Why are we afraid of teaching young people how they relate to the network of human interaction? Why do we value our independence over our dependability?
In an ideal world the answer would be yes. Ideally, a teacher would have gone through some process to achieve wisdom, or s/he would have at least found a path that dealt with wisdom in some tangible way.
On a practical level, this is really problematic, especially for an English professor like me. Part of my purpose is to teach skepticism. Who’s to say which ideas are actually wise? Can we define wisdom effectively? Is it wiser to read the Old Testament or to learn differential equations? Which philosophy represents something better than what our grandmother used to preach: say sorry when you’ve hurt someone, give more than you receive, express gratitude and consider the impact of your actions.
Now flip it around. Aren’t these ideas asinine? Perhaps they work to maintain order in a kindergarten, but how can I use them if my goal is to grow a business or advance a career? I need to crush the competition and increase my income. I cannot give more than I receive. That’s called negative net worth, and it’s stupid to actively choose poverty.
I’m writing about this basic conflict because it is the one of our times, the white elephant, the ferocious tiger sleeping atop all the paper ones. We are facing a conflict of consciousness. Any sober, detailed observation of our current ethos reveals unexamined contradictions braided through strands of very serious bullshit. Our current cultural philosophy has either run aground to become ineffective or it has already taken us past a tipping point.
Consider the following ideas. They are obvious to any conscientious educator struggling to teach forgotten topics like humanities, philosophy or rhetoric.
We teach people that independence is an ideal, yet we do not teach them to learn independently.
We teach people that the self is defined as an individual, yet we do not teach them any means of individual cultivation, or even the value of this.
In fact, we actively teach and model behavior of self-destruction. I’m not talking about the lessons available in school—there’s only so much you’re going to learn if your goal is to fill out a worksheet or pick the appropriate answer from a list of five, and to do it all before a bell rings. I’m talking about the lessons available in the observation of adult behavior.
Watch adults. What’s important to them? Feelings. They have to feel good at all costs, and they feel best when they perceive themselves as grandiose, gratified either by money or beauty or strength. If they cannot be wealthy and gorgeous and strong, the image or myth of fabulous and powerful wealth will suffice. That’s the philosophy that leads to maxed-out credit cards and leased Volvos. It also leads to the collapse of the financial system.
But it’s stupid to actively choose poverty. Or weakness. Or ugliness. Etcetera.
In the community college where I teach, wealth is a very important topic. Most of my students are from the underclasses and a lot of them have worked the shittiest jobs in America. They are really confused about money and often come to college simply because someone promised them they’d find paths to wealth here.
Of course, most of them find nothing; a lot of them find debt and failure. There are many reasons, but the most important one is that they’ve understood the contract superficially. Go to college. Get a job. Receive money. Buy cool stuff. (Compare: Study a discipline. Develop a skill. Provide a service. Earn a living. Support a family.)
Because I’m aware of these assumptions, I start classes each semester by asking students what they’re doing here. Time and again, we come up with the same reason:
I want to be independent.
Well, what does that mean? What is independence?
It means not having to depend on anyone else. I don’t want to have to depend on my parents for support.
Ok, so what will you do?
I’ll get a well-paying job.
For a company.
Ok. How does that achieve independence? Aren’t you just shifting your dependence from your parents to a company? Sure, you’re working there, and maybe you were mooching from mom. But don’t you have to depend on this company to stay in business?
I can start my own business.
That’s a great idea. But how will your income arrive now?
From customers and clients.
I see. But isn’t that also a shift? Now, instead of depending on a company or your parents, you’re depending on someone in the world being wealthy enough to afford your service or product.
And around and around we go. The reason is obvious. Independence, when defined as not needing anyone else, is illusory. Over the course of human history, we have always been interdependent members of communities and societies, assumptions that were a matter of course for most cultures. The illusion of independence is not only a recipe for failure but also actively discourages community building; at its worst, it encourages narcissistic pursuit. Perhaps it was a radical and shiny idea in the 19th century (for a very small and elite group of highly educated men). But we’ve bastardized it, and the results are all around us.
I don’t want to dismiss the American traditions of independence and individualism. There’s something impressive about our work ethic, and it’s far better to teach someone that they have agency than to send them begging. People do have the power to change themselves; I see it every semester. But our ideas have become inflexible, extreme and devoid of context. They manifest in the form of bad loans far more often than they yield industrious youth.
Why? We’ve moved away from grandmother’s wisdom, which is the wisdom of a certain brand of independence and individualism with nuance and insight. The independent individual—one who thinks for him or herself—has a responsibility: they are dependable. They are aware of the consequences of their actions. They take responsibility for their decisions, no matter the result. But they are not alone, and they are not weak or insignificant if they reach out to others, especially those who are wiser.
Our inability to see ourselves as individuals who are interdependent and interconnected to an unfathomable network of human history and interaction damages society and isolates people. These ideas are most isolating to men, especially as they age. We pressure men not merely to do it all alone but to imagine themselves as burdens on others if they need help.
For reasons I don’t think anyone truly understands, women have something, either socialized or genetic, that allows stronger community building. Perhaps men would have this too if we told them, “It’s okay to seek help. It’s okay to depend on others. All successful people do it.”
That’s exactly the part of this narrative that drives me nuts as an educator. When we use examples of self-made men, we present them as icons of independence, men who needed nothing but themselves and their drive or brains or brawn in order to become demi-gods. The facts are completely different. No one succeeds, just as no one fails, entirely on their own. You do not mine your own ore and grow your own lumber. The city you live in was built by the dead. The money you earn was invented. The math you use to solve problems has a history of over two thousand years. What you misunderstand now was also misunderstood long before your parents met.
We can dismiss the history of human development and ideas, but we cannot deny it. We can inflate ourselves to grandiosity, place ourselves above Pythagoras or the Phoenicians if we wish, but hubris like this is the mark of the unwise.
Our culture of megalomania is setting up young people, especially men of the underclasses, for failure, disappointment and isolation. The social consequences are serious. The average students I see coming out of high school or floundering about our college for a few years do not know their intentions are to become unskilled consumers who hope resources never run out. For the vast majority, there is no alternative identity.
While they claim they want independence, they can learn virtually nothing on their own or even in teams. They all have phones that can access any amount of useful information, but when faced with a discussion question like What is money? they will look at each other, ask Do you know? shrug, giggle and give up. If the discussion group is mostly women, they will then chat about something else. If the discussion group is mostly men, they will most often sit in silence or play with their phones. To them, this equals going to college. They understand the concept literally. It means arriving at the building and being there. Someone will tell them what they need to do. Any moment now.
The ironies to all of this are tragic. These young people have not formed these assumptions or behaviors in a vacuum. Perhaps it is naïve or idealistic of me to ask students Why are you here? and hope one time to hear someone say Because I want to learn to be dependable. It’s difficult to blame me with naiveté when dependability is exactly what society, at least in the job market, expects from them. That’s the same society that fails to model that behavior or impart the lesson.
Photo by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggerman
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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