27 November 2011

The Disaffections of Daily Life: Pathways to Activation Within and Without the Machine

Disaffection and activation are intertwined in a multiplicity of ways. They are not necessarily related in a linear, cause and effect type of relationship. Sometimes, a person can become disaffected from a way of thinking or acting, and this disaffection can lead to forms of activation. Other times, becoming activated for a particular cause or issue can lead to disaffection from the opposing ways of thinking and acting. Throughout one's life, disaffections and activations come and go, overlapping each other, adding and subtracting understandings of life experiences. Disaffection without activation can lead to nihilism, and activation without disaffection can lead to co-optation or extremism. In whatever ways we understand their dynamics, disaffection and activation seem to be interdependent. In this essay, I want to reflect on the overlapping relationships between disaffection and activation, and emphasize how daily life experiences provide opportunities for both, by placing these reflections in the context of living in what might be the declining stages of an era marked by hegemony of the megamachine.

The idea of modern society as a megamachine comes from Lewis Mumford, as put forth in several works, most notably in The Myth of the Machine (1970). Mumford developed the machine metaphor by tracing the historical roots of "megatechnic" societies, which are marked by hierarchical power structures and subservience of individuals to those structures. Although Mumford finds the beginnings of megatechnic society in Egypt of the Pharoahs, he locates its fullest expression in modern technological societies. Features of the modern megamachine include the absolute rule of authority and the exercise of arbitrary or institutional power, which in either case demands blind allegiance and creates the feeling of being just another "cog in the wheel." Its methods include speed, thought control, and mobility. In the end, the megamachine is a crushing entity, chewing up all that enters it for some presumed greater cause, which is never fully felt by its components. The byproducts of the megamachine that most people feel daily can include racism, classism, and sexism, as well as the numbness from what passes as education and vocation. The danger of resisting the megamachine by way of solitary disaffection is that one can devolve into nihilism, which is why I am pairing disaffection with activation.

One possibility for understanding disaffection and activation is to see them as shifting frameworks in the context of human liberation and ways of seeking truth. The American Black nationalist Malcolm X, for example, shifted his position several times throughout his life, and, in various ways, he was born into and lived a life of disaffection and activation. His father worked for the Marcus Garvey nationalist movement and was murdered by white supremacists, while his mother was institutionalized by the state. Disaffected from the American socio-economic system, Malcolm turned to crime as a way to gain some semblance of power and control over his life, a pathway which ended with him in prison. However, once there he became differently activated; disaffected from the life of crime, he turned to understanding the faces of racism in American history and society.

Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist organization that was gaining popularity in the northern USA during the post-war period, when many peoples of African descent had become disaffected after being shunned by the white society they fought to protect during World War II. Malcolm’s disaffection from white society helped him to become activated in the cause of Black liberation, but soon he began to discover flaws in the way the Nation of Islam was run, and he became disaffected from the organization and its leadership. Around this time, after making his pilgrimage to Mecca, he also became disaffected from the brand of reverse racism propagated by the Nation of Islam, having seen how Muslim peoples abroad appeared to have moved beyond the social pathology of race. Malcolm became active in yet a different way, calling for human rights rather than civil rights and attempting to place American racism and the plight of African Americans in a global context. It seemed that his passion for the truth and for human liberation had, in a way, circumscribed his various pathways through disaffection and activation, although at the time he was living those experiences daily he did not always articulate them.

Ever since I read his autobiography (Haley, 1992) while I was a university student in the late 1980s, I found the life of Malcolm X to be intriguing and at times inspiring. To me, Malcolm's life is a good example of how disaffection and activation can come about in daily life contexts, and how they may bring about choices. His story helped me to make sense of life as a sequence of disaffections and activations. After coming to understand Malcolm X in this way, I became attracted to people with similar stories, admiring their ability to admit changes in their outlook, both small and profound, but always seeking some greater truth, some greater reality, some greater form of awareness.

Lewis Mumford is another important person in this context. I began reading his books around the same time I discovered Malcolm X. Mumford's days spanned virtually the entire 20th century, and he, like Malcolm X, went through a series of disaffections and activations throughout his life. Beginning as a technological utopian, those early attachments were tempered by the technocratic horrors of global warfare, and Mumford came to believe that the problem was with humans having become slaves to their machines. He supported the American intervention in World War II, but came to regret that support once the wanton death and destruction was unleashed, becoming disaffected from that cause. Later, the scientifically assisted horrors of the Cold War and Vietnam activated him further away from the technological utopian outlook to which he once adhered, and he became one of the staunchest critics of what he dubbed as the "megamachine." But what kept Mumford on track, through all these disaffections and activations, was his commitment to humane living and human centered habitats in harmony with nature, and his ongoing commitment to art and architecture, how the environments we construct can shape us.

