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Failure of Imagination


              In presenting the final report of the 9-11 Commission on July 22, 2004, commission chairman Thomas H. Kean stressed one failure above all that let that disaster happen:  failure of imagination. 

              Kean and the other bi-partisan commission members urged major administrative changes, aiming to fix a seriously dysfunctional Washington bureaucracy.  Yet the real cause of imaginative dead ends lay outside of even this necessary reshuffling.  They missed it.  They missed seeing a logic from elsewhere that for years had allowed our multiple "intelligence" agencies to withdraw more and more into themselves.  Thus these agencies failed to "connect the dots":  they were all following this other, pervasive, all-too-normal logic.  Their well-educated personnel had been raised in it – had all come from an otherwise respectable nationwide system of higher education which for long has been teaching everybody the habits of thinking in departments professionally isolated from all others.  The 9-11 Commission wasn't going to change this, much less see it.  So our schools continue to set everybody into the same careerist tracks – everybody yet isolated by the same mutually-allergic specialization conceits.

              Our Washington officials signal this careerism by their language – the way they speak in alphabet soups of acronyms, passive voice, abstraction, euphemism, and jargon.  Their language reveals how, agency by agency, all nestle into the flow chart turfs of institutional privilege – or climb the ladders of Byzantine hierarchies.  In corporate academia language similarly shows how academic careerists also withdraw into most-sophisticated ghettos.  All isolate by same-discipline references.  Tenure depends on it, as do dissertation approval, promotions, and conference plenary honors.  Literacy withers.  Multiple-choice exams rule.  An ongoing morphing with the corporate textbook industry aids in molding imagination into a worship of systems, hierarchies, modular units, and step-by-step exercises.  Story-telling and narrative give way to syntax that hinges on ever-weak verbs, typically only variants of "to be" (is, was, are) assertions.  Sentences may begin and end with long gerundives or adverbial clauses, but in the middle of them the weak verbs reduce all to tag ends of labeling.  For both corporate government and corporate academia, results dovetail.  Everybody aims for the promised empowerment of niche-pretend specialization; everybody throws over messy humanity for a uniformity of systematic "objectivity" and proudly emotionless expertise.

              From within this culture, solipsism grows:  our reduced ability to see "others."

              The other day at San Francisco State, where I teach a "communication" course, one of the other adjuncts accosted me in the hallway.  (Only adjuncts, temporary part-timers, teach literacy at SFSU, as throughout the California State University system.)  A heavy-set young woman, Peg "had a bone to pick" with me.  Not all adjuncts put on weight as Peg has, and not all work the overload hours she works, either – though far too many take on heavy course loads in order to make a living teaching, and then have little personal life, save eating, too often alone.  Peg, however, turns her weight to advantage, her gait, step, and carriage asserting authority.  Like the tenured she models herself after, she takes great pride in teaching by the most professional of textbook protocols – her syllabus seven or eight pages every term, itemizing every step her students must turn.  Except for her frequency of weary sighs and deadpan register, Peg never complains of her work load, focusing rather on the stoicism of checkpoint-by-checkpoint procedure, hard work, and everybody's elevation above the merely personal.

Turns out that a student I'd sent to administration came to her.  This puzzled me.  I'd sent him to administration because he'd had an administrative problem.  (The college requires this "communication" course of all seniors, but never schedules anywhere near adequate openings for them.  Not only is this course mandatory for the seniors, but is also prerequisite to another senior year course required of them.)  In the previous term Peg had this student who, she decided, was failing.  She advised him to withdraw.  So next term he came to me, along with the usual 30 others desperate to get in, beyond the 32 already enrolled.  I over-enrolled a few, based on their place in wait list chronology.  Among the others yet insisting on their need, the guy from Peg's earlier course cited $5,000 additional expense to his parents, if he had to stay in school the coming fall term, just for the one course.  He'd otherwise have graduated, except for this one requirement.  A few international students had similar financial urgency.  I sent them all to administration, saying I'd give them credit if administration approved, not for their taking the course, but for the fact that while they needed it, the college refused to provide the chances to take it.  (If it scheduled more courses, even hiring more instructors, it would make a fortune – tuition from only three international students suffice to pay an adjunct's salary – but the California State University system has no such honest accounting. 

              So the guy went to Peg, and she now wanted to know from me why I'd told him she could change his grade from "W" to "CR."  I said I never knew about any W, never knew he'd taken and withdrawn from a previous course by her, and never sent him to her.  Peg insisted I had – that she'd seen a paper copy he carried of my e-mail.

              Peg had misread the e-mail.  But, as a "communication" instructor, she prided herself on her professionalism.   She herself – rigorous, disciplined, impartial, systematic – would never misread anything.

              Peg blamed me for the student arguing with her for twenty minutes.  He'd invaded her professional aura.  This upset her so much that she wouldn't let me describe the actual e-mail I'd sent.  She didn't see me as colleague anymore – just another male, like her student.  When I copied her the e-mail from my hard drive, she refused to acknowledge it.

              In some ways this incident says that, even if academics try the skills and ethics of Essaying Differences, solipsism yet will rule:  the all-too-human conceits of deeply-hidden agendas will ever defeat any of us trying to come out of ourselves for "others."

             This, the cynical view, deserves some attention.  In the summer of 2004, when starting up the next summer-term course in "communication," again I had to start all over with the great, all-pervading "original sin" for everybody – even when the previous course had just finished making some progress in stirring those 32 out of their originating isolations.  The predicament just keeps coming back – authorities have done their work so assiduously for so many years – we live in an entitlement culture of so many lies.  Peg believes her professionalism should keep her elevated above whatever human issues might yet be stirring.  Our "intelligence" officials in Washington believe the world should correspond to their bureaucratic comfort zones.  And it happens with my students.  When I ask them to cite others – to quote, reference, acknowledge peers – most can do it, but   initially only briefly:  another academic game before they want to turn discussion back to "me," "my" experience, "my" opinions, conclusions, judgments, and summaries.

  It doesn't take a cynic to see how commercial America has taught us our conceits.  Brilliant, decent minds have told rueful stories of how advertising and other mass media have built entitlement messages into everything – ever the same promises for "me, me, me." David Riesman and Paul Goodman said so many years ago; Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry, Neil Postman, Douglas Rushkoff, James W. Loewen, Nick Tosches, and Michael Wolff have said so recently.  Just by living in commercial culture we all bite the lure that we'll be good, complete, finalized, correct, loved, and at closure if only we buy into whatever our orthodoxies model for us.  Students expect the conveyor belt to clank them farther along – preferably with "A"s if only they do their given turns, exercises, and jumps.  They don't want to be changed – or imagine themselves or anyone else personally involved as people.  They think the machinery lets them evolve as well as they might – a process that has them following school sets of information consumerism – geared to secure career identity – just as, outside, cultural consumerism has them assembling public identity by clothes, cars, music, food, interior design, and landscape.  Solipsism says everybody must similarly be doing as we are.  There are no "others," except those so "other" as to be beyond us.

            The 9-11 Commission thinks changes in administration in Washington might spur bureaucracies to link with each other.  It might happen – America's musicians learned to do it.  Essaying Differences says, however, that we could all get a bit more out of our ruts, if only we'd only look more closely at how we all inhabit our multiple cultures – highly including those lies where we're all variously stuck, implicated, and linked.

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