I Went to College and I Liked It

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A colleague liked to say that "an education is a harrowing experience." If you don't find it harrowing, what you're getting is not an education.*

This isn't to say that an education can't also be exhilarating and thrilling and FUN. An education should be exhilarating and thrilling and FUN.

But at some point in your education--if it's a real education and not just an exercise in social reinforcement--you should encounter an idea that shakes your very notion of how the world works and who you are and who everyone else around you is. You should have a new relationship to truth and uncertainty and wisdom and ethics.

That certainly happened to me. I remember sitting in classes, especially as an undergrad, with my jaw agape, my mind reeling, the muscles in the back of my neck tensed so that my head wouldn't topple over backwards under the force of these ideas that I experienced as a physical assault on my being, an invasion of my personal sense of self.

I experienced them that way because that's what they were. But one of the things that made my education exhilarating and thrilling and FUN was realizing that I could play with these ideas. I could push back at them, and I could also quit resisting and let them IN, let them change me.

After I did that, I was larger and grander and more spacious on the inside, better equipped to encounter new ideas without feeling so threatened, better able to play and work with the ideas that came along. Not that I always did it gracefully or can do it without discomfort even now, but I have gotten better as I've gone along.

Some of the texts that threatened me most were those that reflected my own values and beliefs most closely, but did so from a political or ideological position I was told was EVIL: you know, atheists or pagans who were actually more rigorously moral than the most upright Mormon. Epictetus and the Stoics, for instance, freaked my shit out, mostly because they expressed a world view I recognized as familiar, though some of the surrounding aspects were utterly foreign.

The video below is a pretty terrific expression of how weird and unsettling and COOL it is to read texts you've been told you'll HATE because they, you know, threaten ideologies you've been told are central to your world view, and to discover in the process that these texts are actually very good statements of your values and strong guides to ethical behavior--perhaps superior even to the ideologies you've claimed rotely, automatically, to subscribe to for years.

I will add that I was NOT a fan of Marxism when I encountered in grad school, for all sorts of reasons, one being the hypocrisy of some of my professors who claimed to be Marxists but fought us tooth and nail when we tried to establish a grad student union; another being the fact that in a grad program in English it's possible to be a Marxist and write Marxist criticism without reading a single word he wrote except for a few well-known slogans--n the same way it's possible to be a Mormon and claim to know that "the Mormon church is the only true and living church on the face of the earth" without ever having read the Book of Mormon, which is perhaps the biggest reason I felt allergic to Marxism: it reeked of a millenarianism and totalizing world view that I found uncomfortably close to Mormon ways of viewing the world. When I read Black Boy, for instance, Wright's experience of being forced to leave the American Communist Party thoroughly mirrored my experiences of leaving the LDS church.

I'm willing to believe that those experiences didn't give me a particularly sophisticated sense of Marx's own ideas, and one of these days, when I get time, I just might read his writings instead of what someone else said about his ideas. In the meantime, I'm really glad that someone else read him and liked him.

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*I sort of intuited that was one goal of an education, and it was one reason I never wanted to go to BYU. I'm not saying that you can't get a good education at BYU--I know people who have done it and others who are doing it right now--but I think that if you want to avoid the harrowing aspects of an education, you can do it easily enough at BYU, because I also know people who have done that. (It's sort of jarring to meet reasonably intelligent people who dismiss Socrates and Plato and St. Augustine and Milton as peripheral intellectual figures, not nearly as important to the development of western thought as good ol' Joseph Smith--though BYU grads almost always LOVE Shakespeare, for some reason.) And if you want the harrowing bits, you can find those, but you have to work a lot harder at just plain tracking them down, which limits the energy you can devote to processing them. On top of which, if you have a certain kind of mind and intellectual outlook, BYU provides lots of harrowing experiences that you might just be better off avoiding--you know, like being in a closet and pretending that you believe stuff you actually think is bullshit.

2 Comments

I liked college, too. I don't know if I ever found it harrowing -- as I typed those words, it struck me just how well their incongruity illustrates my college experience. Still, I was happy to learn as much new stuff as I could and I loved being in a place where everyone worked really hard to make new stuff available to me. Maybe the generalized enthusiasm made the harrowing bits feel thrilling instead of nerve-racking.

My own enthusiasm for Marx has not waned in the 30 years since I first read him. I really, really enjoy reading volume 1 of Capital. Plus, Marx was a damn fine scholar and scholarship, creativity and critical practice leap off of every page. It was still possible in 1867 to know economic theory comprehensively -- I don't really think there are many areas of knowledge that could be grasped by one person comprehensively today, there's just too much to know -- but Marx did and it's a thrill to see him work with it. That might be the real limit to his work today: it's the most complete statement of the state of knowledge when he wrote it. Much of the way the world works is still the same but we do know more now, too, and so the best Marxists today work hard to get their heads around his method more than the specifics of the theory of value or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

The other reason I loved this little video, though, is that it makes me feel like teaching is still worthwhile. It doesn't have to be Marx, in the end, it's just great to see students be a bit brave, a bit against the current, and create something in their own idiom that shows that they were willing to be brave.

Here's another little movie that makes me think as much about pedagogy as about the topic of the financial crisis: David Harvey is a pretty well regarded Marxist geographer and his explanation is rendered very comprehensible by the wonderful animation. I find myself hanging on every word. The producers of the animation, the RSA, have several others; I haven't watched them all but I also liked Barbara Ehrenreich's "Smile or Die."

Hi Spike--

thanks for commenting, and thanks also for providing me with the link to the "I Read Some Marx (and I Liked It)" since you're who provided it, on Facebook. :-) I agree with you that it makes teaching seem valuable, and also POSSIBLE, that providing access to new information and ways of seeing the world is something that teachers can actually, and students can actually assimilate.

I like your statement that Marx's methodology is as useful as come of his specific ideas--that's useful to know, and something I will keep in mind when I get around to reading "Das Kapital" one of these days. :-)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 5, 2010 8:59 AM.

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