She Eats So Many Slate-Pencils

Higher Disorder and Public Education

On October 13 of this year, John Henry Cardinal Newman was declared a saint by Pope Francis. That the author of The Idea of a University should be canonized now presents the idea of the university with a patron saint right when it seems it could use one—no offense, Saint Thomas Aquinas, but higher education could use all the help it can get. Take the fact that college and university closures, mergers, and other forms of consolidation are on the rise, with folks like Clayton Christensen predicting half of America’s colleges and universities will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years, and already the problem looks serious. Look into its roots—how the soaring cost of higher education is not only creating a massive student debt crisis, raising questions about whether the price of a college education is worth it while limiting access for low-income students—and the picture gets more problematic, especially when Felicity Huffman’s and Lorie Loughlin’s mug shots come into view. Scan the landscape of the near future, and see how the current push for STEM is paving the way to cheaper, faster coding boot camps and other short-cuts to high-dollar jobs in major tech companies, while students who studied six years for doctoral degrees in the humanities are unable to land tenure-track positions, and you might suspect the image of a liberal arts education fading. Look back some to 2016 and consider the impact level of education has on our political landscape, and you may be tempted to pray, as I have been, for higher education.

“This essay—a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education—is written from the perspective of a teacher.” — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

I begin my meditation with my own patron saint, Mr. Churchill. Not the British statesman, but the character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s novel Kavanagh, the man whom nature made a poet and destiny a teacher, who kept trying to write his great romance and finally gave up and submitted to his destiny. Yes, my patron saint is fictional, but his predicament has been all too real to me, as I have been trying to compose my meditation on the state of education and our souls.

In Kavangah, we find Churchill talking to his wife, sighing in his own rumination on the state of education in mathematics:

I was thinking to-day how dull and prosaic the study of mathematics is made in our school-books; as if the grand science of numbers had been discovered and perfected merely to further the purposes of trade … There is something divine in the science of numbers. Like God, it holds the sea in the hollow of its hand. It measures the earth; it weighs the stars; it illumines the universe; it is law, it is order, it is beauty. And yet we imagine—that is, most of us—that its highest end and culminating point is book-keeping by double-entry. It is our way of teaching it that makes it prosaic.

There are some lessons here in Mr. Churchill’s wistfulness. One is the critique that the object of education be reduced to the market, to economic utility, “to further the purposes of trade.” A year after 1848, it might very well also be a critique of capitalism. Marx had already pointed to the influence of the ruling class on society and education in The Communist Manifesto, and he would write more specifically in The German Ideology in 1867: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.” I am, of course, not saying that that preeminent American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a Marxist or even anti-capitalist, nor am I suggesting that his fictional alter-ego Mr. Churchill was—though I might entertain the fiction that he could have been. What I am saying is that he, like many others before and after him, is used to seeing education take on a particular shape under the influence of the market, and simply doesn’t care for it, and has a heavenly vision of something different. My prayer is a meditation on that heavenly vision.

To prove to his wife that there is poetry in math, Mr. Churchill shows his wife “a book of mathematics of quite a different stamp from ours”—Bhascara Acharya’s Lilawati, a twelfth-century Indian book of arithmetic named after Bhascara’s daughter. He proceeds to read to his wife an example of the arithmetic it contains, a pretty description of fractions of bees each headed their own way, with the question being to calculate the whole. His wife doubts she could ever tell the answer, and Churchill doesn’t give it himself. However, we learn later from a student’s letter to her absent friend that Churchill attempts to introduce Bhascara’s arithmetic to his classroom:

At school, things have gone on pretty much as usual. Jane Brown has grown very pale. They say she is in consumption; but I think it is because she eats so many slate-pencils. One of her shoulders has grown a good deal higher than the other. Billy Wilmerdings has been turned out of school for playing truant. He promised his mother, if she would not whip him, he would experience religion. I am sure I wish he would; for then he would stop looking at me through the hole in the top of his desk. Mr. Churchill is a very curious man. To-day he gave us this question in arithmetic: “One-fifth of a hive of bees flew to the Kadamba flower; one-third flew to the Silandhara; three times the difference of these two numbers flew to an arbor; and one bee continued flying about, attracted on each side by the fragrant Ketaki and the Malati. What was the number of the bees?” Nobody could do the sum.

