Death and the Writing Instructor

(An unpublished essay article)

Since I started reading psychoanalysis seriously in the early 80’s, I have drifted in and out of it, needed it more or less, but never quite left it behind. Lately I have felt the need for it more as a way to get a handle on why teaching, after thirty years of doing it, has become so difficult. Twenty-five years of teaching writing, stacks of papers after stacks of papers, with always the relatively same students (socio-economically)—well, one might say, that’s explanation enough for some difficulty. I would say so too but for the fact that the things I am feeling are things I have long felt, though perhaps now more intensely. The only qualitatively different factor that I can see is my age.

But it would not be appropriate for me to write, for the purposes of my next merit review, that my numerical student evaluations have declined because of my fear of death. “Fear of death,” it seems, qualifies as a personal or health related issue, and we (I review my colleague’s teaching performance) are careful not to talk about these issues for fear of being sued. And we know too that the administrators who are the final arbiters in the review process would consider any mention of “fear of death” completely irrelevant and possibly a sign that we had conducted a sloppy review. Indeed, the mere mention, however innocently, of fear of death in our committee review process would probably result in the creation of an official policy ruling out any discussion of death or the fear thereof, as possibly undermining the credibility of our reviews.

This is the official, institutional line; a teacher is–in the research university where I work at least–a functionary, and it is his or her duty to function appropriately and at maximum (or at least minimum) efficiency. I would argue though that any teacher who is not concerned with death or the mystery of existence in some way and to some degree does not belong in the classroom. I don’t mean, of course, that the teacher of writing, rather than teaching writing, should daily lament the fact of his or her mortality or turn his or her course into a course on thanatology. But I don’t see how a person—at least one my age—cannot be consciously and unconsciously in contact with the fact of death and still be human. Additionally this being human has something to do with being a teacher, for, after all, teachers are, I believe, involved in the business of passing on something to the coming generation, the one that will go on after the writing instructor is long gone.

Just as at my age it has become increasingly difficult to repress the fact that my students and I will not share the same future, so has it become more difficult to repress the fact that we don’t have the same past. How am I able to relate to them or know what they know, in an intuitive way, when many of them have not seen Godfather 1 or 2 arguably the two greatest American movies of the last half of the 20th century? Neither– I have to see– will we share a future. An international commission has said that green house gases must be reduced by 80% by 2051. I believe the fact of global warming and the need to reduce emissions may be of critical importance to the future of the young people I teach. But I will not be in 2051. I will not see if emissions have been brought under control or the classrooms in which I taught, right next to the Pacific Ocean, are under water.

Certainly, Dewey saw it that way—that education had to do with helping the new generation bring the future into being and that the role of the teacher beyond that was simply to get out of the way. I do wonder, though, if Dewey today would hold precisely that view of the teacher as a kind of mid-wife to what will be. He was a progressive because “progression” seemed possible. Now, it feels to me at least as if we are stuck between two worlds: one dead and the other powerless to be born. If that is the case, the function of education might be to weave the latter into the former, to indicate that, if the future, is to be born we must understand the past is not dead but fully functioning in the present.

But whatever Dewey might have thought in light of the current situation but cannot think now because he is dead, clearly education for him had something to do with time and the relation of the past to the future and of both to the present. The only place where these things might meet as lived experience in conflict, contestation, chaos or confusion, which I can think of, is in the peculiar particularity of the now of the individual subject. In this case in the peculiar and very local subjectivity of the individual teacher, and in light of the educational enterprise as a binding of past and future, how the subjectivity of the individual teacher relates to death either consciously or unconsciously would seem to me to play a significant role in the teacher’s understanding of and/or embodiment in that role and whether or not and how or if he or she is able to teach anything through that role.

As Lacan suggests, wherever there is a one-who-knows a transference is set up from the one who-doesn’t-know to the one-who-does. In this transference inevitably the image of the one-who-knows is in some manner distorted. This is important to remember, but also important is that the one-who-knows is not a blank slate. Unless the transference involves hallucinations, the particularity of the one-who-knows, as old or young, as beautiful or homely, as male or female, as calm or full of fear and trembling, provides a raw material that can be shaped in only so many ways. I think it true, as Winnicott says, that where one finds a mother with eight children one finds eight mothers. But this multiplicity of mothers should not cause us to forget that a mother is not a father or a sibling, for that matter.

