Thursday, May 22, 2014

Surprised?

We had our college Recognition Ceremony this morning in the big barn of Calvary and St. George Episcopal Church at Stuyvesant Park. The faculty got to process in and out before the students and to sit on the raised stage, but were more like a floral display - nothing for us to do but be there. I suppose our moment is past - sort of the point, maybe?

As ever it was a long parade of graduates I've never seen before, with just enough people I know sprinkled in to keep it interesting and perplexing. As in years past, I also knew a significantly larger proportion of the students who won departmental awards, we well as the student speaker, though as often through my work with Peer Advisers as through my courses. It remains vaguely disturbing to feel that the mainstream of Lang students doesn't flow anywhere near me - but other faculty report the same thing. Who are they? Who/what are we?

The faculty speaker this year had (like all of us when it comes our turn) not just crafted something very individual, communicating confidence in the graduates as well as concern for them as they enter an increasingly difficult economy, but invoked other commencement speeches, banal and visionary. The highlight for me were some lines from one given by Ivan Illich at the University of Puerto Rico in 1969, whose argument was that a commitment to true education mandates dismantling schools:

This plea to imagine a Puerto Rico without schools must, for many of you, come as a surprise. It is precisely for surprise that true education prepares us. The purpose of public education should be no less fundamental than the purpose of the Church, although the purpose of the latter is more explicit. The basic purpose of public education should be to create a situation in which society obliges each individual to take stock of himself and his poverty. Education implies a growth of an independent sense of life and a relatedness which go hand in hand with increased access to, and use of, memories stored in the human community. The educational institution provides the focus for this process. This presupposes a place within the society in which each one of us is awakened by surprise; a place of encounter in which others surprise me with their liberty and make me aware of my own. 

The speaker was dubious that an increasingly corporatized New School was such a place - a skepticism for which the students to whom I spoke after it was all over were grateful. They've had enough of the "legendary and progressive," "innovative," "student success" and "real and positive change"-incubating BS from our university 1%. As they move on, making the New School work is no longer their concern. It remains ours.

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