What has ignorance produced? A small sampling:
- Ignorance fishes bread from the toaster with a fork.
- Ignorance believes World Wrestling Entertainment is real.
- Ignorance says, "All we need to do is. . . . "
- Ignorance wears no condom.
- Ignorance chooses terrorism to kill innocence.
- Ignorance creates Nazi death camps and claims it was "just following orders."
- Ignorance uses power to suppress reason.
- Ignorance is a racist.
- Ignorance is a Darwin Award.
- Ignorance explores the attic of a horror film.
- Ignorance isn't a defense for the law.
- Ignorance smokes.
- Ignorance blames the victim.
- Ignorance can't do algebra.
- Ignorance sends money to "Nigerian bankers."
- Ignorance can't make change.
- Ignorance doesn't know how to vote.
- Ignorance always believes Mr. Hands.
- Ignorance mistakes pleasure for love.
- Ignorance thinks MTV's Viewer's Choice is a choice.
- Ignorance drives drunk.
- Ignorance brainwashes child soldiers.
- Ignorance gets a truTV series.
- Ignorance doesn't read.
- Ignorance needs still more shoes.
- Ignorance beats his wife.
- Ignorance beats her child.
- Ignorance mixes colors and whites in hot water.
- Ignorance is Captain Hazelwood.
- Ignorance never gets the joke.
- Ignorance attacks another soccer fan.
- Ignorance ignores Bhopal.
- Ignorance lives by aphorisms.
Ignorance isn't as happy as it thought it was.
I still remember my direct encounter with Neo-Marxist philosopher and rhetorician James Berlin (1942-1994) during a presentation I made at the Michigan College English Association conference. I was horrified and embarrassed at the time because, an honoree at the conference, he sat down in the front row of my presentation on teaching composition in public schools; it was a presentation based largely on his work.
We never spoke directly. I don't now even remember the expression on his face as I numbly quoted him and tried to make blithe and pithy critical observations about teaching philosophy. What if I had misinterpreted him? Misunderstood him? Oversimplified his approach? What if I had omitted a key facet of his argument? It was one thing if a colleague corrected or questioned: that was the culture of academic discourse; but it was quite another if I was contradicted by the Author himself.
Now, 20 years later, I suspect I need not have been so worried. The paper, now lost or buried in a small dust heap of 5 ¼" floppy disks, simply expounded on the forms of false thinking Berlin outlined in his 1988 College English essay "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class." And Berlin was likely satisfied, at least, to know that a (younger) English teacher was considering his work outside the university, however naïvely conceived.
Was it fate or fortune which placed me before him that day? Neither, as he might tell me himself. Berlin in his essay warns of false consciousness which infects the minds of student writers (and anyone, really), and the belief that some fixed force undermines my ability to act is one of them. We deny ourselves too easily our own roles in shifting the status quo; we too easily accept daily assaults on our humanity as part of society's game. Our goal as teachers is to help students "extraordinarily re-experience the ordinary," in the words of Ira Shor, a founder of social-epistemic rhetorical theory. But it's hardly students alone who need to exorcise these false thinkings.
Take for instance, Facebook rumors about Obama's attack on veteran health care, Fox News stories about red and green being banned at a public school, or yesterday's Twitter rumor that Morgan Freeman is Dead. Two of Berlin's warnings come into play here. For such stories to gain traction, a gullible public must be to some degree guilty of acceleration, how "the pace of everyday experience—the sensory bombardment of urban life and of popular forms of entertainment [prevent] critical reflection." We move our stories faster and faster and, in our eagerness to keep our friends in the digital loop of activist thinking, spread misinformation. Sometimes we look back and apologize, vowing to check before we pass on rumor or scam, but why do so many repeatedly send another false story the next week? Life moves so fast, we tell ourselves unconsciously. Act now! Limited offer! This EBay item has only seconds left before bidding ends! And so our accelerated (and hence non-critical) thinking feeds falsehoods into our preconceptions. How can we slow ourselves down?
The second problem, Berlin might tell us, is mystification, where our preconceptions are binary or extremist, frameworks of ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism, or some other bigotry. Rather than reason through the complex problems of our society and psyches, it's far easier to drop our experiences into these over-simplified and false categories, strengthening our prejudices. An Obama-hater will, of course, be more likely to spread the story of his attacks on vets, and conservative Christians will more likely accept the attack on a holy day by secular (and conspiratorial) PC forces. Liberals will pin the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" obstructionism squarely on the shoulders of John McCain, and high school students will naturally believe that teachers are agents of a system designed to torture their spirits.
Okay, perhaps that last idea is cautionary. A new and currently unpublished study done on students at Royal Oak High School (an anonymous school in the study) cites marginal growth and even regression in their own beliefs of personal political efficacy as they grow older. In other words, students at ROHS feel less and less able to effect change as they experience high school. This is quite the opposite of what we might imagine from the most free and democratic nation in the world.
For me, it is not altogether surprising. Driven more and more by career-driven, high-stakes, standardized testing, the idea of creating environments fostering a self discipline, open student governance of their own education, or deliberation and reflection is fleeting. Berlin calls this reification, the increasing belief that change is impossible, that our economic and social system is designed to keep them powerless. Most worrisome, they learn the "game" of education and consumerism, setting their goals on material acquisition as a substitute for anything which might be more fulfilling. Student Council's recent canned food drive is an example—more than one member of the school community lamented that there was no point in bringing in cans if they could not earn extra credit. Our larger purposes are lost; and victims of reified thinking end up actively participating in their own disempowerment.