Similarly, one could cite other inspiring people who were able to become activated within and without the machine. Barbara McClintock, the biologist and geneticist, was a maverick in those fields, but she was disaffected from the aggressive and interventionist methods and assumptions of the patriarchal, mechanistic paradigm of modern Western science. She developed "a feeling for the organism" (Fox-Keller, 1983) using her own method of research based on observation, rather than experimentation. Her work was impressive on its own terms at the time. However, because she did not conform to the dominant paradigm of science she came to be shunned by her (primarily male) colleagues for decades, and was only belatedly, and perhaps begrudgingly, recognized with a Nobel Prize years after her achievements. Like others, McClintock found ways to live and learn outside the machine, freeing her mind to seek other pathways, but she was also able to work within it when she had no other choice.

One thing that impressed me about each of these important twentieth century figures is that they could become so incredibly aware without going through much formal schooling or without playing by the institutional rules. Each in their own way developed their awareness of problems in their society through various forms of self-learning. Malcolm X never went to college but he ended up speaking at Harvard and Oxford. Mumford attended college but never completed a degree, and yet he was awarded several honorary doctorates. McClintock was shunned by a university system that was too slow to recognize her genius, yet her breakthroughs in genetics are taken for granted today. Despite the systems that constrained them, they found ways to become active without the confines of institutionalized learning, and they also accepted the changes that were necessary in their outlooks on life and its problems, moving through a series of disaffections and activations.

In a sense, they developed themselves as thinkers and activists outside the machine, finding their own pathways through life, but they also found ways to operate inside the machine, perhaps realizing it was the place most people spent their lives. It appears to be a difficult balance, operating within and without the machine, and it seems to take an extraordinary mind to keep that balance and not become part of the machine. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, it also seems necessary today for people to find ways to operate within the machine, without becoming of the machine, at least for the time being until a more critical mass can join together on pathways to their own disaffection and activation. This can involve a broader definition of what it means to be educated, that education is different from schooling, that schooling is part of the megamachine while education is part of life, and that life often teaches us important lessons, if only we can find ways to listen and heed their wisdom.

With these introductory points in mind, I'd like to ruminate for a while on my arguably more mundane life experiences with teaching and learning as pathways through my own disaffections and activations within and without the megamachine.

Many post-World War II Americans played by the rules of the machine and followed the technical experts in matters of education and child rearing. Professional medical knowledge when I was born in the early 1960s dictated that mother's milk was "nutritionally weak," and that science could create a superior, nutrient-rich substitute. Women were admonished not to breastfeed, and a generation of children were raised on formula. Joseph Chilton Pearce (1993) has suggested that this advice was destructive, as breastfeeding serves many purposes, including helping to build a healthy immune system and especially in fostering a mother-child human bonding experience, and that the nutritionally "weak" mother's milk therefore guaranteed frequent feeding and thus continuous bonding experiences. The doctors did not see any of this, they were blinded by science, they were schooled only to see measurable amounts of nutrients, not human, spiritual, and social relations, and so they turned infants over to the incubating machine and to formula feeding, which according to Pearce may have had profound implications on health and well-being. As I was a more or less sickly child, I could not have known it at the time but often wonder if my disaffections from the megamachine could have actually begun at birth.

With school desegregation in full swing by the time I was ready to begin my K-12 sentence, many urbanites joined the "white flight" to the suburbs, pursuing the American dream in a newly constructed and ever expanding suburbia. As a result, I grew up in a once rural town north of New York City, all white except for one family. Mark and Joe Ruiz were my childhood buddies, from an upwardly mobile Puerto Rican family, and theirs was the first non-white family to move to the town in which I was raised. This caused many families in the area some consternation, since "they" were now moving north, too, but since they were isolated in a sea of white, the Ruiz family seemed non-threatening. There was little one could outwardly identify as Puerto Rican about them, anyway. They had learned to hide it well. Even their names were sacrificed; their given names, I found out many years later, were "Marco y Jose." As children and young adults, we got along as friends, though I always felt somehow isolated for being friends with the only "colored" kids in the town, and had to listen to people calling them "spics" and chastise me for being their friends. The isolation I felt with Mark and Joe hit harder when I attended baseball camp for a summer away from home, learning to play ball in a real little league stadium with kids from all over the USA. At the camp, I befriended two African American brothers from Baltimore, and spent most of my time playing with them. The other boys, mostly middle class whites like me, didn't take kindly to a white kid playing with the "niggers," so I was taunted regularly and even beat up on occasion, while they ironically left the Black kids alone.

Haphazardly, my ordinary life experiences taught me about discrimination and racial hatred before I knew what those terms meant, before I could analyze, criticize, and rationalize them. Because of this, I became disaffected from elements of my society, and I felt this growing disaffection on other fronts, not just from being friends with the "spics" and "niggers." When I was in the Boy Scouts, for example, the scoutmaster for some reason thought I was Jewish, and even though I tried to tell him I wasn't, I had to spend the camping trips being called a "kike" and a "dumb yidd" by the other kids. I was also accosted by the good ol' Christian boys when I didn't go to the makeshift chapel in the woods on Sundays. (Actually, I skipped out of the chapel because I had become disaffected from Christianity at an early age, particularly from the non-thinking variant to which I was subjected.) Meanwhile back at home, because I had a German surname, a Jewish bully who lived down the street used to pick on me because I was a "Nazi." But as I now see it, I was lucky (or unlucky?) enough in my early life to have first hand experiences with racism and discrimination. Alhough I really didn't understand them at the time, those experiences put me on different sides of the various racial divides, so I did not inherit much of the thinking of one group or another. Reflecting on this today, I rarely, if ever, fought back against any of these people, perhaps because I did not understand their attitudes, or perhaps because I felt disconnected from the inconsistent and conflicting categories that seem to create our identities.