Now, in a way, this school day is a litany of disorder: infectious diseases, kids eating pencils, developmental toxicity, truancy and the threat of corporal punishment, boys peeking at and annoying the girls. But all of this disorder is “pretty much as usual.” The curiosity in the day, what throws us off from the usual dog’s dinner, is Mr. Churchill and his presentation of a new arithmetic of which no one could do the sum. I should admit, I tried to do the math myself, though it would be no surprise for me not to be able to do the sum. Still, after a valiant effort, I started to think that the key to the riddle of the number of bees lies in the one bee who isn’t trying to figure out the bees but the flowers.  It is that one bee caught in the drama of the fragrance, pulled on each side, errant, indecisive, and aimless who makes the equation solvable, the hive knowable.

x= 1/5 x + 1/3x + 3(1/3x–1/5x) +1
x= 1/5x + 1/3x+ 2/5x+1
x= 3/5x + 1/3x + 1
x= 9/15x + 5/15x + 1
x= 14/15x + 1
x–14/15x= 1

There are those fractions of the hive who know where they’re going, whom we think we can put in their right place in the field, but whose number in the hive is incalculable. Then there is the part of the hive that strays, caught up in a problem of a different sort, a restless singularity, and that’s the one that counts.

What I think Mr. Churchill means in introducing this strange calculus into the usual (dis)order of the school day is to point us to a higher disorder. He presents a “mathematics of quite a different stamp from ours” to throw us off the workaday market-driven sums and products with an incalculable sum, a restless singularity. That there is something of revolutionary potential here, we see later, when we learn that Mr. Churchill makes some progress with Bhascara’s poetical arithmetic but “relinquished it because the school committee thought it was not practical enough, and more than hinted that he had better adhere to the old system.” The “more than hinted” suggests something of intimidation, revealing how much Bhascara’s arithmetic rubbed the powers that be the wrong way. But why?

Mr. Churchill’s higher disorder, I think, stands to show us an alternative vision of education that indeed upends the usual (dis)order, one where math is poetry, one that is not exclusively Western, not mercantile, one that replaces the antagonism of the boy and girl in the classroom with the collaboration of Mr. Churchill and his wife over the book’s pages, one that produces, in the words of St. John Henry Newman,  “a certain progress.” Newman explained this as having “consciousness of mental enlargement: he does not stand where he did, has a new centre, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger.” Mr. Churchill’s arithmetic and St. John Henry Newman’s philosophical knowledge teach the same thing, essentially: that a liberal education—as opposed to the education of slaves—is necessarily a higher disorder, the turning away from the center. Indeed, that restless singularity constitutes a revolution.

Mr. Churchill’s poetical math coincides with another calculus in Massachusetts at the time—Horace Mann’s educational reform in the common schools. Hailed the father of public education in the United States, Horace Mann believed that the key to a democratic and free society was the common education of its citizens, and that this education would sustain the health and strength of the union. A progressive reformer, Mann famously put forward the idea of education as “the great equalizer of the conditions of men” in his “Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board” (1848). This equalizer, I would argue, was not so revolutionary as one might think. In fact, it was styled an antidote to the revolutions breaking out across Europe:

It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor. Agrarianism is the revenge of poverty against wealth. The wanton destruction of the property of others—the burning of hay-ricks and corn-ricks, the demolition of machinery, because it supersedes hand-labor, the sprinkling of vitriol on rich dresses—is only agrarianism run mad. Education prevents both the revenge and the madness. On the other hand, a fellow-feeling for one’s class or caste is the common instinct of hearts not wholly sunk in selfish regards for person, or for family. The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.

Mann’s vision of education here presents something of a different enlargement from Newman’s. Newman’s “mental enlargement” was a result of tumult. This mental enlargement “whirl[s the mind] around and make[s] it dizzy.” It is “flood” and “torrent.” It “throw[s] us out of ourselves,” and with it we are “like a prisoner, who, having been accustomed to wear manacles or fetters, suddenly finds his arms and legs free.” Mann’s enlargement is class enlargement. It obviates material revolution through the expansion of culture. Basically, if the poor receive the same education as the rich, so that they belong to the same class of cultivation, they will feel of a class, and you will have the eradication of class struggle. This, however, is only disarmament of hostility, and Mann tells us that the equalizing force of education will do better than that. It promises to obliterate even the material distinctions of class, eradicating poverty itself. But how would that work?

Here Mann’s vision of education makes a crucial mistake, one that renders his beautiful dream of education as the great equalizer an impossible dream. According to Mann, the problem with reformers and revolutionaries responding to the problem of poverty is that they are not radical enough in their vision. They would only go so far as wealth redistribution. “This idea,” he says,

supposes a fixed amount of property in the community, which, by fraud or force, or arbitrary law, is unequally divided among men … But the beneficent power of education would not be exhausted, even though it should peaceably abolish all the miseries that spring from the coexistence, side by side, of enormous wealth and squalid want. It has a higher function. Beyond the power of diffusing old wealth, it has the prerogative of creating new.

