Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

In Education: Garbage, Trash, Junk

By Alexander Korns

I am teaching a "workshop" in history for Juniors. We do not come together to discuss, but to read. We meet in a library of old books, shelved in chronological order. We browse. I aim for students to select what they read by ineans of an "internal bell" that rings whenever a word or phrase of interest comes within their field of Visine. Unity of thought in a man's education would flow out of the unity of personality, rather than a set of formalizable, self imposed rules.


I am wary of regular "discussions," which encourage the very bad habit of talking when there is nothing worth saying. Prolonged discussion risks incestuousness; intermittent discussion fueled by random input from the bibliographic environment offers a greater possibility of genuine insight. Also, perhaps a more interesting relationship between teacher and student.


The format of our "workshop" resembles that of a design workshop rather than a seminar. The tutor serves as a consultant.


In Vietnam one reads that many lives are lost through the ambush of patrols. These occur because troops stick to roads and trails-i.c., perhaps one percent of land surface. In Ranger training one learns to navigate the other nineteen percent of territory, by night. The roads and trails of modern university education are its reading lists; the conformity of its scholarship, its ambushes. I would like to give the student intellectual "Ranger training."


"Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one's hand." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur).


We should study the past the way we might visit a foreign country. Good travel brings one to perceive life from another standpoint.


To study history with textbooks is to stay at home (reading books about other countries).


To read anthologies of "primary sources," is to take a quick guided tour by bus of Paris.


To be transformed by the study of history is to prowl its alleys in the middle of the night.


Perhaps small children should study history by reading old children's books. Argument: the purpose of history is to give enlightenment through acquisition of the "historical sense." For this purpose, the past must be made real. Find snatches of the past to which children can relate most intensely.


By the same argument adolescents might read the pornography of the past.


Students might read the letters of men they wish to emulate .


The historical sense, by providing past platforms from which to view the present, can break the hypnotic spell of what is. We gain the option to attack the present from the past.


How safe is it to let fascination guide one's education? Is "WOW" enough to make reading a sentence or seeing a picture valuable, if there is no "discipline" involved? Shall we let our children read the comic books of yester-year?


How many book titles have been published since the invention of printing? Maybe 25-50 million, of which over 1 million before 1800. What percentage of these books are ever read, by all the undergraduates, Ph.D. candidates and professors in the United States, in an academic year? If we want to leave our armchair and travel in the past. we can use these books.


Due to over-structured education, many college students are unable to read a book naively.


The history we learn is vertical, intellectual and clear; hence unreal. Can we study history horizontally, affectively and chaotically?


Most people find it impossible not to begin a book on the first page. Many feel guilty if they do not finish it.


Traditionally, one is assigned primary sources as illustrations . There is the unconscious assumption that the source has a meaning which the clever student divines if he knows how to pose the right questions . In one intellectual history program, for example, a course is given entitled "explication of text." The idea of reading primary sources naively, without previous formulation of questions, and with sloppy randomness, evokes horror in the typical academic mind.


The same assumption casts a miasma over all education. It reinforces the view that what is real are our models, of which experience is only illustrative; as opposed to the view that was is real is experience, of which our models are feeble, segmented attempts at mimesis.


Why is it today that students tend to believe that everything is relative, all standpoints are arbitrary, "truth" is an illusion, we are all helplessly conditioned, and the world will one day be run by computers and manipulative social scientists? Who taught them these fairy tales? Why do they cling to them so tenaciously?


Discipline as a tool, versus discipline as a straight jacket. Today, when you meet another graduate student, or professor, you ask him what is his field .


Presented in an anthology, with a selection from a famous work by Thomas Dc Quincy, the student might find it of little interest. Presented with a set of his complete works in 44 volumes, he might discover, for example, an essay on Judas Iscariot that fascinated him. In the present system of education, it is rare that a student will discover anything.


If the medium is the message, then what is the message of an education in which one begins with general textbooks (to get the whole picture), proceeds to more specific ones, and concludes by a carefully supervised examination of primary sources? Answer: control, hierarchy, no surprises. That life is governed by general principles, which are already well understood and need only to be applied. That contemporary knowledge is superior to past knowledge.


