Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Is Education Reform Headed the Wrong Way?

When I accepted an academic position in 1991, I was the first African-American in a Department of twenty-seven. I didn’t know what to expect, although my colleagues proved to be helpful and welcoming. In scanning the landscape of the Humanities at my university and elsewhere, I came to see that racial issues played a far smaller role than did epistemological ones, that is “ways of knowing.”  Two decades after I entered the academic world, that wall seems more impenetrable than ever.

The West African cultures from which my slave ancestors were brought to American shores, honored gnostic forms of knowledge, submerged in the West for more than two millennia. “Gnosticism” has been slathered with a host of meanings over the centuries. However, I use the term borrowed from the Greek word “gnosis,” (knowledge), in its contemporary meaning, which refers to “interior forms of knowledge,” such as creativity, intuition, experiential and self-knowledge. Sufism is the gnostic form of Islam (that is, the God within rather than the God in heaven). The Kabbalah with its Sephiroth or ten emanations through which God reveals himself is often referred to as Gnostic Judaism. The fourth century Roman Church stamped out Gnostic Christianity when that community appeared to undermine the spiritual authority of the Pope. So fearful was Medieval Europe of gnostic influences, that women accused of practicing witchcraft were burned at the stake in the tens of thousands.

West African religions, like all gnostic traditions, place more emphasis on experiential knowledge over the prescribed dogmas of theology. Creativity is favored over devotion to doctrine and rituals such as spirit possession offer the practitioner a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the ancestors or enlightenment. But this does not mean that Africans devalue the empirical realities of the natural world. After all it was the complex skills and sophistication in agronomy, that enslaved West African farmers brought to the New World, that saved 17th century plantation owners from bankruptcy.

The classes I teach -- a graduate seminar on Islam, African History, History of Black Women in America, The History of Violence -- are post-modernist courses. They reject the traditional Anglo-Saxon male narrative in favor of the multiplicity of voices that had, until recently been overlooked. Not surprisingly, as our understanding of the world has become broader, truth has become increasingly more relativistic, to the point where the post-modernist canon tells us these days that there is no such thing as “truth.”

However, it all depends on what tools we bring to the task of authenticating “what is true.” In the West, we are taught to bring our minds alone to the task. In more gnostic-leaning cultures, it is a harmonizing of body and mind. In class discussion, I sometimes ask students: “How do you know when you’re rationalizing?” How do you know when you’re intellectualizing?” In other words, how do you know when you’re deceiving yourself with stretchable facts and statistics? They struggle with the issue for a short while and invariably give up. The answer I offer is a simple one. “You cannot know, using the tools of the mind.” We must enlist the physical sensations of our own bodies. In some it might be a tightening in the solar plexus or a shortness of breath, in others the insights that pour forth when they move their bodies to the cadence of complex cross-rhythms. The West African cultures that my ancestors came from, authenticated truth through mind, body, rhythm and dance, just as Eastern religio-philosophies unify mind and body through the cultivation of meditative techniques, which settle attention on the breath.

Our fact-obsessed, experience-devaluing, in short, anti-gnostic, approach to the Liberal Arts, does not make us in the West more informed. It simply makes us more arrogant. How was it even possible that biographers of Thomas Jefferson could for years, scoff at rumors that Jefferson had a slave mistress, when even the empirical evidence showed that the beautiful Sally Hemings, fathered six children, conceived only at times when the widowed-Jefferson was residing along with her at Monticello or the two were together in Paris?

In American society, the transition from kindergarten to first grade is also the moment in which the educational establishment begins the step by step process of surgically removing the child’s mind from his body. As children grow older, they learn to devalue their own muscular longings in favor of watching professional athletes perform. They acquire the habit of projecting their aborted artistic impulses onto a designated list of geniuses, whose paintings hang in major museums and sell for tens of millions. And far more destructive consequences await us when we turn our self-knowledge over to “talking heads” in the foreign policy establishment, who convince us to invade this or that country, promising quick victories and no unintended consequences.

The academic world has yet to recognize that the term “soul,” as it is applied to African-American culture refers to far more than culinary styles and music. It is a gnostic-flavored epistemology, which honors the creative impulse within each member of the community. And of even greater relevance to the academy, it eschews the disembodied life of the mind, in favor of a more whole-bodied exploration of reality.

The pressures of the competitive global world in which we find ourselves, has propelled college educators into a Maslow’s-hammer-like trap. That is, if the only tools our system of education cultivates are empirical ones, then, we’ll pretend that everything ailing our society will be fixable through higher standardized test scores. It was the disembodied minds of early Americans, that rationalized slavery, claiming that they were civilizing the Africans.  They likewise  ignored the fact that they were decimating the Native American populations because America needed to reach its “manifest destiny,” and later slammed shut America’s borders to Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II, disbelieving even first-person accounts of the Holocaust. Today, the same over-emphasis on empiricism pushes our once resource-rich nation to the brink of environmental disaster.

No epistemological system will cure all that ails humankind. But the kinds of folly we slip into, when we are unable to recognize the physical cues that alert us to our own lies, are indeed avoidable. In the educational realm, America needs to focus less attention on analytics and test scores, and more on reattaching our minds to our bodies before it is too late.

Soul & Self-Knowledge

When Historical Knowledge Drowns out Knowledge of Self

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