Commencement Address by Ms. Jennifer Page (GRS ’06), May 18, 2008
Commencement Address delivered by Ms. Jennifer Page (GRS ’06)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 18, 2008
Philosophy made me concerned with justice, and with the just city.
Philosophy made me concerned with the coincidence of thinking and doing.
I’m really intimidated by the idea of having to talk about philosophy in front of this audience. I only know that I don’t know that much. And I’m not trying to feign Socratic humility in order to ingratiate myself to the all of you. This is really frightening for me, I swear.
But it helps that you’re all very well-behaved right now. All I had to do was stand up here and everyone got really quiet. Having spent the past two years teaching third graders in South Dakota, this is quite weird.
I was invited to speak today because, as Professor Garrett informed me, I’m the only one who’s graduated from the department in the past 17 years who has a job.
That’s a lie. I’m sure that many of the gainfully employed resident philosophers at Microsoft are BU alumni.
In truth, I don’t know why I was invited to speak here today, but I’m honored to do it. Thank you for having me.
During one of those early May South Dakota blizzards, I was reading War and Peace (because what else do you do during those early May South Dakota blizzards?), and I happened upon Tolstoy’s description of the German military advisor Pfuel:
Pfuel was one of those theorists who love their theory so dearly they lose sight of the aim of all theory, which is to work out in practice. He was so much in love with theory that he hated all practice and didn’t want to know about it. He positively rejoiced in failure because failure was due to practical infringements of his theory, which went to show how right the theory was.
I’m not going to lie. For much of my time at Boston University, I was a disgruntled philosophy major. Sure, I loved the professors, the classes, the conversations… My beef was with the philosophers. Philosophers! Overgrown children, exultant in their own ability to fixate on a singular concept—synthesis, sympathy, the primacy of language, the self-understanding of reason for the sake of critique—and explain away all phenomena in terms of it. Theory and ideas, ideas and theory— What about what the theories and ideas purport to describe? What about reality?
As a student of philosophy, I divided the figures that I came across into categories. There were exactly two: a given philosopher was either a kindred spirit or an idiot. It’s obvious to most that the world is not a perfect place. Kindred spirits were those philosophers who consider it one’s responsibility to change things, to make things better. Idiots have their heads in the clouds and fall in wells. I was attracted to Marxism not so much because I was enamored by Lenin’s policy regarding enemies of the State, but because the Communists actually did something.
Let me share my own theory to practice narrative. I became a teacher due to my hatred of bottled water. Bottled water epitomized the dumb credulity of the snobbish American bourgeoisie, too arrogant to drink from a public fountain, too shortsighted to see the long-term environmental repercussions of laying to rest ten trillion one-use containers, too stupid to see through the hoodwinker of an ad campaign which promises to improve one’s social standing if you’re seen holding a Deja Blue.
How did we Americans get to be so materialistic? I asked myself.
Lucky for me, I was taking a political philosophy class. There I encountered Althusser, a 20th century French Marxist. He had a concrete answer to my rhetorical question: CAPITALISM.
I was satisfied. But I then wondered, why are we so unenlightened as to not eradicate the disease that has made us indolent, ignorant, and diabetic? Althusser knew that one too: IDEOLOGY. Ideological state apparatuses were Althusser’s elaboration on a Marxist concept, and able to account for the systemic and unconscious reproduction of the ideological status quo. Schools are the most important of the ideological state apparatuses, because education is the primary form of imbuing the capitalist ideology into the next generation. To Althusser, schools train us to have material interests, and prepare us for the jobs that will finance those interests. Furthermore, the stratification of society is built into schools, whose shiny posters of doctors and lawyers and the words “Follow Your Dreams” cover up the stark reality that children from working class homes are educated at inferior schools and are lucky to eventually attend the local vo-tech, where suburban kids get a 4:1 student to guidance counselor ratio and are applying for medical school at age 13. School teaches you your place in society, what you may aspire to, and gives you skills for no more than that.
This is a caricature of Althusser, and a caricature of the American public education system, but to a nineteen-year-old girl who really, really hated bottled water, to make such sweeping generalizations proved extremely satisfying.
Neo-Marxist thought gave me published ammunition for my various grievances with American consumer culture. But, it also got me thinking about a cause more worth my while—namely, class disparity in so-called democratic nations. Now, I’ve read too many dystopist sci-fi novels to become an advocate of the centrally-planned socialistic dictatorship, or to think that communism could be anything but that in practice. However, I took the Neo-Marxist critique seriously. Democracy, if it was to be anything more than a word, would have to actively promote equality of opportunity.
How could democracy actively promote equality of opportunity? If inequitable schools are fundamental in perpetuating class disparity, then equitable schools….
