Teaching as a Vocation

Teaching as a Vocation (a personalist accounting)

            Sometimes those who can do, also teach. And teaching is also a doing, at least of sorts. Shaw’s perhaps unknowing indictment is well taken, however, for the vast majority of what passes for teaching in our contemporary systems, at whatever level, is tantamount to mass regurgitation and within the framework of patent unthought. This is what needs be for any social system to reproduce itself without too many mutations, not unlike the patterns our genetic proteins must follow. At the same time, the world does not wait for us, nor any systemic congery we have constructed for ourselves. So, within the mass, there must always be the mutant, as it were, the catalyst for a transformation of thinking and even of human experience itself, so that reproduction is itself given new life. And those who feel that assignation, who treat teaching in the traditional sense of vocation, are perhaps more apt to become those agents of necessary change. What follows is a brief narrative of both pedagogy as a discourse and of my own experience becoming both a pedagogue and an education theorist.

            Teaching as an Vocational Experience:

            Though I taught my first few classes as a graduate assistant in the Winter Term of 1989, I only became a sessional instructor five years later. Five years after that, I was awarded my first tenure stream professorial position, and for some twenty years occupied this perch in various units and in three universities, ending my career after a five-year chairpersonship of a liberal arts department. A quarter-century in the university classroom, with more than 140 courses taught over that time, and my experience was one of some irony. At the beginning, I felt the calling of teaching as an authentic assignation, but by the end, I felt nothing of the sort. Does the saint recuse himself from his hagiographic similitude? Does the pilgrim quit his progress? Or for that matter, does the dictator ever simply step down? Clearly, one’s personal sense of what one must do can shift over time. My friends have suggested that I teach still, just in different and distanciated venues, sometimes digitally, other times informally, and I have done various writing workshops and series over the past few years, though now even these are fading memories. I have not been inside a bona fide classroom in over eight years.

            As vocations go, teaching has many rewards, both in the light and, to be discussed below, in the shadows as well. But teaching presumes that one can also learn from one’s students, alter one’s pedagogic trajectory to fit their needs, or have at least the nerve, if not the outright gall, to suggest to them that they do not know their needs, or are only partially conscious thereof. This may seem rash, but any vocation demands also vision. The saint does not brook debate regarding ideal action in the world, and indeed seeks to make mere living action into transhistorical act. The pilgrim will not be detoured from her goal, however afar, and in turn will not be deterred from pursuing it by all means, even if such sometimes stray into the unmentionable. The dictator’s Diktat is indeed generally unfit to print, but nevertheless, it commends itself with utmost consistency to the principle of vocation. Teaching, much less glamorous than any of these, is nonetheless safer, and to the point of complacency. The goal of university teaching is to be, speaking of ideals, open-ended, improvisatory, iconoclastic, critical. Its actual character tends toward the routine, even the otiose, as evidenced by my own professors, trained as they were in mid-century, and many by canonical figures. By the time I possessed the terminal degree from a world top-40 institution, I was but once removed from the likes of Talcott Parsons – I possess to this day many of his office files in which he stored his accumulation of journal articles, as well as the papers themselves – Erving Goffman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Firth, Victor Turner, Virginia Oleson, as well as others, including the great Dorothy Smith. With this last I had the privilege of dialogue much later in my career, when I myself was nominally worthy thereof. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, their elite training in the human sciences, my own professors’ course outlines were sometimes forty years backdated, sometimes even non-existent, for these were the days when university administrations actually kept their distance from the pedagogic scene.

            I had numerous teachers of merit, but by far the most important was no less than Dorothy Heathcote, the legendary drama pedagogue, by whom I was taught firsthand in the summer of 1980 when I was but fourteen. It was a transformational experience, that summer festival workshops series, with same-aged peers and the most brilliant pedagogue for youth I have ever known. It was she who told me that I had the potential to teach, and she who took the first step with me and showed me a path upon which that potential could evolve into a practice. For many years as a professor in my own right, I attempted to conjure for my students that same sidereal realm in which she moved so effortlessly. Heathcote was compassionate, fearless, unbounded, and quick on her feet. She had about her an aura of gentle invincibility; this is the only manner of description that comes to mind when I think of her. She showed me that the best pedagogue did not so much live and die by her students’ aptitudes or abilities, but rather helped that student understand the very meaning of life and death in its relation to experience, to knowledge, and to education.

            My longest-lasting teacher, and also my most personal, has always been my sister, a five decade veteran of the public schools, in which she occupied almost every role imaginable, from itinerant music teacher to principle, through drama director and superintendent’s office curriculum planner. That she continues apace today, working as the field supervisor in teacher training for her regional university, attests to the truer sense of vocation in pedagogy which is no longer present for myself. One’s experience of teaching as a vocation includes moments of ethical fulfillment – the most commonplace is when a student relates how you have transformed their life and given them a keen drive to succeed or at the very least a hope and an aspiration to be more than they had been before – as well as a consistent sense of existential contentment. No one I know has had more of these future-oriented moments than has my sister, and every one well-earned.

            That I have a number of life-long friendships that began in the classroom is a lasting blessing. That I met the young woman who was to become my future wife in the classroom strikes me as a kind of miracle. The many thousands of students, most of them marginal and many the first-time college attempts in their respective families, have of course come and gone. Those once known fairly intimately I now know nothing of. Those who were obstreperous have long been forgotten. And all this is as it should be, for another principle of the vocation is its not quite diffident, but indeed quite dispassionate, stance and instantiation of itself. Assignation is itself impersonal, for whatever the source of such, be it the Fates or the Furies or both, could have chosen anyone in the end. A vocation is the result of a Valkyric light, shone upon the fragile being merely in the world and making him of that selfsame world.

            Teaching as a Fix, and as a Pimp

            But teaching as a vocation has its shadow side. If there is magic in it, there is also present sorcery. For myself, I was an attention-seeker, and the fact that I could transfix large audiences, keeping them on the edge of their collective seats for up to 90 minutes, only fuelled the sense that I was, as an individual, more than my vocation would, or should, admit. My narcissism could be rationalized away as being in the service of good product, and clever production. If the classroom experience with Professor Loewen was a commodity worth the price, even in steeply ascending university tuitions, I became, in that space, my own fetish object. I bathed in the applause, and I glowed in the admiration of people far too young to make any worthwhile distinctions of mature character. I came to need the fix, captivating, enervating, and especially offending cohorts of students, getting younger and younger as I myself aged. At present, long outside of such contexts, I have to police myself yet regarding the motives for my more critical work. That I am not always entirely successful any readership will attest. The fact that my course evaluations bore no signs of my self-interest was remarkable but also an important relief. One could say, ‘whatever it takes to get up there and kill it’, but as an ethicist, I maintain my doubts. Teaching as a vocation might cater to the fix, but it does not admit the fixation.

            Nor does it the lust. I was a member of what I think, and hope, to be the final generation of academic gigolos. A young male professor, the campus menace and, at least in my gendered druthers, the patent nemesis of the coed. What I can say, is that I never cheated on any one of them, and that they were all adults. That I even fell in love with three of those otherwise uncounted might also be worth something. And of course, my wife of more than two decades rose to the very apex of this otherwise somewhat sordid pyramid scheme cum bedroom farce. The teaching vocation cast as a pimp is unique to the university, or at least one would hope that it is, and as such it places a more stringent ethical demand upon the advanced pedagogue. Institutions have belatedly framed policy surrounding ‘campus romance’ as it is still sometimes sentimentally referred to, as if this were still 1950 or so, and I was witness to these changes, for such policies were non-existent not only when I was myself a student but also for about a third of my professional career. Romance or no, intimate liaisons with one’s own students is not recommended, and I say that as perhaps one of the very least prudish persons on the planet. Inevitably, one’s emotions, or worse, one’s desires, obviate the nobility of the pedagogic plane. It is not that all students must be ‘treated the same’, as if they are but lab rats, but rather that each student must be given their ownmost care and concernfulness, that which is most apt for their current condition, and most astute regarding their current abilities. Beyond this, the tables of desire can be easily turned. I was myself stalked no less than five times, and those represent the cases of which I was aware. By four women, one man, and fortunately the fellow involved was absolutely non-threatening and only one of the young women was, at least to me who is hardly GQ, unattractive. Even so, desire is a game that two can play, further obfuscating both the discourse and dialogue which must be present in authentic teaching.