I think that death and one’s affective relation to that inevitablity may lie at the center of the educational enterprise understood, as I have defined it, as having something to do with bringing the past in the future. I assert this in part because only creatures that have beginnings and ends would understand the concepts of the past and the future in the first place. The instructor’s affective and probably largely unconscious relation to death must supply some of the raw material upon which students for good or ill erect their transference. I know, for example, that when I was younger I taught with more hope in the belief that whatever I was teaching would make some difference. Students feel these things; in their written evaluations of my performance, my enthusiasm was frequently noted.

That enthusiasm is mentioned less today. I didn’t know then how much energy I would have to expend not positively to teach but to alter as best I could the institutional situation in which I taught so that I might begin to teach positively. Students came to the class with expectations from their previous educations that did not mesh with my idea of education, and the instructional situation—all those other classes students were taking— moved students towards a conception of what a course was supposed to be that did not fit my conception of what a course should be. I spend so much time and energy just clearing the brush, pulling up the stumps, and moving the rocks that I don’t seem to have much time or energy left to build the house. Then, though, I had the hope that, if I stuck to my guns and kept plugging away, I would eventually catch the wave or the overall situation would alter to such an extent that I would get some help, as it were, and not have to busy myself so much with clearing the terrain. But this hasn’t happened; quite the opposite, and now if the situation does change I am not sure I will live to see it much less profit from it.

These remarks and those that follow may be taken as working from a particular angle on a thread or theme that continues to evolve in composition studies and that is the role—indeed the central role—of the emotions in the process of teaching and learning. Lynn Worsham puts the issue this way:

...I want to return to what I think we already know but have learned to forget— namely, that the discourse of emotion is our primary education (primary in the senses of both earliest and foundational). And I argue that if our commitment is to real individual and social change...then the work of decolonization must occur at an affective level, not only to reconsitute the the emotional life of the individual but also, and more importantly, to restructure the feeling or mood that characterizes an age. (216)

I am concerned here with the affects that the reality and recognition of death might produce in the individual as the implacable inevitability of one’s non-being.

Mark Bracker in a discussion of the emotions and how they might be through education changed writes:

As Aristotle realized and cognitive psychologists have recently elaborated, emotions are produced by our continuous, largely automatic, and often unconscious apprasials of the implications that our circumstances (internal and external, large-scale and small-scale) have for our well being, including not only our physical integrity but our entire sense of self, or identity, which encompasses other people, animals, and things that we experience as part of our well being. (473)

Emotions do the work of adaptation. Danger is signaled cognitively and the resultant affects—fear, perhaps, or anger—produce adaptive (though also in neurosis, maladaptive) behavior. But what are the adaptive behaviors produced by an affect laden recognition of death? Death does not represent simply a threat to one’s sense of well being; it represents an end to that being altogether. As such the most general affect produced by death is simple anxiety. Robert Jay Lifton writes:

More inclusively defined, then, anxiety is a sense of foreboding stemming from threatened vitality and anticipated breakdown of the integrity of the self. Only when the resources of self are perceived as inadequate to the threat does tension become anxiety. The motivational element that is countered or even overwhelmed by the threat is the self’s impulse toward integrity and vitality and the formative energy behind the impulse. (128)

Perhaps in this light and in the context of subjective experience, education may represent the vitalizing energy that propels the self towards development and integration as this movement itself serves to ward off the paralysis of anxiety.

The Anxious Instructor

This anxiety and this paralysis is something I find myself feeling more, and in psychoanalysis I am thankful to find some recognition of this experience and some source possibly of unterstanding. Arthur T. Jersild for example begins his, When Teachers Face Themselves, with a chapter on anxiety. Of those things that may evoke anxiety, he writes:

Wherever life leads death is close behind. The closeness of life and death is terrifying to some people and it brings moments of terror to all, young and old, at times of accident, catastrophe, or other great danger. (21)

Here one may find at least an acknowledgement of some connection, that of anxiety, between the teacher’s self and the fact of morality. But Jersild quickly veers away to say:

But it is not the chief source of our anxiety. We learn to live with the prospect of dying, for usually the prospect is quite remote. (21)

While I am not prepared to argue that death is the chief source of our anxiety, I am not prepared either to accept Jersild’s claim that it isn’t. Perhaps that has to do with the time of my life; death seems less remote. People one has known all one’s life are dying. I am not sure, but I do want to say, that, I believe people learn to live with death, not because it is remote, but because we repress it.