The gap between the education of the rich and poor in this country began to vex me more than bottled water. And so, after completing a ranting thesis on Thomas Hobbes, the American education system, Plato, Aristotle, capitalism, utilitarianism, the American Dream, the meaning of life, and I-don’t-even-know-what-else, I signed up for Teach For America, which lets America’s young and idealistic teach in a low-income area for two years even if they’re not education majors. Sweet deal. Now I could finally live out what I saw as Karl Marx’s challenge to me personally in his Theses on Feuerbach, were he says (roughly): THE PHILOSOPHER JUST LOOKS AT THE WORLD. THE POINT IS TO CHANGE IT.
I was placed in South Dakota. This was fine by me, since I’d never been there. I underwent a five week training in Houston, where I was taught how to teach, and moved to St. Francis, a community of 400 on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. I got my own trailer—delightfully un-bourgeois—and was living the dream. What could be more grassroots, for someone who cares passionately about educational justice, than to become a real, live, third grade teacher? I’ve been at the job for two years. Karl, I have yet to change the world.
Education, it turns out, is bigger than one teacher. I have a curriculum, which I’m supposed to follow (and sometimes I do). My classroom is micromanaged by my principal, the principal by the superintendent, the superintendent by the South Dakota Department of Education, and the South Dakota Department of Education by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. All this would be fine, except—there is no underlying philosophy driving education in this country. The official mission statement of my school is: “to facilitate the best academic and cultural education with the highest expectations for our student and their families.” That’s slightly more specific than that of the U.S. Education Department. As epitomized by the platitudinous egalitarian language of the No Child Left Behind Act, which demands educational excellence for all without defining it, there seems to be a lack of concern as to what education is.
Let me give you some of the history behind this confusion. In the early 1900s, it was faddish among intellectuals and reformers to consider public schools a vehicle of social engineering. Truly democratic schools churned out individuals fit for participation in a democratic society. Since a democratic society consists of a diverse citizenry working towards the common good, schools served as sorting mechanisms whose task was to ensure that all professions needed to make society function would be provided with a sufficient number of newly trained workers each year. Leaders of what came to be known as the social utility movement feared that future workers would err in choosing a profession due to a wrong assessment of their mental and technical skill-potential, and pushed to organize students according to ability at the youngest possible age.
Progressive school reformers eventually dropped the language of social utility; the affinity with eugenicist intelligence testing movements was becoming too problematic. The next big thing in education was the child-centered movement (which, as its name implies, centers classroom instruction on the needs of an individual child, thus giving the likes of the other third grade teacher at my school a justification for playing Free Cell on her school-issued laptop while her students run around all day). The child-centered movement was followed by the accountability movement, and this brings us to present.
To say that the child-centered movement replaced the social utility movement or the accountability movement replaced the child-centered movement would be an oversimplification. The prevailing wisdom touted by educational experts doesn’t translate seamlessly into actual practices at the level of the school administration and the classroom. With the exception of specialty schools, whose explicit purpose is a full-fledged adoption of some particular educational credo or trend, most public schools are a patchwork quilt of various theories, commercial curriculums, and the personal beliefs of educators who work there. All this is to say—public education in America isn’t anything; the conversation isn’t being had.
The difference between where I teach and your typical suburban school are the PTAs and mandatory SAT Prep classes that disguise this reality. Fatal to both are the uninspired Basil curriculums, the focus on teaching comprehension strategies using tedious texts that aren’t even worth comprehending. Most kids in my district drop out of school by age 18. To do so lacks the stigma found in suburban communities, but I’m convinced that if the option suddenly became socially acceptable, the drop-out rate there would skyrocket. It’s been said before—teaching isn’t the same as educating. The latter implies a change in the student. I am certain that in spite of all the socio-economic challenges inherent to a free-lunch school, if only its educators were united by an understanding as to what education is, my school would not be a failing one.
This is a call to action. A call to theoretical action.
I humble myself before you, philosophers, because I was wrong to be so dismissive of theory. Practice needs theory. Theory gives practice a reason, a direction, telos. As I’ve learned, the world of practical action needs more thinking, more dialogue braving the deepest questions of the human experience. When we talk about educational reform, we are asking, How can education be better? and stop there. We are not asking the questions that antecede this one. We are not asking: What is education? What is the purpose of education? We are not asking: What can society be? What can a human being be? We are not asking: What is society? What is a human being?
I told you that I became a teacher due to my hatred of bottled water. I don’t want to know how bad that retrodictive causal proposition made you logic folks cringe. I will revise. I became a teacher because I was obsessed with the relationship between education and society. I was obsessed with the potential of education to save the world, or—and never concertedly—to bring about its ruin. After all, in most democratic countries, the most malleable of the world’s citizens are handed over to governments for six or eight or ten hours per day. Thanks to truancy laws, the process of socialization occurs primarily in schools. Even when not in session, what goes on in schools carries over to other spheres. Schools have the potential to be dangerous. Why does this go unnoticed? Because public education is a free babysitting service for parents with jobs. And anyway, who can refuse what is billed as a basic human right?
