Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Culture and Anarchy


I hope you have more time for reading this summer than I’ve had so far. As a result of what one friend has called my soziale Tätigkeit, I’ve had little time to myself. I experience privacy primarily in sleep, autonomy in driving, and subjectivity in those vertiginous moments when I am speaking to a student and it suddenly seems that my speech proceeds automatically from itself and is detachable from what the Stoics called the hegemonikon—the commanding-faculty of the soul.

It is no surprise, then, that Fort Kant, which is concerned largely with issues of privacy and subjectivity, has been vacant. (On June 16, the famed day of subjectivity, I was locked out of my Martello tower, though unable to wander freely among the forms. My day began on the island where I had camped out with other teachers in my summer program—let’s call it “Leaps and Bounds” to preserve comparative anonymity—and before I could go home, I had to work a full day at high school (“Pyrrhus, sir?”) and return to the university for Leaps and Bounds training until night. I was unable to pay much attention to the unfolding of inner events.)

As I mentioned last time, one of my responsibilities was to co-lead a trip to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, Maine. (Many Mainers call it “Arcadia,” a source of great excitement for me as a child. (Last week I volunteered to drive students to the Maine Mall during free time on Tuesday night, and I was surprised to find that malls still have video arcades (due in part, it seems, to the success of Dance Dance Revolution, a DDR whose deepest commands are external to the world of the game and enforced by a quite different sort of Stasi). Indeed, I was surprised by many things at the mall. While I’m quite familiar with the experience of shopping at “big-box” stores, I can count the number of times I’ve been to the mall in the last ten years—the period during which the changes in production, employment, and consumption described in Naomi Klein’s No Logo became culturally omnipresent—and I didn’t expect everything to look so upscalish and perfected.))

We (two adults and eight teenagers) survived our trip to Acadia with no major injuries (though one boy stepped in a hole, twisted his ankle, and fell dramatically to the ground after I told him to check out the view; a girl scraped up her toes hiking rocky Mt. Gorham in flip-flops; another girl refused to wear sunblock and burned (she also refused to drink water)). I won’t try to describe the natural beauty of Acadia, but I think even our most skeptical and defensive students were moved by it.

John and I have often discussed What’s the Matter with Kansas?-type questions concerning the proper attitude toward the aesthetic and consumer preferences of [how to refer to them?], and after the Acadia trip, I must side with enforced cultural education and against “doing as one likes.” If we had allowed the students to do what felt most natural and comfortable to them—as my co-leader, B., a young Ghanaian woman and a recent graduate of Kenyon, was inclined to do—their camping trip would have comprised spending the night in the van, eating at McDonalds and (for the girls) Subway, talking on their phones to friends at home, and going to the movies in Bar Harbor—a fun weekend perhaps, but not at all an extension of their sense of what’s possible for them, not at all an education. Students complained a great deal at first, but culture prevailed. Nobody wanted me to turn off the radio when we were driving—and my co-leader suggested taking a vote—but everybody sang and talked after the stream of programmed sensation had been cut off. Nobody wanted to hike—and again I had to reject my co-leader's call for a vote—but everybody who made it to the summit—and all but one who made it to a lesser plateau—forgot their former resistance as an experience they had imagined to be foreign became their own. Students were awed by the view and charmed by the shrubby vegetation at the top, and the boys who would have voted to stay in the van ran ahead to the next summit. This is the unspoken pedagogical theme of Leaps and Bounds: we’ll help you set yourself free, but to do that we’ll have to boss you around first, because what feels like freedom to you is a sort of slavery.


Tomorrow I’m teaching in the morning and driving students to and from their internships in the afternoon (did I mention I clipped a truck last week when I misjudged the width of the van?), so I must prepare now and get some rest.


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