Thursday, January 19, 2006

Just Looking for a Way Out: Education and transcendence

Sorry for the infrequent posts lately. Between vacation, the start of the semester, and other factors, it's been hard to find the time and the mindspace for writing. I will try to do better.

Today, I want to talk about how the structure and nature of American (and most) schooling makes us just want to get done.

In so many ways we live to follow the sun,
In so many way we exalt and fail as one,
In so many ways we want so bad to be done,
In so many ways we show our pain in unison.
--Bad Religion, In So Many Ways
Think about it this way. School is not a prominent part of most peoples lives in the same way that, say, television is. We don't look forward to getting out of bed, getting to class, and soaking up that good knowledge. We don't seek out extra opportunities to learn, to test that learning. More or less, we just want the day to be over. We treat it just like any other job we hate. We go in, do what we have to, get done "serving our time" and leave. Moreover, when the learning is really over, like when we get a diploma or degree of some kind, many people seem to act as if the learning really is over. Whew! Never have to do that again! How does that happen?

A long time ago, for my doctoral thesis, I wrote about my experiences in Marine Corps bootcamp. In that work, I suggested some of ways recruits are transformed from civilians into Marines. I discussed two main concerns that theorists should consider: (1) the physical environment and (2) the mental/conceptual environment. That is, they can make you do things and they can make you think about things. The things they make you do include stuff like living in particular conditions, marching, doing physical training, and other things. As you do these things, the environment seems more and more natural to you. As you learn more and more about your place within the larger hierarchy of the services and the Marines in particular, you recognize that you are growing, changing, getting closer to the end. Your body and your capabilities become more Marine-like. Your mental landscape contains more Marine-like content; and you can see yourself passing specific landmarks on the training landscape. More or less, you are forced to recognize that you are moving toward some end--you are becoming something. Becoming that something will help you be what you strive to be: the ideal, the apex, the ultimate. You will have transcended your earthly form to become a Marine. You will be powerful, worthy of respect, just below God and the angels in the cosmos, and well above those fuckin' squids in the Navy, the Army doggies, and those useless fuckin' zoomies in the Air Force. As for slimey civilians... well, you used to be one, but you ain't' no more.

So you leave bootcamp feeling like you're done. You're a Marine, and fuck everyone else who ain't. Of course, you find out once you reach the Fleet that you're just another puke. Just some newbie straight out of boot, don't know his elbow from his dick. I, for one, found this completely disconcerting. No sooner had I gotten there (wherever "there" was) than I had to embark on a new journey. That bastard, Time, continued to throw the viscitudes of life into the mix. Of course, I never unlearned the idea that one could be done, completed, perfected once and for all.

Clearly, this is a problem in more than just bootcamp. How often, for example, have you, dear readers thought this: "If only X will be over, then everything will be settled once and for all." Maybe you thought it about high school, or college, or military training, or wedding planning leading to the ceremony itself, or whatever else. You felt, more or less, like once some terminal point had been reached, you would be able to rise above all of the strife and suffering you were going through--as if it's ever really over. Here's the word to use for that: transcendence.

The notion of transcendence is, I believe, inherent in our conceptions of school, work, and life. We feel like if we can just get to a certain point, then we will be living in a veritable heaven-on-earth. This is, of course, a hundred pounds of bullshit in a one-pound bag. However, I can understand why most people get the feeling that it might be true. My favorite theorist, Kenneth Burke, has a way to understand this situation. It hinges on his definition of the human being. This explanation is taken from the Virtual Burkean Parlor at Purdue University:

First published in abbreviated form in The Rhetoric of Religion (1961), and then expanded in later versions in The Hudson Review (Winter, 1963-64), Language as Symbolic Action (1966), and a 1989 CCCCs presentation, Kenneth Burke's "Definition of Human" encapsulates many of the key tenets of Dramatism, his theory and philosophy of language. In its final form, the definition reads:

