January 2016

Cornel West: DiversityInc Diversity-Management Best Practices Keynote

Deep Education

I have been thinking about this piece for too long, have delayed my words, my contribution, for weeks now. I have been trained, like many of us have been, to understand my own lateness as a colossal incompetence with deadlines. This deviation from the academic or philosophical norm of a majority who seem to be able to get their articles and contributions in on time has waiting for it exactly this simpler and more punitive explanation of incompetence, either with one’s own scheduling or else with the responsibilities of a contributor’s commitment. But this notion of incompetence only urges further compliance with a system that imagines words and work come when you bid them: your own personal knowledge territories that you should have more control over. And so it is a convenient veil that obstructs the more difficult and potentially more productive work of learning to see, to sift through, the real reasons for not working on something, the actual reasons resistance comes up.

Counterintuitive as it may be, self-flagellation comes easier to most of us than the more difficult and introspective work of getting beneath that layer of response to ask: Why this delay? Why now? Why my reluctance to make this work? Sifting through these tender questions, an epic tangle emerges that, when I think of putting it into words, quite simply overwhelms me. And the tangle, hopelessly simplified, goes something like this: What is education? What do we mean when we say that? What is art education and Why do we care about it? What does learning about art––or learning to art or learning art––do that other learning does not do? What are we doing when we teach in these programs? And what does it mean (in a culture of ever expanding university cash cow internet “education” programs) to design a video program as a kind of class or lecture for an unknown public, complete with notes on each video, justifications for watching them, reasons why the videos themselves are worthy of a viewer’s time, attention? In other words, what is the promise, the problem, the practice, of this kind of (art) education?

One thing I know is that I did not find the videos I’ve chosen by looking up the particular prestigious lectures or events that happen to be the physical sites of where many of these words, these thought-transmissions, took place. This bears mentioning because so many of these pages deploy descriptions of the particular videos chosen that lead with where they happened to be and when they occurred. Context, we have been taught, is important. But what this leading-with suggests is that the person doing the choosing eschewed the regular wormhole type of internet searching for a rarefied knowing in advance of where the best lectures take place and searching for them from this end up. For me, this is never how it happens and it seems important (when thinking about other forms of education and other forms of knowing) to make this plain. How it does happen is like this: I will have just woken up in the morning to be met with the enormous pile of dishes in the sink from last night’s meal, and I will turn on public radio to hear the news. The news is so often an elixir I take in order to be “well-informed” but that, it turns out, is mismarked and instead makes my consciousness sick with anxiety or with despair. And so I turn to the internet and to thinkers who make more sense to me than the news––or who question what sense-making even is and why we privilege it––I turn them on instead, while I move through the minutiae of my day. And often, one leads to another. So I can go through hours and hours of listening to Fred Moten, to Cornel West, to Trinh T. Minh-ha, linking from one video that I am not noticing where or when it was recorded, to another. This, it seems to me, is one of the most extraordinary aspects of internet searching: the linking-through, the wormhole, the chance thought-chains of it.

The undergraduate students I serve often ask me what will be on the exam. This is, in some ways, a question not unrelated to the evermore pressing and present question: How can I get an “A” in this class? What I try and explain, over and over, is that this frames knowing––and so the exercise of education––as a thing that has a singular purpose: one thing to notice, one (most important) thing to take away, to claim. This is a product-oriented understanding of what knowledge (and so, education) can be; and it’s fitting that this is what our students so often ask us in an American education system that has been sold to them as a product worthy of investment. What interests me here is that while so many of us may be quick to disagree with this system, we still participate in it (perhaps unwittingly?) at the level of the form our discourses take, the precedents we follow without questioning what we propagate in following them. And so I try not to summarize for my students what is important about a text. It is not my place to do so. What is important is that I try as hard as I can to engage what they see, what they notice, or else I risk imparting a hierarchical conception of knowledge that does not leave space for a student to have their own ideas, experiences, curiosities, process––that does not teach them to trust themselves. This way of approaching a text makes it smaller, more manageable, repeatable (perhaps even affirms what I have been trained to know), but it does not ask for true attention in the sense of an attendance to, of a being-there-with, of a seeing-anew or being present to a thing. For this kind of response, there must be something different, something deeper, something else.

My hope is that you will move through these videos, these thinkers’ visions and ideas, and come away with some more urgent sense of what education is, of what it can be, and particularly, of education in of for art. Cornel West’s talk for DiversityInc brings up the idea that “deep education” is intimately linked to the formation of one’s attention: Where do you put your attention? What do you attend to? Are you willing to do the kind of self-looking that might enable you to uproot your own attachments, habitualized forms of knowing, and let them die? Do you have the courage to teach students from this place? West poses questions that look at what it means to be human and, specifically, at the place of this very type of questioning––of critical education––in “your short move from your mama’s womb to your tomb.” For West, unsettling calcified forms of knowledge (“cheap schooling”) is the critical stance, the one that holds the potential to leave this place a little bit better than when we came in. Unsettling, here, is the root of transformation.

Thank you!

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