Yet, for a sound and vigorous generation that is filled with unlimited hopes, I fail to see that it is any disadvantage to discover betimes that some of these hopes must come to nothing. And if the hopes thus doomed should be those most dear, well, a man who is worth anything will not be dismayed.
Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West
And here is a TRYGER...he never gives up!
Not even when there's no chance to win.
He struggles along at the same steady pace,
Working his way through thick and through thin.
Stefan Sikora, – "The Bear Facts "
Having recently completed the last installment in a triptych of education books I began in the late eighties, and which were based on my experiences teaching at Canadian colleges, I now sense that I have approached the end of the writing phase that carried me over the previous ten years—the "psychic decade" in which writers' lives often tend to organize and exhaust themselves before something new emerges. My first book on the subject, Education Lost, was written in a state of angry ebullience, and the second, Lying about the Wolf, out of a desire to back up the argument developed in its predecessor with a bristling scholarly apparatus, some conceptual fine-tuning and perhaps even a couple of new ideas. The third book in the sequence, The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods (a remark I found in a student essay and which was intended to mean "the total epidemic of psychopaths"), preoccupied me for the last three decadal years, a period characterized by a somewhat troubled but still resilient optimism in which I thought that writing on education, like teaching itself even in our current circumstances, might still make a minimal difference. Change for the better, I continued to hope, was always thinkable even in so carnivorous and stagnant an administrative milieu as the one in which we were condemned to live and work.
The odds, however, seemed formidable. How was one to deal with a pervasively slack learning environment beginning in the latch-key home and the elementary school blighted by the epidemic language of euphemism ("creativity," for example, has now become a synonym for getting all the answers wrong), impressionistic report cards (now often compiled by the students themselves, beginning at the precocious age of eight or nine), reduction of homework time and the abolition of failure ("there is no such thing as failure, only feedback") and ending at the higher levels with the withering hand of bureaucratic oppression? Thus: political correctness (which peddles word-substitutions and surface makeovers of behavior—the microwavable popcorn of our current cultural regimen), a deadly cryptolect designed to befuddle apprehension ("integrative competencies," "targeted outcomes," "portfolio assessment," "effective learning strategies," "enhanced performance skills"), affirmative action whose strictures when applied to admission criteria might be differentially acceptable but when applied to graduation policy were devastating, and the redefinition of the role of the individual teacher to that of departmental hireling, ultimately to that of a corporation man or woman grooming students for a reductive and unforgiving job market—everything from part-time work flipping hamburgers to sectorial redundance in the rarefied echelons of high-tech. Despite these debilitating conditions, many teachers—and I count myself among them—persisted for years in fighting the spread of what I am tempted to call educational thraxis, the turtle hypodermic of irrelevant theory and catering practice against which an antidote might yet, we hoped, be found.
But with the labouring of time, I found that I had begun to lose what little faith I still clung to in the viability of contemporary education and indeed in the culture which presumably sustains it. Teaching—like nursing and doctoring, and other so-called "caring professions"—has devolved into little more than a mug's game, prey to the institutional demeaning of the vocational self. What I used to call Excalibur education, ensorcelling and cutting-edge, had become ex-caliber education, residual and diminished. I see little hope at present for its resuscitation and I can understand education theorist Frank Smith's despairing remark, ad libbed during a pedagogical lecture, that one had better abandon the Titanic before it is too late. Why wait for the iceberg? After all, Leonardo Di Caprio's good looks didn't save him any more than our know-how and ethical fervor will save us. Certainly, as a teacher and a writer on educational subjects, I feel very much that I have arrived at a valedictory juncture, and have no intention of emulating Felicia Hemans' preposterous hero in her poem "Casabianca," once on the high school curriculum, who refused to abandon ship before "sail and shroud...mast, and helm, and pennon fair" littered the sea with their wreckage.