Ah, we say, shrugging our collective shoulders, it can't be helped. It's all a part of human nature—we are socially destructive (or even self-destructive) animals, and "social Darwinism" (an entirely invented term for this thinking which in no way supports Sir Charles's theories) is inevitability. If we are to survive, such pre-scientific thinking tells us, it's every woman for herself. We can rely on no one else, and if virtue exists, it is found in relativism and individualism (never charity, community, ethic, or love). Consider the works of Ayn Rand in this sense.
All of these ideologies combine to common outcome: they teach us that change is impossible and that we therefore need not think about it. We can cower and react, entrench and exclude, sulk and comply, but—unless we wrest ourselves to new philosophy—we will never accept the risk to feel fulfilled. To think, to write, to speak, to act.
As I write this, I make a quick detour over to Yahoo!News: Trending right now are one story on North Korea, one story on charities, and eight stories on celebrity gossip and new product releases.
Merry Christmas, and may we all find fulfillment in the holidays we share.
In ancient Greek legend, the cave-dwelling Cumaean Sibyl, a famous prophetess, wrote the future on a series of oak leaves. However, every time supplicants came to ask of their fortunes, they would open the door to the cave and the West Wind would blow in, scattering the leaves. Thus was the future known yet not known.
Much could be read of this frustration, of how we never know where we will end, of whether our efforts are worthwhile or will be doomed to failure—that we can hope for little more than failed communication.
The poet Shelley, too, lamented the problem of communication, suggesting in his “Ode to the West Wind” that tumultuous forces prevent our communication:
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being—
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, (1-3)
Shelley’s ability to write, to reveal his experience, flees beyond his control. However, I prefer the story of the Aeneid where, in seeking the Sibyl’s advice, the hero Aeneas has a simple solution:
Chant the sacred verses
With your own lips; do not trust them to the leaves,
The mockery of the rushing wind’s disorder (6:83-85).
Our lives are rushed, the pile of “To Do” items scattered, and it seems just when we get a handle on where we wish to go, the wind catches us. But Aeneas reminds us that solutions abound; all we have to do is ask.
Too simple, perhaps. But this much is certain: the more we remain silent, the more failure we must inevitably encounter. Our futures are produced by words, by language, broken or no. Every moment we choose to avoid the discussion is another futured moment lost and a scattered present lived, often in anxiety.
In discussion, in dialogue, we produce meaning, create new opportunities, learn the world.
The Romans understood. The Cumaean Sibyl offered King Tarquin nine books of prophecies, but her price was too high and he refused. So the Sibyl destroyed three of the books and offered him six. Again he refused so she burned three more. Finally, he understood and bought what was left. Seize language.
To do so is frightening. With language comes responsibility for its use: it’s easier for us sometimes to abdicate control or power over our present. To talk is to confront it, to make active our place in the world. Who else can we blame when our own words are cast before us?
But this much seems certain: in language lies consequence, our wills, our selves.
The same can be said of our writing, of course. But not just any writing. The school assignment is merely that, a designed exercise trapped in a closed cave. It pretends to be assertion, but until the door is opened to the world, private writing protects itself from examination, from dialogue. This is why the most powerful and important writing is that which readers encounter and to which they respond.
Down with readers of television who passively absorb! And down with mere consumers of text who do not engage it with their own words.
Worst of all fall those writers and speakers who language recklessly, without critical responsibility for their words. “What does it matter? It’s just words.” “It’s just my opinion.” “It doesn’t mean anything.” The ethos of any writer stems from her consciousness of the responsibility for the words. Ethos is character, is ethics. Ethos is writing and speaking for truth.
King Tarquin is a fool. Shelley begs for power against the chaos. Aeneas heroically demands the dialogue. And another writer will be forever unknown because he chooses not to write.
In his book, An Assault on Reason, Al Gore draws a parallel between the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial. The detainees, he writes, have not been told the crimes with which they have been charged, they are “served” by secret courts, and their friends and families are caught in a morass of bureaucracy without a clear idea even if they are making progress. The “trial” for some has already gone on some years; nevertheless, they are not free.
Joseph K goes through the same. As important, however, is his own mindset in the process. As a priest tells him, “The court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come; it dismisses you when you go.” Kafka tells us that, in a sense larger or more philosophical than physical confinement, we choose ourselves whether we will live our lives as prisoners. We may sink ourselves into the tangles of bureaucracies or disengage from them.
We may burn our energies out in combating the ROHS scheduling process or choose to learn where we are placed. We may lose hours to clicking on Causes in FaceBook or choose to walk our talk more directly. We may trap ourselves in webs of gossip and lies or we may choose our own principles and stand apart.
Ah, I wax philosophic! Kafka’s question is like Thoreau’s. Where Joseph K dies “Like a dog!” because he is never able to live without his fear and guilt created by his own slavery to society, Thoreau challenges us to live like humans, to think independently from those social pressures.
In many ways, people who live under totalitarian regimes are compelled to act (if not think) as the state tells them to. To resist may mean imprisonment or death. (Just think Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, or even today’s Myanmar.) But at the same time, these states have at least a few individuals of conscience we’ve met, people who choose to act and speak their principles. (Think Chia Thye Poh in Singapore, Gabriel Rufyiri in Burundi, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.)
Don’t know these folks? Is that because they’re unimportant or that we have also been inundated—trapped, sunk, imprisoned, detained, lost—in a society not totalitarian (despite what Gore implies) but Kafka-esque nonetheless? Thoreau and Kafka both challenge us to be human—not machines, not animals, not narcissists or manipulators, not liars.
What else distinguishes us from the machine or beast but our conscience? This does not mean to resist everything, but to choose something, and be honest about it. It means we must be prepared to own our actions and words and accept the consequences.