Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (1)

1.

Somewhere in the world it’s 3 o’clock

Time to get out of school and think

Somewhere in the world it’s 5pm

And quittin time means it’s time to drink

—Boots Riley, lyrics from “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight,” in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015)

 

Schools have failed our individual needs, supporting false and misleading notions of ‘progress’ and development fostered by the belief that ever-increasing production, consumption and profit are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of human life. Our universities have become recruiting centers for the personnel of the consumer society, certifying citizens for service, while at the same time disposing of those judged unfit for the competitive rat race.

—Back-cover blurb on a paperbound re-edition of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 2000)

By my own experience, Boots Riley’s lines about school and thinking are all too true. As I used to tell my own university students, I always learned far more despite school than because of it. Schools present themselves—and the people who work in them (most of whom are good enough, decent enough, caring enough people) typically have to buy the presentation—as places of learning. Schools also like to present themselves, above all to themselves, as devoted to teaching students to think, giving them “critical thinking” skills they can then use to go out and live rich lives of genuine self-awareness. Most schools and teachers would endorse Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life if not worth living,” and would claim that the purpose of good schooling is to give students what they need to live an examined, worthwhile life.

However, if we were to judge institutionalized schools and schooling in terms of what they do, rather than what they say, we would be driven to a very different conclusion, by my experience. We would be driven to the conclusion that the real purpose of institutionalized schools and schooling is to teach students not to think—not to dare to do so. In terms of the actual effect on students of being subjected to schooling for year after year from their early years to adulthood, we would have to say that schools do indeed “teach you to think,” but only in the same sense as that in which one might say to an unruly child, “I’ll teach you to sass me!” just before applying the rod the sparing of which the Bible tells us spoils that child. In saying such a thing, one is not promising to help the child acquire effective sassing skills. Rather, one is beginning to inflict punishment on the child for having just done some sassing, punishment designed to teach the child to refrain from doing any more sassing in the future. Judged by their deeds rather than their words, that’s precisely the sense in which schools “teach students to think.” All too many students learn the lesson all too well, though no fault of their own.

Insofar as that is the reality of schools and schooling, then the reality is also that in order to do any thinking, if one doesn’t want to get punished for it one is wise to wait till after the school-bell rings 3 o’clock, announcing the end of the school day. Only once the daily torture of school is finally over is it safe for students to think. Unfortunately, by then it’s unlikely many of them will have enough energy left to try very hard to think, even if despite school they have already somehow managed at least to begin to lean how to do so. About all they will be suited to do is drink—as many will learn soon enough just how to do.

 

I know that’s how school always was for me, at any rate. It was that way ever since my very first day in Kindergarten, which I hated with a passion. Kindergarten made me sick. At least that’s what I’d tell my Kindergarten teacher regularly—especially when she made the class play with some messy, oily clay, from which I recoiled as from excrement. For a while, when I’d leave the clay or other reeking pile of whatever we were made to foul ourselves with and go up to her desk to tell her I was sick to my stomach and needed to go home, she’d have the office call my mother, who’d come the mile from our suburban home to get me and deliver me from my bondage, at least for the rest of that day. Eventually, however, my Kindergarten teacher wised up to my ways. She scheduled a meeting with my mother, with me also to be present. At that meeting she told my mother, having made sure that I would be there to hear it too, that if I did not change my attitude toward school, I’d never even make it through first grade.

She was wrong. I knew that even when she said it, when I was only five. In fact, I never did change my attitude toward school. If anything, it just grew harder every year. Nevertheless, I not only made it through first grade, but through a whole bunch of other grades after that, long enough to get my Ph.D. degree. Then I even stayed in school forty-five years longer, having had to take on her role—a teacher in a school—myself, since it was the only way I could find to make a living doing what I found myself called to do. Thus, I ended up spending pretty much my whole life “making it” in school. I guess I showed her!

Anyway, reading Boots Riley’s lines above brought back for me all the memories of the years and years of dead and deadening boredom I used to experience in school when I was a child, and how I’d keep looking up at the clock on the wall, which never seemed to move. Each day, I had to endure such eternities till 3 o’clock finally set me free for a little while, so I could think. Yet even then I couldn’t really completely relax and think with full freedom, because the constant threat of having to go back the next day for further “schooling” (i.e., more torture) robbed even my after-school hours of truly free time—real time to think.

As a kid, I loved Saturdays. Saturdays were the closest I ever got to any of the carefree days that are so commonly and so falsely attributed to childhood. Saturday was the first of two whole days without school! Time I could use to read and think and do other things I wanted just because I wanted to!