            Teaching as a Discursive Activity:

            And speaking of which, late in my teaching career I somewhat randomly became an educational theorist. I have now written two books and a number of articles in the field, and I was both astonished and honored that my 2012 book has been used in multiple programs for curricular and pedagogic renewal. For me, the study of teaching became almost as important as teaching itself, and I was able to, as a more mature pedagogue, bring this work into the classroom, thus making it more historically conscious of itself, and allowing students to begin to claim a sense of the wider contexts within which teaching both functioned as a critical discourse as well as its very opposite. My enduring idols of modern education are John Dewey and William James, two pillars of pragmatism but more than this, two transcendental teachers and very much public figures. The present work in digital media I have undertaken with my corporate co-founder and business partner, Avinash Pillay, a true genius of the new age and someone who himself has all the makings of an effective pedagogue, remain profoundly in debt to Dewey and James, and their own attempts at disseminating more widely the history of ideas and the philosophy of consciousness entire, halting and of course technically limited as they were in their own time.

            To read what other teachers have to say about teaching is kindred with reading writers writing about writing, but more on that in a companion piece. Suffice to say that experience is both a great teacher in itself, but also, in its own shadowy form, a purveyor of bias, even bigotry. ‘I know how to do this and I don’t need to learn anything new about it’ might well be the least of it, regarding the poor attitudes the veteran teacher can accumulate. More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the evolving sense that I can master any classroom ‘situation’, and that I am the master of any student. That I am unassailable not only in my opinions, but also in my very presence. That I, in a word, have moved beyond the need to risk myself.

            But in fact, within authentic dialogue, there is not only present the dialectic, which is objective without being objectificatory, but also, at a personal and a subjective ‘level’, a ‘diacritic’ function which entails that participants willingly risk not merely their beliefs but their entire manner of being; the way they have lived until this moment. The teacher is a mere resource and more experienced participant in the realm of dialogue. It is an intensely hermeneutic realm, and what I mean by this is simply that it entails translation, interpretation, and interaction unframed by specific discursive tropes. I have written at length about ‘hermeneutic pedagogy’, so suffice to state here that if either student or teacher is unwilling or unable to place one’s very reason for being on the pedagogic table, the results emanating from any lesser classroom or other context will tend toward the merely reproductive. This is not a case of the professor giving over his authority to his students, or even the by now cliché sense that classrooms should be ‘student-centered’. Even learning centered classrooms, in contrast to teaching centered say, still does not reach the apogee of authenticity in dialogue. Of course, the standards of intimacy which can be tractioned in various classes and courses must be utterly aware of the students’ own presence and their willingness to risk themselves. But I have always pushed my students to expand not only their perspective in relation to history and thought itself, but with regard to their own capabilities. I have encouraged them to ask any question, no matter how impolitic or unfashionable, and that they may speak to any topic, if only to express their incomplete knowledge, which is in turn a more profound expression of our incomplete beings, to be finished only in mine ownmost death. This concept of incompleteness is of the utmost in a serious pedagogy, for it reminds young people that no matter the life-phase or one’s ‘amount’ of experience both personal and cultural, that we are, ideally, always learning, and that the new is only what fully overturns and overcomes what we once thought we knew.

            Teaching the Vocation of Teaching:

            Lastly, I would like to add a few lines about how one’s sense of vocation in general is itself transformed by the experience of teaching.

            A vocation begins with wide eyes and bright imaginings. It resonates with childlike wonder and perhaps also even a smidgeon of childish anticipation, as if each new classroom were an unopened birthday gift of unknown proportion and value. It should carry one through many other vicissitudes of a life, its own exiguous thread enduring any strain, suffering any insult, and shrugging away any care. And this personal function may last the entire life course, even if its objective content and very character be altered, as it has been for myself. Teaching as a vocation should also stand aloof to both bribe and blackmail, for it should fear no evil other than being wary of that within the shrouds of its own shadows. Over time, one’s own sense of what one is doing alters its vantage point, pointing away from imminent joy and as well pleasure eminent, and toward the more practiced sensibility of ‘Am I doing this well, what can be better, how have my students changed over time, what now does the world ask of all of us?’ and other like queries ongoing. One progresses from painstakingly constructing course outlines, living and dying by every course evaluation, memorizing entire lectures and the like, to being able to gain the larger pattern and paint the more complete picture, of being able to walk into any classroom absolutely cold and simply flick on the killswitch, and of not being overly concerned about either the latest pretty face or the most recent and in fact non-teachable failure, both of which will ere be present as long as one remains an active teacher. These changes represent to oneself both a personal evolution as well as one discursive and dialogic.

            A vocation ends simply when one decides to end one’s relationship with it. Its presence then become a kind of remanant, but a good-matured one and one not given to haunting either our incomplete dreams or our doubts about what we in fact have accomplished, however distant and dated such may be. When I left teaching I was momentarily lost for purpose in action, but I was never alone, for the experience of assignation is fully portable across any specific series of vocations, and this by itself is perhaps the most profound thing one learns by having had one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in education, ethics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

My Conversations with the New Right

My Conversations with the New Right (an attempt at a dialogue)

            Over the previous seven years I have had numerous encounters, conversations, and some ongoing dialogue with ostensibly conservative leaders and pundits, including those from organizations such as James Dobson Ministries, Moms for Liberty, MamaGrizzly and various journalists and educators. I am going to refer to them as the ‘New Right’, tripling down on some intended and unintended meanings; the sense that these persons and those they claim to represent feel that they in the right morally in terms of what they value, that they are on the right along the usual political spectrum, and that they are newly correct, not morally this time but rather empirically, about their political and cultural sensibilities. The New Right can be said to be comprised of neo-conservative NPOs and NGOs and their attempts to woo whatever politician is willing to risk their career upon them. Yet every person I have spoken with is at a distance from politics proper, and on my side, I have suggested to each that they maintain that distance, simply because politicians seek only support and have no need to truly believe anything they supposedly stand for. The politician should be distinguished from the politics of values, since he himself values only one thing; personal power and the wielding thereof.

            What was most interesting about this attempt to love one’s apparent enemies, was that each person – I am going to vouchsafe the anonymity and integrity of these discussions by referencing only organizations and not specific voices – came across as someone who wished to be thought of as one thinks of oneself; in a word, ‘average’ or ‘normal’ people, who are simply concerned about this or that within the wider social scene. The problem for the New Right is not that they cannot state their case, but when asked exactly why they are so concerned about specific topics, their line falters. Indeed, I was the one who often provided responses for them, for which they were quite grateful. But the overarching issue for any subculture on the decline is the same as that of any failing national population demographic, such as that in Russia most extremely, and that is biopower. Foucault’s concept may be applied to any receding shoreline upon which are revealed the once undinal wrecks of what used to be valued. Treasure no longer legal tender, but also in which such coins as may be found are so worn as to be no longer able to hold their value. In short, the values of the bygone subculture are, for the most part, unrecognizable to the rest of us, long used to the currency of contemporary life.

            Any dialogue takes place within the hermeneutic arc. If the language of archaic values is disused, then a translation may be salient. Certain distinctions are of great import, like that between distribution and censorship. Organizations dedicated to redistributing certain kinds of materials do not advocate outright bans. The popular but mistaken sense that book banning is the same thing as redistribution is a case in point. There is a great difference between stating that certain media, including books, should not be available to certain age groups through school libraries, and stating that such materials should be banned entirely, not even to appear in public libraries. The former is what the American NPO’s concerned with such materials state, the latter, sadly, can be found for instance, in southern Manitoba, and represents a far more dangerous threat to culture and literacy than anything I have observed south of the border. It is quite reasonable to remove certain graphic sexual materials from elementary school libraries, especially since they remain available everywhere else, and, as the representatives of these specific organizations added, children and parents can decide together when and how to access them. This position by itself seems unproblematic. We have to hold our breaths as to whether or not it is the thin edge of the wedge, as exemplified by De Santis’ bill against sexual education in the schools, at first put forward for only young children, but recently extended to cover all grades. Even so, banning books per se has never been the goal of these NPOs.

