I still remember my direct encounter with Neo-Marxist philosopher and rhetorician James Berlin (1942-1994) during a presentation I made at the Michigan College English Association conference. I was horrified and embarrassed at the time because, an honoree at the conference, he sat down in the front row of my presentation on teaching composition in public schools; it was a presentation based largely on his work.
We never spoke directly. I don’t now even remember the expression on his face as I numbly quoted him and tried to make blithe and pithy critical observations about teaching philosophy. What if I had misinterpreted him? Misunderstood him? Oversimplified his approach? What if I had omitted a key facet of his argument? It was one thing if a colleague corrected or questioned: that was the culture of academic discourse; but it was quite another if I was contradicted by the Author himself.
Now, 20 years later, I suspect I need not have been so worried. The paper, now lost or buried in a small dust heap of 5 ¼” floppy disks, simply expounded on the forms of false thinking Berlin outlined in his 1988 College English essay “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” And Berlin was likely satisfied, at least, to know that a (younger) English teacher was considering his work outside the university, however naively conceived.
Was it fate or fortune which placed me before him that day? Neither, as he might tell me himself. Berlin in his essay warns of false consciousness which infects the minds of student writers (and anyone, really), and the belief that some fixed force undermines my ability to act is one of them. We deny ourselves too easily our own roles in shifting the status quo; we too easily accept daily assaults on our humanity as part of society’s game. Our goal as teachers is to help students “extraordinarily re-experience the ordinary,” in the words of Ira Shor, a founder of social-epistemic rhetorical theory. But it’s hardly students alone who need to exorcise these false thinkings.
Take for instance, Facebook rumors about Obama’s attack on veteran health care,Fox News stories about red and green being banned at a public school, or yesterday’s Twitter rumor that Morgan Freeman is Dead. Two of Berlin’s warnings come into play here. For such stories to gain traction, a gullible public must be to some degree guilty of acceleration, how “the pace of everyday experience—the sensory bombardment of urban life and of popular forms of entertainment [prevent] critical reflection.” We move our stories faster and faster and, in our eagerness to keep our friends in the digital loop of activist thinking, spread misinformation. Sometimes we look back and apologize, vowing to check before we pass on rumor or scam, but why do so many repeatedly send another false story the next week? Life moves so fast, we tell ourselves unconsciously. Act now! Limited offer! This EBay item has only seconds left before bidding ends! And so our accelerated (and hence non-critical) thinking feeds falsehoods into our preconceptions. How can we slow ourselves down?
The second problem, Berlin might tell us, is mystification, where our preconceptions are binary or extremist, frameworks of ethnocentrism, nationalism, racism, or some other bigotry. Rather than reason through the complex problems of our society and psyches, it’s far easier to drop our experiences into these over-simplified and false categories, strengthening our prejudices. An Obama-hater will, of course, be more likely to spread the story of his attacks on vets, and conservative Christians will more likely accept the attack on a holy day by secular (and conspiratorial) PC forces. Liberals will pin the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” obstructionism squarely on the shoulders of John McCain, and high school students will naturally believe that teachers are agents of a system designed to torture their spirits.
Okay, perhaps that last idea is cautionary. A new and currently unpublished study done on students at Royal Oak High School (an anonymous school in the study) cites marginal growth and even regression in their own beliefs of personal political efficacy as they grow older. In other words, students at ROHS feel less and less able to effect change as they experience high school. This is quite the opposite of what we might imagine from the most free and democratic nation in the world.
For me, it is not altogether surprising. Driven more and more by career-driven, high-stakes, standardized testing, the idea of creating environments fostering a self discipline, open student governance of their own education, or deliberation and reflection is fleeting. Berlin calls this reification, the increasing belief that change is impossible, that our economic and social system is designed to keep them powerless. Most worrisome, they learn the “game” of education and consumerism, setting their goals on material acquisition as a substitute for anything which might be more fulfilling. Student Council’s recent canned food drive is an example—more than one member of the school community lamented that there was no point in bringing in cans if they could not earn extra credit. Our larger purposes are lost; and victims of reified thinking end up actively participating in their own disempowerment.
Ah, we say, shrugging our collective shoulders, it can’t be helped. It’s all a part of human nature—we are socially destructive (or even self-destructive) animals, and “social Darwinism” (an entirely invented term for this thinking which in no way supports Sir Charles’s theories) is inevitability. If we are to survive, such pre-scientific thinking tells us, it’s every woman for herself. We can rely on no one else, and if virtue exists, it is found in relativism and individualism (never charity, community, ethic, or love). Consider the works of Ayn Rand in this sense.
All of these ideologies combine to common outcome: they teach us that change is impossible and that we therefore need not think about it. We can cower and react, entrench and exclude, sulk and comply, but—unless we wrest ourselves to new philosophy—we will never accept the risk to feel fulfilled. To think, to write, to speak, to act.
As I write this, I make a quick detour over to Yahoo!News: Trending right now are one story on North Korea, one story on charities, and eight stories on celebrity gossip and new product releases.
Merry Christmas, and may we all find fulfillment in the holidays we share.