbed well below the world of conventional representation that these generate, I am not aligning with or embracing any. Instead I am viewing them from below, as images of fascinating, incomplete, always inadequate representations. And this is yet another weirdly happy place I feel lucky to have come to.