As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York to “convene Camp Philos.” The non-educators, who compare their $1000 board meeting to an 1858 meeting of Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, are engaged in what they have billed, straight faced, as a “Philosophers Camp on Education Reform, ” “ three Spring days of fun, fellowship, and strategy with the nation’s thought leaders on education reform.”
I swear I am not making this up.
Needless to say, anyone who can convince themselves that they could place the words “Philosopher’s Camp “ before the words, “education reform”, in the same breath as they are comparing themselves with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is well nigh in need of a good teacher, a course in philosophy 101, or at the very least, a dictionary.
On the other hand the event – which achieves a kind of horrible sublimity in its sheer vulgarity — is perfectly consistent with the tactics of the long stealth campaign to privatize the school system that built America. Of the privatizers many repugnant tactics, none is more consistent, intrinsic or effective than the conscious manipulation of language and images. In this way does a half assed experiment, hatched up in secret by shills and testing companies and financed by a ruthless billionaire, come to be known as the miraculous Common Core State Standards, the answer to all that ails us, the solution to all problems, the alpha and the omega. In this way does the almost biblical struggle for civil rights come to be employed by the privatizers’ public relations department as a tool to strip teachers of the right to due process and undermine unions. In this way does the word “philosophy”, one of the most transcendent and spiritually charged words in any language, come to be used in Lake Placid, as a fig leaf for yet the latest episode in the most rapacious campaign against a vital public trust in American history.
The privatizers know little or nothing of education but they do know, as Orwell knew, that those who control the language control reality. See his “Politics and the English Language.”
Cuomo, coming off orchestrating what is surely the most egregiously unfair education law in the history of New York state, is the “honorary chairman” of the philosophical retreat. It troubles the philosophical Chairman Governor not at all that no educator was invited to Camp Philos, nor even that those who attempted to attend were summarily rejected, one and all.
Still, even as I find the privatizers among the most cynical, ignorant and narcissistic people on the face of the earth, I must admit there is one place in which I agree with them, even as I radically disagree with their methods and ends and even as they would disagree with me till the end of time.
Like the “reformers “, if for radically diffent reasons, I too agree that the public school system as it has been operating for decades has, in some essential ways, failed America.
Further, I would state unambiguously that this failure is generational and so long standing as to be invisible.
I would define the failure as philosophical in both nature and cause. Allow me to elaborate. Education is, in its essence, a philosophical endeaver. Yes, of course we need to insure that our citizens gain the practical skills that will enable them to navigate the always unknown road ahead. Yes, of course, it means that schools must do all they can to insure our students have the requisite skills to gain employment in an ever more frighteningly competitive world in which jobs are now routinely “out-sourced” or mechanized out of existance altogether. That said, education is not job training. Job training is a wonderful thing and a necessity but it is not education. Education serves a much larger, deeper, and more vital role, and that is where the philosophical element, directly or indirectly, enters into the picture. Accordingly, in the front and center of our education system should be some variations of the following questions:
What, as a society, do we value ?
What kind of a people are we ?
What do we really believe in ?
Do we live our beliefs ?
What kind of citizens do we wish to produce ?
What does it mean to be educated ?
What, if anything, are our responsibilities to each other ?
How are we to live together ?
In America we have reduced education to job training.
Were it within my power to do so, I would immediately and unapologetically do all I could do to introduce the study of philosophy on some level beginning in the third grade, the age of my daughter as of this writing. And I would make it an essential part of the curriculum in every grade until high school graduation. Implicit with this undertaking would be the understanding that some may not grasp the meaning of the study for years if at all but all would benefit from the exposure as surely as they would exposure to the history of art and music and architecture.
If I have seen a little further,” wrote Issac Newton, “ it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Children would begin with a study of the word: “philo,” which means “love. “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Let them spend a week, a month, a year — whatever it takes – discussing and attempting to grasp those two words alone and the concept of those together, and you cannot help but have a child with an imagination larger because it is more unleashed than before. Help a child understand that this thing called “wisdom” exists and is real and has been honored and revered by the civilized since the beginning of civilization, that it has nothing to do with the accumulation of material wealth, nothing to do with gaining power over others, nothing to do with competition or control, and you have opened the portals of that child’s mind. And you have done something else: you have given a child a way of seeing that affords he or she some mode of mental protection against a corporate assault that, for many, begins at the moment of consciousness. Worse, the assault is designed to wed that struggling to be formed identity with a product, now and forevermore.