But after Saturday came Sunday. No matter what thoughts I tried to milk on Sundays, the milk was always curdled by my underlying anxiety. I was never that fond of Sunday. Sunday was always poisoned by my knowing that the next day was Monday, and that then I would have to face five more endless days back in hell. Sundays were days ruined by that anxiety. It wasn’t till I learned to drink that I finally found a way to begin to appreciate Sundays.

To make all that abuse even more abusive, throughout all my schooldays nobody, of course, would ever even acknowledged the abuse that was being inflicting on me and all the other kids. That was not really the teachers’ and other immediate abusers’ fault, since it just went with them having been subjected to the same abuse themselves for so long, so unrelentingly, and so effectively over so many years. That long abuse had made them, regardless of their own desires and intentions, into the abuse-system’s unwitting accomplices. Their own histories of being abused had deadened them to all the abuse going on all around them, now being inflicted—often by their own unwitting hands—on all the new kids on the school-block (a block such as farmers use to cut the heads off chickens).

Thus, that schooling conditions students not to think has nothing essential to do with the conscious intentions of teachers as such. The intentions of those who get shanghaied for service as teachers in the schools of our consumer-production system are often tripped up and trapped by their own good qualities, such as a genuine desire to help children learn (teachers’ pay, after all, is hardly that great, so they’re not in it for the money). Rather, it has to do with the institution itself—which is anything but an institution where thought—or life, I will add—is sanctified.

My own long life in schools confirms what the Deschooling Society blurb above says: that “schooling” is really just pure conditioning, designed to turn out good little consumers—fodder for the market system. Boots Riley’s follow-up about quitting time meaning time to drink says the same thing, in high hip-hop style.

Deschooling Society first came out in the early 1970s, when I was already embarked on my own long career of university teaching, after having spent eighteen years of being schooled myself. I found my own way to it at a bookstore. It was a real gift to me. It showed me I was not alone—and not just some ungrateful whiner. It gave me just the sort of general diagnosis of my condition and its causes that reconfirmed for me just who—or, more precisely, what—I should hate.

 

2.

            This means, above all, that our job is to think. As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fandom or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. We graze, we binge, we pick up and discard aesthetic experiences as if they were cheap toys. Which they frequently are—mass-produced widgets from the corporate assembly line.

—A. O. Scott, “Everybody’s a Critic,” NY Times op-ed section for 1/31/16, adapted from his book Better Living through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

A few years ago, the thought occurred to me that the next time someone asked me if I would mind a little helpful criticism, I would reply: “How would I know? I’ve never received any.” Unfortunately, nobody’s asked me that pseudo-question since then, so I have not yet had a chance to use that line—at least until now, in this post.

I can only hope that confessing to thinking such critical thoughts about criticism doesn’t expose me as having taken on the defensive group identity of fandom—or, even worse, put on full display my shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. I take pride in not being some mere consumer of culture, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, if not altogether lulled into pure passivity. I doubt that I could stand the humiliation if my criticism of criticism revealed me to be no better than one of those who graze among aesthetic experiences, bingeing on them, picking them up and then discarding them as though they were cheap toys. (If I have to binge, I’d rather just go back to bingeing on booze instead. That has its own honesty, and would at least allow me to preserve a modicum of self-respect.)

Be that as it may, I shudder to have to admit that from time to time I do indeed catch myself taking seriously some mass-produced widget from the corporate assembly line passing itself off as a work of art—just as I sometimes, to my shame, take seriously what is really no more than just such a widget passing itself off as a work of thought. Maybe not today, though.

But enough about me! (Or maybe not.)

 

3.

To philosophize means to begin to think. We must always become beginners again. Those who hold themselves to be advanced easily fall prey to the danger of taking what they assume they already known to be no longer worthy of thought, and thus to hold themselves exempt from needing to begin. To begin means: every time to think every thought as though it were being thought for the first time.

—Martin Heidegger, Leitgedanken zur Enstehung der Metaphysik, der Neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und der Modernen Technik (Gesamtausgabe 76, 2009), p. 54 (freely translated)

When I was fifteen, I taught myself enough German to be my family’s interpreter when we spent most of a month in Germany. My parents had managed to pay off the mortgage on our family home in Colorado a few years before. But they had taken out a new one just to finance a trip to Europe for themselves and me, the youngest of their three children and the only one still at home—a trip to Europe to visit my brother, who is three years older than I am. My brother had enlisted in the U. S. Army the year before. After boot camp and some extra army training, he had ended up in the Army Security Agency, for God knows what reason, and was stationed at Frankfurt am Main. He managed to get himself a one-month leave, and we drove all over the place in Western Europe crammed into the VW Bug he’d bought for himself while stationed there.

