Education that works

As I may have mentioned before, I am Assessment Czar at the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. (It’s an unofficial title, so I feel like I can choose the exact wording.) It is not a job anyone really relishes, and in fact I only got into it because I was scared the accreditors would shut us down while everyone else (understandably) dragged their feet on it. Over time, we committed to a very large range of assessment tools, many of which were probably not very meaningful, but our core rubrics on writing and discussion skills demonstrated something that we already knew: our program works.

Students of all ability levels who stick with it grow as writers and discussion participants. We were initially suspicious that the upward trend reflected the weaker students dropping out, but when we controlled for students who participated in every checkpoint exercise, the result was the same. One of my colleagues often reminds us that Shimer is not an honors program, though the things we do — small classes focused on discussion of important primary materials — are usually reserved for honors students or at least upper-level students.

It works because it is intensive — they are immersed in an environment where they have to figure out how to learn and grow in a student-driven classroom. It works because it is systematic — our curriculum has a structure with built-in checkpoints. And it works, above all I think, because we know our students — the same cohort of student is in continual contact with the same group of faculty members, who all share the same goals and standards (though admittedly students do sometimes think we are radically and inexplicably different).

Much of what we do is contrary to the trends of higher ed. At most schools, students at the lower levels are taught by contingent faculty who are treated as disposable — and though they typically do a great job, they simply can’t build relationships with individual students over time. At most schools, at least until a student has chosen a major, individual courses are treated as isolated monads with no particular relationship with one another, as departments are forced to compete for students. And building a structured core curriculum in a school that hasn’t already inherited one seems impossible due to the endless (justified!) arguments about ends and means that would surely result, even if everyone put aside anxieties about turf, etc.

At the same time, our apparently old-fashioned approach does cohere with the skill-based orientation of contemporary higher ed. We are teaching them flexibility and exploration more than we are expecting them to memorize lines from the Iliad, for instance — and anecdotally, I have often experiened better educational outcomes by using texts that would not normally fall under the heading of “Great Books.” It is important that we share a central canon that spreads through the curriculum, but its contents are to some extent arbitrary, and certainly we have learned that its boundaries can be flexible. This leads me to think that our approach could also be beneficial in a more conventional disciplinary context, if people could break the spell of “coverage” — something that we have had to do in recent years as we saw that we could never include materials of greater diversity if we were quick to insist that a student “had to” get certain texts.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to wrap this up other than to say: we are doing something that works, and we are doing it in a way that is not conservative or backward-looking. We are doing it off in a little corner and it is hard to get people to see and understand what we are doing, but we are doing it, and it works, and it should be a model for others.

Sustainability

I had trouble sleeping last night, and it feels like it is happening more often over time. Looking back, the last three years or so have been a near-constant ramping-up of stress caused by the instability of Shimer College, then the uncertainty of the merger process with North Central, and now the ongoing complications and obstacles integrating into our new setting. Early on, I had stomach problems that have since levelled off to manageable levels, but sleeping difficulties have taken their place. Last night in a Facebook post, I quoted Regular-Sized Rudy from Bob’s Burgers: “I don’t express this enough, but this is literally killing me.” It was not solely as a joke.

Continue reading “Sustainability”

In the wake of Gaza

The unspoken corollary whenever anyone demands that you concede Israel’s “right to exist” is that the Palestinians do not have a right to exist. Firing on them for expressing their understandable — and fully predictable — anger is an expression of that attitude. Israel wants the Palestinians to shut up and go die in their corner, and to be happy that they at least have a corner. That is not how you think about a fellow human being. Resistance is human. Anger is human. Political demands are human. And when the IDF sees Palestinians being human, it sees a threat and opens fire.

As for the conspiracy theory where the Palestinians need the nefarious Hamas to tell them that they should be pissed off about their state — it’s not just factually absurd, it’s dehumanizing. No one needs to be told that it sucks to live in an open-air prison. No one needs to be told to be upset about the embassy move, the sole rationale of which is to upset them. No one shows up to a protest when they know for a fact that they might die because Hamas told them to or slipped them some paltry funds. The fantasy underlying this ridiculous theory is that the Palestinians could be passive drones, purely instrumentalized, ready to destroy themselves in the service of a greater cause — it’s just that the hated, strangely omnipotent Hamas has taken over their programming, deranging them from their function of serving Israel’s dream of becoming just like the other nations.

Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).

Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).

I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.

The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.

You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.