            Though we cannot assume that media censorship is not an ideal of the New Right, thus far there is no real evidence for it. Politicians cannot be trusted, certainly, and the Florid Floridian spoken by De Santis is perhaps but a gentle version of the development of the T4 program of the Reich, wherein at first, those responsible were very concerned that it would be morally unacceptable to most people, even though they themselves believed in it. Politicians test their waters gingerly, as did De Santis, and when there is little or no recorded pushback, then they take the next step, and perhaps the next after that. Minors are picked on by politicians simply because they cannot vote, and pandering to parents – and by extension, parent’s rights groups – is always a good bet, since these same parents are already weary of their adolescents’ breeching behaviors. Ganging up on youth is a favorite pastime of the schools, of parents, and of politicians hoping to capitalize on the fact that most adults have no control over much of their lives, especially in their workplaces. Giving them more control over their kids is a political no-brainer, as it acts as a temporary salve against adult anomie and plays to the existential resentment all adults feel towards young people.

            I was critical of this aspect of the political dynamic in my conversations, and most of my interlocutors agreed that children should not be political footballs. At the same time, the parents of the New Right voiced a panoply of concerns about how their children were being educated. I asked after the evidence that such education, wherever and however it might be taking place, was truly alienating families beyond the usual inter-generational conflict which is a hallmark of Western demographics. In the main, they could not distinguish any additional forces sourced in institutions that added weight to the already tense interactions between adults and youths. But they did mention a reasonable point; that young people would assert their own way in any case, and didn’t need ‘extra’ bidding from media and schools to do so. The content of this ‘extra’ was not necessarily in question, just the general suasion thereof. And this too I can see, given the hyper-reliance on digital media used by young persons in our day. As the CEO of a digital media corporation which seeks to provide healthier options in gaming and wellness apps for all persons, but especially those younger, I am in fullest agreement with those who state that much media in this realm as well as in the older venues of film and TV has no merit and promotes a kind of anti-culture.

            And this brings us to the other major bugaboo with which the New Right seems so uncomfortable: alternate gendering. I put it to each person that the sheer numbers of people opting out of the normative binary dynamic was so low as to be insignificant. Admitting this by itself, they replied that this was precisely why these alternate groups appear to proselytize so strongly, coopting schools and even the State to ‘convert’ their children. Certainly, it doesn’t help matters for the alternate side of things to have queer pride parades chanting that ‘we’re coming for your kids’. This in itself seems a rather transparent advertisement for the very event imagined by anxious conservative parents, and perhaps others as well. But the use of ‘your’ betrays the attempted radicality of the non-binary movements. In fact, children do not belong to anyone. On the right, parents are encouraged to own their children as if they were chattel, but their opponents make the same ethical error, whether or not they are actually trying to convert youth to become as they imagine themselves to already be.

            Biopower is in action on both sides of this values front. The New Right’s demographics are flagging as are their pastimes, including what the social scientist identifies as ‘religious behavior’, such as attending church. Less than half of the American population now attends regularly, and this for the first time in history. But there are, in reality, so few persons of alternate gender and sexual preference that this motley community also needs more acolytes. In the meanwhile, the rest of us sail on unmolested, as it were. My interlocutors and I also agreed on a related point; that media, kindred with politicians, simply takes advantage of all of this value conflict to sell copy. The loudest and most obnoxious partisans are featured, giving the impression that the New Right, for one, is filled with hatemongering morons – which, in my experience, it is not – and their opponents are simply weirdos or at best, candidates for the Pythonesque Silly Party. But one has to ask, why are adults who enjoy costumes and theatrical performances of gender-bending apparition so keen on sharing this with young children? Who invented drag story hour anyway? And how did it become so widespread? Perhaps, after all, too curious minds don’t want to know.

These and dozens of like questions filled the conversations I have had with the New Right. Part of the motivation for them seemed simply ‘common sense’. Though this is not a conception that the philosopher employs – William James famously exhorts us to question it at every turn in his popular 1906 lecture series ‘Pragmatism’ – at once I was struck with the sense that the New Right was, after a fashion, engaging in reflective questioning of a number of phenomena that much of society seems to take for granted or at least, shrugs off. In this, I encouraged my interlocutors to continue to question fashionable flaneurs while at the same time cautioning them against appearing to front fascism or berate others, especially their own children, with barbarism. In this, there was also room for dialogue. It is important to note that in my experience, conservatives were always willing to listen to argument, even if it pressed them, while their opponents have never once given me the time of day. This is disconcerting in two ways; one, that the New Right will open themselves up, to a point, with someone like myself, someone who looks like them and has the credentials that traditional values respects, but perhaps would look awry if I were not who I was but made the same arguments, and two, that alternative values proponents take one look at myself and reject anything I might have to say to them, closing off dialogue before it even begins. The latter is by far the worse error, and in that, it does not bode well for those who seek liberation from archaic values and subcultures.

Freedom is only available for human beings through culture, ideally, its highest and most noble forms; art, science, religion, philosophy. While the New Right retains a narrow slice of each and all of these, its opponents appear to reject the lot, and to their gravest peril. That such peril is paraded as if it were the condition of any freedom-loving person is nothing more than an outright fraud, and takes its unenviable place to the left of the fascist who proclaims, though with far more culture behind him, the exact same thing.

G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

What are Schools for?

What are Schools for? (The blurry lenses of social schism)

            There are experiences that life presents to us which are shared by almost all. In modern times, these tend to be institutional. Almost all of us must work, we must shop, we must train in some manner and through some official channel. The Whitmanesque quality of life’s essential existence is covered over by the highly rationalized routines of daily living. Yes, I sleep and you sleep and the murderer sleeps as does the child, but the experiences which have more of an impact upon us are not, or are no longer, those that come from simply being the human animal, mortal and fragile, susceptible to sorrow but also joining with joy. And certain of these rationalized experiences leave more of a mark than others, given their longitudinal character when undergoing them, and the phase of life in which they occur.

            For over a dozen years when we are at are most vulnerable, we are in school. It is schooling, therefore, that is the most marking of modern life experiences. As Andy Partridge wrote, ‘You can take the person out of the school, but you can’t take the school out of the person’. Now we are no longer ‘marked by the masters, bruised by the bullies’, but insofar as an authority still judges us, and peers still mock us, the basic character of schooling remains in force. The origins of mass and thence universal schooling are well known. John Taylor Gatto is perhaps their most trenchant critic, though his own suggestions for solutions to the problems of schooling are oddly parochial and even nostalgic. At the same time, we are also as well aware of creative departures from the assembly-line school in John Dewey’s lab schools, Summerhill, Black Mountain College, and the Montessori system, to name some of the most famous. We are told that one Taylor Swift no less, was a Montessori graduate, and she herself has said in interview that its DIY pedagogy was what allowed her own musical creativity to develop. So before we summarize the pathology of the schools in rational fashion, let us pause right near the beginning and recognize that schooling and learning are likely two distinct things. That ‘education’ is too amorphous a term to ultimately be of use in any analysis, and that training is the more apt descriptor.

            Schools get us when we’re young. Born out of the Hobson’s choice between raw child labour and cooked child training, the public school is to this day a space wherein the two key lessons are production and consumption. Not only must we learn how to perform both, we must learn to do so in the correct order. Playing a game on one’s phone in class is ‘out of order’ in this more essential sense. We are consuming in the space of production, the simple converse of doing our homework whilst sitting in the back of the movie theater with our miffed date cuddled up beside us. The public school has few expectations of us; that we are semi-literate, enough to either take up a service job or move on to college; that we are semi-sociable, enough that we neither become criminals nor revolutionaries; and that we are perversely grateful, so relieved to have simply graduated that we are content just to walk away and count our blessings.

            That is, until we have our own children. Then, as parents, we finally have the chance to express our revenge against all that the schools did to us. A childlike vendetta thus emerges, and thenceforth merges with childish action: the teachers need to ‘stay in their lane’, ‘I’m the parent and I don’t ‘co-parent’ with the State’, ‘schools need to leave morals to ‘society’’, or even simply and oddly contradictory, ‘leave our kids alone’. Which calls to mind another, more famous, pop music lyric, that of Pink Floyd, which too enjoins the teacher to ‘leave us kids alone’. The phantasmagorical sequence from ‘The Wall’ which has that short song as its soundtrack has tens of millions of views on the net. Yes, I too wanted to torch my high school, kill a few of its teachers. That was the child’s eye view. But as an adult and as a philosopher, I want more than that. Much more.