The tacit bond between teacher and student, like that between writer and reader, has now started to dissolve. The covenant between the participants in the noble game of intellectual discourse must be predicated on the assumption of a possible mutual ideality, a striving to disengage the best self from the roil of appetitive claims and desires that obscure it. The teacher has to play the role of committed intercessor despite his or her legitimate grievances or personal resentments, and the student needs to be willing to suspend an increasingly fashionable skepticism about the importance of humanistic scholarship and to struggle against the blandishments of a high-tech business milieu that will infallibly bankrupt them both materially and spiritually. Similarly, the agreement between writer and reader specifies that the former will try to tell the truth and the latter will grapple to accommodate it. I am now pretty well convinced that, in the realm of education at least, this double compact has been effectively betrayed and has come apart beyond the point of restitution.
Many teachers have, by now, given up or become disablingly skeptical. A disturbing number of students have lapsed into a coma from which very few seem likely to awaken. With a handful of redeeming exceptions, writers pander or produce works of technical proficiency but little meaning. Most readers wish to be stroked, not struck. And in each of these binary relations, a third complicating factor has emerged. Between teacher and student, the omnipresent administrator has erected an unscalable barrier, far higher and more impenetrable than I had originally conceived when I first set out to write Turtle. Between writer and reader in the literary domain—and in many others as well—a Godzilla-like media monster has devoured our sensibilities and rendered them passive and supine, helpless before the Real and its veridical transcription, turning us into cultural amnesiacs. This "third" element in the transaction of minds seems to me to have decisively foreclosed on our mortgaged future.
Indeed, the decline of education, which means also the fading out of historical memory, has been the case for some considerable time now. What is one to make of the fact that a Canadian Minister of Defence, John McCallum, who holds degrees from several prestigious universities, had never heard of the disastrous raid on the beaches of Dieppe until the moment came to mark its sixtieth anniversary? Or that the British company Umbro, which outfits the English national soccer team, has just marketed the Zyklon running shoe, clearly unaware until controversy erupted of the Zyklon B poison gas the Nazis used in the concentration camps? These two instances of historical amnesia grow more interesting by the moment. In a letter sent by the Minister to the National Post claiming to have been misinterpreted, Mr. McCallum referred to the WW I victory at Vimy Ridge as having occurred at Vichy, capital of the Nazi puppet regime in occupied France during WW II. This is the same McCallum who also alluded to the threat of war between India and Afghanistan. Even a Prime Minister can be just as dim a light, judging from a speech Paul Martin gave to the military base in Gagetown, N.B., on April 14, 2004, in which he twice praised the Canadian effort in the 1944 invasion of Norway. As for the running shoe fiasco, there is always the possibility that the appeal was to the corps of neo-nazi skinheads who make up a significant portion of the fan base. In any event, "We are sure that the name was not meant to cause offence," explained an Umbro spokesman, whose own name is Nick Crook. None of this is as disturbing as the student paper received by a colleague in which the writer claimed that Man descended from the trees around two hundred years ago and experienced the Enlightenment.
These are only a few examples, among the myriad bristling in my personal files culled from every walk and profession of life, of the intellectual eclipse that has overtaken us, but the insistent question they provoke is: how does one go about trying to rescue a culture in the throes of custodial dissolution? Over the years I have regularly set my students (rather lenient) tests in general knowledge and particularly in Canadian history; in the last decade I have been unable in good conscience to award a single passing grade. The level of ignorance is stupefying and, I have come to believe, probably irreparable.
On reflection, then, why should we affect surprise that ministries and Cabinets are is stuffed with mediocrities, that citizens regularly elect corrupt and incompetent governments, that people are increasingly given to disseminating their opinions in the media and other public forums, phone-ins and talkbacks now available to them without any foundation in acquired knowledge or rigorous thinking, that highly paid CEOs are in the process of destroying the economy which supports the very corporations they direct, that School Boards have no understanding of what substantive education means or requires and instead collude in the numbing down of the generations, and that public intellectuals and an elite cadre of university professors trade in fashionable shibboleths, dubious political and social polemics and ephemeral topicalities? (With regard to the latter, a young email correspondent lamented after attending a lecture I gave on the subject: "How can the educated play a part in changing society when most of these people do not function past their education?")