I am more inclined to follow Heinz Kohut’s lead when he writes:

Man’s (sic) capacity to acknowledge the finiteness of his existence and to act in accordance with that painful discovery may well be his greatest psychological achievement, despite the fact that it can often be demonstrated that a manifest acceptance of transience may go hand in hand with covert denials. (454)

While Kohut, perhaps in his own form of covert denial, does not use the word, surely the painful discovery to which he alludes is “death.” Of course death is non-being. Finiteness or finitude is not. So, perhaps, Kohut uses the word he wants, the one that suggests limits, the historical situatedness of the particular individual, as he or she attempts to act in and upon the world.

Note that for Kohut the capacity to acknowledge the finiteness of existence may be humanity’s greatest psychological achievement. It is moreover Kohut says a “rare feat [that] rests, not simply on the victory of autonomous reason and supreme objectivity over the claims of narcissism, but on the creation of a higher form of narcissism” (454-455). The greatest of all blows to the narcissistically charged self is the realization of death as indicating the limit of one’s sense of omnipotent power or of existing in a world that plastically responds to one’s wants and desires.

As Mark Bracker argues the deepest and most fundamental of all identity needs is the need to be recognized:

The most fundamental identity need is the need for recognition, the need to have one’s being appreciated, and validated, or at least acknowledged, and taken into account by others.... Even wealth and material possessions are not an end in themselves but a way for us to be assured of the recognition of others. The absence of recognition is correspondingly, the “worst evil that could befall us.” (6-7)

The higher form of narcissism required to accept death, or one’s finitude without crippling anxiety in the face of an indifferent universe and with relative calm, would seem to require the impossible, the capacity for “self-recognition.”

I cannot here go into what might be entailed in coming to the perhaps impossible point of “self-recognition” or what Kohut calls the transformation of narcissism into cosmic narcissism (“Forms” 455). I have not reached that point and don’t know that I will. Anything I would have to say on the subject would be, consequently, pure speculation. But it is well worth keeping in mind and speculating about as perhaps the ultimate developmental goal. This is not likely however to be accepted as a developmental possibility if one has repressed the disintegration anxiety provoked by death.

But repression appears the order of the day. As previously noted, fear of death would not appear a useful explanation for a teacher’s performance. More than that, the teacher’s subjectivity is not supposed to count at all in the assessment of his or her “behaviors.” Deborah Britzman writes:

We may even think somehow, because we enter the classroom each day, we should have no conflict with stepping into our knowing role. Teachers, we often feel, must be adept at brushing off their private world like so much lint. (131)

Feeling no conflict and believing that one might actually brush off that lint makes possible the troubling use of the role of the teacher as a tool of repression, as a means by which the individual seeks to shore up the self, and by extension to use students as props against disintegration anxiety.

It is something to step into the class, conflict free, and become the cynosure of all eyes. One is recognized (as the one-who-knows) in a way very much unlike one’s unrecognized state when stuck in stalled go home traffic on the 405. In a small way, being stuck on the freeway at rush hour may largely unconsciously provoke the awareness of living in a universe pretty indifferent to one’s wants and needs and may provoke accordingly the attendant affects of narcissistic disintegration and rage. The role of teacher might serve then as a transitory pick me or sugar high, if not a protection against, at least an alternative to the nasty realties of one’s quotidian existence.

The Narcissism of the Instructor

The role of teacher may serve the identity needs of the individual; and certainly to some extent it must. But the structures of identity, while stabilizing the self, may also act as defenses against deeper and potentially destabilizing anxiety. Jane Tompkins writes:

Whereas, for my entire life, I had always thought that what I was doing was helping my students to understand the material we were studying...what I was actually concerned with and focused on most of the time were three things: (a) to show the students how smart I was, (b) to show them how knowledgeable I was, and (c) to show them how well prepared I was for class. (“Pedagogy” 170)

Initially, Tompkins had felt that she in her role was a good teacher, interested primarily in her students and in helping them to understand. Later though she realizes that she has used the role to show students that she was smart and to receive from them, in turn, recognition of her “smartness.” Tompkins writes, “I cared for my students but still and all, unconsciously, I made them serve as my reflection” (Life 89).

