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classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

(or Why Robert Downey Jr. Owns the Role of Tony Stark and You Are Not Worthy)

1. Alien Slave Planet

Once, long ago, I had the misfortune of riding in a truck being driven at high speeds by a drunk PE teacher.  We were in the mountains.  His name was Dick.  We’d just spent three days at a beginning of the year retreat where the administrators of the high school frowned and grinned and perspired in front of us like survivors of an airstrike.  The food was bad; they ran out of coffee the second morning; and the team building exercises were run as if they’d been designed by a New Age Stalin.  We played a lot of group games that weekend and fell in love with each other all over again.

But not everyone could withstand Pictionary and “3 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Partner” at that level of intensity while metabolizing all the usual faculty venom.  Part of me admired Dick for tippling a pint of whiskey at the back of the room throughout that last day.  He seemed closer in spirit to the students than the teachers most of the time.  He drove like a student, too.

“What I don’t get,” he said, “is this continued credit bs.”  We hit a turn and, because the truck had no seat belts, I was able to enjoy a second of antigravity.

When I caught my breath, I said, “Well, if they pay us to go back to school, that’s good, right?”

We caught air from a bump and then went through another curve without slowing.  “Useless.  They should be paying us for all the extra crap we already have to do just to keep the job.  That’s where the money should go.”

He wasn’t necessarily wrong.  We all worked unrecognized overtime and were constantly reminded that although positive suggestions were always welcome, complaints would be dealt with severely.  It seemed that what Dick was saying could be construed as a complaint.  His red ball cap was ratty and he chain smoked.  He owned a variety of nylon windbreakers that he must have bought all at once.  I liked him, but I thought that he might have been working at the high school a little too long.

“Shouldn’t we like learning?” I asked.  “I mean, isn’t that the whole point?”

Dick glanced at me with a crafty expression on his face.  “Shit, Mike, I got my degree.  I’m done learning.”

That’s when it happened.  ZANG!  All the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattered simultaneously.  The ears of babies started bleeding.  Stars went dark.  The dead walked the earth once more.  And enormous diseased birds of prey circled above us, knowing that it wouldn’t be long now.  The end was nigh.

2. Hustle: on

At the time, I might have been young enough to feel horrified that one of my colleagues would say such a thing.  But I was also old enough to know that I was seeing something unvarnished, something real in the way Dick seemed to think he’d put all that learning behind him.  I have never forgotten that moment even if, in my memory, Dick wears his ball cap on sideways and I hold onto the handle above the passenger side with both hands for most of the ride.  Done learning?  Done?  Really?  I remember thinking: doesn’t that mean you’re done with life?  But I didn’t say it.  Instead, I concentrated on shielding the truck with my mind whenever Dick swerved too close to the trees by the the road.

There are so many problems with the idea of being “done learning” that I don’t know where to begin.  Sure, we can just roll our eyes and dismiss Dick as ignorant.  In many ways, he embodied the negative stereotype of the high school PE coach.  He spent most of his time in the small mobile trailer on the upper field that functioned as an office and a storage shed for equipment.  At faculty meetings or when he was commanded to sub a class, he had a certain air of bitterness–a displaced person now forced by tyrannical inhuman masters to spend time in an alien culture he despised.  He was a lost soul.

But let’s forget about whether he’s still out there somewhere screaming at adolescent boys to “Hustle!” or whether he had a shot too many one night and decided his truck could fly.  If we get past the superficial reading of my anecdote about Dick, we can look at his attitude about learning as a crystallization of a disturbing trend in US culture that’s hard to stomach if you believe anything good about education: the concept of the “knowledge marketplace” as legitimate and desirable commodification of learning.

In “The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?” the American Distance Education Consortium Panel (ADEC) offers the following definition:

One way of looking at the knowledge marketplace is through the three basic building blocks of communication and education – knowledge, data, and information. In our current environment, when knowledge (broad-based understanding) is combined with data (specific bits of information), information with significant value is created. This process invades all facets of our lives, from buying products, to making decisions about investments, to remaining competitive in our professions. Educational opportunities occur when potential learners – people who have a need or desire for new information – gain access to that information at a time and place they need it.

As someone who earned an interdisciplinary IT / business masters online through distance learning, I can say with a certain degree of first hand authority that this is exactly how learning takes place in such programs.  Knowledge, data, and information are treated as items that can be delimited and placed on a metric.  They must be treated this way in order to be delivered and evaluated meaningfully in an online format.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Sarah Churchwell points out in “The Internet: is it changing the way we think?“, “Knowledge is not the same thing as information, and there is no question to my mind that the access to raw information provided by the internet is unparalleled and democratising.”  And the accessibility of distance learning means that this democratization extends to those who would be otherwise unable to go to school.  That’s important and its one of the great virtues of distance learning.