            If the public schools are undemocratic – children are told what to do with no real input into the doing, mimicking as closely as possible the adult workplace – then the charter schools and private schools are inherently anti-democratic. These latter need to be shut down, their student complements combined with the rest of our kids, their elite tax bases dedicated to universal learning, understanding, experiencing, not training, not educating and God knows not schooling. This move alone would solve almost all of the issues in today’s schools. Those students who then, armed with all of the resources reserved now only for elites, enclaves, or some bastard version of parochialism, who still found learning to be too much for them, should simply be kicked out. Schools were never meant to make wine from water. But the reckless entitlement that elites reproduce in their ‘own’ schools, where their ‘special’ and ‘superior’ children engage in a well-practiced apartheid at the expense of ‘normal’ children is the scandal of our current society. We live in a political democracy sabotaging itself through the ongoing presence of a social plutocracy. And the separate school systems are the foundation of this self-sabotage.

            Paul Ricoeur, one of the great thinkers of the post-war period, reminds us that ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’. Indeed, one might go so far to say that to be the child of elites is to be unloved in any authentic way, sent off to board with strangers with the sole purpose of reproducing an endogamous marriage pool so that wealth never falls into the ‘wrong’ hands. This absence of love is the truer reason why we fail, as both individuals and as a culture, to ‘love the world’s children’ in any significant and meaningful manner. Just as ‘love thy neighbor’ presumes that one does indeed ‘love thyself’, a yet more intimate experience that is positively lacking in our society today, we cannot be said to comprehend the portent of maintaining a pricey and pretentious elite while the world, including its children, goes to hell. To borrow once again from our musical commentators, if ‘just surviving’ really is such ‘a noble fight’, we may begin by asking why should we ennoble it when there is a much less romantic option at hand.

            Don’t burn down the schools, it’s a waste of infrastructure. Torch instead the boundaries which divide humanity by class, ethnicity, and credo by introducing our children to the beginning of a social and cultural transformation, and then letting them, from the earliest of ages when such ‘mature’ social divisions have yet to be learned and all are ‘naturally’ amicable to one another, take it from there.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in education, ethics, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

An Imperfect Storm

An Imperfect Storm

            Hegel’s understanding of authentic education involves us placing ourselves at a distance from what is familiar. We return to ourselves only through the transformation which the encounter with the alien brings forth. This movement is the result of our existential thrownness. Not only to we take up a project, we are ourselves projected into the world, while ideally avoiding the problem of ‘projection’, of such interest to both psychopathology and more generally, to ethics. At once we also commit ourselves to ‘die many times’, however immortal we may or may not become over the life course. It is this radically other presence, now in front of us, to which we have been drawn in spite of ourselves, that will perform its duty, both solemn and ebullient. Our self-sacrifice is just that, an immolation of what has been known as the self, the very person with which I may be too much in love and at the very least, too familiar with. For Hegel and Nietzsche after him, education was about forsaking the known for the heretofore unknown. Both as well recommended an humanistic study of only the classical canon of Greece and Rome. Hegel, as a Christian thinker, sought these sources not only as the roots of his religion and what he felt was the ultimate expression and collation of these roots in a universalizing ethics. Nietzsche, as an anti-Christian thinker, sought these same sources in order to go back behind a simplifying and ‘enslaved’ perversion of a more noble ethics. But either way, the classical period of antiquity made for an appropriate estrangement from the modern self, and this was its key feature for both writers.

            Our situation has in principle little changed today, though its reality is subject to some torrid irony. On the one hand, we have what on the surface is the noble pursuit of humanistic sources by Christian educators, though they sully their authentic discipline with that of barbarism, and on the other, post-Christian secular institutions – almost all of the universities, for instance – have bodily turned away from the very humanism which set them free from parochial provincialism. Yet the principle of distanciation, and the more so, self-distanciation, faintly reverberates. The neo-Christians, in their ardor to turn back the clock on a secularizing world, venerate humanistic sources without coming to radically dislodge their theocratic preconception of relevant histories and indeed, those deemed to be ‘irrelevant’ – paleontology is the most obvious example here – are somehow placed wholly outside the frame of Christian consciousness. For these conservative educators, distanciation is a description of the world over against that of themselves. For the liberal educators that dominate the universities, to gain the necessary Hegelian distance means rather to forsake the humanism that originally drove the ideals of ‘higher’ education in favor of technique, something that both Hegel and Nietzsche, and everyone in between them during the self-educating nineteenth century, abhorred. So while the conservatives use humanism as a guise to bolster a waning neo-Christian worldview, the liberals use technique to prove to themselves that a mere religious education was a dead end.

            In both, we see a fraudulent mimicry of Hegel’s diagnostic. In neither is there the truly radical distanciation that alters one’s self-conception. One is either a child of god or one is a thinking machine. As a social being, one is either a resident of Utopia or of Penguin Island. The conservative educator masks his ‘return to oneself after being other’ underneath a lineage of thought which inevitably draws itself forward into the advent of the Gospels. Given that Hegel sought Christianity as a culmination of historical forces and an expression of an absolute ‘spirit’ to which all could cleave their individual souls, this process has a face validity that liberal education lacks. But it is a surface feature alone, for the immolation of the self upon the alien shores of Rhodes has not occurred, cannot occur. Even so, the liberals, who have a content validity to put up against their rival’s ‘face’ – the action of science crosses cultures in its discursive galleries without as much ‘syncretism’, which the missionaries of yesterday always themselves faced – are forced to jettison anything which provides an holistic understanding of humanity. Truly ‘specialists without spirit’ are they.

            At the very eye of this pedagogic storm, its rivalry intensifying before our very eyes, there is a third force at large, aloof to both humanity as an evolutionary Gestalt and to the technology and techniques created by we earthly gods. This third force is nature ‘itself’. The Christian indictment to become ‘stewards of the earth’ is well-taken in these ‘last evil days’ of secular history. Yes, but the apocalyptarians, our most dangerous version of the venerable mystagogue, remind us that we have left things too late. That there is resentment against the shrill aspects of the environmental movement is understandable along these lines. Why tell us how evil we have been if at the same time the result of such evil is nothing less than the old world judgment of the new world deity? What is to be gained by sacrificing ourselves before the final oblation is to be rendered? Within this same movement, there is another voice that accepts the chiding but then states that we can yet prove ourselves worthy of the newly divine nature, saving ‘it’ and thereby ourselves as well. Hence Heidegger was premature, suggesting penultimately that ‘only a God can save us’, which ominously reminded one of how the Germans were thinking in 1930, the same year as Freud’s ‘Civilization and it Discontents’ appeared in print. Just so.

            Thus the apparently wholly secular and ‘progressive’ movement of nature lovers looks more and more like the wholly religious and regressive motions emanating from the extremities of neoconservative Christianity. The end is nigh, prepare to meet thy god, and such-like. Bumper stickers proclaim it so it must be true. But though Hegel reminds us that none of us today has the gumption to fully desert the familiarity of the known selfhood and thence experience the radical otherness of another world – for him, Greece and Rome, for us perhaps, the presumed coming encounter with at least imagined extraterrestrial cultures – it is Nietzsche who exhorts us to shed our ressentiment in order to take the first steps to another kind of being entirely. If Hegel’s stepwise evolution can be seen as the process of becoming the spiritual result of Nietzsche’s punctuated equilibrium in the Overman, within this tandem lies a fair model of authentic education. What results from self-distanciation is superior for both thinkers. I not only know more, I am more. But neither theology nor technique provides this self-overcoming. They both expressly lack the humanity  – one adores a god, the other a machine – in the first place. What then is to be overcome? For both thinkers, the self cannot be overleapt. It is not a matter of replacing something, but rather developing that which it is in its essence. One actually ‘returns to oneself from being otherwise’, and thus in turn one also ‘dies many times in order to become immortal’.

