Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Comforting The Afflicted And Afflicting The Comfortable

Around the turn of the last century, while discussing the proper role of the press, author Finley Dunne wrote, "(I)t is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." In 1997, Harvard professor Cesar A. Cruz applied the notion to art, saying that it should "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." That is to say that the purpose of journalism and art, indeed all forms of truth-telling, is to challenge the status quo. The same, I assert, goes for education.

Much of what passes for journalism or art these days has fallen under the control of the "comfortable," the large media corporations that dictate much of what we see and hear, and because truth disturbs them, they tend to turn it all into entertainment, stuff that might shock, titillate, or excite, but rarely disturbs or afflicts them in their role as gatekeepers.

The same thing is happening with public education, as large corporations and Wall Street backed charter schools have descended upon our classrooms, places that should be cauldrons of democracy. Our schools have never been perfect, of course, and the powerful have always inserted themselves in anti-democratic ways, but the drive to narrow the focus of education by reducing it to test-taking focused almost exclusively on literacy and mathematics, things that are easily measured, while pushing aside the more uncomfortable disciplines like art, philosophy, and the humanities has accelerated over the past couple decades. The comfortable are disturbed by the sorts of critical thinkers that emerge from a real education. They are afflicted by those of us who ask a lot of questions, challenge their authority, and stand up for our beliefs. And so the schools they seek to create are ones that focus on questions of how rather than why; schools that seek conformity through standardization; schools that are activity centers more than places of real learning.

Education is upsetting, it digs into the gray areas and asks difficult questions. An educated person always has doubts. An educated person is never fully satisfied. An educated person afflicts the comfortable.

The American author Ray Bradbury was a largely self-educated man, opting for libraries rather than university. In his 1951 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, he conceived of a dystopian future in which books have been banned in the name of keeping the peace. His protagonist, Montag, is a fireman, although instead of putting out fires, his job is to burn the books. He meets a young woman named Clarissa, a kind of free-spirited throw-back to the olden days, who sparks doubts. As he begins to grow increasingly disillusioned, his chief attempts to explain why their work of book burning is so important and why people like Clarissa are so dangerous:

"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say . . . Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs. The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. 

"Heredity and environment are funny things. You can't rid yourselves of all the odd ducks in just a few years. The home environment can undo a lot of what you try to do at school. That's why we've lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we're almost snatching them from the cradle . . . The family had been feeding her (Clarissa's) subconscious, I'm sure from what I saw of her school record. She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl's better off dead . . . Luckily, queer ones like her don't happen often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early. You can't build a house without nails and wood. If you don't want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none . . .  
Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won't be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I've tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the Theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment."

Bradbury was writing nearly 70 years ago, writing about the future, the place we now occupy. When I read this passage I see that he was, of course, wrong in some details, but right about too many for comfort. And I worry that the essence of his predictions are closer now than they have ever been. In an earlier passage in the book the chief explains that it wasn't the government that originally banned books, but rather the people themselves, who simply quit reading them. The more I reflect upon this, the more I think Bradbury is right: reading books, a lot of them, and especially those that make us uncomfortable, and then acting upon our discomfort, is the only way we can ensure that his dystopia remains fiction. And as educators we can never forget that much of our job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

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