My family on both sides is mainly of German origin, and I’d long had a fascination with Germany and things German. So I had talked my parents into buying me a set of German language vinyl records, and I’d used them to get a beginner’s sense of the language. When the four of us went driving around Germany that summer, I was the one who asked for rooms at inns, meals from waiters in Bierstuben and other places we ate (including angering my brother at one stop when I ordered him a Pilsner beer, rather than a Lager), asking directions, and the like.

But I never really got a good reading knowledge of German, or mastery of German vocabulary much past guide-book level, until I finally got to graduate school, where I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy that required a reading ability in two non-English languages, as demonstrated by results on the standardized Princeton ETS language exams of that age. Given my own interests in philosophy, the two languages that made the most sense were the two standard ones of German and French. I did the German first, then the French.

I went about both in the same way, starting with a vinyl record set for learning the language at issue, to get a sense of the grammar, basic vocabulary, and sound of the language. (For the German, I just had to brush up some, since I’d already done the record thing when I was fifteen.) Then I’d get myself a dictionary for translating the language into English, and start reading through some work of philosophy in that language, a work of my own selection. When I started my reading, going was very slow indeed. But by the time I’d finished my selected book, I was ready to take—and ace—the standardized language exam.

For French, I used a book containing Descartes’ Discourse on Method and his Meditations. After scoring well on the standardized language test, I promptly forgot my French, since my philosophical interests didn’t really give me any special reason back then for continuing to read philosophy written in French. What was available in English translations was sufficient for my purposes, and I never went back to French until our daughter did me the favor of marrying a Frenchman. That gave me incentive to teach myself French again, going about it my same old, proven way—only this time I used CDs, rather than vinyl records. Since then, I regularly read philosophy works in French, both to keep my language skills up, and so that I’m not at the mercy of the translation-industry and its market-driven widget-making decisions.

For German, I used Heidegger’s Holzwege, a collection of essays he’d published at the beginning of the 1950s. It contains his famous lecture “Vom Wesen des Kunstwerkes” (“On the Origin of the Work of Art”), which he originally delivered back in 1935. When I first read it in Holzwege, it was still a few years before that lecture was first published in an English translation by Albert Hofstadter. By the time I and my Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary were done with Holzwege, I could read German. At least I could read philosophical German, stuff like Heidegger’s Zur Sache des Denkens, which came out in the original German version just a couple of years later (it was eventually translated by Joan Stambaugh and published by Harper under the title On Time and Being), or Kant’s Grundlegung der Metaphysics der Sitten (Foundations–or Groundwork/s—of the Metaphysics of Morals). But when it came to reading the daily newspaper, I still had to use my Langenscheidt’s. I had far less trouble reading Kant in German on the transcendental unity of apperception in his Critique of Pure Reason than I did reading the appeal in the local paper for help finding the lost dog who’d jumped over the fence in some Frankfurt suburb, for example.

As I’ve already mentioned, because I had no ongoing use of my own for it at the time, I soon forgot the French that I taught myself in the first place only in order to jump over one of the hurdles the school I attended made me jump over to get my Ph.D. degree, so I could start to sell myself for money. But when my daughter married a Frenchman and I went back through the very same process to teach myself to read French again, I retained what I’d learned, and have been able to keep my reading knowledge of French current ever since. That is precisely because I want to retain it. I want to, in turn, because I have a French son-in-law, of course, but even more (he’s fluent in English) because I have interests that send me regularly to read stuff in French philosophy before it gets translated into English—if it ever does, since quite a bit of what I find most interesting doesn’t seem to fit the market needs of the current crop of translation publishers.

The German I taught myself by reading Heidegger has stayed with me ever since I first learned it. The timing of my thereby teaching myself to read German was in part dictated by the same need to jump a hurdle my school made me jump before it would finally let me get out of school after all the years I had to be in it. But that really only played a secondary role, even in terms of timing. That’s because by then I was already hooked on Heidegger, including knowing I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on his thought. At the time, not all that much of Heidegger had been translated into English. So I knew I’d need to learn to read him in German.

In fact, had I not had to jump over a number of other hurdles my school also put in the way of people like me getting out of school as quickly as possible, without being penalized for the rest of our lives because we left—the way that those who just can’t stand more abuse drop out of high school are made to pay the penalty for their sassing the school system by dropping out that way: the penalty of dead-end jobs for unconscionably low pay—I’d have probably taught myself to read Heidegger in German even earlier than I did. I’ve read (and reread) Heidegger in German ever since I taught myself to read German by reading him. I continue regularly to read him in German to this day, and plan to continue to do so till death or senility stops me.

I read Heidegger in German even when there are English translations of what I’m reading available. He’s better in German. That’s just another thing I learned despite all my schooling.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

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