I remain convinced that contemporary society—with happiness as a consumable good, with the cultural amnesia of the Myspace generation—is the product of its schools. In these schools, we have been trained to value knowledge as a means to a material end, and never for its own sake. “Learn a lot, get smart, and you’ll get a good job. Get a good job, and you’ll make a lot of money!” my guidance counselor told those of us who demanded an explanation for all this education, all this hard work. We were never shown what education could be, a transformative experience where we would emerge critical thinkers, reflective, bold, and active citizens of the world.
We were educated by bunch of people who never themselves had an education.
This is not a public policy problem, but a philosophical problem. A very, very important philosophical problem.
Okay, I wasn’t going to talk about Plato’s Republic because everyone in here has written seven term papers on it, and everyone up front has published at least three critical studies of the work, but I have to. It’s just too relevant.
Plato’s Republic is about the best city and about the human soul. It’s about the possibility of harmony between the two.
Plato’s Republic is about the education—that is, the transformation—of the next generation, about how it alone has the potential to create harmony in an unjust and inharmonious world, a world where most people don’t even know what justice or harmony is.
Plato’s Republic is about the about the sheer impossibility of practically implementing a system of mass education even remotely aligned to its theoretical intentions. After all, only philosophers understand education, but philosophers do not hold political power. Those who hold political power are responsible for education, but they do not understand it. Philosophers will never hold political power unless they educate the populace to accept the notion of the philosopher-king, and philosophers will never have the opportunity to educate the populace unless they hold political power.
And as Socrates says to Glaucon: “Until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race.”
Following Plato, the just city can be theorized about, but is impossible to realize in practice. The just city will never be more than an idea.
However, Plato’s understanding of political power is perhaps too simplistic. To Michel Foucault, power is not just a political authority directly acting on subjects—a one-way channel. Power pervades the social order at all levels because it comes from everything belonging to this social order. In more concrete terms, power emanates from the media, businesses, academia, hospitals, and the everyday actions of citizens.
Again, from Republic, comes the insight: public education (the right kind) could close the gap between the actual and the ideal, both in the city and in the human soul, but the insurmountable divide between theory and practice prevents this from ever happening in real time. But, if we follow Foucault, it is not necessary for philosophers to take political power, to rule. Sovereignty and power are not synonymous. Power comes from places besides the throne. So, what is necessary is that philosophers concern themselves with the issues that are thought to belong to the realm of the polis. In their concern with political things, philosophers are exercising political power.
Pure reason has already been critiqued, human nature has already been treatised, and the human spirit has already been phenomenologized. To merely study philosophy, to talk about it behind closed doors with like-minded philosophical friends, to write pedantically about interpretation and interpretation of interpretation is not doing philosophy. Right now, philosophy often treats philosophy like an ancient science to be studied for sentimental purposes, to be remembered only so it is not forgotten. Philosophy is not a Glass Bead game. Reject that understanding.
The guardians are not allowed to just philosophize. They must take turns ruling the city. I understand this as—philosophy needs to inform practice, what you do. And if philosophy is what you do, let that be a practice, and not just idle talk about theory. Let your conversation be heard, and let it be an important one.
Today is Commencement. It’s one of those weighty days—a day for introspection (as well as Bacchanalian-inspired celebration…perhaps both can be combined). For some of you, this is the end of your formal education. I am not without an agenda in mentioning this. I ask that you reflect on that education—not just on your college years, but go as far back as preschool, and then think forward: elementary school, junior high, high school. Think about what you were taught, both explicitly and tacitly, and how this shaped your character, your views, and your dreams. Think about the system for educating the young in this country and others. When you think you’re done, continue to think.
You might be sick of thinking about education, after having been subjected to one for the past seventeen-plus years. Blame the gadfly who charges you with upbringing of the upcoming generation. Only philosophers can define what a transformative education consists of particular to their time and place—a whole curriculum for Athens is laid out in Republic. Right now, a volatile debate concerning the renewal of No Child Left Behind is going on. The debate is being conducted among politicians, journalists, lobbyists, and textbook tycoons. Where are the philosophers?
For the past two years, while teaching fractions and phonics and supervising kickball at recess, I have not been able to get the idea out of my head that societal change must start with rethinking the education system in which society initiates its new members, and that only philosophy can do this rethinking. Philosophy has a unique history of understanding the rapport between society at large and its educational institutions. It has the patience to think about education, to think about society, and to advocate meaningful change. It has the audacity to make judgments about ends in an age of relativism, to speak about the salvation of the human race. It has self-assuredness to use language from another age.
You come out of this school a philosopher, and that’s a political responsibility. Although I hate to instrumentalize the only discipline which can be reasonably demonstrated as an end-in-itself, I beseech you—Use philosophy. Whatever your interpretation of Republic, you have thought about justice in a deep way, and this qualifies you to think about contemporary society in a deep way. So—think about it. Think about it all the time. Obsess over it. Write about it. Do things. Change things.
THE PHILOSOPHER JUST LOOKS AT THE WORLD—