Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Force Fields - Educating the Educators by Martin Jay

Note: This article appeared first in Salmagundi No. 101-102, Winter Spring 1994

It will be old news by the time this is printed, but on January 30, 1993, it merited an eight-column headline in all the California papers. "Honig Guilty on All Counts", screamed the San Francisco Chronicle, whose lead sentence read "State school chief Bill Honig, a nationally recognized leader of the school reform movement, was found guilty yesterday of using his elected post to direct money to a private educational program run by his wife." State conflict-of-interest laws were invoked to convict Honig of felonies for placing four school principals, who were paid $ 337,509 in state funds, with the Quality Education Project headed by Nancy Honig and headquartered in their San Francisco home. Besides whatever penalties the courts might inflict on him, Honig was required to leave the post as California Superintendent of Public Education he had held since 1982.

For anyone who had followed Bill Honig's dramatic rise to prominence - shortly after he left the obscurity of his job as Marin County superintendent of schools, he was touted as a prospective gubernatorial candidate or a future Secretary of Education - his fall was a bitter reminder that educational policy is one of the most hotly contested arenas in today's cultural wars. For Honig's undoing was not merely his questionable judgement in allowing what everyone concedes was a laudable initiative in parent involvement in education to be tainted by the overly close involvement of his wife. He was also an implicit victim of the zealousness of a right-wing Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren and conservative members of the state Board of Education, who were angered by his refusal to countenance Creationist "science" in California textbooks and his support for bi-lingual education. Honig was done in as well by the ruling of a judge who dismissed as irrelevant all evidence concerning his good intentions - a man of considerable wealth, he was not in it for the money - in granting the contracts.

Honig's departure was greeted with dismay by most advocates of education in California. He had used his office to forge a coalition of Democrats and many Republicans around increasing funding for schools, curriculum reform, and more rigorous teacher training and testing. Although his policies were liberal and inclusive, he was respected by those who wanted to maintain high educational standards, which he insisted could be meaningful applied to all of the state's ethnic groups. His earnest, idealistic, hortatory style was a refreshing departure from the bureaucratic petty-mindedness that often comes to characterize those beaten down by the endless struggle over educational policy and practice.


I invoke Honig's story now, however, neither to rehearse the arguments for or against his conviction nor to repeat the lamentations of his supporters, justifiable as they may be. I want instead to use it to introduce a more general issue, the vexed relationship between "high" intellectual life in America and the general educational process through which virtually all of our children pass. For Honig was himself, as I know from personal experience, deeply concerned with precisely this theme. How, he wanted to know, can the abstruse developments at the cutting edge of intellectual life have an impact on schooling? How can ivory tower dwellers mingle effectively with those in the streets below?

The personal experience to which I allude occurred just before Honig became Superintendent of California's public schools. He called me in the fall of 1980 to ask if I were willing to construct and teach an informal course for him and his friends on the current cultural crisis. Although I did not know who he was at the time, I agreed to meet and discuss the possibility. Honig's evident enthusiasm for ideas and his promise of interesting participants won me over, and the following spring we at his house for twelve fortnightly discussions of texts I hoped would provide a range of opinions about the pressing cultural issues of the day. The group was, as he had pledged, a stimulating mix of lawyers, businessmen and educators, all of whom were actively shaping a world that academics study from afar. One, the banker Anthony Frank, would in fact later become United States Postmaster General.

Although the course was designed to focus on the American scene, it began with Carl Schorske's newly published Fin-de-siθcle Vienna, to provide a comparative framework for an analysis of the link between political crisis and cultural turmoil. We then moved to selections from Robert Nisbet's The Sociological Tradition, which carefully unpacks the meaning and history of such keywords as "community", "authority" and "alienation". Along with Nisbet's essentially conservative reading of the debates around these terms, I assigned Herbert Marcuse's classic Frankfurt School text on "The Affirmative Character of Culture", Hannah Arendt's "What is Authority?" from Beyond Past and Future, and Raymond Williams' chapter on "Culture" in Marxism and Literature.

Our subsequent readings included Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Steven Lukes's Individualism, John Murray Cuddihy's The Ordeal of Civility, James Ogilvy's Many-Dimensional Man, Fredric Jameson's Prisonhouse of Language, Richard Schacht's Alienation, and Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. In retrospect, the absence of texts dealing with gender or multi-cultural issues or by minority authors may seem embarrassingly apparent - only Cuddihy thematized the issue of particularism and universalism in its treatment of Jewish intellectuals in Europe and America - but the ones we did read certainly stimulated wide-reading and lively discussions.