Tompkins must value as part of her identity structures “honesty,” but her realization of her deeper motives, as she seems to imply, does not make her “selfish” or “self-centered” in some moral sense. It just makes her narcissistic. And to the extent that this remains buried under a veil of moralizing, Tompkins fails to understand narcissism as that profound human need for environs that plastically responds to one’s needs, wants, and desires. Who doesn’t want to be liked? To suggest that one must yield the narcissistic needs of the self if one is to truly care for the other is again to assert that the true teacher keeps the self out if. This move only serves to repress once again the conflict lying at the heart of the the teacher and the educative act.

Education itself, as an institutionally situated body of knowledge, resists the intrusions of psychoanalysis. And teachers of writing, who have concerned themselves with such things, end up claiming that psychoanalysis is a discipline and that the teachers are not and have not been trained in this discipline, and so should not be required to do “therapy” upon their students, but just to do what they are paid to: afford instruction in writing. But as Britzman argues this attempt to define education and psychoanalysis as different fields serves to patch over the uneasy awareness that the fields have much in common. Britzman rehearses the arguments, as I have outlined them:

In my work as educator I am often told that psychoanalysis and education are completely different fields, usually with such objections as: Teachers are not analysts and analysts are not educators; teachers cannot and should not analyze their students, and no one has time for psychoanalysis…. These objections which posit an absolute boundary convey an anxiety over that both fields of theory and practice must be preoccupied with and affected by learning and not learning. (Novel 4)
I know that I, as a teacher of writing, am very much preoccupied with and

affected by learning and not learning. Not long ago I wrote a friend, “Once again, the

end of another quarter, and once again—I can’t shake the feeling—I have to wonder if I have managed only to move a pile of sand from one arbitrary place to another.” Whether my students have learned or not learned is important to me; in their learning or having learned, I might find the fulfillment of my identity needs as a teacher. I have done something. But as importantly, I must ask myself, why have I not learned? Why quarter after quarter, year after year, am I surprised to feel the futility of what I do. Shouldn’t I have learned by now that it is very difficult to know, especially in the realm of education, if one has done anything?

First, I know it is very difficult to trust one’s own eyes. I may think I see improvement, but how do I know that is the case. How can I believe a young teacher of philosophy when she enthuses about her students, saying they have all over the course of a quarter become little philosophers, when I know, because I am teaching a writing class linked with her class, that her “little” philosophers know next to nothing about philosophy or what it means to philosophize, but are only for the purposes of her class parroting. This could happen to anyone. Lad Tobin, in his psychoanalytically informed Writing Relations, recounts an incident. He found himself bragging before colleagues about a particularly successful assignment he had devised and the work one student had produced in response to it. But returning to his office, he reread the paper and had to ask himself what had he been thinking:

My discomfort grew as I began to see how much her whole argument echoed my own ideas…all ideas to which I have strong ideological and personal commitment. (24)
If D.W. Winnicott is correct when he claims no one is in contact with reality, there

may be indeed no way to escape the gravitational pull of the short circuit of self, in which one unconsciously puts in what one gets out by way of recognition (Human Nature 114-115). This is a thought, however, bound to produce anxiety because what one wants is recognition from the Other, as something recognizably not one’s self. This other, however, must have a human self; one does not wish to be applauded by robots. Indeed one may be very selective in one’s desire to be applauded only by certain others. Tompkins understands:

I often took students who liked me for granted, and longed for the admiration of those of those who were indifferent. Sometimes I even resented the ones who liked me if they weren’t the smartest in the class, for if they were not smart, I was not smart either. And smart was the most important thing to be. (Life 89)

The one-who-knows wants to be recognized and he or she cannot be recognized by those too unlike the one-who-knows. The sense of being known, if it is to serve as a prop against self disintegration, must come from an other (self) (distinct from the self of the one-who-knows) experienced as capable truly of knowing that self. It does not seem to occur to Tomkins, at least at this juncture, that her very notion of smarts—and the consequent ability to know who is smart and who isn’t—may be itself a projection of an internalized—over the course of a long education—self-representation.