Mann’s bold vision is that education could remove the limits on wealth with the potential to generate new wealth. If we don’t suppose that wealth is fixed, but instead that it can exist in limitless supply just by virtue of innovation through education, then we can surely eradicate poverty. This supposition would mean the accomplishment of something very spectacular indeed—the abolition of class struggle without disorder, without sacrifice, without reorganization, without redistribution of wealth. The capitalists can hold onto their “enormous wealth” without fear of the revenge of the poor, because with education, new wealth can be generated to eliminate “squalid want.” At the same time that Mann calls education the great equalizer of the conditions of men, an engine of democracy and egalitarianism, he makes it an engine of capitalism, a vehicle for the unlimited expansion of wealth.

Roughly forty years later, when the insurrections that shook Europe began to stir more forcefully in the United States, erupting at last in the Haymarket riot, it seemed the capitalists would remember Mann’s words. Steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie recognized the discontent among the working class and acknowledged that his rags-to-riches story was increasingly unavailable after the closing of the Western frontier and the social condition created by the rise of corporate America. He attacked reformers calling for wealth redistribution viciously but fell back on Mann’s solution to the problem: “Just see wherever we peer into the first tiny springs of the national life, how this panacea for all the ills of the body politic bubbles forth—education, education, education.” He founded the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and was joined by other corporate leaders and politicians in focusing on education as the way to respond to the unrest.

What happens when corporations build the educational infrastructure of a nation? St. John Henry Newman observes that “mercantile occupations are not liberal at all” because liberal is that which is its own end, not at the service of or in pursuit of some other gain. Once education became a means, an instrument of capitalism, it would lose its universal and liberal character. The expansion of education was necessary for the political and economic stability of the nation; its purpose was not to provide universal uplift, but “to help those who will help themselves; to provide part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise.” In other words, success is for those who want it and will work hard for it, the ambitious and enterprising. Wealth is limitlessly available, opportunity limitlessly available, and anyone can get it if they really want it. Life and education become like a football game, where if you lose, you just didn’t want it hard enough.

In this way, a large part of education’s management of ambition is the myth of meritocracy by which it operates. As William Egginton has observed in The Splintering of the American Mind, the Supreme Court did not deem education a “fundamental right” over which to extend the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection, protecting instead the management of unequal opportunity and higher education as a privilege for the worthy few.

By the 1930s, the Carnegie Foundation was forced to recognize that institutions of higher education would have to limit the number of ambitious students climbing the ladder, not because they were unfit but because the fit outnumbered the jobs the economy had to offer. In The Diverted Dream, Steven Brint and Jerome Karabel argue that junior colleges, which initially promised to bring to children of the working poor access to higher education from which they could transition to four-year institutions, were to play a key role in deflecting the ambitious away from said institutions.  Vocational tracking and semiprofessional training would increasingly become the focus, as junior and community colleges shifted from transfer programs to terminal programs, met by the trend in educational psychology to measure intelligence through standardized aptitude tests, used for vocational tracking. Not surprisingly, these tests were promptly deployed to propagate the idea of African American mental inferiority in an effort to keep access to highest opportunity away from people of color, preserving the nation’s system of racialized social control. A larger systematic program of counseling and consciousness building effected this transition, targeted disproportionately at black and Latin@ students.

The shift to vocational programs was in spite of the fact that the data was proving junior college students transferring to university were no less successful than native university students. By the way, this is just as true today. As Nancy Lee Sanchez reports in “Community College Transfers Outperform High Schoolers At Top Colleges, So Why Do We Ignore Them?,”community college transfers have a higher success rate in four-year institutions than those coming straight from high school or transferring from other four-year institutions, but community college transfers make up only 5% of the student population in four-year institutions. The statistic speaks both to the success of the democratizing mission of the colleges’ transfer programs and the success of corporate efforts to make junior and community colleges terminal institutions to manage and divert students from the promised access to higher opportunity.

All of this serves to show that the crisis in higher education is nothing new. This crisis has been developing for nearly 200 years, ever since the idea of higher education emerged as a means of reconciling the contradictions of capitalism, allaying unrest and disorder through the empty promises of the unlimited potential for the creation of wealth and unlimited opportunity for those who merit it. All the while the system has to increasingly figure out how to manage opportunity, resources, and ambition. We measure the state of our educational system by the state of our capitalism: job placement upon graduation, social mobility among the traditionally marginalized, and affordability versus debt. But the crisis in education we see now is the usual (dis)order of higher education under capitalism. If we are to save the soul of higher education, a higher disorder is needed.