The study of philosphy would not merely help make our children “college and career ready”
( what ever those weasel words actually mean), it might help them to understand this mystery called Life in all of its paradoxical, tragic and wonderous nature. It is the epitome of critical thinking.
We now live in a nation where most citizens seem to believe that the word “philosophy” is synonymous with “opinion.” We have all heard vulgar examples in statements such as, “My philosophy is to hit guy before he hits you”, or some such foolishness. It is, I would argue, the absence of philosophical knowledge that has contributed to much of America’s horrible and dangerous confusion of technology with science, data with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom. Most of all it has led to the savage idea that knowedge is power rather than liberation from the need for power.
This is worse than sad. No decent society, never mind an alleged democracy, can exist in this kind of mass confusion.
And, yes, many of these same people are products of the public school system and yes, that school system failed them. And it continues to fail them. But rest assured: it will fail them that much further under a system dominated by the likes of the privatizers.
When I have asked my students why they go to school and why they study, overwhelmingly they reply with some variation of “ to do well on the test.” This is sick but it is hardly an accident. But why should they think differently? We are now in the process of incubating our children with this shrunken head madness.
It is, indeed, a kind of crime: the crime of starving the imaginations of millions of children by sheer neglect. And it is a crime that the miraculous Common Core will not only not correct but will, in fact, perpetuate.
I do not believe in magical thinking. (I leave that for the proponents of the Common Core.) I am well aware that the study of philosophy will not automatically and magically make thing better for all. Pre-Nazi Germany had the most rigorous school curriculum in the Western world but it did little to stop millions from embracing Hitler. Something more is needed. That said, I know this: the absence of something as immense as philosophy can only diminish this nation. As I see it, the problem is ecological. By this I mean if you deprive a child of philosophical awareness you do not get child minus philosophy. You get someone radically different and radically weaker. You get a person whose imagination, the key to all, has been severely diminished.
The purpose of education is not to be found in the vulgar slogan, “knowledge is power. ” Indeed, the absence of philosophy is one reason why that slogan is so readily swallowed in our increasingly competitive, miserable, punitive land and is in the very name of the KIPP charter empire. Philosophers and artists and spiritual geniuses have known for thousands of years that education is many things but above all, it is the emancipation of the human imagination: the purpose of education is freedom.
As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York, making a mock of the language that they use, discussing the creation of conditions that mock the very idea of freedom and positing efficacy, compliance, control and profit above all things. They are mocking, that is, the very essence of philosophy. This they do in the name of education. This they do in the name of children. This they do under the aegis of philosophy.
“All that is now proved was once only imagined”, wrote William Blake. I revere Blake as much as any soul who has ever walked this earth but, considering the combination of unimaginable fortunes wed to political power that is determined not only to privatize education but to use the educational system as THE vehicle to permanantly forge the character of America into a corporate fiefdom, it is at this moment very, very hard to imagine a happy ending to this horrific story. And yet, as souls like Blake and Kant and Hegel and Camus and Arendt knew, our imaginations are the only faculties that can possibly sustain us, as they are the only ones that ever have.
We must honor our lives and our language, and by doing so outlast the bastards and expose them for what they are.
Addendum: I’ve just found out that Andrew Cuomo, apparently at the last minute and doubtless to the great disappointment of his hosts, decided it was a better idea to philosophize with his fellow philosophers via video screen. Hmmmmmm. I’m guessing Cuomo got the willies from reports of hundreds of teachers and parents so filled with disgust with the man that they were willing to brave the rain to make sure he got their message, loud and clear. Cuomo may have been frightened of a repeat of what happened when he showed up recently on Long Island, as reported with relish on Perdido Street School. Good. It’s about time this treacherous invertebrate started to get his comeuppance.