Progressive Education & The Myth of Sisyphus ☆

| June 29, 2010
The Myth of Sisyphus

Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attica black-figure amphora (vase), ca. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen museum (Inv. 1494)

It has to make sense. Those things we bring ourselves to day after day. Or rather, do we not need them to promise, one day, to offer up their sense, retroactively. This is the work. Progress.

But what is sense? Against what do we measure progress?

King Sisyphus’ problems started with the hubris of thinking he was more clever than Zeus. But more clever how? His deceit was in escaping the underworld, moving up and down almost at will, feeling free to report on the indiscretions of the gods. His crime was not in striving for the top, but in showing the striving to be empty, easily played. His punishment: to roll the rock up hill each day only to see it roll to the bottom again. The punishment fits the crime. This is its mythic sense. Everything comes full circle.

We have left behind primitive superstition, have we not? Too perplexing or too crude. The modern dream of education is that it should be in our power to get it right. Failure is an embarrassment.  Really?! In this day and age?! Education is a right, if not a basic commodity. By now we should have calibrated for hubris, mastered our proper domain. It is a question of lesson plans and professionals. Dependable and continuous progress. Crank ’em out, and leave no child behind.

The modern dream is of endless progress. We can—in quieter moments—imagine the bubble bursting in real estate, Silicon Valley, the stock market. We may even dream of it as divine recalibration, necessary perhaps, for true progress. But it is non-sensical to speak of an education bubble. We sidestep hubris by accepting the punishment in advance, striving not to be gods but masterful and conscientious stone rollers. But when the sense is measured by progress itself, can we really sidestep things so easily?

The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.

—Horkheimer & Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Does it not become a question of management? The management of expectations, a professionalized spin control. To be a school administrator today, is to learn to dance, to appear to always be moving the stone forward. One can master the numbers game, keeping them moving. Or one can externalize the regression, showing it to be an outside threat. Or one can internalize and bracket it: some of these kids come already “at risk”. Or one can normalize it through the time honored system of levels, grades, periods, etc. And so on. But in each case it amounts to regulating the perception of the regressive element. Disguise the backstroke.

Sisyphus by Titian

Sisyphus by Titian, 1549

This could be seen as the difficult, but unfortunately necessary, cost of striving. It’s messy and imperfect, even as we manage it. But what if the sense of it is more complicated? It is not so much that sense resides in the world, holding us to the difficult challenge. Instead, do we not find that we hold it in common first, as common sense, even when we lament it’s scarcity? We shape our world to make sense to us. Like Sisyphus, we are clever enough not to be dictated to by our chains, but not so clever that we can figure out anything else to do with our freedom. Up and down we have the narrative go. As Camus would have it, the task of Sisyphus is absurd and yet pleasurable.

“The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

The administrator’s task, like the teacher’s, is also the reward itself, which is also the punishment. But do we find that we must content ourselves with our hellish lot, or do we, in order to be content, seek it out? What if our drive for mythic justice searches out dramatic failure as the sine qua non of sensibility? The question will only be how the function is served, when, and by whom.

Thus we leap to the critique, to the defense, to our sides. To charges of nihilism or naivety.

In another light, would “progress” amount to the setup? How else can we watch the stone roll down the hill each day? Schadenfreude? The distinct charge of bitching about the sad state of affairs? Or the pleasure children know of stomping on their own sand castles?

What would education look like if we understood this differently? What other senses might we find?