The Concept of “School” is a Rotten One, by Dan Coffey | An Alternative to Dull Submission

Some of the dullest  people I know have doctorates. The letters “Ph.D.” after their name should be sounded out as “ffd,” as in “Elmer Fudd.” Actually, the cartoon character was kind of cute and unpretentious, a far cry from your average Ph.D.

Noam Chomsky taught at Harvard, and thus enjoyed a rarified atmosphere where waiters served tea and coffee from a silver tea service at faculty meetings. Here’s what he had to say about intellectual life in Ivy League America.

"If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, ‘You’re an asshole,’ which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, ‘That’s idiotic,’ when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job."

I think he’s probably talking about the humanities and social sciences more than the hard sciences and engineering, but maybe the filtering process is at work there, too. If so, I imagine our prisons are veritable wells of creativity, mostly unused except for the not-so-simple task of staying alive inside prison. If we ever want to sample thinking out of the box, we should go into the box of prisons, and ask those bad boys for their opinions. At least we can probably be assured they’ll tell us what they really think, without wasting a lot of time trying to guess what is the “right” answer.

The problem lies not so much with human nature as with the institutions we’ve invented. The whole concept of “school” is a rotten one. Probably the first institution that did a good job of trying to fit every round peg into a square hole was religion. Here’s what newspaperman H. L. Mencken had to say about that:

"The truth is, as every one knows, that the great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man—that is, virtuous in the YMCA sense—has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading. . . ."

We all know this to be true. But when faced with these realities, we wind up defending our universities and religions, for even scarier than knowing we’re being oppressed by the stupid and the dull is admitting that their hold over us is tenuous, at best, and we really could throw off those shackles and embrace . . . what? Hmm, there lies the rub.

To find an alternative to bovine submission would take work, risk, fun, patience, cooperation, real communication, and the courage to face things as they really are and deny ourselves the luxury of wishful thinking. No wonder we prefer to lower our heads and munch grass. Keep taking out those student loans, keep enrolling in classes, keep showing up Sunday morning at church where they sing the old familiar hymns and read the old familiar words. Faith of our fathers and all.

If there is a living, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God with a sense of humor, then he doesn’t want his human creatures to be cattle. He wants them to use the gifts and capabilities he gave them. He wants them to stop hiding in bogs and backwaters and swim out to the middle of the stream, where the strong current can sweep them downstream.

Helen Keller, born blind and deaf, said the following: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” When Albert Schweitzer, tenured professor of theology at a Swiss University, realized he was on top of the world in his late twenties, he decided to jump off and start over. He resigned his professorship, went through medical school, and spent the rest of his life in the Congo, where he served the poorest of the poor, finally heeding the gospel message he had previously been espousing from his lofty ivy tower.

In all my reading, I never found that he later regretted giving up the comfort and security of his cushy job. Helen Keller had something to say about that, too. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. . . . Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure."

You can buy a whole book of Dan Coffey’s essays online: My World & Welcome To It.

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