Alongside my experiences with racial hatred, I dutifully attended school, which did next to nothing to address the day to day problems that I faced. Even so, in the early years I was a model "good student," the kind of student teachers praise at the parent-teacher conferences. With my good marks (and thick-rimmed glasses) in primary school, teachers assured my parents that, "He will grow up to be a scientist." But then something happened; I began to see school as a place to escape. I am not sure how and when it happened, but there were all sorts of experiences that continuously unmasked the system for me.

In retrospect, one experience that seemed to turn the tables had to do with reading and literacy. By the time I was in the second or third grade, a new system of teaching reading was being introduced by many American school districts. Dubbed the "Initial Teaching Alphabet" (ITA for short), it featured a modified phonetic alphabet that was supposed to be a truer representation of how language actually sounded, the goal being to teach reading by sight that was closer to reading by sound, and avoid confusing early learners with the myriad exceptions to the pronunciation rules encountered when learning the hodgepodge language of English. Faddish throughout the 1960s in Australia, the UK, and the USA, ITA was supported by the boards of education and professional associations, with plenty of experts to teach its particulars, and the publishing industry had a windfall supplying the requisite textbooks. A perfect system in all its efficient, rational, and technical glory. There was one flaw with ITA, however. Once the new alphabet was learned, it seemed that students were having difficulty moving over to the conventional alphabet. I wonder if anyone has ever traced impairments like dyslexia or various other reading problems to such early childhood experimentations. In my case, despite having a mother who was an avid reader and lover of words, I hadn't taken much to reading.

Maybe that was why I become uncomfortable with schooling from an early age. In any event, that feeling was reinforced as I climbed the ladder into secondary education. I can still see Mrs. Whittier, my tenth grade English teacher. Somehow I got into an "honors" class and the experience exposed for me some of the issues that had always plagued my relationship to schooling. Mrs. Whittier, politely speaking, was "in the twilight of her career," having taught at the same high school for three decades. While the system rewarded her, to many students she was just an old fool. She wore sunglasses in class to hide her red eyes, and all the students whispered that she had a bottle of gin in her desk drawer. Her teaching was incoherent, her assignments meaningless, but I guess everyone looked the other way, in their own way. Nothing of what she tried to teach about English stuck with me, and this was perhaps another facet of a reading-impairment that stayed with me for many years. Bypassing English class as often as I could, I spent more time in the cafeteria and schoolyard, and Mrs. Whittier rarely noticed that I was gone. On rainy days, or when boredom set in, I would go to class for a few laughs. The class clown, Tommy Azadian, played jokes on Mrs. Whittier. Tommy was a master at mimicking the blaring loudspeaker above the door to the classroom, next to the ubiquitous clock, and through which the passing bells rang and which also broadcast an occasional announcement. "Mrs. Whittier, please report to the office," intoned the garbled speaker one day, except it was Tommy's voice disguised by cupped hands. Mrs. Whittier dutifully went to the loudspeaker and replied, "Yes, I'm here, what may I do for you?" As the old saying goes, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me; Tommy would fool Mrs. Whittier every time, until finally the assistant principal figured out what was going on and clued her in. The class would giggle, but since these were "honors" students, they knew how to work the system much better than the "stupid" students. They knew that a "good" student was one who did not make trouble and always did what teacher said. So there were only soft giggles, not the loud guffaws one would hear had it been a "stupid" class. She thought she had a class of little angels, of bright "leaders of tomorrow," but they were just taking an easy ride at her expense. And, since I was not a "good" student, I just cut the class most of the time, preferring to find what I thought were more meaningful activities, liking talking with friends and wandering in the woods.

Although history later came to be one of my favorite academic subjects, a subject for which I have at times become an avid teacher, in high school it was a blur of boredom and disaffection. There was one teacher, Mr. Ruttman, who would intone dates and places for what seemed like hours while pointing to a faded, outdated map. I recall nothing of his course on the "foundations of civilization" (which was probably for the better!), but I do remember that every Halloween his house was pelted with eggs. Then there was the memorable junior high unit on the Iroquois Indians, which was "team taught" in the "open classroom" style that became faddish in the early to mid-seventies in many school districts. The teachers worked hard to make the class "fun." We ate corn bread and venison, wore feather bonnets and moccasins, built dioramas of teepees and prairies, and sang songs and read poems about when the Buffalo roamed. I remember the fun and games very well, and can still vividly recall the experience today. There was only one problem: I learned nothing about the Iroquois, or the Haudenosaunee, as they prefer to call themselves. Instead of teaching about the native peoples of the region, the teachers reinforced a mishmash of stereotypes from American popular culture and Hollywood imagery of "Indians." The tragically funny thing was that I did not realize this until graduate school, when I took courses with  John Mohawk, an elder in the Haudenosaunee nation. Nevertheless, the high school class had been a "success," since the students were happy, attendance was high (I even went to class for the corn bread!), and everyone got an "A." But what was taught about Indians actually did deep damage to our understanding of Native American cultures. In fact, everything Americans learned about Indians and the founding of America was a sham. I still recall the revulsion I felt after reading Francis Jennings' The Invasion of America (1975) while thinking back to grade school and those carefree days merrily skipping home from school around Thanksgiving-time wearing my construction paper Pilgrim's black hat with the big yellow buckle, oblivious to the murderous and psychotic heritage of the Puritans that Jennings masterfully dissects. None of that mattered in the world of schooling; all the teachers cared about was order, and all the "good students" cared about was working the system for grades.

