Horizontal Learning: Two Bags of Books

Yesterday I walked into class with a pack full of books, and emptied them onto the table. I’d selected them the night before: non-fiction, poetry, collections of essays and stories, volumes that were for whatever reason important to me, and that I now hoped might dent my student’s apathy and antipathy towards the written word. They had the fifty minute period, I told them, to chose one of these books, read as much as they could, and write a one-page response.

Before you decide this was simply a lazy way to avoid actually teaching, I should tell you that as they read (or pretended to) I went around the room and engaging them individually, asking what they thought, if they had any questions. I told them, in some cases, where I had found the book, and how it had changed my thinking. Their faces showed, with few exceptions, the subdued animosity and boredom that formal academia usually inspires. They have told me repeatedly: they don’t don’t like to read.

The lesson, I told them, the metaphor, was this: there is never enough time. You will always be working from imperfect knowledge, forced to make inferences, filling in blanks with best guesses and pseudo-speculation. Don’t waste time, I said, telling me what you couldn’t read, or didn’t understand: write about what you did. Practice quoting a text, summarizing, pretending you know more than you actually do.

Maybe that’s all of this blog you have time to read. If not, let me back up a little to the day before: November 17th, the two month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and a global day of action. There was a rally in my city, a “walk out” at the University to protest the privatization of education, tuition hikes, the crippling effect of student debt. The only students who walked out were those whose teachers told them to. One graduate student I’d taken classes with talked about the disparity between what he was paid as a teaching assistant in the humanities (very little), and what the students were paying to be taught (an exorbitant amount). The difference, he pointed out, went to administrators, imposing new facilities, and the more profitable departments of pharmaceuticals and science (and, I wanted to add, the football team, the massive Spartan exhibitions giving students brain damage at the same time, supposedly, as education).

Let me back up a little more, one more day. In the class I teach (hundreds of miles from where I literally and figuratively live), I asked my students what the purpose was of a University. To learn about the world, they said, to prepare you for life. To meet people. Exchange ideas.

I talked then about Zuccotti park, the free library of 5,000 books, the teach-ins, general assemblies, where anyone could learn, debate, and attempt to equip themselves for the Darwinian brutalities that life in a post-industrial economy entailed, through voluntary association and spontaneous, horizontal exchange. “Why, then,” I asked them, “if the purported goals of the University are shared, in essence, by the Wall Street encampment, are we allowed to meet here to pursue those goals, while those in Liberty Plaza and other occupations are pepper-sprayed, evicted, shot with tear gas, rubber bullets, and beaten with clubs?” They didn’t say anything. I gave them a hint. “It begins with an ‘m,’ I said, and ends in ‘oney.’”

As an ecological humanist–a scholar of the biosphere of information–you can understand why I am interested in the occupy movement, the emergence of horizontal, leaderless, and egalitarian relationships with the common goal of a more equitable society. One less like the Aztecs, where sacrifices were demanded to drip down Tenochtitlan pyramids to appease the bloody theology of expansion and empire. My goal, if I can put it this way, is not to occupy, but to inhabit.

Now, to go back to yesterday, when I brought the pack full of books and emptied it on the table, forcing my students to read, and see the value of reading, although it was like forcing square pegs (books) through round holes (mouths, eyes, the closed circuitry of mass-mediated gratifications). I drove back after that, thinking about society, information, employment, ecology. The virulent immunological response most Midwesterners seem to have to counter-cultural politics and civil disobedience. Unless you have worked incredibly hard for an incredibly long time, these responses frequently suggest, and suffered at least as much as the mass of the middle or working class, then your right to express an opinion is void, trumped by nightmare seduction of the American dream. If you want to speak to the illusory, predatory, and deadly Darwinian nature of this dream, then you are a terrorist/communist/hippie or parasite. Shut up and get a job. Or three.

I stop by the park, where the encampment is, to see what is going on. I talk to a man in his twenties that I’ve seen there before, a kind of itinerant philosopher in monkish clothes he appears to have made himself. For the past few years he has drifted around, hitch-hiking, trying to be invisible, living off of the vast material wealth that is refused, thrown away in dumpsters. If he had been a standard member of the middle class, he would have been consuming daily a king’s ransom of fossil feuls, clothing, electronics, water, plastics, poisons, and so on, while giving back to the Earth in exchange a mind-deadening effort at data-entry, marketing, accounting, or some other “service” valued by a society obsessed with its gross domestic product. As it is, he uses or consumes practically nothing, and in return offers a model for a sustainable future, the only sort that the planet can survive. Most people, though, no matter how wasteful their own habits of consumption, would condemn him for feeling entitled to food and water, without offering his 40+ hours of weekly labor in exchange. This is because most people think that the economy is real, and that the physical biosphere (to which economic growth is ecological destruction) is misleading and subordinate.

Look, even if you disagree with everything I write, you still have my love and respect. Don’t get angry–talk to me.

This is my point, the comparison I’m trying to make. This parasite, post-modern tramp, was carrying a bag full of books, checked out with someone else’s library card. Political philosophy, history, constitutional law, and literature. He will show them to you, and explain why they are important. I know because I asked him to give me something to read and he handed over a slim volume, patterned on the Tao Te Ching, by an author who would be pleased that I’ve forgotten her name, or the title of the book, since ego and permanence are an illusion. I read it in fifty minutes, more or less, shivering in the November afternoon until he gave me his coat to wear. We talked about it, read passages out loud, although agreeing, sagely, that the Tao that could be spoken was not the true Tao. At one point in the conversation I took off one of my shoes and placed it on my head, knowing that he would understand the reference.

He reads around twenty-five books a week, he told me, taking notes, cross-referencing them with other sources. People wander in and out of the park, some stopping to talk, some shooting us looks they probably wish were tear gas or pepper-spray. For those who stay, information dances from lips and eyes with an intensity rare in the University. On one page the Taoist book talks about the specificity of trees, rooted in time, and I could raise my eyes and see one, there, the branches trying to comprehend the elaborate spaces of the sky.

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