Teachers and Students Who (Don’t) Give a Shit

Disinterest, apathy, nihilistic complacency, selfishness… Whatever. Call it what you like; I don’t give a shit what word you use. Anyone who has spent time in school, college, or university knows this: too many people just don’t give a shit.

Teachers often don’t give a shit anymore if they ever gave a shit to begin with. Many of us fell into teaching in ways predicated on not giving a shit in the first place. Students often don’t give a shit because, in the words of the prophetic Hokey Pokey, “That’s what it’s all about!” That’s the real thing we learn in schools, right? How to not give a shit? How to reap without sowing, or sowing as little possible. Low investment, high return. How to grow a garden or lose weight or make money—or get diplomas, get published, receive awards, acclaim, and tenure—without really having to give a shit.

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The Problem of Where to Begin


Ornette Colman

“Let’s take it from the top.” This musical expression reveals a simple, ordinary truth: the only place to start is at the beginning. It is precisely at this, genetic point where things become most difficult. There is no widespread agreement on where the song begins. No one seems to know the intro. We don’t even know whether we’re in tune with each other or not; and some (fashionably) reject the very existence of music. How, then, can we begin?

There have been many philosophical attempts to get at this beginning—or to get around it completely. The result has been something like a negative attunement: we only share the fact that we don’t share very much. We have no foundational, genesis stories or realities to wrestle with and chew on; and this has become our foundation. This is kin to the harmony of some forms of free jazz, where everyone is so far gone, so “out,” that they dwell in a radical, rooted unity. Continue reading

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Adventures in Horizontal Education

Cross-posted from Curriculum Veto.

The Yippie Museum Cafe. Pic courtesy of Yelp. And yes, that is a pot leaf overlaying a Zapatista flag.

In January I enrolled in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s “Visual Culture Methods” class at NYU. My interest had already been piqued by the Occupy-centric course description (“The class will develop and explore horizontal means of occupying visual culture”), but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how seriously Nick and the students took the charge of applying OWS’ horizontal ethos to a classroom setting. By the end of the first meeting, we had reconstituted the class as the Visual Culture & Politics Working Group and consensed on modifications to the syllabus. From the second meeting forward, group members took turns serving as facilitators with the goal of flattening the instructor/student divide as much as possible. This worked so well that after a session Nick couldn’t attend produced a great discussion about the Egyptian Revolution and the possibility of a globalized social movement, we joked that we’d managed to make the role of professor obsolete. “I hope not,” someone said, “or else what are we going to do when we hit the job market?”

Putting aside worries about the self-immolation of our professional futures, we’ve moved on to a new phase of our project in horizontal education. The working group members enjoyed the project so much that we’ve decided to continue meeting outside of the confines of our classroom on Mercer Street. This past Thursday–our second meeting since the semester’s end–we gathered at the Yippie Museum Cafe to discuss, among other things, David Graeber’s “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” (PDF here). Mirroring the Occupy Movement as a whole, none of us is really sure what this group is, how long it will last, or what it will become. We’ve talked about readings we’d like to do and field trips that we’d like to go on, but right now our future is undetermined.

This, I think, is a good thing.

Keep reading. . . .

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“School Failure” as a State of Exception

American public schools are failing, letting the country down and jeopardizing our national security. That is the fundamental message stated in the “introduction” to U.S. Education Reform and National Security and developed throughout the report. It perceives education and schooling as a problem of categorical failure. Historically education gave opportunity to all Americans. “Today. . . . elementary and secondary (K-12) schools are failing to provide the promised opportunity. . . . In short, America’s failure to educate is affecting its national security.”

Report Cover Image
A multi-part, close critique.

Over the past few decades, power-speak has put itself into a bind. It has so demonized the work of government and collective action that it has to envision extreme crises in order to justify the mobilization of public effort. Eschewing power-speak, reasonable people do not need to declare the public schools a failure in order to want to improve them greatly. And steady work to improve public schooling, without thoughtless panic induced by threatening crises, is surely feasible and important. But power-speak needs crises as a prelude to powerful action, swinging from an affable laissez-aller to a rhetoric of command in the midst of crisis.

But watch out! Crisis driven command presumes unchecked power, an exception from normal constraints and procedures. Power-speak has a proclivity for crisis so that it can gain command without constraint. A perception of crisis creates a state of exception, which legitimates the thoughtless use of excessive power. States of exception suspend business as usual and institute extraordinary procedures to cope with the crisis. Code Red! Power-speak has grown far too fond of crises and the states of exception they bring. It invites rash leadership and hubris. Power-speak pronounces a crisis; clamors to meet it, mobilizing all-hands in unchecked effort; but then, the fog of war beginning to clear, all look about, saddened by lives lost, poorer for resources squandered, shamed by stupidity, bewildered that the threat of mass destruction had not proved real at all. Even if chastened, the crisis-driven entanglements still remain, and new relations of power with them. Déjà vu? Perhaps it behooves us to examine closely the report proclaiming that the American public schooling has failed, creating a crisis of national security.

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Reciprocity: Politics—Education

If educational and cultural efforts should advance political and economic life, isn’t the converse also the case: political and economic conduct should advance educational and cultural life?

Proclamations abound: educational effort must serve the needs of nations and economies better than they do. Leaders and the public hotly debate what political and economic interests schools should advance and how they should do it. But let us ask as well:

  • Is this connection between pedagogical and political activity unidirectional or reciprocal?
  • And if reciprocal, what are the responsibilities that need to be met in the conduct of political and economic life to enable a people to realize their full educational and cultural potential?

Please share your views via comments.

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Power-Speak on Public Schooling

This blog entry starts an effort to critique neo-liberal programs of educational reform through a close reading and commentary on “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” recently released by the Council on Foreign Relations. The entire critique will comprise 6 to 9 installments, with the full text of each appearing roughly once a week on the blog, Formative Justice.

In mid April, the Council on Foreign Relations presented its Independent Task Force Report No. 68, the fruit of the Council’s first assessment of American K-12 schooling —”U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” The Council charged thirty private sector leaders from commerce, academe, advocacy groups, and officialdom to report on the repercussions for national security arising because “America’s primary and secondary schools are widely seen as failing.” So charged, TF68 further hyped the failure of the schools and reiterated favorite elite prescriptions, frequently intoned with minor variations since Sputnik went into orbit in 1957. The variant by TF68 is mindless verbiage, deeply irrelevant to the education of the young and to the experience of the adult.

Report Cover Image
A multi-part, close critique.

Symptomatic inadequacies in the Report do not stem from failings peculiar to the members of TF68. Their acculturation to the power elite has embedded them in the mythologies of American meritocracy ever more deeply. Meritocratic myth impairs a believer’s capacity to grasp the realities of living experience. Already over-committed, TF68 members were selected because each was an important person charged with substantial responsibilities, high and complex. Through long apprenticeship, they had become adept at accomplishing additional tasks by hewing to the path of least resistance within the community of their peers. Hence, they could do their work with dispatch.

In about a year, with a few meetings for deliberation, TF68 diagnosed and prescribed their remedies for an enterprise that rivals the national security state in scope and scale. They wrote their findings up in 60 pages, with a further ten for genteel caveats. The result reprises A Nation at Risk, Tough Choices or Tough Times, and other jeremiads. In view of the dire threat this iteration purports to address, its prescriptions are limited and stale. Let us recognize that this Report is less the original work of the Task Force and more an expression of pure “power-speak”—an example of the free-world dialect of conformism at work.

Read more. . . .

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Formative justice in practice

Here is a Stoic sense of formative justice at work.

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