The use of the role of teacher as a means by which to seek recognition is tricky business. One wants, not just to be recognized, as teacher, but really recognized as representing attributes (say smarts) or professing or seeking to inculcate ideas or beliefs or ideologies that one values. Knowing whether one is recognized as anything other than the one-who-knows, who makes assignments and tests, and gives and grades them, is

difficult if not impossible. It’s no good to be recognized by an other who really doesn’t have the stuff to recognize one, and it is no good either to have others recognize one by parroting back mindlessly one’s fondest ideas and beliefs. Better then to ignore all this psychoanalytic stuff. Better not to tell that young instructor, as I in fact did not, that what she took for little philosophers were just little versions of herself.

The Rage of the Instructor

If the teacher’s happiness were the only thing involved in the educational process, it might be better to stay away from the psychoanalytic stuff. But students are involved too. And there’s a real problem, I think, if the teacher’s happiness comes at the expense of students’ learning. Trying to turn students into mirror images of one’s self may do damage to students, may be evidence of what Gardner, in his psychoanalytically informed book, On Trying to Teach, calls the furor to teach. As the word “furor” suggests, some violence, albeit unintended and largely unconscious, is involved in this process. Gardner writes:

The true teacher’s furor to teach rivals in its intensity and in the havoc that it wreaks, the physician’s furor to cure. And like true physicians, true teachers sometimes know the disorder but seldom the cure. (6)

And paradoxically of course–since teaching is a veritable minefield of paradoxes, contradictions, conflicts and all manner of possibilities of destabilization and anxiety— according to Gardner:

Without the furor to teach, true teachers are most unlikely to move themselves or their students. But the line between helpful furor and harmful is full of lost edges and consequently of lost teachers and students.

This is another bitter pill for the teacher to swallow. The notion that the teacher nurture does not seem to fit with the idea that he or she may be prone to violence. But Gardner’s furor seems to have something to do with violence especially when he writes:

…when students rebuff their efforts to impart the necessary wisdom, rebuffed true teachers are moved to higher and higher levels of furor. Furor begets oppositions begets furor begets opposition and so on. (6)

Gardner might as well be here, and probably is, describing the mechanism of neurosis, the desperate attempt to save one’s lost investment by endlessly pouring good money after bad and growing more and more, as one does so, rageful.

But violence of a kind may be built into the educational situation at least for teachers who do want to educate, to in some way, make a difference, or leave a mark, or change however minimally what students know or think they know and how they know it. As I have said, I didn’t know how much energy I would have to spend just clearing the brush and pulling up the stumps before getting to the business positively of educating. What is this clearing of the brush—albeit one supposes for constructive purposes—but an act of destruction. In a play by Shaw—I don’t remember which one—a character comes upon a young woman alone and crying. He asks, what’s wrong. She says, I just learned something. He replies, Aw then, my dear, you just lost something. Any learning means losing something; at least some portion or dimension of one’s ignorance.

At times, in their furor, I think some teachers may start to beat their students up aside the head with what they think they students should know and that this desire to teach may be a mask for rage. One may indeed feel the black bile of that failed evangelist, Conrad’s Kurtz, whose final comment on the effort to civilize was:

Exterminate the brutes. Of course, that’s not what one thinks one is doing. Rather with one’s facts and critical pedagogies one wants to get students to face the facts of their lives and their meaningless existences. A colleague, filling in for an introduction to ecology course, had students read and study for the quarter a book outlining seven scenarios for the end of the world by the end of the century. I believe my colleague was more right than wrong in believing in the possibility of this end, but banging students over the head with the facts did not produce happy students and eventually not a happy teacher. My colleague quit.