These are not the only experiences that disaffected me from schooling. I chafed at the rigid structure, the militaristic discipline, and mind-numbing exercises, which were often glazed over with faddish liberal veneers like "cooperative learning" and "team teaching." My disaffection developed alongside various forms of activation, not necessarily profound in the socio-political sense, but nevertheless deeply meaningful in the personal sense. School always seemed artificial to me. I lived in a rural area, with lots of forests, lakes, caves, and pastures, all of which seemed like a much better place to spend a day than cooped up inside a sterile, sealed up school building. So I was frequently absent throughout secondary school, rain or shine. In fact, I spent many a crisp winter day warming up by a campfire in the woods next to the school. I had a friend who knew the terrain really well, and who was a camper and a hunter at heart. Although I feared his ease with guns, I admired his sense of the woods when we went on hiking adventures in the local hills. Growing up in the country had its benefits, despite the incursions of the megamachine via schooling and racism, and those early experiences, the juxtaposition of sterile conformity in school with natural diversity outside school, activated me toward an environmental consciousness that has stayed with me until this day.

High school graduation was anti-climactic. There were no causes to ascribe to, no peace signs to wave, no long hair or tie-dye jeans to wear under the robes; it was a period of retrenchment from all the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, and a pre-Reagan era rollback was already gaining momentum. So I just graduated along with everybody else, silently shuffling along, anonymously, ready to join the "real world," to become "another cog in the wheel" of society. But most of what I learned about life in the years leading up to graduation was accidental learning, unintended learning, unconscious or out of awareness learning, what might even be seen as a form of "unlearning," since at the time I bought into the myth with everyone else that learning only occurs in school or within the family, and that it is somehow controllable, testable, and predictable. I did not really accept my experiences as learning, since there were no tests and books, no bells, and blackboards, they were just "experiences." Nevertheless, with all the disaffection from schooling, I felt tremendous pressure to get active with something. Not very interested in the juvenile delinquency pursued by some of my disaffected peers, I turned to other endeavors to activate my life. During my school years, I got involved in the usually pre-approved extra curricular activities — little league baseball, painting classes, stamp collecting — but I never really latched onto any of them whole-heartedly.

A turning point came for me when we were on a family outing in an amusement park where a local rock band happened to be playing. The music blended together, just like I heard on the radio, but at one point they introduced the musicians and the guitarist pounded a sustained block chord. I was enthralled! That sound of raw open fifths grabbed me, without the mind-manipulating games and deferred gratifications of major-minor tonalities that drove Western art music (the only "real" music school taught us to appreciate). Instead, it was the immediate power of an overdriven amplifier with fuzzed-out fifths and an energized sustain that captured my imagination. I wanted to do that, to make that sound, and so I convinced my parents to get me guitar lessons. I finally had something to latch onto, to learn what was exciting and meaningful to me. I especially enjoyed the one-to-one learning experiences of the guitar lessons, and I was fortunate to have a kind and patient teacher. It was all very appealing, except that he was into acoustic music, and, at the time, I wanted to make electric music. So, after learning the basics in the private lessons, by my mid-teens I was on the way toward self-learning music, and I focused more of my attention on music than on school, including the social relations around playing in various music groups with my peers. The guitar lessons also taught me that sometimes a good teacher is helpful and even necessary, and I was often in and out of lessons, to see what I could pick up from others in an active student-teacher relationship.

Music opened new doors of learning for me, new ways and new things to learn, new places and reasons to learn. Although I got involved in various music groups, eventually even playing semi-professionally, for me music was about self-discovery. I spent countless hours working on musical projects, which eventually connected me to audio technology, studio recording, computers, and even amateur filmmaking. Once I broadened my horizons beyond the rock music that enthralled me in high school, my interest in music taught me about social class, ethnocentrism, and racism, it taught me about the relationship between art and technics, and it taught me to respect culture and craft. I found these out on my own, since little of this was supported by the utilitarian industrial suppositions of modern schooling. In fact, music was sort of like an anchor for me as I wandered my way through the schooling megamachine, a place for my soul to swim in sounds, to counterpoise the soul-numbing efficiencies of schooling. Music was something I could do for myself, which would connect me to others in ways not necessarily sanctioned or promoted by the machine.

