Monday, July 30, 2012

It is what it is…and it’s all good…..

It is what it is…and it’s all good…..

Setting the Scene

It is a large auditorium near the center of campus in a building constructed for use by computer scientists. It has no board - white or black - to write upon but it does have screens upon which the powerpoint is sometimes legible. Two sets of double doors in the back offer both entry and exit. A world religions course with nearly 300 students is meeting there. 

The university assigned this room based upon the size of the class. The possible needs of the instructor or the students are rarely among its considerations in such assignments.

I am there as a member of the faculty to observe the first of three candidates for a tenure track line, the first religious studies tenure line the department has been allowed to fill in the 11 years I’ve been there. The candidate is coming from a well known university and will offer a lecture comparing the Virgin Mary with Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, two of my favorite subjects of study and objects of my personal devotion. I am definitely looking forward to this lecture.

Upon arrival, it is revealed that the instructor whose class has been commandeered for the search process has forgotten the candidate was coming. Worse yet, the students have come expecting a test. When they discover that the test won’t be given and that a guest lecture will be offered instead, many get up and stomp out of the auditorium, slamming the doors behind them. The stampede delays the beginning of the lecture by a good five minutes.

Welcome to our university!

The lecture finally begins. The few students who remain are almost to the student completely absorbed with their laptops. Virtually none of the handful still present are actually paying attention. Between the exodus of students and the numerous late arrivals (for an exam, no less), the doors slam so noisily and consistently throughout the entire 50 minute presentation that at the back of the auditorium I can hear very little of it.

Mind you, I’ve never been one to conceal my feelings well. My annoyance clearly showed on my face. After a half hour of scowling, a colleague looks over at me, shrugs and simply says, “It is what it is.”

Gee. That certainly makes everything better.

What is the “it” that simply is?

But what is the “it” that such an axiom would suggest, Tao-like, we simply must accept yin-like to avoid being swept away by an opposing flow of yang?

Is it that we must anticipate that students will feel so empowered as consumers that they will engage in rude, disruptive behaviors without apology when their expectations are not instantly gratified? Is it that we must anticipate most students will feel no obligations to a guest speaker, the university who brings such speakers to campus or to classmates who actually remain to hear these lectures? Must their noisy slamming of classroom doors upon exiting and their blaring into cellphones before they even hit the door simply be accepted?  Is it that the vast majority of those who actually remain cannot be expected to pay attention in this class - or doubtless any of the others - so long as technological distractions are available?

What is it that simply is and must be accepted here?

Perhaps it’s the fact that a course in world religions, the source of some of the world’s greatest tensions today as well as some of the most noble possible resolutions to those conflicts, is being taught in a huge auditorium where the faces of the anonymous occupants of the last few rows of the auditorium are not even discernible from the stage. Discussion is simply out of the question in such situations. Indeed, it’s unlikely the instructor will even know the names of more than a handful of the students. The factory-like setting itself sends any number of messages to its occupants beginning with the notion that college credit is being mass produced here on the cheap with little concern for the individuals or the ideas being taught.

As I sat there steaming, the pounding of heavy metal doors reverberating in the dull aching of my head, I found myself feeling enormous sympathy for the poor candidate we had invited to our campus, struggling to communicate provocative ideas to a disinterested crowd strung out in the far corners of a sprawling room, laptops concealing their faces. At least their disinterest was not immediately obvious.

What a hellacious interview experience that would have been! Speaking of bad karma.

It’s a shame, shame, shame…

But I also found myself feeling a burning sense of shame that day. I was ashamed of this university whose disinterest in the learning of these students and the subject matter to which this candidate and I have devoted our academic careers was displayed with such impunity.  I was ashamed for a college which seeks candidates with Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience and publication history, runs them through an incredibly rigorous search process only to offer the successful candidate less money than many starting public school teachers make today. And I was ashamed for my department whose expert efforts to organize and run a healthy search process had been stymied by mistake and miscalculation by a crucial player at the critical moment.