Not that it is the teacher’s job to make students happy, especially when there is a great deal to be unhappy about. Teachers should not feel duty bound to turn that frown upside down upon entering the classroom. Education involves, I have argued and continue to believe, a good deal of discomfort or, as I have put it more technically, “narcissistic wounding” (see Tingle). This wounding entails and produces possibly anxiety, rage, and self-destabilization. But, Kohut argues, this destabilization is necessary for development; restabilization, if not simply a retreat into regression, may involve a transformation of narcissism. To be clear, this transformation of is not obliteration of; narcissism is necessary as the vital engine of development. But if transformed the individual may be better able to understand and accept limits in a way that allows him or her better to tolerate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without resorting to the tools of deadening repression.

But if teachers cannot recognize the conflicts, paradoxes, tensions and anxieties inherent in themselves as teachers, they are not likely to see or feel or recognize the tensions, paradoxes, and anxieties inherent in learning for students. Institutions of higher

education seem to me to have no awareness of this learning process at all. They are bullying representatives of the “reality principle.” Students undergo as a result narcissistic wounding so great that the potentials in that wounding for learning are lost. The wounding is utterly repressed only to return in boredom, detachment, distraction, and drunkenness. Additionally, having largely forfeited the educational task institutions of higher education supply students the defensive structures by which to affect this repression. The goal is no longer to learn or develop as a person but to compile credits towards the goal of getting a credential, getting a career, and becoming something students vaguely call “a success.”

Students’ Narcissism

The anxiety produced by narcissistic wounding is displaced into the more “rational” concern of making sure that one gets a job. Of course, this goal, in a return of the repressed, is not without its own anxieties aplenty. Students seem equally divided, in a form of approach avoidance, between rushing to get this business of education over with so that they might get on with career and just plain drifting. More frequently lately students tell me they really don’t know why they are in college other than the fact that they have been told to be there. Education is not a choice or something that involves them consequently in some personal depth but something into which they have been socialized, unthinkingly and unquestioningly, since day one. College? Why, what else would I do?

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, released the results of a study showing that today’s students are disturbingly narcissistic. On the basis of something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Twenge concludes, “Far from being civically oriented,

young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent
history….” (Guin). One wants to say, well, of course, what do you expect. Young people are narcissistic. Twenge sees a lurking danger because she sees narcissism as bad, and not, as Kohut sees it, simply as a vital psychological energy, neither good nor bad it itself, but only in the ends that it serves.

When asked, on the personality inventory whether they thought they were special, more students than ever answered “yes,” and when they were asked if they felt the world would be a better place if they ruled it more students than ever said “yes.” I personally was not raised to feel I was special. As for ruling the world, my parents’ primary goal seemed to be that I did not end up in jail. And when I have mentioned this survey to colleagues or persons more my age they either laugh or snort. No, they do not feel special. But they are older. They have learned their lesson.

So too will today’s students. The question to my mind is whether they will learn it well or poorly, whether they will arrive at a more developmentally appropriate sense of self, or whether they will learn their lesson with bitterness, anger and rage towards themselves and others. Learning one’s lesson in a way that transforms one’s narcissism without driving it underground is a developmental feat. D.W. Winnicott argues much the same thing when he writes his “humanist hymn”:

Oh! To be a cog.
Oh! To Stand collectively
Oh! To Work harmoniously with others Oh! To be married without losing the

idea of being the creator of the world. (Home 50)

One must learn, Winnicott argues, to be a cog if one is to stand collectively and work harmoniously with others. He writes: “Eventually, the individual human being relinquishes being the wheel, or the whole gearbox, and adopts the more comfortable position of being cog” (50). The position of being a cog is finally more comfortable because the deep and grandiose sense of being the creator of the world becomes an increasingly uncomfortable position in the face of all that is telling one that one is not. But, to be clear, a vital and creative relation to the world depends upon the individual retaining, in spite of all that is telling him he is not, at least the “idea” of being the creator of the world.

Significantly, for Winnicott the big developmental problem seems to involve not feeling omnipotent or narcissistic but in not having had the opportunity to experience the first or enjoy the latter. He writes: “The human being who does not start off with an experience of omnipotence has not chance to be a cog, but must go around pushing omnipotence, and creativeness and control, like trying to sell unwanted shares in a bogus company” (50). The problem then with the students of today may be, not that they are narcissistic or feeling they ought to be omnipotent, but that they have not so far been afforded opportunities at home or in education for the tempering of that omnipotence and the transforming of that narcissism.

