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Academic Ghetto Triumphalism

a promise for escape from specialization . . .

This last month, as luck would have it, they gave a conference on multidisciplinary studies at San Francisco State University.  I heard about it earlier that same week, when one of the local National Public Radio affiliates hosted the conference organizers and its keynote speaker, Leonard Shlain.  A surgeon and medical doctor, Shlain has written several good books, all drawing multiply from the biological sciences, mythology, art, and literature.  The conference began Friday that week, and continued all day Saturday. 

but he gives a canned talk . . .     

I began having first misgivings that Friday evening, as Leonard Shlain gave his keynote address.  All was well as he nimbly proceeded with the all varieties of reference that pepper his books, and with a PowerPoint disc illuminating over 200 images.  Copies of this disc, he announced, were available for sale, along with the newest paperback versions of his books, which the San Francisco State bookstore had set up on a table at the back of the room.  This mercantile aspect might have been fair enough – many of the 75 or 80 people in the audience happily bought these items – yet it bothered me to see how his talk fit his obviously well-rehearsed, packaged chronology of PowerPoint images.  He'd given this same talk many times before, he noted, as he pointed to his having been guest speaker at many illustrious conferences in the U.S. and more important ones abroad.

Shlain fielded questions after his talk, so he had some human interaction with the room.  But at no time did he refer to anyone there in link or other recognition of any of the issues, values, or themes that might have been brewing in them – not to the conference hosts, whom he'd met at least by the time of the earlier Monday NPR interview with them,  nor to any of the other conference speakers, those whose names and topics were on the program, or the one young undergraduate woman who'd also been in the Monday radio interview.  Yes, he exhibited his own abundant skills in bravo multidisciplinary delivery Friday evening, but it bothered me how nothing in it connected to any actual people there.

and these are the good guys . . .

The next day, as over a dozen speakers took their turns giving talks – most of them glued to prepared texts – I continued to feel the same as I had hearing keynoter Shlain the evening before.  Except for a couple brief nods to the introducing host, nobody made connection with anybody else in the room.  Nobody riffed in any way off anything any previous speaker said.  Nobody cited any current world, national, or local news, thus also foreclosing those rapport possibilities.  Everybody instead just plunged on in repetitive modes of showing off "me," each vaunting oneself in arranging views, each stressing the same pose of one's elevation and remove from all others.

Only a few of the talks stood out for performance artistry that differed much from the others.  The undergraduates who gave talks clung to their prepared texts in parallel sets of white-knuckle delivery monotony – understandably enough, given their youth – but several of the older and more experienced speakers similarly chose metronome styles. Nevertheless I liked the content in one by a woman who made connections between the jugendstil or fin-de-siècle graphic design of Arthur Rackham and Edward Lear, and children's book writers of their era, that of Peter Pan and Oscar Wilde.  I liked the young Hispanic fellow who was flown in from New Jersey to chart the evolution of classic Greek writers whose views of foreigners introduced generalized evils their predecessors never saw.  I enjoyed, somewhat, the day's perhaps-inevitable dose of California kookiness in the one young grad student who flaunted casualness as he sauntered on stage unshaven, his hair a mess, his shirttail half in and half out – and then relied on no text, loony smiling as he forgot much of what he intended to say.  The entire Saturday varied only thus superficially in speaker personality.  In one thing no one varied:  no one tried to locate any of one's issues in the context of any others there.

why humanity got left out the schoolhouse doors . . .

Students and teachers could refer to themes and moral issues in actual people in the same enterprises with them.  All of us have values, personal themes we announce wittingly or not in public.  All of us have one common theme, too:  it began for each of us at birth, when each of us left our fetal forms with that first rude fact of expulsion.  Our humanity differs thereafter – but not much – in how we all learn to deal with that first, primal fact of separation.  Humanity itself, as a term or an ethic, has one given for all individuals in all cultures.  It measures how we accommodate Edenic loss.  This original trauma and betrayal lingers in all of us as we individually learn how much we can trust in further relationships:  how much we can risk continuity of parents, families, communities, work peers, friends, lovers.  We lose them all, yet our beliefs in them chart our humanity.