I wouldn't presume to know whether or not Honig and his friends got what they wanted from the course, but from my point of view, the experience was very illuminating. My Fabian-like fantasy of influencing the movers and shakers of society came up against the reality of the gap between academic (or more precisely, intellectual) discourse and that of even the most well-informed lay persons. The supposition that the "chattering classes", as the English like to call them, can chatter in the same way about the same issues was not borne out. Call it a difference in habitus, institutional matrix, or cultural field, there was no escaping the baggage each of us brought with us. The gap, interestingly enough, was not evident merely in differences in jargon or familiarity with the current fads in intellectual life. Instead, it reflected a fundamental disparity in outlook, which can be encapsulated, if in somewhat simplified form, in the dichotomy between critique and affirmation.

Whereas my most fundamental inclination was to problematize the self-evident, complex the simple, and unpack the apparently solid, leaving many questions still unanswered, theirs was to analyse and act, to move beyond paradox and ambiguity to positive programmatic resolution. In the vocabulary of a university academic, words like "subversion" and "disruption" had become by 1981 the god-terms that needed no apology, "to critique" or "to deconstruct" the verbs that packed the most punch. What Ricoeur had called the "hermeneutics of suspicion" had clearly won over the "hermeneutics of recollected meaning". Accordingly, the subterranean agenda of the course, as I conceived it, was to unsettle some of the group's assumptions about the implications of honorific terms like "community", "authority" and "culture". Although in some vague way the ultimate goal was meaningful change, I was not bent on providing pragmatic solutions of my own to the problems before us.

The role of critical gadfly has, of course, been one of the most seductive self-images of the intellectual. Marx's famous call for "the ruthless critique of everything existing" is echoed in such manifestoes as Kurt Tucholsky's "Wir Negativen" of 1919, with its truculent insistence that "we cannot yet say Yes". (1) In a widely remarked essay of 1969, the English historian J.P. Nettl went so far as to define true intellectuals as opposed to professional academics precisely by the former's propensity to perennial dissent. (2)  Although there have been contrary examples of mandarin affirmation, when intellectuals have succumbed to the temptation to become yea-sayers, they rarely replace for very long the more congenial intellectual stance of negativity. It was not by chance that the sociologist Alvin Gouldner could call the fundamental discriminating factor indicating membership in what he saw as an intellectual New Class an embrace of "the culture of critical discourse".

Honig, on the other hand, still maintained what might be called a quasi-Arnoldian faith in a more ennobling version of a non-corrosive high culture and a belief in the importance of extending its reach to those now outside its purview. Going beyond the German notion of Bildung, with its emphasis on merely personal cultivation, he endorses Arnold's faith - transmitted through twentieth-century figures like Leavis and Trilling - in the beneficial social effect of the pursuit of perfection, a stress that assumed the universal significance of at least certain cultural norms. Not surprisingly, the text that was received with the most hostility in the class was Marcuse's essay on "affirmative culture", with its attempt to debunk the transcendental idealism of the Arnoldian tradition.

The stance of faithful preserver and disseminator of the cultural riches of the past and the nurturer of new - but not too new - cultural creation has, of course, frequently been seen as the pedagogue's main function. Such a function, not surprisingly, often accompanies a sense of public responsibility tinged with moral uplift. Critical sociologists of education - those who associate themselves with the model of dissenting intellectual limned above - have as a result been swift to foreground the complicitous role such pedagogy plays in creating docile citizens of the modern nation-state, treating education as a prime example of what Althusserians like to call an "ideological state apparatus". Even what may have originally functioned in a subversive manner in the hands of critical intellectuals can become affirmative, they note, when it enters the school curriculum, two obvious examples being Marxism in the former Soviet empire, aesthetic modernism in the West.

It would, of course, be a mistake to reify the distinction between critical intellectuals and constructive pedagogues. The tension between critique and construction is, after all, itself sometimes played out in educational policy terms. Is the main task, pedagogues wonder, to instil critical skills or to nurture the talent for constructive creativity and problem-solving? Can an over-emphasis on the former lead to corrosive and cynical scepticism, while an excessive reliance on the latter promotes a lack of judgement or an attitude of status quo-preserving, utilitarian pragmatism, which never questions its deeper premises? Is culture, however we define it, a treasure from the past to be transmitted reverentially or a living, on-going process that must devour that past, actively forgetting in order to create anew? These are issues that often preoccupy intellectuals and pedagogues alike. Still, there is a kind of tendential division of labour between yea and nay-sayers that was very much in evidence during the course of the class.


