Original post here (with pictures!)
The holidays are upon us and therefore, like any good American, I’m thinking about food; except I’m an academic, so I’m also thinking about the consumption of knowledge. (It’s a rotten habit, I realize.) This started many Novembers ago, after stumbling across Lewis Carroll’s “Feeding the Mind” in my university library. “Feeding the Mind” is an informal address that Carroll delivered in 1884 in which he lamented that people vigilantly nurture their bodies, but neglect to nurture their minds: “Breakfast, dinner, tea…What care we take about feeding the lucky body! Which of us does as much for the mind?” Throughout the address, Carroll suggests healthy learning practices might mirror healthy eating. In one of my favorite sections, he tackles mental gluttony, objecting to “FAT MINDS” that can’t jump over logical fences, get stuck in narrow arguments, and “waddle helplessly though the world.”
There are times I think the Thanksgiving table is as topsy-turvy and strange as the world Carroll created for Alice Liddell and her sisters in the 1860s. There’s an eerie similarity between relatives ejecting bizarre or off-color remarks and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Even curiouser is the way we can feign being satiated with our lives for a few short hours before leaping into Black Friday and the efforts to upgrade our lives. This is made all the more ironic and mixed up by our history with Native Americans; we are giving thanks for all sorts of things we didn’t exactly acquire ethically. But there are plenty of tasty dishes at the dinner table — Turkey! Rolls! Pies! — to cover up the bad taste this might leave in one’s mouth.
Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday; giving thanks is often at odds with a culture dominated by perpetual efforts to get ahead. Several decades ago Lawrence Shames argued that Americans are motivated by what he calls “the more factor” — a frontier mentality of expansion and conquest that we apply to our entire lives. But we shouldn’t imagine that the “more factor” isn’t just about material goods; many people avoid materialism while still falling prey to the trap of trying to be more. We could build cities with our self-conscious self-help manuals, our insecure dieting and exercise guides, and our glossy self-improvement magazines. We could make coliseums with our endless books on how to become successful, get rich, get laid or married, raise first-rate kids, and/or harness our inner power or networking abilities. It’s as (white) American as Benjamin Franklin or Marilyn Monroe, this compulsive drive to become superior versions of ourselves.
Thanksgiving, and being content with ourselves, seems to contradiction our continual attempts to self-perfect. Sure, we lampoon attempts at a perfect diet — trends like gluten free eating or paleo diets — or extreme exercise regimes like CrossFit. Yet there are other areas of self-perfecting that we utterly accept. Education’s promise of self-actualization is a foundational good in our society. We champion the idea that people should work to gain superior skills and experience to become superior employees. During the early 20th century, as eugenics and the idea of bodily perfecting ourselves started slipped away, education emerged as one of the chief hope of progressivism, as the natural avenue in which people could purse perfecting themselves, their children, and our nation. As Bertrand Russell noted in his chapter on eugenics in Marriage and Morals (1929), the educational ideas that shaped our modern systems, were not separate from, but in dialogue with eugenics; progressives favored education and conservatives favored eugenics, but both were working to find ways to make superior citizens.
The core of our country is probably not the pretty political concepts we tout like equality and freedom; our foundation is more likely this unending desire for, and belief in, self-improvement. Stephen Marche called it the “myth of pluck”: suggesting it will be the last American myth to die. We delight in the fact that the American way is the DIY way. But self-improvement is about more than bravery and backbone. It is a cultural mandate to invest our energy inward to “make something of ourselves.” Self-improvement all too easily takes the shape of a self-focused state of existence. In his 2008 text Violence Slovanian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek argues the primary human right of late-capitalism is avoiding other people. He writes, “What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.” Our cult of self-improvement is often simultanesouly a cult of separation.
While there are undoubtedly numerous benefits that arise out of individuals taking responsibility for themselves, there are also risks and detriments when self-responsibility and autonomy slip into isolation. John Dewey expressed this idea in his hugely influential Democracy and Education (1915), arguing that increased personal independence can lead to indifference, making individuals “so insensitive in [their] relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering in the world.” For Dewey, dependence was “a power rather than a weakness.”
The history of our American Thanksgiving feast seems to suggest Dewey might have been on to something. Our celebration does not just commemorate the bounty of the earth. We celebrate two people groups cooperating; and they aren’t cooperating because of self-sufficiency, but because of need. Although we should not ignore the rest of our troubled history of mistreating Native American people, we should not forget that it is not self-sufficiency that this holiday marks, but the potential of cooperation around human need. It is an all but forgotten aspect of life lost in our mad dashes to prove and protect ourselves. But, as history has made clear, when we forgot the humanity of others (and thus our own humanity) things can go extremely poorly.
In education, the focus of maintaining distance from others is too often part and parcel of our self-improvement. Education promises upward mobility that can (literally) offer people more physical space and distance from other people. Far worse is the way critical thinking can tout an awareness of others without actually ever encountering them. Take for example David Foster Wallace’s oft-read commencement address delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. Despite being filled with moving statements about “love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things,” Wallace presents education’s chief value as changing the inside of a student’s own head that does not require actual contact with other human beings.
His recommendations including choosing to think nicer things about people in consumer settings, like crowded grocery stores. Detailing the daily realities of adult life that involve “boredom, routine, and petty frustration,” Wallace suggests education can allow people to “choose how to construct meaning from experience” to break free of their “natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” It’s a moving speech and overwhelming appealing to educational junkies like me, and yet, a troubling sentiment.
