I am sorry to have to report that little Aethelburt does not have an inferiority complex, as you have always assumed. He is just inferior. He will never get into Yale. He is not actually even bright enough to pass his final high school examinations. With proper training, however, he might become an adequate bellhop or waiter. I suggest therefore that you remove him at once from high school, thus saving a great deal of the taxpayers' money and your own, and enroll him in the Hotel Employees Institute.
Instead of spending class time wondering what the poem means, and what application it has to present-day experience, students compile information about it. They set the poem in its historical and critical context, showing first how the poem is the product and the property of the past—and, implicitly, how it really has nothing to do with the present except as an artful curiosity; and second how, given the number of ideas about it already available, adding more thought would be superfluous.
By putting a world of facts at the end of a key-stroke, computers have made facts, their command, their manipulation, their ordering, central to what now can qualify as humanistic education. The result is to suspend reflection about the differences among wisdom, knowledge, and information. Everything that can be accessed online can seem equal to everything else, no datum more important or more profound than any other. Thus the possibility presents itself that there really is no more wisdom; there is no more knowledge; there is only information. No thought is a challenge or an affront to what one currently believes.
Am I wrong to think that the kind of education on offer in the humanities now is in some measure an education for empire? The people who administer an empire need certain very precise capacities. They need to be adept technocrats. They need the kind of training that will allow them to take up an abstract and unfelt relation to the world and its peoples—a cool relation, as it were. Otherwise, they won’t be able to squeeze forth the world’s wealth without suffering debilitating pains of conscience. And the denizen of the empire needs to be able to consume the kinds of pleasures that will augment his feeling of rightful rulership. Those pleasures must be self-inflating and not challenging; they need to confirm the current empowered state of the self and not challenge it. The easy pleasures of this nascent American empire, akin to the pleasures to be had in first-century Rome, reaffirm the right to mastery—and, correspondingly, the existence of a world teeming with potential vassals and exploitable wealth.
Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.
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