            And in no way does the belated presence of the third party, enveloping humanity and eschewing divinity at once, alleviate the historical task that both beckons and threatens us at this very hour. Nature, in its stark majesty, carries on outside of the sacred and secular alike. It has neither in its amorphous existence, it is neither in its essential being. Having just lived through my first hurricane, I comprehended that nature was in itself incomprehensible. I could not speak to it, I could not listen to its voice. Nature is too alien for Hegel’s pedagogic dialectic to cleave to, too eternal for Nietzsche’s cyclical existence to return to. For both thinkers, nature was never the goal, either as a metaphor for humanity’s wholly historical being, or as knowledge thereof, the material result of mere technique and its studied applications. Rather it was history in Hegel and culture in Nietzsche that were at stake. The climate mystagogues attempt to turn us away from both, to our collective peril. The evangelists attempt to subvert both in the service of mock sacrifice, speaking the twisted tongues of absent origins and destinations. For the one, nature in crisis originates in human hubris, for the other, that selfsame hubris dooms our species to self-destruction. Either way, the apocalypse is fulfilled. The environmentalist is shown to be merely the secular version of the evangelist.

            Hegel and Nietzsche would reject both out of hand. I fully agree. Our historical present is not primarily a conflict between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’. Indeed, the latter provides the necessary backdrop for the former’s sudden and radical appearance, the landscape upon which it irrupts as an uncanny force, not of suasion let alone soteriology, but rather of authenticity. The sacred is, and always has been, beholden only to our self-distanciation, radically called to conscience in a most phenomenological fashion. And though our experience within its rare and extramundane presence might tempt us to deride the otiose as somehow lesser and inauthentic, we must rather accept that the day to day is a prerequisite for the visionary. Perhaps its entire function is to provide the necessary perspective that a wholly sacred life would entirely lack. Such a life would be, in a word, inhuman, absenting itself from the very history which allows us to know ourselves. The sacred alone is kindred with nature’s ongoingness, somnolent or seething as the case may be. Instead, our life in the world of today is a test, sometimes of epic proportions, of our resolve to not run away from our own collective history and thence to not turn away from our shared and ownmost future.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Customer is Always Wrong

The Customer is Always Wrong

            Ever since the turn of the century it has been the basic weakness of bourgeois education that it has been the education of the educated class, building a wall of separation against the working class and losing the spiritual horizon for the universal problem of work. (Lowith, 1991:282 [1939]).

                The distrust of expertise is built into the psyche of Protestant consciousness, and from the very beginning of the Reformation. Ritualism, the purview of the Catholic Church, was mistrusted as a manner of manipulation. Holding services in the vernacular was an attempt by the sectarians to reach out to the uneducated ‘classes’ – back then, almost everyone – and thereby return them to both the community of light and wisdom but also to exercise the suasion of soteriological doctrine much more directly. It was, perhaps ironically, the act of the expert to communicate his expertise to the layperson so that the latter could once again begin to trust the former’s authority. From the church to the school, by the first third of the nineteenth century, we see a similar attempt at communication. Before the advent of the child-saving movement – the first in a lengthy and still active lineage of ‘bored housewives’ benevolent associations; a contemporary irony is that the latter day inventions of this lineage are out to ban books and preserve physical punishment of children, both odd ways of ‘saving’ them – there was no conflict between education for different classes. The children of the working class were simply not to be educated at all. That this was altered by mid-century should not necessarily tell us that the history of our universal school system, given birth c.1850 and carrying on today mostly by its own inertia, is or was ever fully democratic in its ideals, let alone its practices.

            The introduction of the illiterate classes into the classroom had the general effect of dumbing down the curricula, making them more accessible or even worldly. A similar though more minor seismic tremor was felt when cognitively challenged children were added to the already heady mix perhaps some thirty years ago. The response to this universalizing education was that wealth promptly excerpted its own children from that same system. Seen by the casual viewer as a ‘choice’ which parents ‘ought’ to have, the private school system or versions thereof called ‘charter’ or yet parochial schools is fundamentally anti-democratic and indeed to be so was ever its clearest intent. Wealth does not desire to mix with poverty, either in material or in ‘spirit’. The ‘bourgeois’ education of which Lowith speaks is itself the scion of the new wealth of the post-1789 age, that is, our own. Modernity is rife with the tension between the ideal of equality and the reality of inequality, and this around the globe, within every culture, and often enough even animating the interior of the individual person, who knows not whether to will only himself or to help others gain a semblance of human freedom.

            And though the charter schools are sometimes created and thus delineated by ethnicity or even religion, the vast majority of them place themselves aloof to the public system by virtue of wealth alone. Indeed, in the enclave schools, families which are not as wealthy can count on growing their wealth through participating in the limited marriage pool, which is the chief principle of the private system: keep wealth among the wealthy. And with such wealth comes both power and privilege. The ‘blood’ of the yet aristocratic-aping bourgeois class must remain inviolate. In a symbology of envisioned violence, the ‘educated classes’ wage a chill war against any other who would attempt to gain their inherited privileges let alone their wealth. Governments, which after all are run by the elite classes or are at least told what to do by them, aid and abet the spread of private schools, thereby concentrating wealth and privilege amongst the few. Is it any wonder that the majority of us have a heightened mistrust of expertise of all kinds?

            Those who are being schooled to become the next generation of experts trust the authority of those current without question. Hence the duplicity of the schools in general, wherein ‘questioning things’ is limited to either the technical or the historical; ‘why does gravitational lensing show us exoplanets?’ or ‘why did Spain hire Columbus the very year it expelled the Moors?’ and such-like. These are questions only in the most literal sense, and hardly that literate. In the private schools, there is, ironically, more of the real question, but this is precisely because the ultimate question of addressing the conflict that privilege has created and thence has attained is never broached; ‘why are we in this school and not our ex-friends?’, ‘why is there a private system at all?’, ‘are we really superior beings or is this an affect of social inequality alone?’. These kinds of questions are on the road to the truth of things and cannot remain in the technical realm. They are of course, also historical questions but they do not absent themselves from the present simply because we also need to know the pedigree of such current social formations. Every other apparent ‘conflict’ about educating today is a decoy: critical race theory, ‘wokeness’, subaltern genders, ‘traditional values’, civics, and sundry others. These fraudulent and fashionable contrivances serve only to allay a lingering sense that due to this family’s relative wealth and this other family’s relative poverty that their respective children will have glaringly different life-chances over the life course.

            The final if not fatal irony is that any expert who points this out in a critical manner is himself automatically distrusted. Any pedagogue, any philosopher of education, any sociologist, any ethicist. Surely he too must have been a product of elite education? How could he then be betraying his own kind? It must be a trick. While it is the case that any partial critique that issues band-aid ‘remedies’ is an act of duplicity and betrayal – ‘let’s fund the two systems equally’, ‘let’s reward the best and brightest without regard to class background’, ‘it is a function of democracy to give parents a choice in educating their children’ (a false choice since it is based upon differential access to resources of all kinds) – what these lesser ‘experts’ achieve is but a blanket ban on understanding the key issues that backdrop the problem of knowledge in our contemporary society. To see them for what they are is, regrettably, to also see expertise itself as a mere rationalization for the existing social order.

            This general mistrust of the expert appears in all contexts, petty and profound alike. I first experienced it later in my academic career when young students questioned the relevance of the history of consciousness, cited celebrities instead of thinkers, refused to read assigned texts, referenced popular culture tropes as the meat of critique and displayed a shockingly low level of literacy in all its forms. It was of interest that pending social background, this distrust of authoritative work was either fully present or equally absent. Most germane for our discussion here, was that the few working class students at the universities were keen to accept and learn and those from the bourgeois classes felt no need to learn anything but the technique presented for specific professions. The ‘ethnic’ students were of two minds; those from the sub-continent who were wealthy disdained all authority while those from East Asia genuflected to it in a kind of shallow supplication that made it look like they were the ‘best of students’. In marginal regions young people craved learning and understood their privilege in being able to have that opportunity. In urban and more wealthy areas, the students saw themselves rather as customers, ‘clients’, a sensibility only encouraged by the universities themselves, partly as a way by which to divide faculty from the student body and partly to attract young persons in the first place. This latter ploy played upon the quite righteous sense that an average eighteen-year-old is rather sick of schooling and needs be treated more like an adult. Ethically this is correct, and indeed, such mature and respectful relations should extend well back from the legal age of adulthood, perhaps to age twelve. But such respect must function both ways, as it were. Ultimately, there was no point in someone like myself continuing to be a professor in such classrooms as presented themselves, where students en masse behaved as if they had no interest in being present to learn anything at all.