With its emphasis on the "great classics" and the quasi-military marching band, school was useless in my quest for musical enlightenment. The megamachine demanded that there be order and adherence to these forms, while for me music was about freedom and experimentation. My musical sojourns, for a working class American male, became surprisingly diverse, from loud rock to pulsating blues and jazz, a stint at classical guitar (which I found too stodgy), and finally settling into various non-Western string instruments, such as the kora (West Africa), oud (Arab world), and saz (Turkey), but always returning to guitar. At the same time, my lessons on this journey were bittersweet. Approaching my learning initially like my society taught me, that if I had money I could buy happiness, I realized I was committing a disservice to understanding the cultures whose instruments interested me. It could take a lifetime to learn any one of those instruments, and there were traditions and wisdoms associated with each that would require patience and stillness in one's self and, in many cases, deference to a master. That disaffection from my simplistic tourism of "world music" helped to activate me to learn about the cultures of other peoples, a journey that I am still on today.

Books were not an important part of my youth; I was raised on comics, television, and music. As an undergraduate in college, I read mostly textbooks, which is not really reading. There were very few of what might be called academic or literary books and even when I read them I understood little. For example, I once had to do a book review as part of a college course on cognitive development. Browsing the card catalogue (no databases; they still used paper index cards in those days) I stumbled upon the pioneering work by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1973). Many years later, I came across the paper I wrote about that book, and found it to be a rather unimpressive, disorganized collection of thoughts, many irrelevant to the book or misstating the authors' point of view; it was clear that I did not know what I was reading at the time, and upon reflection I remember finding it very difficult to finish the book and complete the paper. I just didn't "get it," although I knew intuitively that there must be something interesting in there. I had been attracted to the title, teaching as a subversive activity, even though I could not follow the argument intellectually. That was the only academic book I recall "reading" from the formal experiences of my undergraduate days, but I guess what it said to me was that there were other people unhappy with schooling, not only as students but as teachers, and they were doing something about it, acting on their disaffection.

So after college, I became, of all things, a teacher. Although I could say that it was primarily an activist decision, wanting to somehow change the system I loathed as a youth, that would not be the whole story. Teaching, in a classic working-class construct for Americans, was a "fallback" position, something to do while pursuing one's true passions. My passion at the time was music, and so I became a music teacher as a fallback position. But it was awful and numbing. My first job was in a private parochial high school, and whatever semblance of humane or subversive concern I had for my students was bludgeoned into submission by the system. I realized that school, on both sides of the desk, was about conformity and repression – of students, of teachers, of knowledge – and it was a terrible experience, a bad job, that I held for two years. I knew that the vocation of teaching could be better, since as a musician I had great teachers and I had also been teaching guitar to teenagers for many years, but when it came to the institutionalized setting of modern schooling I could not connect with the same teenagers, and there was increasing pressure to become what I hated about my own school teachers.

After a somewhat more fulfilling stint as a media studies teacher in a public high school, I decided to go to graduate school and get an M.A., which was required to maintain a teaching license, even though I was not entirely committed to remaining a schoolteacher. I was coming to the realization that I liked teaching and working with youths, but I disliked schooling, and I had begun to think about the unresolved paradox of schooling, that it is one of the few remaining public, seasonal, and collective experiences of life and learning, which gave it a semblance of oganicism, but that it seemed hopelessly bound to, and in service of, the abstract norms of the megamachine. So, rather by chance at a music teacher's association conference, I discovered a graduate program in the State University of New York at Buffalo that encouraged self-directed learning and which emphasized interdisciplinary work. I decided to pursue my two interests at the time, world music and electronic music, and installed a small computer based recording studio in my apartment, along with an array of Asian and African instruments that I was learning to play. On the world music side I worked with the sociomusicologist Charles Keil, and on the electronic music side I worked with the computer music composer Lejaren Hiller. What I had in mind was some sort of synthesis of the two. Those were an important two years for me, not only because of my studies but because of finding a space to pursue my interests, which at the time were in music, audio production, and filmmaking. I had a weekly radio program on Arab music (which got shut down when the first Gulf War heated up), and formed a music group playing Middle Eastern music in local clubs.

But with the threatening phone calls and letters that the radio station received, and the sneers and leers of the bar crowd when we played Arabic music, racism had once again reared its ugly head. The experiences with racism of my youth now extended to Arabs and Muslims, and I learned that Palestinians in particular were exempt from the usual sympathy that many otherwise open-minded and liberal academics had toward selected disenfranchised peoples, which was a hard lesson to learn. And, as before, it was putting myself in the shoes of the other – this time by way of playing Arab music – that taught me about the arbitrariness of racial and ethnic discrimination. It may be impractical to say that one way to temper racism is to get threatened or beat up once in a while, but I know for me it helped to piece together an awareness of racial hatred. I have often wondered what these experiences might tell us about current efforts to deal with racism in American society. Most of the discourse on "multiculturalism" has been co-opted by sometimes well-meaning (white) liberals who always somehow manage to keep a distance from the visceral aspects of racial hatred and how it is reproduced in people's lives. I fear that once something has became institutionalized, with a duly appropriate "ism" attached to it and federal funding to support it, we would find that it has become abstracted and detached from daily life experiences, and pushed into the realm of self-serving academic or political debate. Such debates often rage in the United States, but they never really seem to get anywhere.