According to Otto Fenichel, obsessive-compulsive neurosis is characterized by "the isolation of ideational content from its emotional cathexis," "inhibition in the experiencing of gestalten," "belief in the omnipotence of thought." ( The Psychoanalytic Thcory of Nettroses ).


What moreover is the message of a national educational system in which everyone studies

the same subjects in the same way? That there is only one correct way to think?


Marshall McLuhan says that "the essence of education is civil defense against media fall-out." College students might acquire defense against text books by spending a few months re-examining their own high school texts while reading the high school text books of ten, twenty, fifty and a hundred years ago, as well as the high school text books of French, East German, Egyptian, Indian and other school systems. They might also read ads and brochures of text book publishers. More than any explicit lesson. this would enable them to understand what textbooks are really about.


Is translation possible? A businesslike approach to thought considers the study of foreign language as a waste of time for the average student. What is important can be translated for them by specialists, the other 99 percent to be ignored. This view is satisfactory as long as one is willing to accept the consequences:

That truth is translatable: that it lies in content rather than form and nuance.

That only a few works are important (the reading list all over again).

That, insofar as other cultures embody strange intellectual Geisten . these may be fit for anthropological study, but they are not valid alternatives to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Geist, being basically "unscientific," and they are not to be pursued by a conscientious student for purposes of intellectual liberation.


If the reader spends a whole day some time in a large Parisian bookstore like P.U.F. on the Blvd. St. Michel, he will find shelfloads of books on disciplines that do not exist in America. He will even find translations into French of books written in English of which he has never heard !


The education of today is an education for sheep. What is needed is an education for lions.


No translation. No modernization of spelling or punctuation ! No abridgement ! Maintain original typography ! Halt the falsification of texts!


With facsimile reproduction, libraries of several hundred volumes might be constructed that replicate fully the holdings of a small American college in 1850, or a small public library in 1900. Schools today might purchase such libraries, and they might exist in sufficient variety that the students in one school would perforce grow up in a different intellectual environment from students in nearby schools.


Through such replicas, a student might experience for several years a natural, unexpurgated recreation of a past bibliographic environment. It is important that the library contain many more books than the student could have time to read. The message of this medium is that potential experience is richer than any curriculum. life presenting to each person the possibility of shaping idiosyncratic experience.


A library of 1850 helps one to understand that epoch in its own terms, as a past present facing an unknown future, rather than through hindsight, as past with known future. Where hindsight finds foolishness, empathy will enable the student to learn how hard it was to avoid foolishness.


Old encyclopedias are intellectual treasure troves. Today one can buy second hand an 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1910, for $30-50. Written by a generation of gentlemen scholars that possessed a literary taste we have lost, it presents all of science, medicine, history, geography, and the disciplines of the day in 40 million words. Imagine that in 2030, it will be possible to read an encyclopedia of 1970 with as much critical detachment as we today can bring to bear on one of 1910 ! Imagine that we could devise an education today that could cultivate now such detachment in anyone inclined to acquire it !


As an alternative to textbooks, the historians of the future might create historical collages. These would be to history as poetry is to life; and there by complement textbooks which are to history as sociology is to life. They would arouse the fear of subliminal persuasion, of communication from unconscious to unconscious.


If "relevance" means something deeper than "newspaperliness," then it must mean potential for understanding and control over life. In this sense, a relevant arithmetic problem in an eighth grade text might be: The curves in Fig. 6.48 give the values of apparent crater diameter and depth in dry soil as a function of explosion veiled. Given a 20 KT surface burst over sandstone, find the crater dimensions. (Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 4th ed.) Such a reorientation in education might alter the balance of interest on the part of children away from TV or comics toward school.


Students might make movies about a fellow student they like. These would attempt to explain visually the nature of the other person, by means of his gestures, expressions, and interactions. They might deal also sympathetically with difficulties experienced by the other.


Contrariwise, students might also make movies about people they dislike. These would be propaganda movies, and would help the film maker to experience the value of propaganda. It is of course essential that genuine dislike exist toward the subject.


I will account such schools a success if and only if they also possess a competitive advantage over normal ones. In other words, if among their graduates are individuals who succeed better in public life as well as private, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit or like a twenty-three year old hippie drop-out reported by Life to be making millions in stock market. These men succeed through insight; they undermine the view that success is built on conformity. Education should make people happier by giving those so inclined the strength to conquer.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.