Wednesday, January 25

anyway, about the art of other persons

I have been reading a paperback two-in-one edition of Paul Goodman's Compulsory Mis-education and The Community of Scholars. His assessment of the state & direction of education is bleak. By the mid 1960s, a very particular, rigidly defined form of schooling, most of its priorities shaped by an ever-increasing mania for standardization and quasi-scientific assessment, has become the only acceptable way to grow up. Schools are an enormous and entrenched industry, a set of vested interests dedicated primarily to their own preservation and expansion — which there is every reason to believe will continue indefinitely. Forty-some years on, it seems clear that events have generally borne out his pessimism.

What makes Mis-education a really compelling read isn't so much the ugly picture it paints of a wasteful and destructive regime of schooling. After all, plenty of people express a well-founded discontent, and many of them raise very similar issues. It is rather that Goodman's diagnosis of the situation is lucid, historically grounded, and eminently reasonable. It is also unapologetically radical: By the standards of acceptable discourse on education in this country, both Goodman's analysis of the problem and most of his proposals are essentially unthinkable. And yet any thinking person ought to be capable of at least considering his propositions.

An unpleasant truth is that nearly all of the relevant decision makers — students, parents, teachers, local, state and federal policymakers — are locked into the current paradigm and its escalation. Some are wholeheartedly committed to that escalation, and the rest are generally unaware that there is an alternative. Students are not generally even accorded the status of decision makers - which surely says something about the whole process. Engaging with a book like this one could do lots of people a world of good.

The Community of Scholars, which I'm about halfway through, is Goodman's ideal of the University as a self-governing community, a free and voluntary association with an essentially international, essentially anarchist character. I think the experience of most college students in America circa 2006 reflects this ideal by negating almost every one of its elements. Still, if this is a utopian pipe dream, it's an extremely sympathetic one. And on reflection, my college experience did sometimes feel a little like this. Probably because I spent much more time in coffee houses, playing ultimate, and binge drinking with brilliant maniacs than I did maintaining a respectable GPA.

I'm dead serious about that last sentence. My Bachelor of Arts in History has so far served no other purpose than as a receipt, printed on very nice paper, for a staggering amount of debt. On the other hand, the particulars of the time I spent acquiring it — the dorms, bars, frisbees, classes utterly irrelevant to my major, etc. — gave me a community and a voice, and opened me to most of the meaningful experiences and relationships I have had outside of my family. My community may have been flawed. Its members were intensely self medicating, usually far from self-supporting, and often entirely self-deluded — but they were also connected to a life of the mind, international in outlook, and engaged in communication.

I think that much of what accounts for my reeling sense of alienation and dislocation in this civilization, a sense that I keep seeing in people my age, is that those of us who went to college are severing ourselves from the communities we found there, or watching them disintegrate as our friends & acquaintances follow their own trajectories and diminish under the pressures of employment & marriage, the grinding transition to a fully compromised mode of life.