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Longing for Knowledge in the ‘Efficient’ University

6 July 2016

For those of us who teach and who love teaching, there are few things worse for a classroom than apathy. I even prefer anger and resentment over indifference — at least you know the students are engaged enough to be angry with you or your topic. As a new professor in the mid-Aughts, I took it as part of my job to inspire desire, to show students why a course or even just one day’s topic mattered. I came up with all kinds of dog and pony shows, games, socratic examinations to try to convince students that they should be interested in what I had to say. A decade later, I recently sat through a meeting where a senior colleague expounded what an important part of our jobs it is, as university professors, to help students understand why what we are teaching is important. But I’ve begun to wonder if that’s really our “job.”

I began my life as a university professor with a strong feeling that teaching is a vocation, a calling of sorts, work worth doing. I also believed that I could change the world, one mind at a time. The naïve hubris of younger me makes me a cringe just a bit now. I do love what I research and I love what I teach and in general (there are exceptions) I love my students. But a calling? Changing the world?

Max Weber attempted to explain the loss of cultural depth and meaningful lives in European society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through a reexamination of the social structures of capitalism as he knew them. He famously argued that, contra Marx, capitalism had to be understood as something more than a social system imposed from the top down or even internalized ideology; for Weber, the meaninglessness of life under capitalism—what he called, roughly in English, “disenchantment of every day life”—came from a radical reduction of all human values into an efficiency calculus (which ironically, he traced historically to values that arose from Protestantism, which was trying for its part to re-enchant the world). Culture had been, for Weber, rationalized, that is, reduced to the rational cost-benefit analysis of maximizing profits through the quantification of time and money and the use of science as the primary tool (and justification) for that rationalization. This made the functioning of not just the capitalist economy, but all of society’s bureaucracies, laws, practices appear rational when they saved “time and money.” All other activities or values lose out. Thus have we built for ourselves, in Weber’s most famous of phrases, an iron cage of rationality, market rationality, from which we can’t escape. I have to wonder what he would’ve made of the intensity of rationalization in the neoliberal order of our time, orders of magnitude worse than what he was experiencing 100 years ago.

During that same period of time, education reformers in the U.S. were divided between those who thought that this kind of rationalization should be applied to schools, where it would increase the efficiency of education; and those who thought that such methods of organizing learning were actually a kind of miseducation, as John Dewey called it. Of course all of us who sat in rows doing exercises out of a pre-designed text book to prepare for standardized tests know, the industrial model of education won out.

We now live in a world where every public dollar spent on education must be justified, rationalized as it were; where classroom content must be monitored from above through officious bureaucratic flows of power and control; where students are reduced to numbers. Our students come from a world of pinched opportunities and narrow goals of a kind of mobility that data reveal haven’t existed in the U.S. since the early 1970s. K-12 education has become the prequel to college; and college has become job training; and at all stops along the way, students are widgets and teachers are “deliverers of goods.”

And the apathy in the classroom is astounding. After twenty years teaching (the last ten of those as a full-time professor), the change is palpable. I’m not really saying anything new or earth shattering here, especially to people in education. But I’m wondering at a world where the wonder is more or less gone, the excited student a rare endangered animal you’re lucky to spot a few times a semester, a world where my job is to convince students they should care. Is that even possible?

In the Jewish tradition, which has a couple thousand years of history of teaching and learning, there is an old idea of the sacredness (the enchantment) of the teacher student relationship. To simplify a bit, the old Talmudic idea was that when a student learns something new, it is as a revelation from God; so for the teacher, when the student learns something new, the student becomes the revelator, the conduit to the divine for the teacher. A Rabbi Shapira, who lived in Poland during the Shoah, struggled with the role of a teacher in this equation, especially given some of the contradictions within the Talmud about the role and holiness of the teacher. Whereas the Talmud taught that a true teacher was like an a messenger from god, Shapira could not reconcile the fact that teachers are just humans like all others. He taught that students should seek out the teachers who are, from time to time, not always, maybe not even often, but from time to time, like an angel.**

The gulf between between an ancient traditional way of seeing the teacher-student interaction against the rationalized, industrialized, neoliberalized teacher-student interaction is wide and profound beyond words, on both sides of the relationship. In this old Jewish tradition, I see another perhaps more profound dynamic, one of desire. The student wants to learn, experiences the wonder of “revelation,” seeks out the teacher who can provide that experience, who is, from time to time, like a divine messenger despite being utterly ordinary and human most of the time. The teacher desires the revelation that can only come from the student, for it is the student who is learning, opening, changing.

I do not long for an old yeshiva, which were surely as filled with as many bored and apathetic students than engaged. This isn’t for me about a nostalgia for a halcyon learning environment (although I do think the Socratic life of wandering around the countryside in togas talking to friends about philosophy sounds pretty awesome). Rather, it’s to highlight how far from a revelation our industrialized education model is. It still happens, of course. I still have every semester a dwindling handful of students who are learning and want to learn and having those enlightening moments of uncovering hidden knowledge, of newness in the mind. But I do see how both the larger culture of education in the U.S. (and perhaps the world)‚ which treats education as a means to an end, a pecuniary end no less, and the actual structures of the university I teach in are reaching as far away from those revelatory moments as possible. I would even argue that structure of the modern university in many ways prevents or forestalls even the possibility of a seeking student and a seeking, imperfect teacher finding each other to share a moment of revelation.

*His full name was Kalonymus Kalman Shapira; he and his congregation were deported to Auschwitz in late 1944. He and his writings are no known as the Eish Kadesh.

**See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (New York: Schocken Books, 2015): 28-30.

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