Maybe part of the problem is that Americans worship definitions. They will hold high the codified ideals of school desegregation, for example, while any visit to the inner city districts of New York makes it plain that segregation is still painfully apparent in practice. Similar points could be made about the criminal "justice" system, by which a disproportionate number of African Americans are incarcerated. As long as Americans hold up high their unattained ideals without dealing with the realities on the ground, the arguments about equality and multiculturalism will ring hollow.

Before leaving Buffalo, I assembled an interdisciplinary M.A. in humanities, and developed enough skill with writing to convince Columbia University that I was a safe investment for a three-year fellowship toward the Ph.D. However, the features that I loved about the M.A. program in working-class Buffalo were absent at Ivy League Columbia, and it seemed more about conforming to the prevailing elitist academic discourse than about developing one's knowledge and potentials. Oddly, the music that I loved to play was reduced to something about which one could only write, silently; there was no performance component to the program. These kinds of experiences created a disaffection toward higher education, but I also realized that in the conformity machine of modern schooling writ large to the university, there were small pockets of resistance and a few opens spaces. I was lucky enough to have found some of them elsewhere, as I would never have survived all those years in a conventional Ph.D. program such as that of Columbia. Even though I eventually rounded up a Ph.D., to this day I still wince when people call me "doctor."

In any case, for the time being I had to learn to write like an academic, and succeeded in publishing two refereed academic journal articles while still a graduate student, although I found that style of writing cold and dry. That was one reason I left Columbia, I was seen by the stuffed shirts there to be "subjective" and unable to maintain any "scholarly detachment," some one who couldn't be "objective," because, sin of sins, I actually enjoyed the music I was studying and felt an affinity with the people who made it, in this case Arabs and Muslims. To make matters worse, I waved my hands around and rose my voice when speaking, definitely not good Ivy League posture. In fact, that hit me hard when I first arrived at Columbia. In Buffalo, I called professors by their first name, hung out with them informally, could speak my mind and write any way I pleased, which although allowing me to grow also in a sense spoiled me. The first thing my new advisor said upon my arrival was, "You are at Columbia now." I swallowed hard and realized then that it would be a difficult trip, but I decided to make the most of it, because I saw the benefits of living in New York City in close proximity to several major libraries. So I toed the line for three years in the ethnomusicology program that supported me, but did everything I could to take advantage of other opportunities, learning Arabic in the Middle East Studies program, taking odd courses or attending lectures with some of the celebrated faculty, and wandering around in the ethnic diversity of the city. But I spent most of my time sequestered in a small studio apartment within walking distance of campus, with piles of books on the floor, reading.

That was when I realized, for the first time in my life, that I was reading-impaired, and was amazed that I could get so far in higher education with such a condition. At first I had excruciating headaches, and I could not do any sustained reading, nor follow any complex arguments. But with persistence eventually the physical tensions eased and my mind opened wide. I couldn't get enough of reading, one book after another, on any topic I could find, often following a stream of consciousness from book to book, almost as if I felt like I needed to make up for lost time. Unfortunately, the academic program itself was stifling and colonialist in its outlook, so I left New York without the Ph.D. (although I did take an M.Phil. from Colombia), before heading back to Buffalo where I felt more at home. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in American Studies and had the good fortune to be among a very unique academic community.

At the time, American Studies was a sort of coalition department, comprised of Native American Studies, Women's Studies, Puerto Rican Studies, and Working Class Studies. On the faculty were Native American elders, feminists, social activists of different stripes, musicologists, and a broad array of pioneering and even radical academics from a variety of disciplines. This setting gave focus to my reading, and I owe it to these people that I can think clearly about global and local issues today. They really provided a nurturing environment, lots of freedom to develop my own voice, support when it was needed, and space when that was needed, too. It was in many ways the antithesis of all my prior schooling, with the exception of the Humanities M.A. program (which was also in Buffalo, and involved some of the same people). Sadly, soon after I completed the Ph.D. in American Studies the department came under fire from the newly emerging neoliberal fueled wave of "reforms" in higher education that had shut down several similar programs, especially those related to ethnic and comparative studies. As I see it today, it is a disgrace on higher education that such programs are downsized or boarded up, especially during an era in which more understanding of human and ecological diversity is needed, where more life-affirming humanities are necessary.

Outside of academia, during that period of my life, I became interested in religion and philosophy. Although raised as a Catholic, like many of my generation I was alienated from the Church by the time I was in my early teens. I lumbered along without spirituality until my mid-twenties, living a somewhat bohemian and even hedonistic lifestyle typical of the period. But I always felt an inner yearning, something that music could not fully assuage, and so through various friends who were interested in them I began to explore Asian religions, latching onto Tibetan Buddhism via Chogyam Trungpa and Zen through D. T. Suzuki for a while, and also learning some yoga, which I still practice today. But it was my association with African American jazz musicians, who were Muslims, that introduced me to the outlook of the religious life. They seemed more centered and at peace than the other musicians I worked with, and I felt comfortable in their presence. I rarely talked with them about religion, our relationships were based on music, but they planted seeds in my consciousness by their attitude and presence.