In the long view, the situation seems entirely hopeless. The odds are that Frank Smith is right. Our civilization, or its binding institutions, of which education is perhaps the most important, is like a dynamical system gone out of control. Whatever we try to fix inevitably gets worse, in part because our solutions are either administrative or technological—solutions which merely avoid or exacerbate the problem. There seems nothing we can do to restore the balance notwithstanding our most dedicated and presumably enlightened efforts, since the collectivity massively refuses to respond and the light of reason is everywhere going out. Perhaps George Steiner is also right when he places his hope in small, monastic flares of intellectual light dotted here and there across the cultural landscape, reviving Max Weber's notion of frail enclaves of enlightenment as the last resort of a civilization sinking into darkness. But is this a feasible scenario? To begin with, as Barry Lopez says in Arctic Dreams, "The good minds still do not find each other often enough." Moreover, the problem with jumping off the Titanic is that there is really nowhere to jump. Everything is the Titanic: the ship, the sea, the land, the lifeboats, even the iceberg. Such apocalyptic counsels, of course, disregarding their improbable character, have been offered many times before, perhaps most famously by Horace in Epode 16 where he notes that Rome is about to do what its enemies never could, namely, destroy itself, and recommends abandoning the ship of state. "Let us be on our way, all citizens,/or those above the dull-witted herd: defeatists and weaklings/can rest indolently on their unlucky beds." The predicament, as we have seen, is that there is no landfall, no remote utopia waiting to receive us.
Robyn Sarah, in an article in the Montreal literary journal Maisonneuve, comes at the question from a different angle but arrives at a similar conclusion. What really accounts for the extraordinary popularity of the recent Hollywood blockbuster on the sinking of the Titanic? It must be something more, she reasons, than the romantic subplot and the tinseltown glamour. The movie "struck a chord with the popular psyche as we steamed towards a new millennium" because it "bowls us over that what seemed so substantial—the multi-storied castle of lit ballrooms, grand staircases, fine furnishings, a self-sufficient man-made world of beauty and luxury—could slip so swiftly into oblivion." People have identified psychologically, culturally and civically with the fate of the great liner, intuiting that our Western way of life—"first-class tickets for all, lifeboats for none," as she excusably overstates the case—is no longer sustainable.
But just possibly, some fortunate individuals may be able to prolong the naufrage by taking whatever measures may improbably arise to forestall, if only for a time, some isolated portion of the disaster, or at the very least to make it interesting, like characters in a modern Decameron or "The Masque of the Red Death" or some baroque Fellini flick. We cannot prevent the ship from sinking but we can at least go on pumping to try and keep it afloat for as long as possible. As a character in Robert Walser's surrealistic 1909 novel Jakob Von Gunten says, "Concerts and theatres are going down and down, the standpoint sinks lower and lower. There is, to be sure, still something like society to set the tone but it no longer has the capacity for striking the notes of dignity and subtlety of mind. But there are still books—in a word, don't ever despair" (translated by Christopher Middleton). I take this advice seriously, refusing despair but not wishing to avert my gaze. For myself, then, barring the unforeseen, once I have completed my present writing project, I intend to turn to other things, to writing solely for pleasure rather than from some mingled sense of formal obligation, and to Houdini-ing my way out of the profession, confining my didactic impulses to the patience of my family and to small ensembles of serious and devoted students wherever I may be lucky enough to meet them rather than to featureless collectivities whose defining traits are inertia, ignorance and a moral blindness to the world. As for those who are ostensibly committed to change, generally members of academe or newspaper pundits, they are too often victims of their own ideological infatuations. No meaningful discussion or fruitful exchange is possible with an ideologue.
I should take a moment to clarify what I mean by "serious and devoted students." I certainly don't mean those heaven-sent prodigies who flash like comets across the pedagogical sky or the more common investors in knowledge for future security and remuneration, but those who are introspectively aware of a lack in themselves and willing to do something about it. In other words, those who know that they do not know and whose affective lives are powered by that explosive amalgam of delight and discontent—delight in learning, discontent with themselves. These are the kinds of students to whom Augustine refers in his De libro arbitrio, who have realized that "No man has been deprived of his ability to know that it is essential to find out what it is that it is damaging not to be aware of."