Sacrifice and Education ☆

| June 7, 2010

It's only funny til' someone gets hurt...then it's freakin' hilarious!I’m sitting in a coffee shop, across from a guy wearing a shirt that reads, “It’s only funny til’ someone gets hurt. Then it’s freakin’ hilarious!”

The shirt itself is not, of course, particularly funny. (I gather this is because the shirt seems to fit fine and is not inadvertently choking him to death, which I can only speculate would be ironically and tragically hilarious.)

Meanwhile I’m reading the classic essay “Sacrifice: It’s Nature and Function” by Hubert and Mauss and thinking that this would make an excellent entry in my series of book reviews on books I have only just begun to read. Not the least because the book veritably drips with academic bloodletting. The forward itself, in classic Oxford style, doesn’t bother, in introducing this “important essay,” to refrain from calling certain aspects of it “rather lame.”


Hubert and Mauss, in turn, nodding to their debt to earlier research on sacrifice, proceed to lay into the English anthropologists “who are concerned above all with collecting and classifying documents.”  Ouch.

And in fact, their critique stands on this slight: methodologically the classification of a sacrifice into a typology misses the simple and essential dynamics common to sacrifice as a whole. The unity of the subject is thus a false one, based on the geneological notion that variations of sacrifice derive from Totemic sacrifice in which the idea is to bind the devotees in a common life with the totem or god. Yada, yada, yada.

But, they argue, such an explanation does nothing to explain the mechanism of sacrifice, instead merely reproducing in academic language older, popular conceptions.

So what of this “mechanism” and what does this have to do with education?

This is where H & M are themselves unsatisfyingly old school, presupposing it seems—and granted I’m only just digging in—that the religious explanation somehow clearly accounts for things. The purpose of sacrifice is, in other words, essentially religious: the sacrifice is meant to increase the sacred condition for the participants.

But what if this were the other way around? What if it is the process of sacralization itself that is of benefit: sacrifice generating the religious as a strategy within a world that is not essentially either sacred or secular.

Take for example the notion that cities initially emerged and organized around a sacred metaphysical structure, held together by the god-king. But what if, instead, the emergence of increasingly complex urban forms called for an organizing principle that required a ritualized process of sacred participation collected into a god-king? The chicken or the egg?

What does it matter, if the result is the same? I imagine, in this case, that beginning with religious ritual, oriented to a pre-existing sacred structure, might distract us into thinking that sacrifice has nothing to do with everyday strategies that are not invested with other-worldly significance, or that these are merely watered down expressions of religious functions. But what if the internal group functions of sacrifice are the underlying reason in the first place? And what if the common usage of “sacrifice” to mean any cost undertaken in the name of potential gain is not merely a colloquialization, but part of the underlying mechanism, that on occasion goes down a religious line of investment, but other times down other lines?

If that were the case, we might find that the notion of “self-sacrifice” is not just a safer, more PC expression of a bloodier past, but part of a continuous and pervasive social network of such exchanges. Whether the object of sacrifice is a part of ourselves, or an internal aspect of the group that is singled out in the name of a higher good, through sacrifice we would be sorting out, not our relation to the gods, but what will constitute godly relationships with ourselves.

In that sense, the externalization of the sacrificial object, say in a goat or fruit, is a way of representing our personal valuations. All sacrifice then, would be self-sacrifice. That was my goat, my fruit, my subsistence, my fertility.  We would be in the odd condition, then, of sacrificing the very things we want for ourselves. In the name of sacred fertility I will give up a select portion of my crops.

What of education then? Well first, is this not one of our privileged sights of sacrifice, eclipsing more and more, the religious service? The ritualized space of education is inhabited for immense periods of our days and lives. But if it is as sacrificial as the everyday language of education would seem to suggest, would it not also be important to see the nature of the exchange going on?

The workings of self-sacrifice and the conflation of sacrificial-object /desired-ideal, might explain any number of perplexing educational strategies. For example, it could account for why, in arguing that education is good for you because it will empower you in your future life, we so consistently demand that this power be given up in the daily rituals of education. To have power you must sacrifice power.

This is not always distributed so equally either. A certain amount of scape-goating occurs, in both overt and covert ways. This may not just be an unfortunate side-effect, however. If we turn the sacred formula on its head, we might even imagine that this becomes one of the main functions of sacrifice as well as of the operations of education. Witness the shell-game of “poor performers” at play in the shift from public to charter schools.

Like the T-shirt, education will argue that a certain amount of blood-letting is necessary for things to attain their idealized form. But for that to happen, the everyday banal reality of educational space, paraphernalia, and interaction must be invested with an idealizing force. One must believe in gods.