In Defense of the College Campus

When I was a college student and reading John Locke’s “Essay on Humane Understanding” I saw in my adolescent way how knowledge leads to ideas through critical inquiry and imagination. Nowhere does Locke use the latter term but I recognized “idea” was to the 18th century what imagination would become in the 20th—it meant going forward. I was lucky, not merely because Locke had proved the dignity of inquiry, but also because I was privileged to attend a liberal arts college where students could talk about such things. I sat in the shabby student union with classmates and we argued about Locke and Galileo, and Lordy, the dignity of engagement was suddenly ours.

Lately there's been pervasive talk about the approaching end times of the college campus. According to soothsayers, we shall have no more colleges, substituting on-line courses and big servers. When I read or hear this I’m not instantly dismissive for the proposition is as fair as many and residential colleges are expensive and nowadays one scarcely needs a physical library to acquire information, and why couldn’t we have video lectures in cyber-space and save dollars dollars dollars. I too think higher education should be less expensive and believe it should be available to anyone who seeks it. But then I remember how we argued about John Locke over milk shakes all those years ago—how we sat up nights and discussed Jefferson or Crick and Watson. A genuine college education isn't merely about the gathering of information.

Complicating matters further is the fact that learning space isn't simply classroom space. A basic analysis of teaching holds that there are four primary dynamics of pedagogy: the lecture with audio-visual material (linear learning); class discussion (horizontal learning); clusters (small group activities) and network instruction (decentralized teaching). Any of these things can be performed without a physical classroom. And yet, in my forty years of studying and teaching, much of what has proved supremely valuable in intellectual terms has happened in corridors, cafeterias, walking up hill or down, or when I've invited students to accompany me across campus while I pursue some errand. Not one of the descriptors above can match what happens in extramural space or what the Greeks called the agora.

Something additional happens on a campus, a serendipitous thing–the overheard phrase, an argument in passing. True learning and its associated breakthroughs often happen “against method” as the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once put it. This is undeniable and it's a serious mistake to image the attainments of higher education are merely functions of linear or horizontal delivery systems.

One should not be rooting hastily for the end of the college campus as its laboratories, it's funny gardens, it's very elevators are creative spaces. This is one reason Thomas Jefferson designed the center of the University of Virginia as he did, that people might meet, and by accident.


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The Mozart Shoes

I went to the shoe store and placed my feet in the measuring pans. My feet transmitted a sudden and stark message—“we feel shy down here; we’re under examination. Please get us back inside our shoes.” I wondered about this. The tragedy of it. “When,” I wondered, “had my feet learned to be timid?” “It’s the whole damn system” I told them. “Capitalism has taught you to feel incomplete.” But when your feet are farouche the whole body jumps that way. The temporal lobe said: “I too don’t wish to be known.”

I really wanted Mozart just then. Anything other than the grey flock of avian neural distress that emanated from my feet and circled outward to the farthest rings of my flesh. “Jesus,” I said, “you’re just buying some shoes.” But the temporal lobe said: “There’s no such thing as just. Would you just saw off your hand?” So I was forced to conclude, encouraged to conclude, the body’s anguish is like intense moonlight.

The shoe moment helps me recognize what my autistic friends already know. There is no “me”—there are only the eager, bristling, dancing, component parts. Now ask yourself how you get through the day?

Oh my feet, you moth eaten grand seigneurs, keep talking. It’s OK.

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Fake Cripples Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

In her superb book Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race, Ellen Samuels describes, among other things, the long history of impostor narratives in America. Samuels and Martin Norden (author of the Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies) have both revealed a quintessentially American fascination with ersatz or manque cripples—the former is a pretender and the latter isn’t crippled enough. In either case the role of popular film in deceiving the public about disability is ubiquitous and a matter of long standing. By this I mean to say, perhaps inelegantly, that disability is seldom an either/or circumstance. In the case of blindness one may “see” rather poorly but still see well enough to read a sign from a distance of 8 inches. A wheelchair user may be able to walk five feet. In America where people are either rich or poor; black or white; anything that troubles this hardened exclusivity is (and has always been) considered cheating.

Samuels’ book is properly analytical about what is fake and what is real and one should be mindful always that America loves, truly loves, some kinds of fake but not where the human body is concerned. Trans people, and partially sighted people, and light skinned black people all know the drill. They walk through the long dusk with rudely scrawled signs proclaiming they’re not fakers. “Fake” means, among other things, thievery. Years ago when I was a visiting writer at the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, I took a walk with my guide dog. I walked her on a dirt road with just her leash and I didn’t use the harness. There were no cars. I wanted my dog to have the opportunity to dawdle in the ferns and smell the wild turkeys. Would’t you know? A fellow artist in residence—a rather angry older woman—told the MacDowell administration I was a “faker”; I was faking blindness, just to have a dog at the arts center. Disability is always seen as something devious, performative, and dishonest. Always.

People who are not disabled do not generally understand this. And in my view, this is why it’s so important for colleges and universities to hire actually disabled people to serve in offices of disability support or as ADA Coordinators. Unless you’ve felt the shifting sands of social acceptance under your own feet or wheels, you probably don’t understand the hourly struggle to achieve citizenship that disabled people endure.

Fake also means malevolent. I’m going to steal something from you. Perhaps I’ll steal your good health. The fake blind man, grabbing your good fortune and stuffing it into his little bag.


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For Tomas Transtromer

Happy the man or woman who owns a few books, who drinks tea. We rehearse a few words in case there really is a God. And others in case there isn’t. Years ago an old man stopped me on the street in Helsinki and wagged his forefinger. “Why do you say you see? You don’t see! You understand!” He was a ghost of a certain kind. He was conveying his rehearsal. Giving me words.

Before that day I didn’t know people could rise from books and appear before you on the street. That night, with a few books and a cup of tea I knew I’d met Strindberg. 

“I dream, therefore I exist,” he wrote. And I copied this into my notebook with a leaky fountain pen.    

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Farewell Tomas Transtromer, and Thank You

I lost a poet this morning for that’s how it feels: the death of the writer is personal. In this case the poet is Tomas Transtromer. I feel the loss of a friend. Perhaps I don’t experience this with every poet. But when a lyric writer crosses over there’s a stitch in my ribcage. With Tomas Transtromer I always felt I had a secret friend. Those of us who love poetry, who in small or large ways have endeavored to live through it—that transitive and delicate approach to phenomena we call “the imagination”—are heartened when a writer suddenly says the world is still being born as Transtromer does in his poem “The Half-Finished Heaven”: 

Despondency breaks off its course.

Anguish breaks off its course.

The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,

even the ghosts take a draft.

And our paintings see daylight,

our red beasts of the Ice Age studios.

Everything begins to look around.

We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door

leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.

The water is shining among the trees.

The lake is a window into the earth.

Excerpt From: Tomas Tranströmer. “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems.” iBooks.   


In these times we must be reminded of the mysteries of consciousness and water shining. Tomas Transtromer was a good friend, a fellow introvert who learned to live in the big world, who endeavored to do some decent work with damaged children, who came home at night in the Baltic dark and played Haydn on his piano, who whispered in our ears, each of us is still half open. 

Imagine that.   

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