Now, however, more than a decade later and after Honig's spectacular rise and fall, a number of ironies about such a division have become increasingly apparent. For unexpectedly, both positions have in a way been outflanked by a third, that being the powerful rise of curious variant of popular or mass culture that is itself deeply hostile to received pieties, indeed of any pieties at all. In the past, both a high-minded traditional culture and a critical avant-garde could dismiss as mindless kitsch a mass culture that seemed conformist, affirmative and lacking in any value except entertainment of the most debased kind. Congratulating themselves for possessing a reflective distance from the seductions of the spectacle and the lure of escapist fiction, they could denounce the naive gullibility of those who were controlled by the masters of mass cultural manipulation.

Now both of these standpoints - let's call them elite and adversarial cultural criticism - are themselves on the defensive against an assault by a generation that sees them, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, as ideological justification for the cultural power of a pseudo-universal "intellectual class", whose seeming differences cover over a communality of interest. There is, as one of the celebrants of this new sensibility, Andrew Ross, has put it, "no respect" left for either position. We are thus unlikely to recognise, he tells us, "what is fully at stake in the new politics of knowledge if (we) fail to understand why so many cultural forms, devoted to horror and porn, and steeped in chauvinism and other bad attitudes, draw their popular appeal from expressions of disrespect for the lessons of educated taste." (3)

Now ironic reflection, camp parody, and awareness of manipulation have themselves become part of mass culture, which is no longer predominantly grounded in seductive immediacy and the deliberate fostering of what Herbert Marcuse ironically dubbed the " happy consciousness" of "repressive sublimation". What seems to prevail today instead is what the German theorist Peter Sloterdijk has called "cynical reason", which he defines as "enlightened false consciousness", a "hard-boiled, shadowy cleverness that has split courage off from itself, holds anything positive to be a fraud, and is intent only on somehow getting through life." (4)

This transformation means that the most disturbing impulses no longer emanate from a critical intelligentsia at war with a cultural establishment; but rather from a much more unsettling mix of inchoate forces that have emerged "from below". These include everything from computer hackers to body piercers, post-modernist performers to underground "zine" cartoonists, skater dudes to cyberpunk bands, gangsta rappers to queer activists. Not all of these can be simply labelled quietistic or defeatist - the militancy of the last mentioned is anything but - and yet they also manifest evident impatience with the critical pretensions of the radical intellectuals who have for so long occupied the anti-establishment highground in the cultural landscape. Heroic attempts like those of Grail Marcus in Lipstick Traces to discern a latent utopianism in their apparent nihilism come up against the overwhelming evidence of their loss of faith in radically holistic solutions. (5) And certainly, they have no use for the Arnoldian vision of cultural sublimation that inspires idealist pedagogues like Honig.

In short, in a world in which Beavis and Butt-head have replaced Horkheimer and Adorno as the reigning champions of negation, the old conflict between adversarial intellectuals and affirmative pedagogues, seems somehow dated. Neither seems to have its finger on the pulse of a generation whose education appears more and more of an impossible challenge every day. Sadly, a well-intentioned reformer like Honig has to contend with kooks who think Darwin is the Anti-Christ, while radical intellectuals schooled in the sixties recycle critiques that seem more and more remote from what is really happening thirty years later. In short, whoever seeks to educate the educators today will have to come to grips with a strange, new world of cultural creation - and demolition - unlike any we have experienced before. If there is anyone out there up to the task, I would welcome a copy of the reading list.



1. Kurt Tucholsky, "Wir Negativen", Die Weltbuehne, 15 (March 13, 1919), reprinted in Anton Kaes, ed.

Manifeste und Dokumente zur deutschen Literatur 1918-1933 (Stuttgart, 1983), p. 36.

2. J.P. Nettl, "Ideas, Intellectuals and Structures of Dissent", On Intellectuals, ed., Philip Rieff (New

York, 1969)

3. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York, 1989), p. 213.

4. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis, 1987), p. 546.

5. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1989)




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