It all begins with the Miracle of Flowers … After nature has dug in ugliness and slime and then risen to be practical and useful, suddenly in a wild moment it becomes merely beautiful and riots in color and perfume and lovely form … On the heads of the flowers, which tremble with eagerness, is a magic powder and hidden below is a sweet mess called honey … but each flower’s powder is no good for the flower that grows it—it must be carried to other flowers and the bees carry it” … Uncle Abraham tells me that for days a strange unrest has stirred his bees. Then Boy saw a wonderful thing: Out of a little, low hive hidden beneath a plum tree, rushed two dark flying columns of 70,000 bees. “Ooh-ooh,” cried Boy, “they’re colored folks, ain’t they, Mother?” “Yes, they’re black and golden-brown like you.” “They don’t know where they’re going, but they’re on their way,” laughed Boy. — W.E.B. Du Bois, “Honey”

If I may canonize another personal patron saint of education, it would have to be W.E.B. Du Bois. When with the 1895 “Atlanta Compromise,” Booker T. Washington and a cohort of African American and white leaders in the South agreed to African American submission to the racial program of the day, the Tuskegee Machine accepted vocational tracking and forfeited claim to a liberal arts education and the university track. Many African Americans opposed such a compromise, most famously Du Bois. He posited that

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, and adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois’s adjustment is what Newman called “the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it.” This action, he says, is a “formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements.” Indeed, the university education that Du Bois and Newman describe here is not a tool for the preservation of capitalist order. It is not a polite center but energetic, active; in Newman’s terms, a locomotive center. The adjustment suggests disturbance and the reducing to order suggests a disorder—not one to be obviated or resisted but a necessary higher disorder, to be formed and shaped for the perfection of knowledge. In fact, if we remember Bhascara’s arithmetic, we have to take reducing to order mathematically, where it is about the integration of the known with the unknown to arrive at a solution.   The perfection of knowledge that results is, according to Newman, “the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and mutual dependence.” This perfection of knowledge is the knowledge of the free.

Another personal patron saint of education, Edward Said, meditated in The Idea of a University on just such situations, of adjustments to moving or thrown-off centers. Delivering a lecture in South Africa in May 1991, just after the resignation of F. W. Botha and the release of Nelson Mandela, Said considered the role of the university in the contests of national identity in the American university with the rise of cultural studies, and in occupied Palestine under the control of Israeli military. He rejected Allan Bloom’s critique of “culture” and the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s that swept through college campuses and changed the makeup of university curricula. (Interestingly, the word culture signifies both what Bloom was fighting against and what he was defending.)

Similarly, a final luminary in my educational pantheon, feminist historian Anna Julia Cooper, was responding to post-Atlanta Compromise efforts to divert African Americans from higher education when she noted that, “culture is the term for those studies which disclose the child to himself and put him into possession of his dormant faculties” (“On Education”). Cooper cites the example of the culture of bacteria and cultures of plants, and contrasts the physician’s cultures and the gardener’s cultures with the poor man’s conception of culture as “impractical and useless,” rendering only “high-sounding wind-bags.” This culture refers to the traditional liberal arts education as opposed to industrial training. Cooper mobilizes her definition of culture to convince the skeptical worker that this liberal arts culture is as necessary for the worker’s self-realization as the plant culture is for the growth of its species in problematic and hazardous conditions, a usual disorder. But Cooper’s definition of culture applies no less to the culture that Allan Bloom critiques. The culture by which we mean national/ethnic/religious identity also discloses the child to him- or herself, and that culture’s representation in the classroom and in society at large is part of the person’s self-determination. Representation, indeed, matters. It is necessary for human freedom

Once you are free to represent yourself, how do you represent the others? Once you have overthrown the center, how do you enact adjustment? This is the question Said posed in South Africa, and he resolved the tension and the question with Newman’s Idea of a University, concluding that

 the profound truth in what Newman says is, I believe, designed to undercut any partial or somehow narrow view of education whose aim might seem only to re-affirm one particularly attractive and dominant identity, that which is the resident power or authority of the moment.

In Said’s rendering, Newman’s university is precisely revolutionary. It “undercuts” the program of the “resident power or authority of the moment.” We have the sense that we are always on shaky ground, wary of any fixed position, but according to Said, this is precisely the experience of freedom. Said offsets the potentate order of sociopolitical construction/constriction of identity with the traveler (dis)order of liberal education, arguing that the privilege of the university space is the ability to try on different selves, and so doing, to see things in their right relationships, their mutuality.

If the idea of a university is to throw us off from fixed positions and effect that adjustment to constant locomotion of the center, then we are at a propitious time of crisis, one that invites us to break with the usual disorder of capitalism all about us in favor of a higher disorder. What if we saw knowledge as its own end and not in service to the economic system? What if education were a universal end, and not the privileged means of the few? What if we were trained to disorder, to throwing off the center the powers that oppress and divert us from the freedom of the perfection of knowledge? What if in a wild moment, we turned higher education from practical and useful to that flower merely beautiful that riots in color, in the strange unrest of bees who don’t know where they’re going but are traveling onward, on their way to a new center, the center of the whole? My prayer for higher education is for that higher disorder. Lead on, kindly lights! We’re on the way…

Anitta Santiago