Friday, April 29, 2011

A Shrine to Dead White Males




As a black woman, my search for a wisdom that rang true has over the years led me into what felt more like a spiritual dungeon than an ivory tower.  In truth, Haitian voodoo cannot hold a flickering votive to our western educational methods, when it comes to turning vibrant, clear-sighted, spirited young people into the walking, talking, living dead.  How do I know?  It is because, as a university professor, I had for years participated in these sacrificial rites. 
 
I had on many days crept into the inner sanctum, genuflecting and paying obeisance to the academic canon of empirical knowledge by turning keen, lively, whole-bodied teenagers into disembodied “young minds”.  In teaching them to live in their heads, we educators were suppressing their inborn abilities to distinguish the realities of the material world from their own elaborate mental constructions.  We were also, unwittingly, initiating these young men and women into a voyeur’s existence of observing, analyzing, dissecting the creative joy of others, while seldom if ever being given the opportunity to experience their own.   But this is the preparation for life our society has demanded, for which we academics are paid, and for which our own formal education has so demandingly trained us.  

 Disillusioned with my western education, I mourned the consequences of such an unwholesome pedagogy.  But in seeking   guidance from those all-knowing, all-loving ancestors, who dwelt within the depths of my soul, a precious new insight was given me.      

It was quite simply that I would indeed become an  “educated fool” were I to repudiate one profound and significant fount of human knowledge in order to open myself to an appreciation of another.  My western education was valuable beyond measure.  But it was incomplete.  It licensed me to enter the American professional classes.  It simply did not prepare me for life.  There is nothing wrong with a mode of scholarship that values the creativity of dead geniuses.   The study of Shakespeare in all his radiant brilliance does not have to be devalued or condemned in order for me to explore and experience my own creativity.  It is only when the veneration of the dead precludes nurturing the creativity of the living that problems arise.  When our educational institutions demand that people worship the creative genius of others at the expense of nurturing their own creative self-expression it produces an inevitable consequence.  We create a society of highly externalized people, whose only source for self-validation comes from outside of themselves.   But why should this be?  When we lack opportunities to express ourselves creatively, we often feel wrung out, empty or sometimes even angry.   It can even make us ruthless in our desperation to stuff that emptiness with better jobs, houses, cars, designer jeans and other addictions.  It can fill our children with existential angst, which in lethal doses lead to senseless mayhem and destructiveness.  

Artist and writer Julia Cameroon describes in The Artists Way:  A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity  the ways in which the empirical environment of the academy sometimes effects scholars:
I am thinking now of my time at a distinguished research university, where my teaching colleagues published widely and well on film topics of the most esoteric and exotic stripe.  Highly regarded among their intellectual peers, deeply immersed n their own academic careers, these colleagues offered scant mirroring to the creative students who passed through their tutelage.  They neglected to supply that most rudimentary nutrient: encouragement.  Creativity cannot be comfortably quantified in intellectual terms.  By its very nature, creativity eschews such containment.  In a university where the intellectual life is built upon the art of criticizing – on deconstructing a creative work – the art of creation itself, the art of creative construction meets with scanty support, understanding or approval.
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