Then, one day, while rummaging through an old bookstore in a rural part of upstate New York, I came across a copy of the Qur'an. The first thing that struck me was the look of the Arabic writing. It was a bilingual edition, but I couldn't get anything out of the English meanings, the translations. Arabic appealed to me on an aesthetic level; the language itself, the cursive script, was beautiful, and I fixated on that. I eventually collected books on Islamic calligraphy and decorative arts and was enthralled by the shapes of the language, without paying much attention to its meanings. In graduate school, when it came time to learn another language, I chose Arabic. After hearing why I chose Arabic, one of my tutors, an Egyptian post-graduate, said, "If you like the way Arabic looks, you might like the way it sounds," and he gave me a tape of the famous Qur'an reciter Abdul Basit. I immediately found something strangely familiar yet also unknown about that stark, soulful, lone voice chanting, which captured my heart and brought together several strands in my life, the musical, the aesthetic, the experiential. This attraction led me to seek out books about the ethical dimensions of Islam, and I was drawn in particular to the works of Shi'ite revolutionaries (e.g., Shariati, 1980), the thinkers and activists of a downtrodden sect who catalyzed the Islamic revolution in Iran. The ethical dimensions of Islam, especially the Shi'ite focus on justice, coupled with my earlier admiration for Malcolm X and the role of Islam in the African American experience, merged with the aesthetic sensibilities of my long standing interest in the sound and visual arts, and I entered into a prolonged period of serious study of Islamic spirituality through the humanities, which ironically gave me a new insight into and appreciation of all religions.

Soon thereafter, with the newly obtained American Studies Ph.D. in hand, I found myself working as a professor of education, a teacher of teachers, in an inner city public university. It seemed odd that, after all my trials and tribulations with schooling, here I was back there once again; but a job is a job, and I took what I could get at the time. Trying to make the most of the experience, I attempted to implement a way of teaching that would use daily life experiences of the ordinary in a subversive way.

I can still recall a peak moment during a Spring semester class one year, in an afternoon that began like many others. Most students arrived directly from their teaching internships, and were sitting around the classroom trading frontline stories of their experiences in Brooklyn classrooms, having already picked up a habit from their school mentors, the art of "bullshitting" to release tension. Other students shuffled in with large cups of coffee or soda, taking seats in the back, clearly exhausted from the day's travails, by no means energized for a three-hour seminar on "Advanced Teaching Methods in Secondary Social Studies." I had seen it before, it was a daunting task. Most of these folks were already acclimated to the schooling megamachine, donning the "been there, done that" kind of survival attitude that many teachers wear as a form of passive resistance, jaded even before they begin their careers. Not exactly the best audience to begin lectures on the finer points of constructivist theory vis-a-vis behaviorism, the latest lesson plan format, or whatever else the five pound textbook offered. But I knew them, because they were me, in many ways, and they were as disaffected from the machine as I. But now I was part of the machine, and they were here for one reason: to get graduate credit so they can obtain their teaching license and land a permanent job in the "real world," not to be in this artificial place called a university for some higher academic purpose. I sympathized with them, having worked as a teacher, and having been bored to death myself by programmatic, irrelevant lectures. There is a certain, sometimes valiant, working-class veneer that one develops, especially in New York City, toiling as a teacher, with twinges of the anti-intellectualism one finds in many working-class settings, which always seemed ironic for people working as teachers, but which is perhaps testimony to the pervasive mind-numbing qualities of modern schooling.

Normally, teachers would begin such a session by calling the class to order and proceeding with the day's lecture or lesson or whatever was planned in advance. On that particular day I had no plan, none that I can recall now, but I had been thinking a lot about the absence of the ordinary in academic life. Inspired by reading Ira Shor's Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (1987), I struck upon an idea. As the class of about thirty students chattered on and the clock ticked twenty minutes past the designated start time, I picked up a chair, one of those shaped-plastic and tube metal seats with a fold-open side desk, and slammed it down hard on top of the heavy steel teacher's desk, itself a monstrosity of a by-gone industrial age. The loud booming noise echoed around the concrete walls of the classroom, and the students were stunned, immediately turning toward me, transfixed for a moment in utter silence. With most probably expecting to be scolded for talking too much, and perhaps already thinking up witty retorts, I caught the whole class off guard by not missing a beat and asking: "What is this?" There were looks of confusion. I pointed at the chair, and asked again, "Come on, what is this?" After deciding some clever game was in progress, one student retorted, "It's a work of art!" I said, "Really? Does anyone else see a work of art?" Some laughed, most looked puzzled, and it took a while for the class to realize that there was no trick to this question, no clever retort. I really wanted them to tell me what it was: a chair.