The Christianity of Jay-Z’s Typological Anti-Blackness

Preface: This is NOT A THINK PIECE, this is NOT AN ADJUDICATION, this is a move to feel the possibilities that are made available in entanglement.
-Jared

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia
My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing
My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES
–Nina Simone, Four Women

Jay-Z’s recently released track, “The Story of O.J.,” has generated accusations of Anti-Semitism. The line in question, “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?,” is uttered in service of a prescriptive solution to the condition of Black America. Castigating those “throwing away money at a strip club” for not prioritizing credit, he spits, “Fuck living rich and dying broke.” The song is structured around a “nigga” typology inspired by the Nina Simone song, Four Women, whose chorus the song samples. While Simone’s song elaborates the multivalent expressions of Blackness lived in the wake of Anti-Blackness, Hov marshalls an indictment of “house nigga,” O.J. Simpson’s empty claim, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” to sell the “only hope” for Black America,  “financial freedom.” We’re told to take the “drug money and buy the neighborhood, that’s how you rinse it,” instead of dying “over the neighborhood that your mama renting.” Buy, for to rent is to die. Offering himself as a cautionary tale, he speaks of feeling “dumbo” for not buying a property in DUMBO, wishing he “could take it back to the beginning” when he “could’ve bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like 2 million. That same building today is worth 25 million.” Business savvy born of hindsight will allow us to do as he did and buy “some artwork for 1 million, 2 years later, that shit worth 2 million. Few years later, that shit worth 8 million.” Demonstrating a sense of the possibility he might be treating over the line of his own, quite Christian typology of Black authenticity he exclaims, “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine,” and  underscores the generosity of his “trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”

Continue reading “The Christianity of Jay-Z’s Typological Anti-Blackness”

TV Recap: The Trump Show, Season 2

Season 2 of the Trump Show has been really tedious. The show hit its stride last summer, when there was a lot of plot momentum — in fact, it almost became “appointment television,” as people tuned in around close-of-business every day to learn of the exciting new developments. But as so often happens in American television, what should have been a UK-style limited series has been indefinitely extended. The characters are so thin, and the setup so improbable, that we get nothing but the repetition of the same scenarios. The attempt to inject some lurid interest with the porn star theme feels desperate, and bringing back the Giuliani character is some kind of weird fan service for a fan who doesn’t really exist. The one genuine comic relief, Sean Spicer, has been replaced by perpetual wet blanket Sarah Huckabee Sanders — a major casting mistake, though an understandable one after the blow-up with the Scarramucci character.

Economics cannot solve politics

I recently read William Clare Roberts’ book Marx’s Inferno. I was attracted by the notion that Marx structured his work according to Dante’s poem, but that connection proved to be a framing device for Roberts’ attempt to recontextualize Capital within the socialist debates of his own time. The upshot of this rereading of Capital, vol. 1 (which Roberts treats as a self-contained unit that represents Marx’s mature views on every topic it addresses — a move that I know many will find questionable) is that several classical features of Marxism are undermined. First, there is no intrinsic necessity for the progress from capitalism to communism, no teleology. Capitalism is a hell, not a purgatory — we need to escape it, not go through it as some kind of necessary penance. Second, he completely rejects the idea that Marx thinks capitalism is cool because it lays the foundation for a post-scarcity society. Instead, Marx sees in the capitalist mode of production (especially factory production) a novel social form that makes possible a new form of collective agency and control.

From this perspective, it seems that the blind alley of 20th Century Communism was its effort to create a post-scarcity society by using planning mechanisms that would supposedly deliver higher rates of growth than unplanned capitalist development. In the case of the USSR, that led them down a path of developing “heavy industry” almost as an end in itself and demanding endless sacrifice — ranging from political freedoms and everyday creature comforts — on behalf of the future generations who would enjoy “the material conditions of full communism.” Every political decision was justified by reference to the magical post-scarcity future that would answer every political question automatically. This utopia of pure economics is similar to the promise of neoliberalism, which attempts to deactive all political participation and decision-making by imposing economic standards and constraints. The supposedly automatic mechanism of the market makes decisions for us, removing any possibility of principled dispute or conflict.

As you will see in my forthcoming book Neoliberalism’s Demons, I am a huge critic of “Arendt’s axiom” on the absolute qualitative distinction between the political and the economic, which I view as a fatal flaw in Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. So I don’t want to say here that we need to favor the political over the economic or resist the eclipse of the political by the economic or anything like that. The two realms really are inseparable, and I shouldn’t have to belabor that point. What I want to suggest here is that the idea that economics can replace or solve politics is a fantasy generated by capitalism itself — a strategy for legitimating its power structures as something other than power structures, its forms of oppression as something other than oppression.

If Marx really did believe that a sufficient level of economic development would automatically solve all serious political problems, then he would be the ultimate capitalist ideologue — and the 20th Century Communists who believed that was his teaching wound up becoming fodder for capitalist ideology, because the primary ideological lesson we are taught to take away from the experience of the USSR and pre-Deng China is that any alternative to capitalism is (in one of those grand ideological self-contradictions) simultaneously terrifying, boring, and impossible. One wishes — even taking into account the impossible situation in which they found themselves — that they had spent more time developing the machinery of collective decision-making and a little less laboriously reinventing the machinery of churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out. If there are any lessons to be drawn from that experience, it is not that planning, done right, with computers this time, can finally bring us the post-scarcity paradise, but in the very gesture of planning itself — collective planning not as a way of churning out more stuff, but as a way of taking collective responsibility for ourselves and the conditions of our life together.