Affording the circumstances for such development is a delicate process, a very tricky business. The transformation of narcissism, as Kohut puts it, depends up what he calls “optimal frustration”(Restoration 123-124). Frustration is a wounding of narcissism, but if it is optimal, the frustration allows the individual to restabilize with a better and clearer sense of his or her particular limitations in the world. Beating students over the head with the reality principle, rubbing their faces in the ugliness of the world, is not optimal frustration. The narcissism will remain buried, untransformed, in the unconscious there to fester into rage or anxiety. Nor will the experience of omnipotence been transformed or tempered, if higher education is presented as THE way, as the avenue for career, to become a cog in the wheel.

In Where Colleges Fail, Neville Sanford writes:

As occupational roles shift or lapse altogether and others appear, colleges are no longer able to train a student for his whole career, but only for its individual phase. The course of events is forcing recognition that, as liberal educators have long argued, we should seek to develop people as individuals instead of trying to train them for particular roles in society. (4)

I am disheartened to see that what Neville so clearly saw over thirty ago is even more clearly the case today; institutions of higher education have given up even the pretense of attempting “to develop people as individuals.” My own work on faculty committees dealing with undergraduate education suggests that most have forgotten or never knew that higher education might serve to develop people as individuals. Many do not seem even to understand that “academic education” might have an affect on the “personality” or “ethical development” of the student. For to begin to understand this would require a recognition of the damage inflicted to the personality of the student by higher education as practiced today and that the rationale for this current form of education is itself a pernicious sham.

The End of the World and the Writing Instructor

I would perhaps not care as much about the turn higher education has taken in the direction of the bottom-line ethos if I thought we had plenty of time on our hands to mess around. The problems facing the current generation of students are myriad. Rosalind Minsky in her Psychoanalysis and Culture offers a concise rundown:

These [problems] include changes in the relationship between men and women, family breakdown, and the increase in lone-parent families, the ending of the Cold War, the decline of European control and the emergence of Asian economic power, globalization, the electronics revolution, the growing divide between rich and poor in the West and between the northern and southern hemispheres, a growth of a sense of social fragmentation rather than cohesiveness (in spite of the connotations of the global village) and environmental damage, such as global warming and a hole in the ozone layer, in a context in which nations, so far, seem helpless in putting limits on unbridled economic growth. (1)

Minksy’s rundown of ills confronting the world is a little dated. Environmental scientists have given us a date of around 2050 to bring under control the emission of green house gases or face the consequences of uncontrollable and cataclysmically destructive climate change.

Higher education should be assisting the young people of today in developing a sense of self sufficiently strong to look directly at these horrors and not be overwhelmed by confusion and hopelessness. This though is not likely to happen, as Minkshy argues, and I have suggested, unless people learn to deal with the tensions and conflicts of their inter-psychic worlds. To face the horrors without one must learn to deal with the horrors within. Instead our educational system as well as our society as a whole seems to be heading in the other direction; away from inwardness in a manifest denial of the ills confronting our society. Walter A. Davis puts it this way:
Belief in the self is the American ideology. Next to surplus value the self is

our most important product: the thing we constantly proclaim and reassure ourselves about in order to cover over the emptiness of that concept and the void it conceals. Nothing is shallower than the inwardness of the average American, a subjectivity composed of little but the incessant mimicking of “signs” of success and affects that through ceaseless happy talk confer no more than a phantom substantiality. Beneath that chatter the truth of its inner condition continues to work on the American psyche: the death of affect, the deepening of psychic numbing, and a collective flight from anything that causes the least anxiety. (72)

To be clear, the “self” to which Davis refers as part of American ideology is not the psychological self but the self of self interest. In their embrace of this self Americans appear engaged in the hollowing out of subjectivity as part of a flight from inward conflicts, fragmentation and anxiety.

