Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The almost found

Our New School history course has been offering us many an eerie coincidence lately. Last week, the day after the presidential election, we were teaching about the National Student Strike of 1970, and the way students claimed the space of The New School to protest and imagine a better world in the wake of the bombing of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. Graduating seniors from Parsons, which had just merged with The New School, put aside their senior shows for a pop-up exhibition they called My God! We're Losing a Great Country! ("Great" irony in that name today....) The new world opened up by the resistible rise of Arturi Trui - experienced as a crisis on many levels, including the level of even understanding what had happened and how and why - was just the sort of crisis the New School had been called into existence to respond to, we argued, an acknowledgment that not just better research but new structures of inquiry and education and community were demanded by the new reality, new schools.

Today's class introduced the work of Sekou Sundiata, whose "51st (Dream) State" was one of the most poignant responses to the election of 2004 - another time when it seemed we were not one but two nations, as incompatible as oil and water. (Sekou did what people are now saying is so necessary, traveled the land inviting people of all political persuasions to get to know each other at so-called "citizenship dinners," among other inspiring things.) Our focus was on the 1989 episode - you remember it, no doubt - when he wrote a big X across an offensive image in an exhibition of corporate logos in the Parsons Gallery, adding This is racist bullshit - Sundiata and catapulted the New School into an existential crisis. Freedom of expression vs. freedom from intolerance? How could The New School - or any institution, any community - respect both? At a time when hate speech has been nearly normalized, the issues are, alas, current in a new way. (You can read the story under The Matsunaga Affair here, along with My God!) Sekou's wonderful "Shout Out" (1997) was also a wonderful antidote to the divisive language of this moment.

... Here's to the crazy, the lazy,
the bored, the ignored,
the beginners, the sinners,
the losers, the winners,
the smooth and the cool
and even to the fool
... to the rule-benders and the repeat offenders,
to the lovers, and the troublers,
the engaging, the enraging,
to the yearless and the fearless
to the fixers and the tricksters
... to the was you been
to the is you in
to was deep in deep
to was down and down
to the lost and the blind
and the almost found.

Many of us in the academic biz have been asking ourselves this past week if what we do matters, or matters in the right way, as we confront the collapse of faith in our public institutions, and perhaps also in our common life. Some of my colleagues have been teaching students how to organize, where to protest. That's what they're about as faculty; they assume and assert we're a "community of activists"! But that's not quite me, and it's not why I do what I do. Activism has its place (J and I went to a demonstration for Sanctuary Campuses today, for instance) but so does the patient playful profound work of the liberal arts. In the last years we've been pushing back against the narrowly economic form of the question of the "value of the liberal arts," but we should't construe it in narrowly political terms either. I believe (as you know) that the right kind of pedagogy, the right sort of curriculum, the right practices of intellectual community produce "democratic virtues" of use in all departments of life. They make us more thoughtful, more open to new ideas and better arguments, more accepting of complexity and change, more compassionate of the struggles of others (and ourselves), and more able to see the gift of diversity.

Part of the pleasure of teaching this course with J is sharing the story of this community's efforts to realize the possibilities of education in new forms and times. We've made our share of blunders (today's quip: "You could have an exhibition called Balls we've dropped!") but we're less likely to make them again if we know where we're coming from, and why what happened happened. Encountering the ideals and experiments of our forebears (today it was the truly unconventional 1+2+1 structure proposed for the Seminar College, a ball quickly dropped) provides perspective, inspiration and a certain realism. Perhaps the eerie coincidence isn't a coincidence. The New School really has been trying to understand and respond to times of uncertainty and fear for a long time. We're lucky to be part of its history.

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