My continuing struggle with academe . . .

Some of you know that my efforts to get a Master's, although they have meet with limited success (six completed credits!), have placed me in an environment to which I am at odds. We are not talking different approaches here or different goals, we are talking completely different wavelengths.

Blogging is my coping mechanism.

I am taking two classes, The West & The American Imagination, and New England I. In general, the first class is better than the second. This is not due to the professors since the professors are one professor (an intelligent, well-read fellow). My personal feeling is that the difference has more to do with the students and the kinds of discussions that get going. The first class tends to be more open, more varied and more grounded. The second, since nobody knows that much about Puritans, tends to be less so. If you are into making broad class/gender/religious/racial generalizations, you will find it easier to do amongst people who are uneasily informed than amongst people who actually know what they are talking about.

Unfortunately, the general underlying assumptions in both classes (and throughout the program) are the same. The principle assumption is that history/culture can be labeled and that such labeling should be the goal of intelligent, educated people.

Ironic, isn't it? So much for diversity and tolerance. Getting a degree seems to be mostly a matter, so far as I can tell, of learning how to talk right. It isn't just the labeling of (dead) people (who can't defend themselves) or the labeling of entire (seemingly monolithic) groups, i.e. Christianity is to blame for breaking our ancient connection to with nature (forget the Vikings, Beowulf, the Romans, the pyramids, Stonehenge or any other B.C.E. event that undermines that idea). It isn't just the labeling of past cultural perspectives or the labeling of past historical events, it is about labeling all of the above under words. The movement of white settlers West, the displacement of Native Americans, the creation of the National Parks, the Gold Rush, Buffalo Bill, Custer, National Progress, Thomas Cole, the Mexican War, Lewis & Clark, all get tidily swept up and disposed of as imperialism. Mining, agriculture, the National Parks, statehood, all get categorized under the term commodification.

Learning, therefore, becomes a matter of language. When one has successfully mastered the ability to label, to describe the world in the proper terms, one supposedly will be ready to graduate. Which means, I never will be, but they might have to let me go anyway.

The strength of this assumption/belief can be illustrated by tonight's topic: the National Parks. Why don't African-Americans appear to visit National Parks? asked the professor; I was there and didn't see very many. No one suggested that if we really want to know the answer, we should ask African-Americans. In fact, when a few people disputed the generalization of the question, a student informed us that we were all "uncomfortable" with the truth.

I personally was uncomfortable with the idea that a bunch of white, middle class grad students in Maine thought themselves so placed that they could slather theories (like Marxism) on an observation that might not even be meritorious in the first place. We're far removed from problematic here; we're in the whelms of utter pointlessness.

Now that I've said all this, I will say that I've run across an academic approach I like very much. I found it in a graduate thesis by a BYU student named David Allred: reflexivity. The term is useful because if you are going to fight labelers, it is useful to have a ready-to-go label with which to fight. Basically, Mr. Allred argues that the main approach to history/folklore/culture (in the last hundred years) was the classical humanist model: the outsider who applies scientific methodology to his subject. Mr. Allred points out the pros and cons of this approach: pro, it makes analysis possible and provides tools with which to do that analysis; con, the pompous, Enlightenment-era attitude that "we see THE TRUTH while you uneducated slobs don't" is annoying and inherently biased. (As one of the students in class said about yet another evil-whites-exploiting-native-cultures statement, "It's still all about us. It's still ethnocentric. We're still saying that we're in control of everything.")

Then, Allred continues, along came deconstructionalism, which states that language is culture-produced and therefore untrustworthy, which may be true but makes any discussion about anything totally unfun.

Allred then moves on to Reflexivity. Reflexivity attempts to address the problems of both the classical approach and deconstructionalism by inviting a third possibility: the outsider opens a dialog with the insiders: dialog with live participants or dialog with past records, diaries, stories; the result (book, essay, analysis) is the outcome of that dialog.

I especially like this approach. It avoids monolithic views of race/class/culture/religion. It avoids issuing blame prior to investigation (and hopefully, after). It involves humility since it means letting the insiders speak; it also means a continual reassessment of perspective and material. It involves compassion since it involves dialogs with people who are different from oneself. It's the Barack Obama approach to life.

This is what I want from education; this is, quite frankly, what I think I have a right to, since I'm paying for all this, and I'm not paying to be turned into a pompous windbag with lots of labels and overarching generalizations who thinks the world revolves around my white, egocentric, ethnocentric angsty self. I'm paying to learn, but it appears, unfortunately, that I'm going to have to do it in spite of my college.


1 comment:

Henry said...

I think you're right white liberal self-scapegoating goes hand in hand with self-promotion.

But enough about me. What do YOU think of my guilt?