            But the insular academy is hardly the only place wherein expertise is in principle mistrusted or even denied outright. And the deniers are, to a person, those who hail from the bourgeois classes themselves. It is as if in attaining their own little arena of expertise, they can maintain it only by denying the authority of all others. Know a little know a lot, they must imagine. My wife, who is a veteran and senior advisor in the finance sector, brings weekly accounts of bank customers who tell her to her face that she is incorrect about very technical matters that no layperson would generally have a clue about. Our real estate agent told us of the daily occasions where she was told how to sell houses by buyers. Our brilliant contractor regales us with similar accounts of those who ‘tell him his job’, which is a concise manner of putting the problem. Similarly our wonderful mechanic, with whom I could not live without. In the corporation of which I am the CEO, our in-house cyber-security and marketing expert tells us of regular occurrences where his highly skilled and subtle expertise is denied by clientele, and add to this the perennial issue of parents telling teachers how to teach, patients telling doctors how to diagnose, analysands explaining their own psychopathology to counselors, and parents – once again – screaming at referees from the sidelines, insisting that officials’ calls were biased, and especially those indicting their own children, what do you know?

            Is it odd that I, as an internationally recognized student of ethics, education, and aesthetics and as the author of fifty-three books, should have no issues at all granting others their authority and expertise? Should it not be the case that if ‘know a little know a lot’ is the general foible, that ‘someone like me’ should quite literally think that he knows it all? What my advantage is, is that I have been able to surround myself with those who really are experts in their fields, whether it be contracting, cars, property, finance, or caring for youth amongst others. I can do that because I know what it takes to become an expert, to gain the credentials yes, but the more so, to be able to learn to apply them in the world. At the same time, I flatter myself in knowing the difference between work well done and a sham effort, whether at the level of the individual or the institution. No doubt I cannot always be correct in my estimation of others, even of social structures and their widespread effects. No matter the experience, no matter the level of literacy, there will always be episodes, events and eventualities that defy one’s ‘expertise’. But this reality should not take away from the general sensibility that expertise and authority of the authoritative kind is a pressing necessity in these our shared times and this our shared world. It is almost as if the masses lie in wait for the expert to make his singular mistake, betraying himself as the naked emperor he always must have been. And it is the supposedly ‘educated classes’ who populate this ambuscade.

            Even so, one also does not desire a society full of illiterate and obeisant servants who slavishly follow every ‘expert’ demand without question. Yet it is equally clear that in order to ask a serious question, a certain critical literacy must be attained, and schooling neither public nor private is geared into this goal. Indeed, there is no social institution as such that can afford this too precious level of literacy lest all loyalty to them be immediately absent. ‘Corrupting youth’ yes, to be sure. But it is not youth who primarily need educating to these regards, but rather the smug and self-assured middle class ‘adult’ who thinks he knows, if not everything, then at least what he ‘needs to know’ about all things. ‘Everyone an expert’ must be the battle hymn of this repugnant republic: ‘No one knows myself better than I’, ‘My children, my house, my rules’, ‘don’t tell me how to run my life’, and even ‘live and let live’, are its much chanted refrains. There is a certain anarchistic element to individualism decoyed both by the false choices of consumer media and the false democracy of the separate school systems. This impulse plays upon our general lack of control and authority in society as a whole. In fact, very few of us have the luxury to speak our minds freely and fully, and simply because this act is a function of my profession gives me a sense of authority far beyond the reality that the entire history of philosophy has encountered in its rare disseminations.

            In seemingly an ultimate irony, Max Weber, arguably the greatest expert on society that history presents to us, stated that we must not trust the experts with anything beyond their expertise. Experts are tools alone. They cannot make decisions for us, especially those political, and thus they should be consulted only in times of true crisis, and thence put aside once again. Insofar as this is how a democracy must function in order to attain a reality beyond that in name alone, Weber is correct. The ‘expert’, of whatever ken, is after all only one person, a human like ourselves, fallible and even biased. Further, the expert cannot be an expert in all things, and so she is not merely like us, she is us, in all of our knowledge and ignorance, partial in both senses of the term. But insofar as expertise is sabotaged by ignorance within the selfsame person, we are jarred into a more general suspicion; if he is that stupid about this, then how can I trust him about that? The only working antidote to this gnawing doubt is to interact with others only within the bounds of their official capacities. All human relations are thus to be made contractual alone. Is this not why marriage is such a challenge for most of us? Only here do we confront the whole person and must trust her, eventually implicitly. Yes, there are even ‘marriage experts’, though one would think that the person who had been married and thus divorced the most times would be the greatest of these!

            While Hume stated that ‘all knowledge comes from human experience’, Kant qualified by responding, ‘yes, but what does it take to have an experience?’ and by the twentieth century, other thinkers asked ‘what does it mean to have an experience?’. On the one hand, pending the event, such experience might not even be communicable to others. The vision is notoriously lost in translation, as William James pointed out. On the other, however, most human experience can be at least partially shared. The trick is to understand just how much the other has comprehended of the self, and the more so, vice-versa. We do know something of ourselves, but we also deny and suppress other aspects as important. Even with regard to our own spirits, we are but partial experts. Our shared humanity is unhinged if all imagine that what they know is ‘enough’ to live. True expertise comes in understanding rather the limitations of both selfhood, of discourse, of learning and even of human experience. Not that these limits are perennial, unassailable by a future consciousness or even a more precise science. Even so, our own living Zeitgeist has its inherent limits. Coming to know that when we approach the counter upon which is laid out the pleasures and desires of the spirit of our age that we are always at risk of being wrong about each and every one of them is the beginning of authentic expertise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems

So you’ve graduated from high school. Some people call it the best years of your life, but you know better. It’s time to step out, in fact, it’s time for life to begin. Your life.

But dusting yourself off and walking out to greet the world is just the beginning. Nothing in school has really told you how to live. Yes, there were plenty of demands, but now they suddenly seem petty, things only a child would care about.

And then there’s the big school, the university. Why should it be any different? Isn’t it as well going to be filled with small demands according to it’s own needs, and not your own? It speaks of offering something for everyone. That is, in an sense, what the term ‘university’ even means. It has the word universe inside it.

But if you go inside, where will you fit in? This is the first time no one’s forcing you to be there, and no one knows who you are. This can be liberating, but it can also be alienating, mirroring the architecture of our wider society. And freedom is not so abstract as to allow you to simply live without doing anything at all. Some people say ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, but either way, you’re going to have to make a choice.

And you won’t have a lot of time to make it. Now that you’re an adult, there’s no more free rides. If you can be anyone you want to be, the other side of that coin is that no one cares if you’re anyone at all.

So let’s lay out the most common options that you are faced with, right up front: one, you could forget about the university entirely. Maybe it’s just a bigger high school after all. And after high school, who’d want to take a chance that it isn’t? But that means you have to find a job, and without anything more than a high school diploma, statistics tells us that over the life course, your career, if you get one, is going to stagnate. Even if you imagine yourself to be a born again pilgrim, that life isn’t going to be easy, and might even be unfulfilling, lacking meaning. And two? Well, that requires a big commitment back into furthering your education. Most people find they can’t do the kind of work necessary to get a Ph.D., so why bother at all? And forget about ‘Dr. You’, what about those stats that show that up to thirty percent of undergrad students drop out way before they’ve obtained even the lowest degree? And for those who do finish, the average degree completion time is over six years!

Neither of these options sounds promising. Many young people mix and match, working up to three part-time jobs just to pay for school. And then, if you are going to take the plunge, paying for it is just one challenge. What, exactly, are you going to be paying for?

It’s a cliché that the parent will advise you to take a degree that will ‘get you a job’. Anything else seems like a waste of time and money. But most jobs lack meaning, and most workers feel unfulfilled by them. How could it be, when you have your entire life ahead of you, that once in that life it often doesn’t turn out the way you wanted? And older people will tell you that, sure. But when they do, it’s not just a cautionary tale – don’t let it happen to you! – no, there’s something else in there, something born of bitterness and borne on resentment. It’s another version of what in previous ages the older told the younger; I was beaten as a kid, it didn’t do me any harm.