The engine, the ways and means, of this flight is the consumer society. The consumer society offers the individual a quick fix for whatever slight internal agitation he or she may feel. Indeed, consumer society promotes “lifestyle solutions” to the identity crisis endemic to post-modernity. Minksky recounts an episode in BBC report:

…a company sales rep tells how he and his wife sat at home one evening and wept after the discovery that his company had allocated to him a smaller car than he had expected and without the coveted “i” after the car type number, indicating petrol injection. The man identified his car with himself and felt his entire masculine being had been humiliatingly called into question by the incident. (197)

As Kohut argues the self, if it is to achieve a degree of cohesion and maintain its place on the developmental path, must be able to locate in the world narcissistically sustaining selfobjects. A car may indeed function, as it did apparently in the case recounted above, as a selfobject but of the kind consumer society is adept at affording, the provisional and temporary cohesion of the sugar high.

If I may run the nutritional analogy a bit further, consumer society provides empty calories for what Philip Cushman calls the “empty self.” As commentators on the consumer society have noted, consumerism arouse as allegiances to class, religion, and neigborhood as means by which one established and maintained a sense of self decayed; indeed, in An All-Consuming Society, Gary Cross argues that consumer society has acted to brunt potential conflict between classes, between religious, and between generations (2-3). For Cushman the social and historical conditions necessary for the development of the empty self came fully into place immediately following WWII:

I believe that after the war the configuration of the empty self colaesced and finally became predominate as a consequence of the loss of community and in order to match the needs of the new economy. Without this particular self, American-consumer based economy (and its charasmatically oriented poitical process) would be inconceivable. (603)
If Cushman is corrrect—and I believe he is—consumer society seeks to supply

the individual with selfobjects that cannot fill the self or to help it develop stabalizing structures. The pursuit of consumer objects does not lead to optimal frustration but to a sense of perpetual frustration, of never being full, and of being in a perpetual state of desire. As I have said, the gap between myself and my students has grown and continues

to grow. Mostly profoundly, the students with whom I work seem steeped in the values of consumer society that have permeated every nook and cranny of the American psyche. I perhaps make a mountain out of a mole hill, but I felt it emblemmatic to observe students at vigils for the students massacred at Virginia Tech while holding aloft candles in cups marked with the logos of Coke and Pepsi.

The death I contemplate may not be so much death qua death as it is the experience of the death of my illusions. I had thought that education might act at least as a slight counterbalance to the “teachings” of consumer society. As, I suppose, one of liberal educators mentioned by Neville, I believed education “…should seek to develop people as individuals instead of trying to train them for particular roles in society” (4). It’s hard to regard that belief now as anything other than an illusion when, according to Louis Menand, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching no longer uses the concept “liberal arts” in making its distinctions between institutions of higher education (28). These illusions, though, as I call them, have acted as narcissisitically charged allegiances to ideals, theories, and philosophies, and as what Kohut would call selfobjects, they have imparted a degree of coherence and purpose to my sense of self.

This may begin to answer the question with which I started: why has it become appreciably more difficult for me to enter the classroom and do my particular thing. I have suffered consistently what Kohut calls narcissistic wounding, the failure of the environs to conform to my expectations. I have felt frustration and it has not always been optimal. Still I continue however slightly to have the capacity for disillusionment, and if that is the case then my narcissistic allegieances to my ideals may not be completely dead. They may be undergoing a transformation. They are becoming simply my own

ideals. Just because others do not appear to embrace them or feel the urgency I do when it comes to education does not mean I have to yield my ideals.

Perhaps this is as close as I will get to what I previously called “self-recognition.” And it does seem something like that because my ideals are deeply rooted. As Sennet and Cobb note, in the Hidden Injuries of Class, most working class persons have long seen higher education as an avenue to a better job, possibly a career. But they also note that for some members of the working class, these career potentials are interwoven with something else, “the development of the capacities of the human being.(24-25)” From the perspective of the working class person, education affords one the opportunity to develop one’s potentials and with those to gain a better control over the circumstances of one’s life and over one’s self. I come from the working class, and this notion of education informed my pursuit of it and my work, over these many years, as a writing instructor. Yielding up my ideals at this moment would mean also seeing my past, the rather rough row I have hoed, as a mistake. And while in moments of despair, I feel that to be the case, I cannot finally believe that completely, and because I cannot I feel increasingly the irrelevance of my past to any future. Death is not always ahead in other words; but also may creep up behind the Writing Instructor.

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