Unfortunately, the great drawback is that by interpreting learning in the marketplace language of deliverables and skill sets, we have shifted the emphasis away from the process of philosophically motivated inquiry.  Instead, we are moving towards a static model in which students “signal their traditional academic attainment and continued non-institutional learning by aggregating these accomplishments into a meaningful and dynamic profile” (ThinkStache).  In other words, it is possible to be done learning if you have the requisite number of notches on your belt or bullet points on your resume.  This horrifies me even though I believe that distance learning is viable and important and needs to exist.

3. Yukkuri hanashite, kudasai!

So I’ve started learning Japanese and I’m starting to see that it’s one of the coolest things I’ve undertaken in my life.  I am horrible at it.  I can’t remember any of the Kanji yet.  And I essentially know nothing.  But so what?  This isn’t the knowledge marketplace and I’m not done learning.  So when will I be fluent?  Everyone asks me this.  I tell them I have no idea.

You’ll excuse me if I quote Nathaniel Branden at this point.  He’s one of Ayn Rand’s homies.  I know, I know, but this is one of the good passages:

Observe, in this connection, the widespread phenomenon of men who are old by the time they are thirty. These are men who, having in effect concluded that they have “thought enough,” drift on the diminishing momentum of their past effort—and wonder what happened to their fire and energy, and why they are dimly anxious, and why their existence seems so desolately impoverished, and why they feel themselves sinking into some nameless abyss—and never identify the fact that, in abandoning the will to think, one abandons the will to live.  (116)

And why, when they have to leave their office on the upper field and sit through 50 minutes of sophomore biology they feel lost and abandoned in the vastness of space.  Branden is making an important point about learning: it’s a process of growth intrinsic to life.  Every creative artist knows this.  There is never a point at which you can step back and declare that you have arrived.  You’re always-already arriving.  To think only in terms of static qualities–deliverables, commodities that can be acquired for future display purposes–is to embrace intellectual death.

I will not ever be fluent in Japanese.  I will always be pursuing fluency.  In this, I avoid an “existence [that] seems so desolately impoverished.”  Don’t we all want to do this–to grow and become more than what we were?  I suspect that even Dick might have agreed with me had I put it to him like this.

4. Enter: the Tony

This is also why I loved The Avengers just as much as I’ve loved the Iron Man films.  More than any other “driven billionaire playboy superhero” type Tony Stark is almost Discordian in his genius–chattering, obnoxious, manic, constantly worrying away at some problem even if he had to create it just to give himself something to do.  And Robert Downey Jr. plays him brilliantly, gives him levels and a sense of roundness.

Tony

He’s a synthesis of Sherlock Holmes, Seth Godin, and Errol Flynn on speed.  Downey shows us that Stark knows he’s smart enough to get away with it before you say something unduly nasty.  So I think these simple superhero action films aren’t actually that simple.  Rather, they’re complex in ways that run contrary to the prevailing theme of intellectual stagnation twisting its way into the Academy from military-industrial complex.

I’m less interested in laser beams and hideous alien invaders from the 24th-and-a-half dimension as I am in the American public being presented with an image of brilliance that doesn’t function in terms of deliverables.  This is ironic because Stark is supposed to be an uber-scientist-inventor.  His entire shtick depends on a fancy exoskeleton and how it can keep him alive.  But Stark comes across as someone who would be doing amazing things even if he had no money and no lab and no super-suit that can save the world in 50 explosions.

Moreover, in The Avengers, Joss Wheedon stays true to the way Marvel Comics has always treated scientists, professors, and artists–as superheroes in their own way.  Stan Lee, in particular, has always shown a great degree of respect for any kind of creativity.  And this has always come through in the comics and in the Marvel movies, even the mediocre ones.  We should thank both of them because everyone knows an artillery barrage will always mean box office revenue.

Maybe this time, it’s less about money and more about story, which is to say, more about people, process, narrative arc.  Maybe someone’s inner transformational arc is more interesting than the arc of a bullet.  It’s something that comic writers have been thinking about since The Amazing Spider-Man came out in the early 1960s: what if we made the superheroes less monolithic and more human?  Well, what if?  And if we choose to make them flawed yet brilliant, emotionally complex yet open to an existential dimension in human life, what then?

Tony Stark is never going to say he’s done learning.  That’s what.

Studying

Works Cited and Referenced:

Branden, Nathaniel and Ayn Rand.  “The Divine Right of Stagnation.”  The Virtue of Selfishness: a New Concept of Egoism.  New York: Signet, 1964.  Print.

Naughton, John.  “The internet: is it changing the way we think?”  The Guardian.  14 August 2010.  Web.  15 May 2012.

The Avengers.  Dir. Joss Wheedon.  Paramount, 2012.  Film.

“The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?”  ADEC. 29 June 1998.  Web.  15 May  2012.

The Discordian Society.  Principia Discordia, 2012.  Web.  15 May 2012.

ThinkStache.  HASTAC, 2011.  Web.  15 May 2012.

Note: You can thank me now for not naming this post, “Getting Past Dick.”

Note: Pictures related to Marvel are used without permission in my little blog post that no one will care about. Plus, I have no money.  And I really, really liked The Avengers.  So please be gentle.  If you really want me to delete the images, I will.  Then I will cry.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.

— Madeleine Chapsal