Perhaps there is a reason why Plato suggested the State might be better served if parents were severed from their children at birth. This week’s readings highlight the difficulty–or impossibility–of marrying genetic & general responsibilities within an educational institution or program. From the founding Harvard documents, in which the authority of the tutor and the “call of parents or guardians” are conflated and confused, through the uncertain (yet essential) roles placed upon early, domestic childhood education evidenced in both the Deluder Satan law and the UVA commission report, all the way to Coates’ description of the socratic “interrogations” of his scholastic misadventures his mother required of him, a clearly discernible tension between the (individual) family and the society-at-large operates on the student-subject(s) of the system.
It is easy to overlook the impact of this split between “home” and “school” interests, but in many ways it is this fundamental incommensurability that initiates some of the greatest issues & iniquities currently plaguing education. In agrarian early America, the metaphorical assumption of an agricultural model for schools and learning set the stage for the “common ground” problems endemic to today’s institutions. Thomas Jefferson, following Aristotle, defends education as a matter of public patronage in the UVA report, arguing that it “generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue… and control by the force of habit, any innate obliquities in our moral obligation.” Putting aside the obvious exclusions necessary in a Jeffersonian “public” (i.e., black people, women, etc), we see on the one hand an interest in a common “parentage” for education–a deference and deferral of immediate individual benefit & sovereignty for the good of the community.
He goes on to liken education to the pruning and care of a tree, whose early bitter fruits can be replanted and cultured until they sweeten, implanting
a new tree on the savage stock: …Education, in like manner, engrafts a new man on the native stock, and improves what in his nature was vicious and perverse into qualities of virtue and social worth.
What we see, murkily, is a vanishing point of “pre-educational” viciousness, one on which the level, agricultural ground is compromised by the soil (and, to a lesser extent, the seed) itself. In other words, public education–as an interaction with the dominant cultural languages–is a necessary corrective to private vice. Learning to speak is coequivalent to learning to be virtuous. Being chained to the concept of habit & development leads us back to patronage: the paradoxical position of a father who must implant his cultural history while rejecting his claim to it. Thus, Jefferson is able to separate his world of ideas, in which fathers exist solely for their “progeny,” from those of the “illiterate” and “barbarous” Native Americans, who look “backward for better things.”
The real difference here is not teleological, nor merely aesthetic: it is the divide between my/our culture and yours/theirs. Only with reference or recourse to the savage, vicious “childhood” of the Native Americans (or the silent infancy of black Americans) does the educational program of protecting a mature “progeny” become visible. Languages–the prime directive of all these foundational documents–are necessary and important to be taught because they inscribe culture, they are the physical manifestation of difference (which inescapably implies hierarchy). In a way, however, the stage is simultaneously set for an ethics of equality: as we are all children, we are all (at some point) open to the same virtue and deserving of the same treatment as anyone else. Aristotle’s habit-virtue only “works” (ethically) in a world of endlessly renewing/renewable childhood.
By the end of the report, we’ve moved thoroughly from the agricultural (social) model to the familial, reflecting, along the way, the move towards that specific Jeffersonian sense of equality which is so rightly celebrated and contested:
Pride of character, laudable ambition, and moral dispositions are innate correctives…and when strengthened by habitual appeal and exercise, have a happier effect on future character than the degrading motive of fear. Hardening them to disgrace, to corporal punishments, and servile humiliations cannot be the best process for producing erect character. The affectionate deportment between father and son, offers in truth the best example for that of tutor and pupil….
It is so unfruitful to read this as a paradox… as “disproved” by the agricultural/pruning model of education that so clearly relies upon “disgrace, corporal punishments, and servile humiliations” of vast swaths of the populace. The motivations and intentions of a father towards his son must be seen as the nonviolent and care-oriented corollary and necessary complement to the “social farmer” notion. While, yes, we could fixate on “father / son” male gender priorities and search through the injustice catalogue for other problems and exclusions, I think the really productive work comes from applying a Platonic filter: the relationship supersedes the individual actors or their identities. If there is a “contradiction,” here, it is towards the earlier idea that education must “fix” the innate insufficiencies of a familial/domestic childhood… here, education must look to the model of the family in order to compensate for its own lacks, or to perfect its own operation.
The question, of course, becomes: what if the messages from the “tutor” and from the “father” are different? In other words, what if the cultural imperatives of the family are at odds with those of the school? What if the father is abusive? What if the domicile or the school is compromised or extended?
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both…. I began to see these two arms in relation–those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him.
This is Coates from 2015. So, the home has expanded to become the streets. Academies are less and less encouraged to act in a manner than replicates “home” (real) life, at least in some part due to the radical and intolerable inequalities, dangers, and realities of everyday life “outside” the school. And maybe they shouldn’t. But to what degree can schools be assailed for their status as schools? What is saved and what is sacrificed behind these brick-and-mortar abstractions of lived experience? Moreover, in a world in which everything appears as another “arm” of state power operating through fear and violence, what is the value of interrogation if not to differentiate between “intentions?” Coates, in continuation:
It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense–ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body…. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility… ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
Well, dad, what are your intentions? Indeed, the central style of the book emphasizes a split between the social world–epitomized by the school (which might as well be the jail, the army, the streets or any other anonymous agent of wholesale oppression)–and the private confidence of the (truth-generating) family world. But this split creates an inoperable reality just as skewed as Jefferson’s. Educators in such a reality must subject themselves to disgrace and punishment in order to vindicate the students–becoming the new “vicious” children–and at the end of the day, what?
Let me be a little clearer here. If Coates’ advice is meant to be “taken” by his child, the advice is predicated upon a world in which only his child “takes” the advice while the rest of the community continues apace. It is, again, the difference between my/ours and yours/theirs. As soon as the advice is meant to be read by “all” or by “society,” Coates is taking up, if critically, the criminally irresponsible “weaponry” he deplores.
Once more, it is more productive to apply both simultaneously–vibrating constantly between the specific (“ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body”) of the father-son and the general problematics of the educational system that engenders such advice. In other words, Coates is writing both to and beyond his progeny, as was Jefferson (if in vastly different terms and metaphors). And, really, this is what I believe Plato–ever the dramatist–was going for in that section of The Republic: the “severing” of ties is at the same time a drastic and sweeping establishment of ties, a move that allows us to apply the same relationship that tears a “son” from his “father” to all sons… all co-rulers. Whether or not any system so theoretically based or intended necessarily excludes/depends upon a second, “ruled” class is up for debate, as are the questions of socialization and acculturation inherent in a “parental” model. And so this is why the agricultural model is especially complementary and useful for the genetic one–it feeds the parent as well as the child, establishing a synchronicity that fosters a greater sense of equality. Hegemonic teacher/student and parent/child relationships are replaced by more fluid, incestuous ones.
And there are several (more recent) iterations of this. I mean, the idea that we are able to have a “childhood” or a continued “adolescence” within the world of academia is well-established, and hearkens back to the familiar roles: either of an untrained, “vicious,” childlike existence (i.e., Facebook, J. Crew, and so on) or an unremittingly infantile one (see the recent article from the New York Times). In either/any case, we are confronted with a system that seemingly prepares or otherwise separates “education” from the “real,” leaving us with a severe question at the base of academic awareness.
Why bother humanizing a process inaugurated and intended to dehumanize?? Because, perhaps as these readings partially show, those faulty points of genesis and points of “attack” do more to separate (create enemies) than they do to politicize (create allies).
And “children” in their political incarnations need the most dire critical analysis and help.
This is just a salvo. There’s so much more here– please comment.