The Siren Song of Education

| June 28, 2010

Physical Education ChairIn yesterday’s post, we saw schools defined by an odd function: the dictating of right over left. But even this is a bit misleading. The practice of writing, by which this typically occurs, results primarily in placing us more firmly in our seats. We are to go neither right nor left. Is this not the sine qua non of education: learning to sit still?

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, explore the dilemma through the story of Odysseus:

But the lure of the Sirens remains overpowering. No one who hears their song can escape. Humanity had to inflict terrible injuries on itself before the self…was created, and something of this process is repeated in every childhood…. The way of civilization has been that of obedience and work, over which fulfillment shines everlastingly as mere illusion, as beauty deprived of power. [Odysseus] knows of only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to his comrades. He plugs their ears with wax and orders them to row with all their might…. Workers must look

Odysseus Tied to the Mast

Odysseus Bound to the Mast

ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to the side. The urge towards distraction must be grimly sublimated in redoubled exertions.

Not always quite so industrial, does this not still ring true of modern education? The concern with attention, the blocking out of distractions, the desperate focus on the task at hand. This is what we are doing. Schoolwork as preoccupation.

The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner, who has others to work for him. He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast, and the stronger the allurement grows the more tightly he has himself bound… What he hears has no consequences for him; he can signal to his men to untie him only by movements of his head, but it is too late. His comrades…reproduce the life of the oppressor as part of their own, while he cannot step outside his social role.

Even though their modes of escape are stratified, they both work in tandem to keep anything from happening. Teachers, obstensibly more free than the students, hearing the song their students find muffled, will often speak of having their hands tied. We might protest, but at some level things start to settle in.

The bonds by which he has irrevocably fettered himself to praxis at the same time keep the Sirens at a distance from praxis: their lure is neutralized as a mere object of contemplation, as art. The fettered man listens to a concert, as immobilized as audiences later, and his enthusiastic call for liberation goes unheard as applause.

Isn’t this the final challenge, the blurring of the line between applause and plea? So that even we ourselves do not know which it is? When we learn to appreciate our education, applauding/pleading, but in place, we are ready to be unbound, no longer a threat to the ship.

If this is the case, what are we to make of it?