The Subversive Education
TL;DR: Real education is subversive. It’s about nuance and irony — challenging the status quo. This is what I do.
Values worth having are not worth having blindly. They must be examined critically and thoroughly in the harsh light of day by every generation. We must be deliberate in choosing and supporting our values if they are to have, well, value. It’s in this nebulous area where real education is integral for a healthy and prosperous society.
Real education is the water that cleans the grit of fear and ignorance out of our eyes. It washes away the superstition that allows us to be cowardly and hateful. It clears the way for us to see the possibilities that our lives could have free of the detritus of fearful tradition to trip us up. The New York Times obituary of Christopher Hitchens makes a similar point:
|“||[Hitchens] also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.||”|
Not only do the things in the hate column inspire hate, they also try their best to destroy those things in the love column — the things that are a part of the subversive education.
I’m not talking about revolution. Subversion is more akin to quiet resistance à la Michel de Certeau’s “tactics”: marginalizes members of a collective that manipulate events within the system in order to precipitate transient victories constituted by everyday practices. In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson puts it this way: “intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” Later, the protagonist is discussing a similar topic with the constable; he asks her which path will she take: “conformity or rebellion.” She answers:
|“||Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded — they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
Real education teaches the subtleties in life — the nuances. It teaches us to revel in ambiguity, not run from it. Contradiction is a time for consideration and dialog, not guns.
Yet, the demagogy that teaches absolutes and obeisance might also be a necessary part of education, only in giving the truly educated something to subvert and challenge. As Ted Nelson points out: primary education is more about training us how to behave than it is about teaching knowledge. Creativity is sacrificed for conformity. When we get through this structured system of imposed boredom and systematized indoctrination, we are called “citizens” and “patriots” and “normal.” If we stop here, we’re never truly educated.
Only after getting through my first two years as an undergraduate did I begin to get a real education. In these classes, I took an active part in my learning; instead of sitting in grids, we sat around conference tables; instead of being told what I should be learning, I was able to discover the knowledge for myself under the guidance of the professor. This was a time when poetry began to sing for me. This was a time when I discovered that the way I had always ordered my life — white, heterosexual, catholic, capitalist, male — was not the only way to see the world. In fact, it was a fairly narrow way to look at life, and I have since discarded most of those arbitrary categories.
Maybe this is why I have always liked computers. Again, Stephenson gives us a look at a potential future for education in The Diamond Age. The primer that Hackworth illegally compiles for his daughter falls into the hands of a disenfranchised little girl living in a future China. The idea for The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is thought up by a Lord who tells the actual builder to consider what it means to be subversive. Hackworth at least unconsciously takes this message to heart and invents a book that allows the reader to find her own knowledge. The book does not work by itself — there is a “ractor” (a teacher-guide) named Miranda that is just as integral to Nell’s education as the primer — but it is a key component to subverting the dominance of the ideologies that would have kept Nell a second-class citizen her whole life. This primer reminds me of what is beginning to happen with education in the digital age. Or at least the possibility for a real education.
While much of education is the learning of what our parents and other authorities say is True, it’s as much about understanding how it’s untrue — of finding our own ways and discarding those truths that no longer work for us. I teach literature, irony, humor, nuance, subtlety. My job is to help others dispel their own tyrannies of thought.
I teach subversion.
- Originally written on December 11, 2011 and published on Medium. Christopher Hitchens, one of the intellects that guided my thought over the years, died yesterday. He never taught me what to think, but how to think. He was an iconoclast and intellectual, and I will miss his voice immensely. Rest in peace, Hitch.
- Grimes, William (December 16, 2011). "Christopher Hitchens, Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, Dies at 62". New York Times. Arts. Retrieved 2018-12-11.
- Certeau, Michel de (2002). The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Rendall, Steven F. Los Angeles: U of CA P. ISBN 9780520271456.
- Stephenson, Neal (2000). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Spectra. p. 173.
- Stephenson 2000, p. 177.
- See Nelson, Theodor H. (1974). Computer Lib / Dream Machines. [Unidentified]: Nelson. ISBN 9780893470029.