Pretend you never went to school

by craigepplin

Yesterday in my Colonial –> Independence survey class we discussed the first chapter of Ángel Rama’s La ciudad letrada, one of the most canonical texts in the field of Latin American studies. One of the quotes that sparked a long conversation comes at the end of the chapter. Rama writes:

Aunque aisladas dentro de la inmensidad espacial y cultural, ajena y hostil, a las ciudades competía dominar y civilizar su contorno, lo que se llamó primero “evangelizar” y después “educar”. Aunque el primer verbo fue conjugado por el espíritu religioso y el segundo por el laico y agnóstico, se trataba del mismo esfuerzo de transculturación a partir de la lección europea. (27; emphasis mine)

[Though cities were isolated within the spatial and cultural immensity, alien and hostile, the responsibility for dominating and civilizing their environs fell to them, a process first called “evangelism” and then “education.” Though the first verb was conjoined to a religious spirit and the second to a lay, agnostic one, we’re talking about the same effort of transculturation based on the European lesson.]

Rama sees a single process of domination and civilization (etymologically: turning the countryside into the city, or rather branding it with the mark of the city). Evangelism, education, etc…. It’s all the same exercise of power. My question for the class was whether they agreed.

Most of them did, and the discussion turned too briefly to whether they thought that all education, up to the present day implied this sort of violent imposition. Some students accepted this strong version of Rama’s claim: Education, goes the argument, is just a rose by another name.

I don’t fully agree, though I don’t fully disagree and I love the critical spirit inherent in this claim. The devil is in the details, and not only in the details of an actual state of affairs. Sometimes the details that matter lie in the potentialities present in that particular state of affairs. We have to ask ourselves what possibilities for change are opened up when a religious exercise of power acquires a secular sensibility. I cannot help but think that more and better horizons were opened up by the abandonment of religious hegemony, despite (or because of, in another understanding) the new oppressive arrangements ushered in by the modern state. (This belief owes doubtless to a stubborn and yet Quixotic and uncertain faith in Enlightenment ideals, which comes with the territory in my profession.)

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This inconclusive discussion, which I hope continues throughout the quarter, made me think of a series of quotations that I’ve recently been collecting in the back of my mind. They all have to do with shedding the privileges afforded by education, the hierarchy maintained by meritocracy. The first comes toward the end of an n+1 editorial from last year. The argument of the column is that education produces an elite that, if it wants to form part of a democratization process, must abandon the credentialing university system whose appetite for debt-financed students knows no bounds. The article ends with a set of proposals. Here’s the second to last paragraph:

Quadrupling the supply of gold stickers is one way to devalue the credential; getting rid of the sticker system altogether is another. In our pay-to-play society, many of those toward the bottom of the educational pyramid are getting fleeced; others, though, are getting a leg up. Because it’s callous and unreasonable to ask the disadvantaged to decline opportunities to advance, subverting credentialism must start at the top. What would happen to the price of a bachelor’s degree if the 42,000 high school valedictorians graduating this spring banded together and refused to go to college? And is it too much to ask the Democratic Party to refrain from running any candidate for national office who holds a degree from an Ivy League school?

This ambitious proposal is then turned back on the editors themselves, and perhaps, by extension, also on the readers:

Then there are our own credentials. Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.

This symbolic gesture is inspired by a quote from Che Guevara, which led me immediately to recall another essay, this one from some forty years ago, that ended similarly by invoking his example. Calibán, by Roberto Fernández Retamar, ends with a long quote from Guevara’s address at the Universidad de Las Villas. He addresses his fellow universitarios directly:

Y a los señores profesores, mis colegas, tengo que decirles algo parecido: hay que pintarse de negro, de mulato, de obrero y de campesino; hay que bajar al pueblo, hay que vibrar con el pueblo, es decir, las necesidades de Cuba entera.

[And to the professors, my colleagues, I must say something similar: One must paint oneself black, mulatto, in the colors of the workers and peasants; one must descend to be among the people, vibrate with the people, which is to say, the necessities of all of Cuba.]

Retamar concludes, glossing this quote in terms of the Caliban-Ariel paradigm that runs throughout his essay, that the intellectual must ask Caliban for the “privilege of a place in his glorious, uprisen ranks.”

In both cases, Calibán and the n+1 editorial, the idea of abolishing intellectual privilege involves negation of one’s status. To be in solidarity with the less-privileged means becoming one with them, which ultimately means, in both cases, abolishing the machine of differentiation, the university in this case, or at least conceiving it according to another model.

I wholeheartedly support efforts to abolish privilege. However, the last quote I have in mind gets at the difficulty inherent in such efforts. It’s from a famous song by Pulp, “Common People.” (I can’t really get behind the video, which glosses up the rougher lyrics, and besides it’s censored: The word “screw” is apparently too racy for MTV.):

 

The song’s narrator meets a woman who studied at a fancy school and who wants to live like common people. He’s mildly entertained, and besides sexually interested, so he goes along with it. But he insists that the whole thing remains a farce. Why? Because, he tells her: “You’ll never live like common people. / You’ll never do whatever common people do. / You’ll never fail like common people. / You’ll never watch your life slide out of view.” This owes on the one hand to the fact of financial privilege (“when you’re laid in bed at night / watching roaches climb the wall / if you called your dad he could stop it all”), but on the other to the indelible trace of education. He tells her, pointedly and ironically, “Pretend you never went to school,” even as he recognizes that this will never be enough: You can’t wash that education off, no matter how hard you try.

Privilege works like that. It can’t just be abandoned by desirous fiat. It lives in one’s taste and lexicon (etc.), in one’s habitus. The problems inherent in this situation–the problems it holds in store for any effort to forge an egalitarian society–were not long ago fleshed out in a New Inquiry review of Christopher Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites. The author of the review has in mind a sort of solution for the insidious, often invisible, transfer of privilege, but it’s not one that most would endorse:

The only alternative to an oligarchic society then is a radical leveling, a forever jubilee. The details of this become irrelevant if the outcome is assured: no false diversity in resources or power, only the teeming difference of all things human. No notion of human deserts, no thoughts of reciprocity, no assumption that exchange is beneficial or proper, no anachronistic concept that one can justify one’s conditions through reference to their behavior. And the leveling must be enforced by all means necessary. Today’s liberals love to debate regulation against redistribution. When you’re facing a man with a loaded gun, what’s the difference?

The only alternative is a violent, uninterrupted transfer of every excess from the privileged to the non-privileged. The mechanics of this are no less complex than the reform of institutions–I certainly can’t design a mechanism for a forever jubilee–but I admire how far-reaching this concept is in its conclusions. I got goosebumps when I read the sentence, quoted above, that says that “a master’s degree […] burns brighter than a draft card,” but I know deep down that that’s not really true. Or rather I know that burning my degree, and everything implied by this action, will do no good. The “forever jubilee” might be the only alternative to symbolic gestures. Or better put, it might be the necessary unfolding of any effort to achieve real equality.