Most of all, I felt ashamed for the students whose behaviors that day suggested that the sole ranking UCF had attained on Princeton Review’s 2011 rankings – #2, Students (Report They) Never Study –probably well reflects the actual disinterest in becoming educated human beings the majority of them actually hold.

“It is what it is.”

That response rang in my ears as I walked across campus, my heart rapidly beating, the blood pressure singing in my ears. It occurred to me later that the fact “It is what it is” serves as the primary response to such an incredibly shameful performance by the university and its students is precisely the reason why “It is what it is.” Indeed, the only part of the maxim missing from this response was the prime directive contained in its unspoken second line: “And it’s all good.”

I wish I could say that this sad event is the exception to the rule of life in the new academia of corporate imperatives. Sadly, it isn’t. Indeed, it has proven to be but one of many very difficult lessons for me about the new realities of higher education today.

But even slow learners like me, often blinded by persistent hopeful idealism, can finally realize that whatever else one might do as a faculty member at an overpopulated, underfunded state university, engaging in truth telling about the actual reality of that situation is simply not among the possibilities. Violations of the poorly kept family secrets of a university like ours can draw swift, certain and often secretive punitive responses. Shakespeare may have thought that “Honesty is the best policy” but Will never worked for a corporate university. I write these very words with no small amount of apprehension.

Where mediocrity is triumphant

Author Chris Hedges is one of my favorite social critics despite his dark vision of human existence shaped by a background in Calvinist theology and several years of news correspondence from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. One of his primary targets is the way he sees the tentacles of corporate interests invading virtually every segment of American life, successfully colonizing the lifeworld (as Habermas predicted) to serve its own interests.

In a July 9, 2012 column entitled “How to Think,” Hedges offers this critique of academia in a corporate dominated culture:

 Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. [But, they are often] dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship.

For Hedges, the survival of a healthy culture requires thinkers who are not beholden to the interests of “collective self-worship”:

They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

As I read Hedge’s column last week, memories of the students noisily exiting that auditorium, slamming doors behind them and blaring into cell phones, with those few who remained peering into laptop screens oblivious to the speaker on the stage all came flooding back. I instantly returned to that painful day as I read these words:

Our corporate culture has effectively severed us from human imagination. Our electronic devices intrude deeper and deeper into spaces that were once reserved for solitude, reflection and privacy. Our airwaves are filled with the tawdry and the absurd. Our systems of education and communication scorn the disciplines that allow us to see. We celebrate prosaic vocational skills and the ridiculous requirements of standardized tests. We have tossed those who think, including many teachers of the humanities, into a wilderness where they cannot find employment, remuneration or a voice. We follow the blind over the cliff. We make war on ourselves.

One would almost think Hedges had been in the room that day.

Hedge’s indictments sting as they find their targets in the mediocrity of factory-process credit facilitation. They deflate the celebration of credentialing through mass produced “vocational skills” in places which once at least pretended to be about higher learning. They lament the loss of "the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation" among consumers once called students. And they eulogize the rejection and exile of “those who think…into a wilderness…”

But, as Hedges acknowledges, “Human societies see what they want to see.” For in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is far too often triumphant these days, human societies find ways of avoiding the elephants in the room with easy adages – “It is what it is and it’s all good…” And prophetic voices, “who are usually not welcome…” because they dare to suggest that the insulting rude behaviors, inhospitality and institutional ineptitude should never be acceptable at any institution of higher learning “are dismissed, or labeled subversives by the power elites because they do not embrace collective self-worship.”

Hedges recognizes only too well that the stakes of such attitudes and behaviors are high indeed:  

If a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices…it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind….

Such attitudes and behaviors also leave those who still have the self-defeating temerity to name the elephants in the room in the face of the unspoken prime directive of silent acquiescence disillusioned, distanced, and, for those who find themselves simply unable to play the game, desperate for alternatives.

So where do the “[a]rtists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades” with any semblance of conscience go when their places in “the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant” simply become untenable? The words of Jimmy Ruffin (Motown, 1966) say it well:

What becomes of the broken hearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find,
Some kind of peace of mind.
Help me…..

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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