Well, fortunately, in most countries, no one can touch you these days, but even so, watch your back; there’s a bigger whip on the horizon and its two-tailed: work in a low-status job for the rest of your life, compelled simply by having expenses and in so doing, accomplish nothing much; or get a bunch of degrees, if you can, and pay off your debt for much of that same life, working in better jobs but feeling just as compelled to work.

You might learn in philosophy class that communism, amongst other social ideas, promises an end to all of that. But starting a revolution is no easy business. Far too many of us benefit greatly from the system we have now, so why would we desire to alter it? No, you’re going to have to learn how to ‘think in systems’.

What we mean by that is also two-fold. Thinking isn’t encouraged in our society, indeed, in any culture that we know of. At most, ‘figuring things out’ is acceptable, and only when such ‘things are broke’. Now, this kind of practical reflection is indeed important. We wouldn’t have come so far as human beings without it. But the one thing it doesn’t do is help us adapt to change. In a word, we can’t tell, by practical reflection alone, if something actually is broken or not.

So, one the one hand, a system is a way of thinking as it has always been. Sometimes this is called tradition, custom, ‘what is done’, ‘the way things are’, even and most brashly, ‘human nature’. But history tells us that there is more than one human nature, and that such ‘nature’ that we might inhabit as human beings is subject to change. The question: ‘can we change with it?’ is one the entire world faces and faces together. Ask yourself right now how good a job you think we’re doing with that?

But on the other hand, a system is also a manner in which to think; that is, I am going to think systematically about this or that. I’m not going to simply accept what has been, or what has been done, or even how it is done today, right now. Thinking systematically about a system of thought helps you dismantle it, piece by piece. You’re going to find that revolution is not about politics after all, but rather simply, and much more accessibly, about human reason.

But you have to use it. Perhaps ironically, the university is the only place where this kind of thinking is allowed, and only in a very few kinds of courses. Fittingly, these types of courses will not help you get a ‘good job’. Who reads philosophy? How many ‘thinkers’ does a society need? Why do people who think they know how to think, in turn think they can tell the rest of us how to live?

We’re not telling you to become a professional philosopher. If you’re already independently wealthy, then go for it, as long as you’re also prepared for the ensuing facts that hardly anyone will listen to you and you will have very few friends. No, it is better to learn to think as a universal birthright of who you are: a human being. Reason is the chief characteristic that separates us from other animals. Human beings can think things through, whether it is fixing a machine or fixing the world. We are telling you to join us in the name of human reason, for that is the key to human freedom.

So, you might ask, this ‘reason’ thing, I think I like it, but how do I learn about it without killing my career chances? The simplest way to balance survival and meaning is take a shorter-term diploma or degree in an up-market field. Yes, the market for employment changes regularly, but usually not within the span of two to three years in specific regions. This is why more and more colleges and universities are offering theses kinds of programs. And within many of them, there is some space to take those other courses; you know, the spaces in which revolutions are born.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, and more recently, fiction, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

How I Became Unemployable

 How I Became Unemployable

            I live in a city with two tales. One is a personal fiction, the other an impersonal reality. To say that I prefer the first is to dwell in the hermit’s hut, safe from worldly fact and fancy alike. To recognize that the second is in fact wherein I actually live is to also, oddly, save myself from ignominy. For while the fiction allows me to imagine that I’m simply too good, or too bad, for said world, the reality saves me from blaming myself that I’m more simply the wrong person for the right job. Well, any job.

            I was a professor for a quarter century. I taught at every level of the North American post-secondary system save that of the community college. I ended up at an R1 and as a department chair for five years. I won two university-wide teaching awards and was nominated for four others. I won over a hundred thousand dollars in publication awards. I made a comfortable six figures and had, in my opinion, the easiest job in the world. That others – many others – must have had the sense that being a professor was rather the narrowest job in that same world became apparent only when it was too late. For it turned out that when I decided I wanted to do something else with the remainder of my life I was warned vehemently against such rashness by my friends and colleagues.

            I thought their cautions merely affectionate rather than realistically desperate. Surely I have many ‘transferrable skills’? I have a lengthy résumé, I  have years of executive management experience, more years of project management, and I had become an internationally recognized scholar in education, health, and aesthetics. What could possibly go wrong? My wife and I jumped the academic ship and our hurricane-resistant lifeboats immediately turned into flimsy life-rings. Over the next three years I applied to four hundred jobs, and my wife struggled to begin an entirely new career. It took her five years to succeed and in the meanwhile I got all of four interviews; one in a hundred. All I can say is ‘thank god for PRIFs’, as I never found another job of any kind. My wife is now a very successful senior financial advisor, so the once gendered tables have also been turned. The nub of the reality was that I had no recognizable skills. That careers are highly streamed. That an aging Gen-X’er has no role in the contemporary workplace.

            But the fiction was what got me through to the other side of the reality. That it was my work as a philosopher that barred me from a public life of any kind. I was, in a word, a dangerous person. Anyone to whom nothing is sacred is, by definition, public enemy number one. Anyone whose vocation it is to critically examine society’s most cherished possessions – its values – in another age might well have been burned. Anyone who bites off the very hand that provides safe succor to think at all deserves nothing at all from the cultural weald. My fifty-one books – thus far – qualify me for the dinosaur graveyard. Where’s my OC? If Marc-Andre Hamelin has been dubbed a ‘national treasure’, then why not I? However phantasmagorical this other tale could become, it eventually allowed me to encounter, quite by chance, a growing group of young creative minds who, along with myself, started a private venture. I’m now the CEO and Creative Director of a video game software corporation and I enjoy it immensely. So you can keep your public policy jobs, your private consultants gigs, and your OCs to boot; this thinker and writer has gone radically digital in an age wherein the future is not plastics, but rather is as fluidly plastic as oneself must be in order to carry on in an ever-changing world. That, in the end, was the reality that the fiction was able to recreate.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades. And though not actively seeking employment, if you require a real-time Mycroft Holmes in your organization, please feel free to contact him.

Mississippi Metastasized

Mississippi Metastasized

            This July marks the twentieth anniversary of when I left Mississippi. Reading the odd news item emanating from this ‘southernmost place on earth’, seemingly little has changed during the interim. Indeed, what appears to be occurring is that the sentiments that animate the old world vices of this haunted landscape are spreading, popping up in places distant from their epicenter, behaviors behaving more like a cancer than a culture. Sentiments of race and gender division, sentiments of law and order at any price, sentiments that keep youth as children overlong and bring them to conformity through violence, and sentiments that speak not of a class society, an outcome of contemporary economics, but rather one of caste, a symptom of an ancient and archaic worldview.

            And speaking of which, not just sentiments, but sentimentalities as well. The ‘last myth’ of the apocalypse and ensuing divine judgment provides a ready rationalization for all of the other blights that mark the social fabric and tear at the tapestry of both civility and civilization alike. For the person who shuns the future, his vice must be turned to virtue, and there is no more sure solvent to assuage any conscience of its doubt than a fervent, nay, fervid, loyalty to Barnumesque religiosity.

            I witnessed, and I use the term advisedly, much of this fervor first hand, even intimately. It provided a rationalization for the worst excesses of human behavior. One young woman with whom I became intimate was the child of evangelical parents. She had been whipped regularly growing up, until she had turned eighteen. Any hint of resistance on her part would end yet more badly for her. She related a time when she had simply run and locked her bedroom door. Her father kicked the lock right through and assaulted her with renewed vigor and ‘righteous’ vehemence. Shockingly, upon visiting her parents house, that same door remained in place and in its shattered state, years after the woman had moved out. She even pressed into her parents bedroom and opened one of their dresser drawers. I recall her lips parting and her body quivering as she showed me the belt that yet rusticated in that drawer.

            And this was common practice, and apparently remains so, throughout a wide swath of the United States. Nineteen states still allow physical punishment in the schools, and many school boards ignore the federal law that bans it for those eighteen and older given that many eighteen year olds are still high school students and thus subject to such assaults. All fifty states allow ‘discipline’, an evil euphemism which can placed along the same spectrum as ‘concentration camps’, in the home. Many American children are unsafe wherever they go. My friend’s brother received far worse, she told me, simply because he was a boy. If you were wondering why our cousins to the south live in such a violent society, look no further than how they raise their children.