Being bodies that learn language
thereby becoming wordlings
humans are
the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal
inventor of the negative
separated from our natural condition
by instruments of our own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
acquiring foreknowledge of death
and rotten with perfection

That is, we are animals that define our world with language and other symbol systems. That use of symbol systems can be done in ways that are creative, true or false. We can separate, using those symbols, things into categories of like and not-like. We can say no or not. We dwell differently from other animals, sheltered from the brute realities of an animalistic existence. We categorize and order the contents of our environments, both physical and conceptual, in order to know, to have power over, and to place, everything in its "proper" slot. We know we will die, and try to order a perfect world to compensate for the fact that we will not endure for long.

Basically, we structure our conceptual environments in such a way that those environments come to reflect our needs both to fit in and to progress toward some end. Burke suggests that what this leads to is profound guilt. Since we are "rotten with perfection" we seek to perfect ourselves through victimage or through mortification; that means we either are whipped into shape or we whip ourselves into shape. Having done so we consider ourselves redeemed of our guilt. And probably that would remain the case, except for the fact that time continues to pass. We are never, until death, done (and perhaps not then, though I have my doubts). We, of course, cannot be perfect, so the cycle begins again.

I have the feeling that Burke has a lot in common with my favorite philosopher on this issue. Jiddhu Krishnamurti said:

Has it not been the human cry, for millennia, to find out how to live peacefully, how to have real abundance of love, compassion. That can only come into being when there is the real sense of '‘non-me'’, you understand. And we say: '‘Look, to find that out' —whether it is from loneliness, or anger, or bitterness '—look, without any escape.'’ The escape is the naming of it, so do not name it, look at it. (Beyond Violence, Ch. 6)
Here he suggests that we try to escape from something that bothers us--loneliness, anger, fear, etc. To bring Burke in here, we more or less see an imperfection and seek to transcend it. Often in order to do so, we must name it, categorize, make it into something concrete, so that we can embrace its negative, and thus, find redemption. Krishnamurti suggests that this is a false move. We may move beyond one thing, but end up stuck in another. The door out always leads to somewhere else. The act of escape is productive of even more dissatisfaction. Instead, he suggests, we should learn to pay attention instead. We should inhabit, fully, the thing we seek to transcend. In another of his writings, Krishnamurti applies this to education, suggesting that the movement toward security (order, in Burke's terms) goads us to worship hierarchy and the notion of success (perfection, according to KB). This only leads to dissatisfaction, because all we can never be done:

Conventional education makes independent
thinking extremely difficult. Conformity leads to
mediocrity. To be different from the group or to
resist environment is not easy and is often risky as
long as we worship success. The urge to be
successful, which is the pursuit of reward whether
in the material or in the so-called spiritual sphere,
the search for inward or outward security, the desire
for comfort--—this whole process smothers discontent, puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear; and fear blocks the intelligent understanding of life. (Education and the Significance of Life, Ch. 1)
So, by our nature, by the nature or our symbol use, by the passage of time, we structure our lives in such a way as to give the illusion that we will someday be able to find heaven on earth. To be a certain way, to have had certain experiences, to have passed certain milestones, to have certain material things, to be in certain relationships, surely those achievements will make us happy. But, in the end, we discover that every accomplishment, every possession, must eventually loluster lustre. We are left empty, impoverished, alone. Strife is, because we strive. We don't exist in the world. We move through it, try to get beyond it, because certainly there must be some perfect, all-fulfilling place we can move to. There, finally, we will be happy. But, as the old saw goes, no matter where you go, there you are. You cannot escape from yourself. You cannot escape from the world.

Sela. Pause and reflect on these things.

Next time: What are our alternatives to these problems?


Motherbuster said...

You don't write anymore, ding-dong hole.

SoulRiser said...

Yay, new post!

Very well said. I came up with a related quote (is it still considered a quote if you're quoting yourself?):

As long as you think you'll find happiness "out there", you'll never find it anywhere else.