The wish to hold on of course tugs and pulls:  hope that things will last.  We all have this wish; it remains from our fetal forms.  Not so much part of our humanity, but counter to it, this fetal, or vegetable inheritance has us less to see and embrace humanity than to wish its vulnerabilities away. 

If God created humanity, it comes flawed, all human beings subject to birth's primal betrayal.  All acquire our various degrees of reconciling ourselves to that ever-echoing initiation of humanity.  If we understand God at all, in every culture we do so by how we deal with the propelling fact that we were each born into time.  Another power whispers to us that we might ignore and evade this fundamental inheritance of humanity.  Various cultures call this other power the snake, the devil, or the demagogue.  Whatever we call it, it always sings its siren song of humanity's complications as being divine hoax, and we good souls entitled to the original comforts of fetal belonging.  Snake, devil, or demagogue:  it also invariably begs to transform humanity into the promise of power.

The wish that time will stop, as if we could make that happen, demonically enough announces triumph.  Those who think they can triumph most, in turn most covet competition, their god being not just aloofness or security, but power.  And thus it is that the arts have all but disappeared from the curriculum of children in American schools, replaced by a system administratively heavy with incremental and numerically measurable methodologies, modular textbook/electronic media interface packages, and genuflection by all to standardized tests.  In thrall to rankings, the high priests of this system can scientifically compute who's number one, and bestow identity to all the others by their mathematically-descending chronology.   This is the new god for our schools.  Thus our children reduce, lose, and atrophy their cooperative possibilities in performing with others.  Thus are cut the teamwork arts of choruses, chorales, instrumental combos, theater troupes, debate clubs, documentary projects, and cuisine groups.  Thus teachers and students at San Francisco State methodically learn to position themselves taking turns showing one's self as triumphantly poised above humanity – even in a program dedicated to the multidisciplinary.  Thus we all learn the conceits of competitive me-ism:  putative free agents grubbing for grades, rankings in standardized tests, and specialized "knowledge" divorced from the arts as if the arts anymore but devolve from a corporate America marketing them to us as the fruits of the marketplace consumerism we worship.

No wonder students of all ages, races, and classes, left to themselves, dress in the gangsta rap styles that express scorn at the institutional lies of public life.

in spite of the death trip of our political and academic leaders . . .

While our political leaders serve corporate America for its aggressions, and our academics withdraw into their specialization turfs, we nevertheless remain richly blessed.  America percolates as it long has with poets, musicians, film makers, photographers, writers, chefs, fashion designers, transport stylists, and landscape and building architects. Even while we have become a super power whose dead souls drive relentless war on the rest of humanity, our arts well signal the human relationships we have in the meantime.

In 1948 John Ford made Fort Apache, the first in his eventual trio of cavalry films set Monument Valley, and other parts of the desert and mountain southwest.  In this first from the trio, Henry Fonda played Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, a man brazenly set in organizational conceits.  He couldn't accept any advice from his second-in-command Kirby Yorke, especially when that advice contradicted institutional orthodoxy for unusual views of actual people – the Indians – circumstances placed in the same theater of events.  John Ford had John Wayne playing Yorke, the grounded leader of troops who knew the Indians, and knew the reality of failed reservation policies and corrupt government agents.  Although John Wayne is famous for blustery, gung-ho, super-manly arrogance from the many westerns he made with lesser directors, in Fort Apache – as in all John Ford's films – he well represents nuanced wisdom.  But he loses to the martinet of specialization and turf protocols, and the Henry Fonda commanding officer rushes his men into a slaughter like that of the reckless George Armstrong Custer.  Fort Apache isn't just a film.  It's a prologue to the key events of subsequent U.S. history.  A generation later the same specialized "best and brightest" rushed us under the cover of their newest technology and systems management into the quagmire called Vietnam.  Another generation and the CEOs who run our sprawl culture have run us again culturally unprepared and naïve into Middle Eastern miasms.

Such imaginations might be history, finally, if only we'd let the arts, especially team arts, back into our schools for children.  They could see the subtleties humanity takes by virtue of the performance dynamics that inhere in all humanity.  And when we really want to see our humanity, linked as it is with "others" and with multiple cultures, we can:   with the literate challenges of Essaying Differences.

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