            And the other side of this costly coin I also witnessed. The beauty pageants and ‘talent shows’ for young girls; and when I say young, think of ‘child marriage’ young and yet younger. My friend, who had also been entered throughout her childhood and teen years in these spectacles, and I sat through performance after performance of highly sexualized dance and burlesque routines accomplished by girls four years old and up. The combination of such lurid displays ensconced within the iron rods of ‘discipline’ and an otherwise Victorian prudery created an explosive tension between men and women who, even in marriage, lived separate lives.

            This four-square social division, black and white, male and female, is threatened by the LGBTQ2 and BLM movements, so it can come as no surprise that these progressive showings are resisted with great force by all whose loyalty is to a past, partly real – slavery, sexual violence against children and youth – and partly fake – this is ‘true Christianity’, Leave it to Beaver is the familial ideal – that neo-conservatism in general hangs its Bolers and Stetsons upon. And it is this ‘past’ that is spreading, given phoenix wings by the anti-abortion politics, the misogyny of Great Awakening sectarians, school curriculum restrictions, book banning parents, the list goes on.

            And Americans are aware of this conflict, though they seem hamstrung by it, transfixed by their own inability to counter it. When I travelled across New England in a job search in 2002 my Mississippi license plates gave the locals an excuse to abuse me wherever I went. Seldom did I get a moment to explain that in fact I was Canadian and that I simply had gone south for a job. When I did, the Yankees responded with ‘well, shame on you then’. I lost count of the number of times I was flipped off, and blacks in the Northeast looked at me with a mixture of fear and loathing. In Mississippi itself, they threw rocks at my car while I was driving past, spat at me from across the street. But as soon as they came to know where I was from, all of that changed in an instant. Black people, students and others both, were fascinated, astonished that someone like me should appear in their world. All were aware of its vices, its evils, and all were ashamed of them, and shamed by them.

            I was never so relieved to leave it behind. And so I had thought, for two decades. But what I see all around me today is a regression, a recidivism that desires to compel all of us to heed a real-time Gilead of epic proportion and yet narrow vision. ‘Even’ in Canada, you ask? In turn, my three years in Mississippi tells me to tell you to resist, at all costs, this regression and all like them; Putin, the Taliban, anti-abortion, child ‘discipline’, fake religions. If not, we may well find ourselves wishing to turn back the clock to a time when such resistance was still relevant.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades. He is currently writing a memoir of his time in the deep south, entitled, ‘A Canadian Yankee in King Kudzu’s Court: three years in Mississippi’.

The Question of Democracy

The Question of Democracy

            It is commonplace at the moment to point to the war in Ukraine as a test of democracy. Its meaning there, on the ground, is transparent enough. Belarus, essentially a ‘client’ state of Moscow, is a case in point regarding the potential shift in social freedoms that a defeated Ukraine might well undergo. But it is also the case that in general, most citizens in every nation want a society that is more free than it currently is. This is not to say that they simply desire to ape any specific other country, say Finland, which perennially tops the best countries’ lists both in the objective scales of the world social health index and the more subjective sensibilities represented in the world happiness report, recently published for 2021. The idea of ‘the best’ aside for the moment, it remains clear that most ‘average’ citizens are yet vehicles for their respective traditions and thus do not entirely relish living in autocratic states. From Iran to North Korea, from Sudan to China and back again, what they do is make do.

            The politics of autocracy differ from the cultures of tradition along a number of lines. One, State and Tradition hail from different historical worldviews. Where tradition has not, or has not yet, given way to ideology, its contents may be millennia old. Theocracies attempt to funnel some of these pre-modern or even ancient contents into their ideological platforms but the effect, though very real in some of its consequences – the ‘Sharia’ law in Iran, for instance –  is yet symbolically fragile. Modernity and its predecessors have never mixed well, and it is almost always the case that those who are attracted to the latter day sainthood of revivalism or yet millennialism are themselves from the social margins. Two, the State is originally an urban phenomena that is acquisitive; it needs to grow its franchise and thus its power in order to survive. Tradition tends to be rural and seeks only its own reproduction over ensuing generations. This second schism between politics and culture sees the State often ‘dragging’ traditionalists into what passes for the distended present, but this tension also prevents the State from looking too far ahead of itself. Fittingly, and lastly, tradition looks rearward and the State looks forward, though only to a point. This third difference is the most disturbing for anyone hoping for a better human future, or perhaps any human future at all.

            It is a difficult mélange, our contemporary political culture. Democracies, limited as they are in reference even to their own ideals, struggle to balance competing interests yes, but more so, and more deeply, conflicting claims regarding the definition of the ‘good’ society. For the margins, the premise of an extant God may still be at work, fronting a promise that any future means the end of history and the transfiguration of humanity. Or, at least, some elect community thereof. These citizens have no authentic interest in democracy just as they may shun autocracy. Their path is toward an inner light. The problem they present to the rest of us is that their mission often seeks to include those who it patently resents, even if it is to merely bid us onward along the highway to hell. A significant minority of North Americans cleave to such traditions, no matter how Barnumesque they became over the course of the nineteenth century, and no matter how personalist became their ‘beliefs’. In the crisis of today’s democracy, it is equally important to look critically and candidly at the aspects of our own society that are fundamentally anti-democratic.

            And it is easy enough to do so, even if the stakes seem lesser than on the battlefield afar. Our own conflicts of culture and politics center around the difference between premodern moralities and contemporary ethics. The first posits timeless principles, such as the Decalogue. The second searches for a new Decalogue, a different table of values that reflects a radically altered reality. But though we might be smug to the point of disdain should some old-world voice sermonize at us, the neo-conservative margins of liberal society serve us more as a convenient decoy; a way in which to transfer the burden of defending democracy as over against a straw person; someone who can be mocked, derided as if he were not actually present, not unlike our conception of the God who is supposedly dead and yet who maintains vast legions of faithful. Instead of allowing such self-made decoys to distract us, the authentic task placed in front of the true democrat is rather to examine one’s own loyalties.

            Three anti-democratic features immediately leap out from fully modern society, institutions that borrow only the trappings of traditions and those mostly as a marketing device. One, the presence of independent schools in our education system. Two, the lack of proportional representation in our political system, and three, the prejudice against youth participating in that same system. The three are linked, of course. In order to lay more fully an authentic claim to actually being a democracy, all three must be rendered obsolete. First, all private, parochial, independent and charter schools in Canada must be shut down, their public funding – the reality that those who cannot afford to send their children to such schools nevertheless help pay for them through taxes is a scandal that approaches a kind of banal evil – redirected to a universal and singular school system. Such independent institutions serve only to reproduce status and wealth hierarchies and as such they are radically anti-democratic. The resources of the various elites – whether these are purely economic, as they are in most cases, or whether exclusion is practiced by ethnic background or religious creed – must be placed into the common pool. This is how a democracy learns. Second, proportional representation must be adopted at all political levels, replacing the so-called ‘first-past-the-post’ rubric. This will ensure that regional and local voices are heard in a manner that more reflects their diversity. This is how a democracy governs. Third, the voting age must be lowered to age twelve, reflecting the age already identified in Canadian law that separates childhood from youth. Persons of this age already can have sex with one another, cannot be physically coerced, can seek out health and wellness counsel, and are subject to legal penalties for transgressing the law. They are thus already judged to be fully human enough to also be able to vote, and are certainly cognitively capable of understanding ‘the issues’ as well as most average voters. It is another scandal tending towards evil that the same ‘arguments’ against youth voting were used to prevent women from voting. The very same. Consign such bigotry to the dustbin of the past. This is how a democracy includes.

            One education system in which an atheist student can study Islam, and a Muslim student can study Buddhism, in which any student can learn Mandarin or a once this-gender student can transform themselves into that-gender and so on. And an expanded and far more representative political dynamic that will force politicians to be more attentive and perhaps even responsible to all citizens no matter their age or their voting patterns. Such changes are not only necessary for the future of democracy, they are as well a transparent signal to autocracy that this is what we are defending; no longer are we going to be tolerant of our own incomplete project regarding human freedom, and no longer will we wanly wink at the inequities that stain our own relative freedom and signal the leaders of unfreedom that we too, after all, have their immoral backs.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.