Finally, some one got it, and I proceeded to improvise an impromptu lecture about how an ordinary object contained within it a broad array of social and political relations, teaching the students a method of social study by enacting it, deconstructing the chair, what it was made of, where the materials came from, who put them together, eventually expanding the discussion to tracing chairs as signifiers of gender and class, from student chairs to teacher chairs (Why were they different? What did that mean?), to thrones and pews and even no chairs, unpacking the multiple meanings of what most took for granted as a part of daily life. Some resisted, still clinging to the belief that this was not knowledge, although the class was savvy enough that they could answer each other and I could concentrate on revealing the socio-economic matrix embedded in that one chair, and also the way that it normalized the human experiences of teaching and learning. To broach the latter point, I asked some one to demonstrate the right way – and the wrong way – to use this object called a chair, which I had hoped would lead us to discussions of uniformity, conformity, and the politics of the body in the classroom.

Then something interesting and unexpected happened. A female student was demonstrating the "wrong way" to sit in the chair, which was to slouch down in the seat and rest her legs on the desk part, taking notes in a notebook on her lap. "Why do you sit that way?" I asked, and she said, "The correct way is not comfortable for me." This young lady was, let us say, full figured and short, and I asked, "Are you uncomfortable because of your body shape?" I knew I was going out on a limb with such a question, and immediately another student interjected, "Hey now Progler, that's discrimination!" I said, "Perhaps, but I think it's the chair that is discriminating, not me!" Everyone laughed in disbelief. "Can this inanimate chair discriminate?" I continued. They scoffed. "Only people discriminate, this is an object," many insisted. I asked, "But if we just showed that a whole array of social relations and people were involved in bringing the chair into the classroom, then do you mean to say that it was not possible that they may have built some of that into this chair?" There was silence. The student sitting "incorrectly" in the chair agreed with me, and others began to talk about not being able to find a left-handed desk, and eventually we had a meaningful discussion about how social relations get embedded in objects. It was an amazing experience, and even the cynical students thanked me later. After that, I continued to develop methods that focused on revealing the social relations of objects and the politics of daily life, although I was breaking the institutional rules by so doing. While some students resisted, asking "Where’s the textbook?" or "Is this on the teacher certification exam?" others came to accept what I was doing. Eventually, I sent students out to fast food restaurants, museums, and other sites of what has come to be known as "cultural pedagogy," and worked to help them come to grips with life in the megamachine, to see it for what it is, perhaps creating disaffection but at the same time finding some lively spaces and urging them forward in their activation.

These are some of the more memorable experiences that contributed to the path I am on now, the path that brought me toward becoming a reflective practitioner, a caring and concerned teacher of young people, dedicated to awakening minds to the wonders (and sometimes the horrors) of the world around them, to finding humane and fulfilling ways of living outside the megamachine, to locating survival niches on its margins and fringes for those who are still working within it. But in retrospect, most of my life has been spent living and working in an institutionalized setting, and, in the end, that is what I mean by the megamachine. I think it is common for people to find themselves feeling like a "cog in the wheel" but many never find a way to escape that. In my case, ways of escape seemed to find me, but while my mind was largely free of the machine, my body was often still its captive. Living in the machine is a survival tactic for many of us, but being of the machine is a slow death. When thinking about writing the story of my own disaffections and activations, it seemed necessary to look into the deep past when such words did not make any sense, to seek out those visceral, out-of-awareness, non-rationalized kinds of experiences, that deterred some of us from the machine at an early age, those episodes that "got us into trouble." I think articulating and reflecting upon such experiences and transformations can speak to the importance of daily life in developing a critical consciousness and humane self-awareness. Most academic work, most schooling, neglects this story-telling component of learning, while my own reflections on life experiences have helped me to find ways to integrate daily life with academic work, and that is what has informed my teaching ever since, within and without the machine.

Fox-Keller, E. (2003). A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Haley, A. (1992). The autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.
Jennings, F. (1975). The invasion of America: Indians, colonialism, and the cant of conquest. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Mumford, L. (1970). The myth of the machine. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Pearce, J. C. (1993). Evolution’s end: Claiming the potential of our intelligence. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Postman, N. and Weingartner, C. (1973). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte Press.
Shariati, A. (1980). Red Shi’ism. Berkeley: Mizan Press.
Shor, I. (1987). Critical teaching and everyday life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[This is a revised version of an essay that was originally published in a 2003 special issue of the journal Vimukt Shiksha (Vol. 13, pp. 60-77) on the theme "Paths of Unlearning." It was inspired by my association with Shikshantar: The Peoples' Institute for Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, the Sindh Education Foundation in Karachi, and the Arab Education Forum in Amman. I had participated in a number of conferences and meetings through an emerging learning societies network that encouraged developing critical awareness and alternative views toward institutionalized learning through storytelling and the mutual sharing of life experiences in settings less formal and more open than conventional academic conferences. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own learning and to revisit some of the foundational educational experiences of my life. Indirectly, this essay is also an early attempt to struggle with the paradox of my ongoing dedication to teaching in a university while simultaneously developing a line of inquiry that problematizes the university, which I have tried to articulate through the metaphor of living and learning within and without the machine. Some of my recent work has furthered this line of inquiry by focusing on identifying imperialism embedded in education through curriculum, institutional structure, and the use of textbooks, and on encouraging curriculum reform as a meeting point between academic and vocational education.]

1 comment:

  1. i was touched by your story... I wish to escape and help others escape