The Death of Education

| October 29, 2010

SkeletonThe logical extension of my recent strategy of reviewing books I am still reading is to do so before I have even left the bookstore. In a way, then, it is only fitting that I am holding two books on death and burial. What could have more to do with beginnings and archives?

And with Halloween and Día de Los Muertos upon us too.

Sitting here, I recall, during this time of year, traversing a graveyard tucked precariously into the side of a cliff on the island of Janitzio, in Michoacán, Mexico. Gingerly stepping through the vaguely defined and flickering candle shadows of a patchwork of rocks, graves, dead-end pathways, food laid out on spreads of cloth, and seated families spending the night in vigil. They quietly and patiently marking with their bodies, and whatever they brought with them, the space for visiting with their dead, while being loomed over and encroached upon by the slow moving, packed tide of gingerly stepping tourists.

It occurred to me then that the day of the dead is really “the day of the living.” Teaming with awkward life.

Here then, in Saint Mark’s Bookshop, in NYC—sanctuary from the zombies and undead ballerinas churning on the street this Halloween weekend—I find myself holding two books.

Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead speaks to the way in which we engage in the burying of the dead to “humanize the lands where we build our present and imagine our future.” A question, then of beginnings. We should not be surprised, if we were to think about it, to find death, then, at the very site of education. Plato’s cave allegory, for instance, is a borrowing of older narratives of the underworld, as well as a forecasting of the modern classroom.

Education and death.

We prefer in education, of course, the abstract distance from our mortality that Plato offers up in the figure of Socrates. In Death and the Idea of Mexico, Claudio Lomnitz, in contrast, shows us the ways in which the imagery of death operates explicitly within the socio-political terrain of Mexico. Rather than showing the ever-presence of death to be pointed backwards to a past—or as a kind of “invented tradition,” good perhaps for selling a few sugar skulls, or an ethnological paternalism—Lomnitz instead shows ideas of death, as well as killing, as playing a formative role in the birth of the colonial state, of traditions of popular culture, and a sense of national identity. That is, death is generative.

Which is not to say simple. I think of the weird tension of the Danza de los Viejitos, the “dance of the old men,” particular to the area around Janitzio, and performed on the Day of the Dead. Young boys will dress up as the old, leading each other by their canes, perpetually quaking on the verge of collapse, until, just when the fall seems inevitable, it breaks into a tap dance of wild and athletic abandon. Perhaps originally a pre-Hispanic dance to the sun—which should make us think immediately of the complicated tension the sun has with it’s own absence, and with death—then somehow reinterpreted within the Christian narrative, it is now something of a comedy. A tradition of tradition mockery—performed by the young mocking the old “meaningless” dances of the elderly, they are frenetic pastiches of dance and tradition. And yet this too becomes a tradition. What then is death if not this constant deferral of collapse, of the oscillation between tradition, rejuvenation and irreverence? Birth and Death. Memory and Forgetting. Gift and mockery.

I wonder, in another context, what we are learning about ourselves through dying our ritualized educational deaths? That is, in the deaths that we seem to enact within education, in both ritualized and real sacrifices, but also in our ongoing narrative about the potential demise of education itself. Always on the verge of collapse. Danza de los Viejitos.

And what,are we to do, here in the US, with the death of death itself? The way, despite it permeating our educational traditions and discourses, we prefer to hide it from view altogether?