Framing education as a way to be happier — to overcome frustration and crankiness at other people — reflects the depth to which our cult of self-improvement has infiltrated our culture. Forget really understanding (and perhaps addressing) what is happening around us, as long as we improve our thinking about it. Of course, this logic is not just implicit in Wallace’s speech, but runs rampant elsewhere. Worried about racism? Think nicer thoughts about people who look different than you do. Concerned about feminism? If you aren’t thinking women are inferior or different, you’ve done your part. People can make ethics a matter of addressing their own thoughts only, a part of their self-actualization.
Wallace’s speech suggests that critical thinking, and choosing to make meaning of your own experience, can make situations “not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars.” This ideas, of course, is not particularly original, though Wallace expresses it powerfully. I hear the same ideas at my yoga studio, just with less brilliance. But this is part of what should alarm us about our cult of self-focused improvement. Great thinkers like Dostoevsky expressed remarkably similar ideas of cognitively realizing connection, down to the sense of being one with the stars. However, Wallace’s version of realizing oneness is self-initiated and occurs at a safe distance from other people; Dostoevsky’s portrayal of realizing oneness follow real encounters with real people.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha experiences illumination after the death of his hero and mentor, Father Zossima. Leaving the monastery in state of despair, and acting out as only a Russian monk could (by eating sausage and vodka during Lent), he ends up at the home of the prostitute Grushenka. Alyosha does not realize his oneness in this setting as Wallace suggests — by thinking nice things about Grushenka. In fact, Alyosha admits to expecting to finding a wicked soul, the way Wallace describes disliking people in the grocery store. But instead of creating fictions about Grushenka, Alyosha listens to this woman’s story, and becoming moved by it, declares her a “sister.” It is actually encountering Grushenka that alters Alyosha, prompting him to falls to the ground on his walk home to the monastery, experiencing the kind connection with the stars above him Wallace describes;
“The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars….Alyosha stood, looked and suddenly cast himself down upon the earth like one who has had the legs cut from under him…As though threads from all these countless of God’s worlds had all coincide within his soul at once, and it trembled all over…he wanted to forgive all creatures for all things and to ask forgiveness, of not for himself, but for all persons, all creatures and all things, while ‘others asked the same for me.’”
Dostoevsky’s version, while comprised of similar elements as Wallace’s, differs fundamentally in how it understands humanity. Despite both presenting illumination as going beyond self-focus, Dostoevsky pointedly makes this the result of real vulnerable encounters. Wallace’s version does not. I suspect this has little to do with Wallace himself and a great deal do with our culture; our imperative to hide and overcome our vulnerabilities is profound.
What Dostoevsky — and Thanksgiving — offer that Wallace does not is a model of how individuals can meet in their mutual need. Education always has the potential to be this kind of meeting, a vertiable feast; not just the consumption of knowledge to perfect one individual, but an encounter of individuals that connects their mutual needs and vulnerabilities. Schools and universities are social institutions with the potential of creating reconciliation and building means of social cooperation, not just self-perfection. Oscar Wilde quipped, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” Good learning should do the same. But in America, it often does not. This is not because schools are deficient in what they are offering — the victuals are superior! — but because of our overarching emphasis on education making superior individuals for post-industrial capitalist America. We’re not feasting so much as hoarding little snippets of cheese and bread for ourselves, promising people that education can get them their piece of the pie.
Perhaps you think this is not the case, or perhaps you do, but don’t think it particularly matters. In 2011, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen asserted that American schools may be underperforming because they emphasize individual excellence. In her piece for The Atlantic, she reminds readers that Finnish schools, which have been “turning in some of the highest test scores in the world,” emphasize equality and not individual greatness. Partanen highlights the fact that Finland is not caught up in the competitive school scene, noting that the nation does not even have private schools. Moreover, she points out that Finnish teachers “assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.” For Partanen, the success of Finnish schools is related to their social values and their awareness of relationships. She suggests prioritizing equality and cooperation — unlike the American obsession with excellence — is in many ways responsible for the success of the Finnish schools. Of course, America is not Finland— and the comparison Partanen draws does not address a variety of other variables — but she is certainly not the first to suggest there is something counter-productive in America’s overly competitive education system.
In the late 1980s, renowned psychologist Bruno Bettelheim started sounding the alarm about the overly academic approach of kindergarten in America, and pointing out the importance of play. Likewise, earlier this year scholars at the University of Virginia suggested that Bettelheim’s plea was not headed. Deeming Kindergarten the “new first grade,” these researchers presented compelling findings that American kindergarten’s are “characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.” Much of the work in this area focused on early education, but the obsessive academic approach is problematic at every level, not just where young children’s education is concerned. We do not outgrow the need to play and celebrate in our lives.
Play thrives on contact and encounter. It is not just a developmental aspect of how young children learn — it is an important facet of how we create a collective life with one another. As Dutch historian and theorist Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens (1938), “Culture arises in the form of play.” Huizinga argues that play creates order — in fact, is a kind of order — and he shows how systems of law, art, war, and language are all forms of play; “A play-community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over.” A system that is overly fixated on self-improvement can far too easily ignore or miss this vital aspect of play. All too often play can become a gimmick designed to get students interested or invested, a means of ensuring better individual skill formation.
There is more to life than superiority and self-actualization — in and out of the classroom. It’s time that we shift our attentions in education, and go beyond seeing the goals of education as making the best, most brilliant, most superior individual students we can.
As Thanksgiving suggests, it may not be self-actualization or self-sufficiency, but vulnerability that connects people to each other. Human vulnerability is a vital part of our lives that is readily forgotten, hidden, or brushed aside as shameful or unhelpful. And yet a feast does not ignore weakness and mutual need — it does not try to remove vulnerabilities. A feast delights in how weakness prompts connection. We all need food. When we eat together, we don’t just celebrate food or family; we also celebrate how our needs bring us together. None of us can exist without food — without nourishment beyond ourselves — and a feast delights in how mutual needs can prompt and organize the communities that bring us life.